Date: June 27, 2011
Author(s): Rob Williams
Fedora has long been touted as being one of the most professional, stable, cutting-edge distros out there, and seeing as though its latest version brings GNOME 3 along for the ride, I couldn’t help but download and install it. I’ve since used Fedora 15 for an entire month, so read on as I take a look at this release from all angles.
Since its initial release in 2003, Fedora users have been treated to two main releases each year, with the most recent having been launched late last month. Thanks to this regular release schedule, it’s not often that one launch feels more special than another, but Fedora 15 is different. A big reason? GNOME 3.
Since its own launch a couple of months ago, GNOME 3 has received quite a bit of flak for taking a step backwards, despite being arguably the most attractive desktop environment to ever grace a Linux OS. The Fedora team took a huge risk setting GNOME 3 as the default desktop, which in itself has raised a fair amount of controversy.
Being that I haven’t given Fedora a fair test since FC6, nor had a chance to test out GNOME 3 up to this point, it felt like there was no better opportunity than the launch of Fedora ‘Lovelock’ to kill two birds with one stone. As I did with my in-depth look at Ubuntu 11.04, the focus here will be mostly on Fedora itself, but I’ll be dedicating a page to talk about GNOME 3.
First things first; what sets Fedora apart from the crowd? For starters, it’s sponsored by one of the oldest and most financially successful Linux companies around, Red Hat. In fact, the entire reason Fedora came to be was due to the cancellation of Red Hat’s desktop variant in 2003. With this relationship, Red Hat and Fedora feed off of each other and share integral technologies. Fedora, though, can boast things such as a lack of cost, frequent releases, and a community that’s integral to its success.
Fedora has a couple of strong “selling-points”, including the adoption of cutting-edge technologies and a goal of being 100% “free”, as in libre, or “freedom”. In taking the Fedora leap, you can be assured that there are no proprietary or commercial packages installed – important to those who care a lot about true freedom in software.
That “free” advantage isn’t for the feint of heart, however, as more casual users, especially those coming from Windows, could be in for a surprise with the lack of MP3, Adobe Flash, official AMD / NVIDIA drivers and more. If it’s not 100% free as per a software’s given license, then it’s not included in Fedora. While I am not opposed to installing commercial / proprietary software on any of my Linux boxes, I am at the same time thankful for the dedication to free software by the Fedora team.
Aside from the free aspect, Fedora aims to be the most stable distro available, a real “professionals” OS, excellent for developers but not too overwhelming for the casual user. At first glance, one might be confused as to the lack of a ‘server’ version, but it’s clear that the server realm isn’t a major focus here, though the OS can still be used for those purposes. At the same time, CentOS, another Red Hat derived distro, would be a better bet as its major focus is in fact servers (all of Techgage’s servers run on CentOS).
Aside from the obvious inclusion of GNOME 3, Fedora 15 introduces the option of using the Btrfs (butter FS) file system, something that’s set to become default in Fedora 16. Btrfs’ goal is to offer unparalleled data security by introducing things like checksums and snapshots, and also enables disk pooling. Btrfs even goes as far to support the SSD TRIM command, so there could be little-to-no reason to stick to ext4, except for the pursuit of absolute performance.
Another cool addition is ABRT (Automatic Bug Reporting Tool), an enhanced crash reporter that doesn’t require you to install debugging tools prior to sending in a bug report. Instead, you have the option to send the dump to a server that will handle it, making the entire process simple and pain-free. In the couple of times I’ve tested this, I didn’t have the best of luck, but there may just be launch kinks to work out.
To help improve start times, Fedora 15 becomes the first distro to default to the systemd init daemon. It aims to reduce shell overhead and can load services in parallel, so the benefits are obvious. With other distros having pondered a move to systemd for a while, Fedora again proves that it’s a cutting-edge distro.
Other improvements and adjustments include a refined SELinux trouble-shooter, better compressed Live CDs, improved power management, a switch of OpenOffice to LibreOffice, and of course, a slew of regular package updates.
Select packages include the 184.108.40.206 Linux kernel, GCC 4.6.0, GRUB 0.97, KDE 4.6.2 and Xfce 4.8.0 (through yum or the specific install discs), MySQL 5.5.10, PHP 5.3.6, Python 2.7.1, SAMBA 3.5.8, udev 167, and xorg-server 1.10.1. A much more thorough list can be found at DistroWatch.
Catering to both the novice and the professional, Fedora’s Anaconda installer makes the process of copying over the required bits to your hard drive a painless one.
Like most things Linux, there isn’t just one Fedora download option available. The ‘Default’ includes the GNOME 3 desktop, while additional ‘Spins’ include others; KDE, LXDE and Xfce. Also available are bulkier DVDs that include a lot more software, weighing in at about 3.4GB for both the x86 and x64 editions.
For even more specific needs, the official Fedora Spins page lists a couple of extra niche choices; Security, Electronic Lab (specialized for hardware design and simulation), Games and also Design Suite.
Upon booting up with one of the discs, you’ll see a screen like this:
The options listed here will differ depending on the version of the ISO you downloaded. The screen above is taken from the DVD x64 edition, while the ‘Default’ CD edition will not feature options to go straight to the installer, but rather go to the Live CD environment first for a richer experience.
One of the features that sets Anaconda apart from most other installers is that it asks you up-front if you’d like to test the install media for faults, which is something I always recommend unless you just burned the CD and are confident in the result – or even not, just to be safe. It may not seem like a big deal, since if it installs it shouldn’t matter, but it could matter. I’ve had distros seemingly install fine only to discover burn-related issues not long after (I’ve had the same with Windows).
The first prompted options involve selecting both a language and keyboard layout.
The next screen is where the “professional” comes in, with a choice of installing to advanced storage devices such as iSCSI or FCoE. The vast majority of users are fine to leave the default blank… you know if you need the second option. After choosing it, you’ll be prompted to prep the hard drive if no partitions exist.
You’ll then be able to choose a better name than ‘localhost.localdomain’ for your hostname and also take the opportunity to configure your network. Unfortunately, the Fedora installer doesn’t seem to have taken a card from Canonical’s Ubiquity installer and choose your timezone for you (requiring Internet connectivity), but it doesn’t take much effort to either click your location on the map or select it from the list. After clearing these two screens, you’ll be required to enter a root password before continuing on.
Onto the good stuff – partitioning! Novice or not, the partitioner is the part of any Linux installer (or any OS installer for that matter) where attention must be paid, else catastrophic results can occur. If you’re installing Fedora to a completely blank hard drive, then ‘Use All Space’ can be chosen. If you are looking to replace a currently-installed version of Linux, the ‘Replace Existing Linux System(s)’ option will take care of that.
In the event you have multiple hard drives, the best idea is to choose the custom layout option, where your tweaking options will allow you to configure things just the way you want. After choosing any option, Anaconda will prompt to ask you whether or not you want to setup a standard partition (suitable for most people), a software RAID, or a logical volume (LVM).
Once at the partition configuration screen, you’ll be able to create and modify partitions to your heart’s content. If you’re a novice Linux user and not all-too-familiar with partitions, I’d recommend creating a 500MB ext4 with /boot mounted to it, an 8GB linux-swap, and then an ext4 or Btrfs mounted to / that uses the remainder of the space. If you did not make free space available on your hard drive prior to running the installer, I recommend instead using a tool such as GParted (available on the live CD) to make your changes, since it’s a much easier partitioning tool to use than Anaconda.
Once your configuration is OK’d, you can choose which drive you want to install the GRUB boot-loader to – usually fine to be left default.
Alright… I lied earlier. This is where the fun begins. Here, you can choose which software base you’d like to use for the OS. If you’re a software developer, the option is here for that, and ditto for the other options. Once a selection is made, you can click on “Customize Now”, which will give you fine-tuning options once you continue onto the next screen.
For those looking to just get the install over with, you can simply leave the options default. Once you reach the desktop, you can install anything you like. Doing it here simply saves you some time.
At this point, you’re pretty much near the end. Depending on the number of packages you chose on the earlier screen, installation could take a couple of minutes or a half an hour.
Fin! Time to reboot.
On the first boot into your live environment, Fedora will prompt you with a couple of simple questions, such as your name, username, password and also the date and time. For those wanting to make sure their time is always accurate, you can choose the ‘Synchronize date and time over the network’ option on its respective screen. This will keep your time in sync based on your timezone choice.
I’m not sure I’d call Anaconda one of the ‘best’ installers out there, since most of them are quite good, but it’d be right up there. The only real complaint I have is that its partitioner can be a bit flaky, but aside from that, it’s powerful, simple to use and offers quite a bit of flexibility.
Pretend, for a moment, that you have no idea what this article is about. Just release all thoughts. Now, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “It’s the sexiest desktop environment around, but frustrating as hell!”?
If you said anything other than ‘GNOME 3’, you are either a chronic liar or one of the few people, like me, who kind of like it. Wait… did I just say I ‘kind of like’ GNOME 3, when I never liked GNOME 2? I think I did.
Alright, let’s face the facts. GNOME 3, since its release, has faced an insane amount of backlash, and perhaps for some good reason. First, it’s nothing at all like GNOME 2, which is part of the reason I like it. Second, rather than offer its users a lot of flexibility and customization options from the get-go, the tweaking-ability here is about as minimal as it gets.
In fact, most of GNOME 3 itself could be called ‘simple’. There are no minimize and maximize buttons in a window title, no traditional applications system menu, and little in the way of UI features that take up precious real estate. But at the same time, GNOME 3 succeeds in becoming one of the most polished environments out there in terms of functionality and aesthetics. Simply put – it’s gorgeous.
At a fresh desktop, you’ll see something similar to the Live CD desktop shown above. There are no desktop icons, and no immediate functions to take advantage of. The top of the screen consists of a thin black bar with the day and time shown in the absolute center, and various system icons and your user information to the right.
Getting started with GNOME 3 is as simple as hovering over ‘Activities’ in the top-left corner. Doing so will result in this:
There are a couple of elements to make note of here. First, the dock to the left is where both open applications and static launchers are kept. The underglow behind certain icons denote the fact that the application is open. As you open more and more applications, this dock will begin to shrink down in size to accommodate the extra icons.
At the bottom right is a system tray where applications capable of minimizing straight to the tray can be found. In this shot, Xchat, Clementine and VMware are located there. As you’d expect, these can be right-clicked as normal to access whichever options the respective application has to offer.
The prominent feature of this screen is the cascading of open applications that are not exclusively minimized to the system tray. The goal is to make it easy to switch from one application to the next, and considering you have a lot more to look at than just a simple application icon as you would with an alt-tab, it should be easier to choose whichever application you need and then get on your way.
The last element in the screenshot above is found to the right; multiple desktops. With a quick click and drag of an application in this overview screen, you’re able to drop it into an alternate desktop. If you use the second desktop, a third will open, and so on. The animation and process of doing this is completely fluid, and highlights the attention to the aesthetic value of GNOME 3. I had wanted to include a screenshot of this feature in action, but unfortunately no screenshot tool I had could properly capture it.
Overall, I’ve come to like the ‘Activities Overview’ screen quite a bit, because with one quick swipe of the mouse, I can see my entire PC’s goings on, and with another, I’m right back to my work. This ties into the reason I like GNOME 3 so much, but before I go on, I will admit that I’m not like most other users.
The first time I used GNOME 3, I hated it. Within fifteen minutes of using it, I was about to give up on this review. But as I began to use and understand it, I realized that because of the focus on hiding things in the background, I was able to better focus on work. I didn’t have instant messengers blinking in the corner of my eye, for example, acting as a distraction, but rather they were behind the scenes doing their thing while I worked.
The easy solution in another environment is to simply log off, but for business purposes I can’t. GNOME 3 gives me the best of both worlds – I can keep an eye on my IM when I need to, but not let it distract me while I’m trying to focus.
At the same time, the feature that makes it easy to focus becomes a detriment when you are working on a lot of things at once. In particular, if I am working on editing a bunch of photos, it’s tedious to have to alt-tab or use the Activities Overview to get back the program I need, rather than just clicking on a taskbar. Coupled with the fact that there are no desktop icons in GNOME 3 by default (it requires a tweak), I found myself getting a little annoyed with having to load up the file manager anytime I wanted a file on the ‘desktop’.
GNOME 3’s design is not going to appeal to everyone, that’s for certain. For those who enjoy tweaking their OS and don’t mind loading up a command-line, there are a ton of tweaks out there that can ‘restore’ certain bits of functionality to the desktop that were lost with the transition from 2 to 3. I didn’t test out any of these during my testing as nothing drove me so bonkers that I felt I had to, but from my understanding, many are very easy to pull off, and a simple Google search should help you fix what you need.
What configuration GNOME 3 does offer can be found in the ‘System Settings’, which can be found by clicking your name in the top-right corner or by going into the applications list. Here, the available options don’t look too far different from GNOME 2, though because of all the minor things taken out in GNOME 3, a similar set of options seems even more paltry.
In some ways, the simplicity is nice, but in others, there is a lot lacking here. You are unable to change the overall theme or window design, so for that reason everyone’s GNOME 3 install is going to look about the same. There are no options here to restore desktop icons, nor restore the minimize / maximize buttons. Again, there do exist tweaks out there to fix that functionality, and apparently the GNOME developers feel most people won’t mind loading up a terminal to tweak rather than use a simple GUI tool.
Another tweak-fixable quirk is having to hold ‘Alt’ while clicking on your username in order to see a ‘Power Off’ option rather than a ‘Suspend’. Above all, this seems to be one of the biggest issues people have with GNOME 3, perhaps next to the lack of minimize / maximize buttons.
As I discovered a fair number of bugs with Ubuntu’s Unity during my testing, I half-expected to run into the same sort of experience with GNOME 3, but that wasn’t quite the case. While I did run into a couple of issues where the entire desktop would lock up on me, I could never figure out if GNOME 3 itself was to blame, or an application I was running. Whenever it did lock up on me, I seemed to be running a Wine application, so I’m not sure if that’s related.
A more noticeable bug is this:
This is a problem that crept up over time, and simply didn’t exist for the first couple of weeks of using the desktop. Here, the applications located in the system tray sometimes adopt another application’s icon. In this case, Filezilla was fine, but Xchat used VMware’s icon. On some occasions, I’d see broken icons down here as well, or every single icon the same. Since this began occurring, it’s become a given.
Another oddity that developed itself over time is with regards to fonts, though it seems to be a problem specific to a Web browser. I say a ‘Web browser’ rather than a specific one, because the problem is evident in all of them that I’ve tried (Epiphany, Firefox, Chrome). I’ll let the pictures explain the problem since it’s much easier:
Fedora 15 (GNOME 3):
Gentoo (KDE 4.6):
This might not be GNOME 3 specific but rather Fedora 15, but I haven’t been able to find the reason for it. On a fresh Fedora install, the font looks similar to Gentoo’s, so I’m not sure what would cause it to go a little funky over time. As mentioned though, this seems to be specific to Web browsers… applications in themselves are fine (the snippets above are from the Transmission Web version; the regular Transmission client looks fine).
Here’s a more extreme example:
For comparison, you can refer to the site where the snippet was taken. While not a deal-breaker, this is the first time I recall running into such a strange issue with fonts when testing out a Linux distro. (Edit: It appears that this particular font issue may be purely Firefox-related. Our related forum thread has more detail.)
In the end, neither of these bugs are what I’d consider major… just ‘odd’. Aside from these, the desktop does have a couple of unexpected features. For example, when copying and pasting a file or files from one folder to another with Ctrl + V, rather than paste the files in, a text box in the corner shows some of the filenames in text form (pictured above). If you push enter, nothing happens. If you right-click inside the folder and paste that way, the result is as you’d expect. As I copy/paste a lot, this minor issue became rather frustrating as time went on.
GNOME 3 as a whole is difficult to portray through written text, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe that even video of it in action could give you even a basic idea of how everything works. If you are still on the fence about GNOME 3, the Fedora 15 live CD will allow you to test it without having to install it on your system. That’s likely the best way for you to make up your own mind.
Enough about GNOME 3 though, and more about Fedora 15! On the next page I’ll tackle some of the other specifics that Lovelock brings to the table.
One of the first things I do right after a fresh distro install is load up the built-in package manager and see if I can’t get my favorite applications installed without having to go the manual route. Fedora has always utilized the ‘yum’ package manager and nothing changes with 15. While it can be used via the command-line, the PackageKit application will provide a graphical version.
Accessing the tool is as easy as going to the Applications section after hovering over Activities in the corner, and then clicking on ‘Add/Remove Software’. It’s important to note that this tool is not used to update the OS, but rather that task is left to ‘Software Update’ (there’s a strangely named ‘Software Updates’ as well, which will allow you to customize the repositories).
Once loaded, you can simply type in an application to search for, or click on a group and peruse. While clicking the checkbox next to the application and then ‘Apply’ is simple, finding the application in the list is not always so. For example, in the screenshot below I searched for ‘thunderbird’, a rather straight-forward term. But instead of the best result being shown first, the appropriate choice is found way down the list.
Compared to the software manager in Ubuntu, this is a little bit clunkier in that regard. In Ubuntu, Thunderbird would be listed first and is more obvious to be the right choice. Here, you will need to compare the titles with the actual package name to make sure it’s what you’re looking for. There is a comparable tool to PackageKit in Ubuntu which gives similar listings, but the primary software installer makes things a lot easier.
That all said, throughout all of my testing, I didn’t encounter a single issue with this software installer, so while it may lack a bit with its ease-of-use, it excels with regards to its stability.
Fedora is one of the few distributions to ship with SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) by default, but it’s an appreciated touch for those who care about the security of their machine on an application-by-application basis. With it, you’ll be able to adjust certain policies for important system services, and as the feature ties straight into the Linux kernel itself, the level of security offered is unparalleled.
If a potential problem is detected, SELinux will launch and tell you which process is involved and what it attempted to do. From there, you can troubleshoot, or if the problem isn’t really a problem, the report can simply be deleted.
The built-in crash reporter is also a nice touch, allowing users to easily analyze their dumps or submit them straight to the Fedora servers for automated analysis (this is not an ideal solution for security buffs, however, as some personal information may be included depending on the program or crash).
I had a couple of crashes throughout my month of testing, but most, if not all, seemed to be unimportant. Most would appear out of nowhere even when there was no visible crash at all. One example is a crash of the System Settings tool that I experienced; though only to the logger did it appear as a crash. On the surface, it seemed to close just fine.
While a little strange in some regards, it isn’t a bad thing to see notifications like this, because it does allow you to submit a bug report (and you should consider it) so that whatever bug/crash you did experience could be ironed out in the future.
As mentioned in the intro, Fedora strives to be a ‘free’ distro, and as a result, a lot of media support is not available out of the box. Those looking to avoid all commercial / proprietary codecs and software should be fine with this, but for those who are not as faithful to the ‘free’ software side of things as others, a tool called ‘AutoPlus’ helps you get popular software installed fast.
You can visit the official site for instructions on how to install the program, and once done, it will be available in your Applications list. Root access is required since software will be installed outside of the /home folder, so once a password is entered, you’ll see this:
You can unfortunately only install one thing at a time, but doing so is easy. You simply click the respective checkbox and then click ‘OK’. After a few minutes, whatever software you installed will be good to go. In some cases, using this tool is even preferred to installing the software manually. In a personal experience, Skype worked with the install through this tool, while the version I installed straight off of the official website failed to launch.
Like a regular software repository, you’re able to uninstall anything you’ve installed through here, simply by repeating the steps you took to install it in the first place. For those who want proprietary media codecs in their Fedora install, there’s no easier way than with AutoPlus.
I am not sure if the ‘Spin’ Xfce and KDE versions of Fedora result in an identical-looking desktop compared to installing it through the repository, but here’s what both look like when taking that route:
Fedora 15’s KDE Desktop
Fedora 15’s Xfce Desktop
A lot’s been said about Fedora 15 in this article so far, so let’s wrap things up.
I admit that I’ve never been much of a Fedora fan, or a Red Hat fan for that matter. I first jumped on FC1 ‘Yarrow’ upon its release, and then gave the distro another go with FC6 ‘Zod’, and have only tested it once more prior to this article for the sake of some GCC testing. So, all things considered, I went quite a while without giving the distro a fair test.
One of the big reasons I didn’t care for Fedora in the past is that I found it complicated to install the graphics drivers and other things, and it felt to me like the ‘free’ aspect was more of a detriment than a bonus (but it being free is a good thing, for reasons mentioned on the first page), so for those reasons, I never stuck around too long.
Have things changed? Well, no. I guess I’ve become a little more accustomed to how things are done here, though, and in some regards things I didn’t like before have grown on me. The fact that the OS strives to deliver only 100% free software is a good thing, but today, tools like AutoPlus really make it easy for people to keep using the same distro they love, without jumping through hoops to add in support for popular codecs.
As for installing graphics drivers, that has proven once again to be a major pain, unless of course the open-source drivers built into the Linux kernel itself is enough for you. In my case, I was planning to stick with the bundled Nouveau driver for the sake of testing it out, but my NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 was not supported. About 45 minutes later, I managed to get the official NVIDIA driver installed.
Out of the two complaints here, only one is valid (graphics), so I guess in general, I don’t have a major beef with Fedora as I once did. While I do think it should be easier to install a proprietary graphics driver, some Google searching will help get it done fast. It’s understandable why the developers aren’t more clear about doing it, as it goes against the ultimate goal of the distro.
Aside from those issues though, I found myself digging the feeling of using a super-stable distro – GNOME 3 aside. Additional software installed without issue, and likewise, the regular updates released for the most part went off without a hitch. There was a major exception this past weekend which I became a victim of, but the problem seems to lay more with the NVIDIA graphics driver and/or Firefox + xulrunner.
For an everyday desktop, I enjoyed using Fedora 15 quite a bit. While GNOME 3 took some getting used to, I found myself loving the fact that it helped me concentrate to a much greater degree than in other desktop environments. With notifications hidden in the background, it meant that I had nothing to distract me, which was fantastic. If I had the level of customization in GNOME 3 as I do in KDE 4, I’d likely make the switch.
The one caveat with GNOME 3 that is a little tough to get over is the constant need to use the Activities section when heavily multi-tasking. While for simple work, the design of GNOME 3 felt unparalleled to me, while working with eight or nine applications, I found it more tedious than not to have to constantly refer to the Activities section rather than just click a taskbar icon at the top or bottom of the screen.
Most of the complaints I’ve had while testing Fedora 15 have been more about GNOME 3 than Fedora itself, and it goes without saying that the GNOME 3 hurdle is going to be difficult for some to get over. The Fedora developers took a major risk here by moving up to GNOME 3, and it seems like a lot of people are sticking with Fedora 14 while things continue to get ironed out. If GNOME 3 ups the level of customization with the help of real GUI tools, and in general give people a little more control, I think more people will be apt to make the upgrade or even move over from another desktop environment.
If you fancy a distro that strives for stability and giving you the best cutting-edge software and tools Linux has to offer, Fedora is well worth a test. On the fence? Download the CD ISO and take it for a spin. Don’t like GNOME 3? Try either the KDE, Xfce or LXDE spin and see if either of those suit you better. Whatever you do, don’t write off this distro without first giving it an honest go.
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