Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Distro Hoppin`: Fedora 14

Yes!!!!! YEEEEEEE!!!!!! Finally, Fedora managed to squeeze me into its tight schedule and allow me to write an article on it. The 31st post on this procrastination-tainted blog is the lucky one, so go ahead, feel free and use the number at the lottery. No, I do not want any percent of your winnings, but remember... YOUR SOUL IS MINE!

Another number that could help you in the war against the odds has to be 14, because that's the version of Fedora I will be taking a look at today (and very possibly tomorrow, the day after tomorrow [...] - I shall hopefully finish the article by New Year's Eve). Codenamed Laughlin, the majority of people (including Google) will first think of gambling, alcohol and mostly happenings that stay in Vegas, though the name comes from Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Robert Betts Laughlin.

There's little else to say about Fedora, its history and its contributions to open source that you don't know about, so I will skip that part. To give you the big picture, Fedora is backed by the huge Red Hat Inc., occupies the 2nd place in Distrowatch's popularity list and is a true free software backer. Also, the Fedora community has one of the best "team chemistries" in the distro world and that alone hints to the quality of this OS and the effort put behind it.

So let's see how this distribution fares up to the needs of a "regularish" desktop user. The live image (be it 32- or 64-bit) can be burnt onto a 700 MB CD - although some serious compromises had to be made - once you download it from the fast mirrors provided by the project. Oh, and if you want to learn more about Fedora, the official website has plenty of information to keep you busy for quite some time. There are tutorials, features and screenshots, weekly news, all sorts of marketing "goodies" like posters, stickers, and, for those who want to really be part of Fedora, a place to quickly scan the ways in which they can contribute to the distro's bright future.

Starting up Fedora from the disc is quite fast and you are given immediate access to the Install icon, conveniently placed right on the desktop. My dual monitor setup was also correctly recognized and configured. But first, let's get over the installation part.

The first step is... useless, as it shows the Fedora logo, a line of copyright information and the Next button. :D They could've at least type some sort of "Welcome to the blablabla". Eh, an extra click won't make such a difference on the road to RSI.

Next, keyboard layout.

The device type selection follows, but most users will simply need to click next with the "Basic Storage Devices" option selected. The second option, "Specialized Storage Devices" is mainly for large enterprises and such.

After typing the hostname, it's time to test your geography skills and click on your city as fast as possible! That, or you can scroll through a boring list. See? Geography is fun!

The root password should be typed in the next window. Be sure to make it a strong one!

Choosing a way for Fedora to handle your partitions and filesystems is easy as pie. You can tell it to replace any existing Linux partitions (awesome!), use all space, shrink current system, use any free space floating aimlessly around or get your hands dirty and create a custom layout. Encrypting the system is also possible for sensitive environments.

If you have something like an USB drive plugged in, an extra step will appear for you, in which you will have to specify which of the devices you will want to use for installation.

Aaaand that's it. The process begins and, after 2 or 3 minutes, BAM!, it's done. Whaaat? Yep, I think Fedora has the fastest installer I've ever used (it can even compete with all the mini distros out there).

You might think I have skipped the user creation step, but this is done at the first boot, along with date and time setup.

Getting through the rather trivial login screen, you are greeted with a pretty impressive wallpaper and the regular GNOME layout with two panels, one at the top and the other at the bottom. While Fedora's focus is certainly not set on eye-candy, it still won't make one feel ashamed to show it around. Plus, it's really functional. The notifications, though maybe not as pretty as Ubuntu's, are interactive. So if someone sends you a message in Empathy, you can click "Respond" right there in the notification bubble and it will bring up the chat window.

But, to be completely honest, I truly believe it's time for a total makeover. Maybe with the GNOME 3 release, things will be different.

On the applications front, the view may seem pretty depressing at first, but it's not like you can't pop open the package manager and install whatever tickles your fancy. The major absence has to be the office suite, which the developers decided to remove, most likely to keep the distro within the CD size restrictions. GIMP was also removed and replaced by Shotwell Photo Manager. Actually, replaced is not the right word, as there is a plethora of functions that you will miss from good old gimpy and won't find anywhere in Shotwell.

But let's see what IS available. The "Accesories" category consists of the usual tools: Gnote for note-taking, calculator, dictionary, etc. Oh, the screenshot tool makes a really awesome shutter sound everytime you take a pic of your desktop. I think I will never grow tired of it. :D

As a true warrior needs his high-calory food, so the tireless office worker needs his solitaire. Fedora delievers and, as bonuses, you get Sudoku, Iagno and Mines.

In Graphics, two bored apps stare at eachother: Shotwell and Simple Scan - which did a perfect job at scanning.

The Internet is for p..... wait, what? The Internet is for instant messaging through Empathy, the Internet is for browsing the web in Firefox, the Internet is for remotely viewing desktops and finally, the Internet is for downloading p.... erm, Linux distributions through Transmission!

Well, I am really glad the Fedora team made room for a project management app inside the Office category. I mean, it's really a must-have for any user, be they beginners or advanced. They certainly won't need a word processor. No, no, project management people, project management, that's what we'll give them. *eyes are rolling*. At least they didn't kick Evolution Mail and Calendar out.

Speaking of useful apps, Cheese is another mandatory one. Who can live without making silly faces in front of the webcam and applying wobbly effects on top? Nobody! The usefulness of Audio CD Extractor (Sound Juicer) is also questionable, but if you're planning on digitizing your collection, it's a pretty good tool. On the other hand, Brasero, Totem and Rhythmbox are well known and will certainly be used plenty of times.

Is this MySpacey enough or what?
The Automatic Bug Reporting Tool from the last category - System Tools - is a great way to help with the ongoing development of Fedora. Once in a while, pop it open and report all the problems that have been found and, if possible, try to provide detailed info about the crash, freeze or whatever went wrong.

The Disk Utility gives you lots of information about the health of your storage devices and can push you to make a backup before it is too late. And what better backup tool than Deja Dup, which is also included in this same category. It's dead simple to use, yet very efficient and even has integration with Amazon's cloud service.

I like how the package manager first gives a brief description of what a certain program does and puts the actual name of the app on the second line. There are thousands of goodies to choose from, all neatly arranged in categories. Another nifty feature: once the installation of a piece of software is complete, Fedora asks if you would like to run it, which saves you the effort of reaching its position within the menus (also kindly pointed out in the "installation complete" prompt).

When I tried playing an MP3, Totem told me I didn't have the right codecs and asked me if I would like to fetch the needed packages to play the audio file. But, as expected, it told me it couldn't find them in the default repositories, which only contain 100% free software. A quick google search later, and I was at the site, from where adding a new repository is easy as click, download, install. Once that was complete, Totem fetched the codecs just fine and the MP3 finally started.

As I installed the 64-bit version, I knew some Flash problems will arise. While the video is smooth, the audio is plagued by all sorts of crackles and other unwanted noises. You can hear the original sound, but it certainly is annoying.

Hardware-wise, everything was correctly setup, besides the HP Deskjet 3940 printer, which required the installation of the hplip package, found in the repositories. The Canon camera was detected just fine, the scanner also worked "out of the box" and my Alcatel OT-800 phone's camera was recognized as a webcam.

Installing the proprietary graphics card drivers isn't as easy as in Ubuntu or automated like in Mandriva, but with a 2-minute trip to the web you'll be done in no time.

Fedora 14 also comes with a Firewall for fine-tuning network access and ensuring an even higher level of security.

There is another small, but quite annoying quirk: sometimes, the scroll wheel on my mouse will not work. I believe it's another 64-bit annoyance as Windows 7 64-bit also had this problem until the updates were installed.

P.S.: When placing the finishing touches on the screenshots I took, I opened one in GIMP and I double clicked the titlebar in order to maximize it. Guess what happened? No, it didn't maximize. The whole system froze. Only the mouse would move, but nothing was clickable. Not even caps/num lock would work. Yay! Of course, it didn't happen the second time I tried so i hope it was a once-in-an-OS-lifetime mistake.

Hats off to Fedora?

While some users may be turned off by the lack of easy-to-reach proprietary drivers/codecs and the barren default software selection, most will appreciate the true qualities of this distro:

  • its focus on developing the community and trying to keep everyone active and contributing in some way or another;
  • giving users access to the latest and greatest apps in the open source world;
  • its commitment to freedom.

Surely, as always, there is room for improvement, but I found Laughlin to be the most stable and solid version of Fedora I've tried in years.

Download Fedora from here.