Gentoo, Lindows and Lycoris arguably were the big surprises of the year in the Linux land, but everyone is waiting the release of Red Hat 8.0 with, possibly, the biggest anticipation ever for a Linux distribution. Since Red Hat posted the Limbo and Null betas, fans of the most popular distribution on earth were making waves and even called this new version a Windows killer. Does this really hold up though? Will Red Hat be successful on their quest to infiltrate the business workstation/destkop market? Read more to find out and view some of the high resolution screenshots we have for you! UPDATE: Red Hat 8 is out! ZDNews has an article about the new release of Red Hat 8.0.
The installation of Red Hat 8 is similar to the previous versions. While Anaconda, the RH installer, was updated to support AA and GTK+ 2 resulting in a more spiffy look, little has been changed to the installer itself. One of the changes is that now you have to click “Advanced” to tell LILO or GRUB to only install themselves to the / partition and not on the MBR (I usually use the BeOS “bootman” bootloader), the option is not right up there as it used to be. Other than that, the installation went very smoothly; it only took less than 30 minutes with my 52-max CD-ROM I have here on this AthlonXP 1600+, 768 MB Ram (KM266 VIA Apollo PRO chipset, Asus GeForce2MX-400 AGP card and on board S3 SavagePRO, Yamaha YMF-754 and VIA VT8233 sound cards, RealTek 8139 onboard NIC). The OS rebooted and I loaded it into text mode, and from there I loaded X-Free.
As always, the default environment for Red Hat is Gnome. I haven’t seen any Gnome version numbers anywhere, but I think that RH comes with a modified Gnome 2.0.2. It looks pretty slick, and the fonts (default font is “Sans”) are looking sharp, even being fully antialised, but personally I found them a bit too big for my taste (and I am currently running on 1920×1200 resolution). There is this new feature coming with RH8 that you create a directory called ~/.fonts and you throw in all your TTF fonts in there, and they get recognized automatically from the system! This is pretty neat, only problem is that not many people know about this feature. I think it should have been part of the font panel under preferences. Anyway, in no time I was up and running with Verdana as my main font on the Gnome2 desktop. I think Verdana and the rest of the web fonts I installed, render very nicely in this distribution (X Server included is 4.2.0)
The Gnome desktop included on RH8 looks sharp and clean. It has brand new icons, and only important plugins and launcher icons are included in the Gnome taskbar. For example, you will find a workspace switcher, Mozilla 1.0.1 (default browser), Evolution 1.0.8 (default email client) and the OpenOffice.org icons on the left side of the bar, while you will find the Red Hat Network Update Daemon (up2date) on the right, along the Time. On your desktop you will only find your Home icon, the “Start Here” preferences open in Nautilus and the trash, named “Wastebasket.”
Along with the brand new icons, you will find a new GTK+ theme, called BlueCurve, and a new window manager theme. I admit that it looks much better than many other themes from previous versions or from other distributions (the window manager is clean and up to the point – I like it), but there is still quite an lot of stuff to be improved in the UI itself. None of the suggestions we did here and here a month ago made it into this release. I hope the UI at Red Hat developers will consider some of the suggestions for the next version of Red Hat.
A nice surprise is OpenOffice.org’s looks in this desktop. Red Hat made some good work to make sure that OOo looks good, with full AA support on its menus, even when you try to type something on a document. Too bad that OOo does not recognize the TTF fonts I installed on my ~/.fonts dir, though. Other GTK+ application can’t see them either, eg. gedit, while other can (eg. Gnome2 Terminal). This is an incosintency issue and, in my opinion, it should be fixed.
One of the biggest problems I have with the current UI is the inconsistent, confusing and bloated “Start” Red Hat menu. You are free to like it as much as you want, I just don’t. What is the point of having similar menus all over the place? You have a “mouse” entry on your Preferences, and you got a “mouse” entry on your System Settings. Granted, the panels loading from each menu are doing different things, but it is just not clear enough just by looking at the menu items what is what and which one does what. You have to click both to see if it is the one you needed. A UI should be intuitive enough to clear up such misconceptions right away. Same goes for “Keyboard” and Networking panels. And if this is not enough, the Red Hat menu is cluttered with similar –at first glance– menus: “Preferences, Server Settings, System Settings, System Tools”. And if that is not enough, under the Extras menu, you will find submenus (with different apps in them) called… “Preferences, System Settings, System Tools.” Same goes for the Office, Games, Sound and Video. That “Extras” submenu is not needed. It duplicates things in a bad way, even if the apps offered there are different from their counterparts in the root Red Hat menu. The Extras should have been included in the master menus, and to avoid clutter, they should have been included under a submenu. For example, under Preferences, include a submenu called “More Preferences” and put there the not-so-needed prefs. Lycoris does it that way and it works well. The way it works now, after a while, you can’t remember under which “Preferences” menu you saw a specific item. Was it under the root’s Preferences menu, or under the Extras? Messy.
The Red Hat Network (up2date) is a pretty nice service and, via it, you are able to update your Red Hat installation automatically, via a GUI application. Only registered users are able to use the service. For the package management, Red Hat has created a nice to use “Package Management” application that will let you install/remove software from the RH8 CDs. I couldn’t find a way to actually make this manager to see other “sources”, for example rpmfind.net, but it is nice when you right-click on an RPM file it will load the “Install Package” application and take care of the installation. I installed a number of RPMs created for Null (there were no dependancy issues), so I don’t know how this installer behaves in the case there are dependancy issues. I downloaded an RPM (the “Downloader for X” application) created for RH 7.3, and it also installed and worked perfectly.
Red Hat still includes the Desktop Switcher application, so I momentarily switched to KDE 3.0.3. I think Red Hat has done a good job modifying a Qt theme to look similar to GTK+’s BlueCurve. Whoever said that Red Hat modified KDE to look like Gnome is wrong. The BlueCurve theme is not Gnome’s either. Red Hat wrote it pretty much from scratch. So, KDE applications now looks similar to Gnome’s, and Gnome’s applications are looking similar to KDE’s. This is a good thing. As you can see from the KDE screenshots the desktop now has an (almost) unified look (the buttons and some other details are not the same as in Gnome). If you do not count the plethora of GTK+ 1.x important and default applications (Evolution, GIMP, Balsa etc), XUL (Mozilla), God-knows-what-toolkit (OpenOffice.org), Java, some Python GUI apps I installed and some KDE 1.x and 2.x apps, well… the rest of the Red Hat 8 looks unified. Well, as you can see, not entirely. It is a step in the right direction, but until all these applications get ported to either Qt 3 or GTK+ 2 or create a BlueCurve theme for their toolkit and force AA to them, the desktop won’t feel entirely unified yet.
But as I said earlier, this is the most unified look and feel achieved today in the Linux world and it should be embraced by the community of users, instead of bitching at Red Hat for doing the Right Thing (TM) for their business. Yes, the “About KDE” is not there anymore, and very correctly it is not. I give props to Red Hat for taking this intrusive propaganda from the KDE Project to throw in this menu item on each and every Qt/KDE application. It is a completely reduntant, duplicated information for 99.9% of the users and it is there only to consume space. And yes, I am mostly a KDE user, but speaking as a UI designer (and not as a KDE user), RH did the right thing to remove that always-ever-present menu. The KDE About box should be included in a central place, somewhere else. Currently, you CAN view the About KDE box by clicking the KDE menu, then on the Panel menu, then on the Help menu and then you will find it there. It is a bit hidden I have to admit. But it is there, as you can see from the screenshots we feature here.
Red Hat 8 comes with quite a number of applications, it even includes KOffice 1.2. Suspiciously and funny enough, when you install additional packages from the RH CDs via the Package Management application, all the GUI apps I installed were showing under the Extras menu, but KOffice was never joined the Gnome’s Extras menu as other KDE apps did after installation, while it does join KDE’s Extras submenu (which is identical to Gnome’s otherwise). Anyways, you can find a number of apps, FTP clients, KDevelop, Emacs, File-Roller, Gaim, Galeon, Gnumeric, lots of puzzle games, preferences for the http server, NFS, Services, hardware information, X11 resolution/monitor panel, Internet wizard with support for wireless, modems, nics, ADSL, ISDN etc. However, there are other things missing, equally important. I couldn’t find a samba configuration tool coming from Red Hat, no visual way to change your sound card from a list, and no visual way to change your monitor’s refresh rate or printers.
Also, there is no Java installed. No Macromedia Flash or Real Player either. And that brings me in the multimedia offerings of this distro. Or its lack there of. Red Hat 8 has to be the poorest multimedia-ready distro by default that I ever ran (except Gentoo of course, which comes with virtually nothing by default :). So, there are no movie players on Psyche (except the limited Kaboodle which is not even installed by default). None. No XINE, no VLC, no XMovie, no NoATun, no nothing. I don’t know what Red Hat means by saying that this is a “business desktop”, but I can tell you that when I used to work at Montal.com in UK, which is a business ISP and AIX/WinNT provider, the girls at the marketing and PR department needed the ability to play avi and qt or mpeg files daily. Our design company was sending us either Flash presentations, or real avi files to show us the progress for our marketing/advertising material they were creating for us. So, no matter how much I might bitch later in this article for not including 2D/3D drivers from nVidia, this is an even bigger oversight/issue. This is 2002, people, and modern offices and businesses need full multimedia capabilities by default on their desktop. And Red Hat fails to deliver these. Hurrah for Windows XP and MacOSX in this particular issue.
On a less important matter (possibly equally important for some IT engineers working at their dark room with RH8 trying to listen to their music – eg. my beloved husband) is the lack of mp3 capabilities. Because of the licensing issue of mp3 (which exists for YEARS for the SAME price, but for some reason people seem to think that this is a ‘new thing’), Red Hat decided to not include mp3 libraries on their OS. This is their liberty, but let’s be realistic here, most people use mp3s, no matter if both ogg vorbis and even wma are better technologies comparatively. Be paid that $50-60,000 USD needed to include mp3s on its BeOS back in year 2000, at a time that they were with one foot off the cliff, financially-speaking. And Red Hat, a much larger company, with more money and millions more users (Be never had more than 100,000 active users at the same time), decides to not license the technology. Well, maybe that was an ideologic decision rather than a business one, but the bottom line is most of their customers won’t be entirely satisfactied by this decision. No matter how you turn it, this is a limitation of the default system, as mp3 is a very standard audio format these days. And manually downloading and installing the already created mp3 RPMs for Psyche, it will only make you an outlaw and not the solver of the real, larger issue at hand here.
On another XMMS issue, it refuses to play online playlists, like my favorite one (works on Lycoris, doesn’t work either on Xandros).
There are good things in Psyche, don’t get me wrong. GCC 3.2 rocks; all the binaries are really fast, the system feels fast, and by modifying the services to load on boot, will make your booting even faster (dunno why Red Hat decided to load things like wireless and PCMCIA daemons on this PC though – I don’t have any such hardware). The default blue background image is pretty good too. WindowMaker, is the fastest between Gnome2 and KDE 3 and it works great too. The system is very stable too so far, except for the problems I describe later about the graphics driver. The filesystem used is ext3 while the kernel used is 2.4.18 (yes, it would have been nice to get some of 2.4.19’s goodies, but hey, Red Hat’s kernels are always kinda modified and patched with special patches for stability and they get a long time testing – which is a good thing).
On the downside of things, my mouse was not recognized to have a wheel mouse and after changing its type via the mouse system panel (one of the 2-3 mouse preference panels with the same name… see above to understand the sarcasm) to get it recognized as a wheel one, the mouse would jump like crazy on the screen, as if I had selected the wrong type (I didn’t). Killing the X server (couldn’t use the mouse or shortcut to logout – there is no shortcut) and reloading X, fixed the problem and I now have full wheel operations. I am not the only one with the problem. It seems that Red Hat does not enable wheel operations for all mice. Mandrake and Lycoris recognized the mouse with no problems though.
And talking about the X server… Hmm.. should I start about it, or not? I better do, it’s part of the whole experience at the end of the day.
So, here is the story: First of all, there was no resolution available to pick above 1600×1200. This baby, a high-end SGI Trinitron 24″ monitor, I got here can do up to 2048×1440, but I wanted to set it up for the much more “conservative” 1920×1200 at 90 Hz. The X preference panel does not let you pick VESA resolutions except the very standard ones, and to make things even worse, you can’t pick the refresh rate you want. I hand-edited the XF86Config file, I double checked the monitor’s sync info, and then added the 1920×1200 res to the confing file. Restarted X, and I was indeed at 1920×1200. But it wouldn’t go more than 73 Hz, even if both the monitor and this graphics card can do more than 90 Hz for that specific res! I tried everything, I created a modeline via XTiming, nothing! It wouldn’t go more than 73 Hz. I downloaded nVidia’s official drivers, and install them successfully (I had 3D and all now). I reloaded X, and again, even nVidia’s drivers X wouldn’t let the refresh to go up to 73 Hz. To make the long story short, I had to email Andy Ritger at nVidia and ask him to give me his opinion of what’s up here. Andy is an incredibly helpful engineer (thanks Andy!) and he sent me his GTF command line application that creates VESA modelines. Even by using this app’s modeline, X wouldn’t go above 73 Hz. By forcing the X server to go at 85 Hz, it would downgrade itself automatically at 1600×1200. By sending the XFree log to Andy, he figured out that for some (stupid most probably) reason, X thinks that when you are on 24bit, the pixel clock of the card can be only 300 Mhz, while it is 350. So, if I downgraded to 16bit color, I would get 90 Hz as requested. It took some more experiementation and my husband’s additional help to modify BY HAND the modeline that GTF created and be able to get to 1920x1200x24bit @ 90Hz. There is no possible way that even Joe Admin in a remote office in Alabama would have figured out how to fix that without asking directly XFree or nVidia employees. For me, that is one more reason why X just doesn’t cut it, and as a result, why RH8 doesn’t cut it when configuring high-end monitors or other not 100% standard resolutions. Especially when Red Hat hopes to get all these ex-SGI animators over to their platform after porting their custom multimedia applications. These are issues that XFree should fix, include the (proprierty) GTF mechanism (there is no other way) and update the modelines for more VESA resolutions for up to 2048×1536. This is 2002 we are living in, not 1995.
Red Hat comes with DRI 3D drivers for Voodoos, i810, Matrox, Radeon and SiS. There is no 3D support by default for nVidia cards though. I was a bit unhappy about this a few days ago, but now I am over it. I mean, at the end of the day, this is a business desktop and as such it does not really need 3D, right? Well, not exactly. Think the… poor ex-SGI animators trying to port and work with Blender and other GL-enabled animation packages on a PC with Red Hat, or game developers. Developers are employees too and this a business desktop, right?
I downloaded and installed successfully the nVidia 2D and 3D drivers. OpenGL works fine in 3D game, except that the GL screensavers have a problem to start in accelerated mode (yes, the memoryLimit is set to 0). After running a bit happy with them at the resolution and refresh rate I wanted, X would crash. SSH’ing in the machine and either stopping, or huping or killing X (which would now consume 99% cpu), it would completely kill Red Hat 8 (sign that the kernel was crashing because of the nVidia driver) and I would need to reset the machine. Andy told me to set the AGP settings to 0, and I did so. In the beginning, it was looking more stable, but after a while it would still crash in the exact same way. So, I just reverted back to the generic 2D “nv” driver that comes with XFree. The problem is that this nv driver could not drive my monitor at 90Hz. I could see the windows’ edges to render as zig-zag, which is a sign that something is getting overclocked (while the gfx card _can_ do it with other OSes or drivers). So, here I am back on 73 Hz, writing this. I can tell you, I am not happy about the nVidia and nv drivers situation. The nVidia driver, which I compiled from the .tar.gz packages are NOT stable under Red Hat 8 on my machine even if when I disabled AGP support. I wish that Red Hat, who are now a big respected company (I wrote recently about their dominance in this year’s LinuxWorld expo), could partner with nVidia to include these 2D/3D _better_than_nv nVidia drivers by default, but most-most importantly to have these drivers fully tested and ready for download for the time when their OS is about to come out. As for the standard XFree “nv” nVidia driver is so basic and untested on high resolutions that if it was something real that I could touch, I would have already thrown it in the river, which runs outside my house. And please don’t tell me to dive in to the code and fix it, I am not a device driver programmer, neither I want to be one. I am a user when it comes to Linux and I expect things to work as nicely as they do on Windows XP and MacOSX (I do some C/C++ development only for OSX and BeOS these days).
There are three last points I would like to discuss in this review, because these are indeed real issues in the last 5 days that I am using Psyche.
First, the focus of windows does not always work and this is either a window manager or a toolkit issue. For example, I have Nautilus, gedit and the preferences/mouse panel open and I click between them (in the application body, not in the window manager) and while the clicked app gets the focus, it does not come into the front (I am using the default “click to focus” btw). Half of the time it would work and the clicked apps would come to the front, while the other 50% of the time1 it wouldn’t do it. This might be a toolkit bug, because if I click inside a tab view area, the window will always come on focus, while if I click outside of this specific area, but still inside its window, it wouldn’t. Weird.
Most important bug in my opinion is the GTK+ 2 combo box bug. Example: I get to the System Settings/Display panel and I open the graphics card panel which has a combo/drop down box on its right side, with the name of the driver loaded. About 60-70% of the time I hit the little arrow to open the combo box’s menu, the combo box would get a different value, EVEN if I did not click to any value! In my case, it selects automatically the “mga” option! This is a toolkit bug, and while it does not happen all the time, it happens MOST of the time and if a user won’t be very careful of what got selected without his consent, he/she would end up with a non working X server until he/she gets to hand-edit back the XF86Config file. Messy.
The last gripe I have is the shortcut and navigability this distro does not have. For example, as I described above, by selecting the correct mouse driver for my mouse to give it the wheel ability, until I restart X, the mouse would move like crazy and I was not be able to click anything. I had to ALT+CNTRL+BACKSPACE my X Server (which was something that was not nessesary, X was fine), because none of the Windows Keys worked. By just clicking the windows key and the context menu key on my keyboard, nothing would happen, no menu would open. Yeah, yeah, I know. These are keys that the evil empire introduced. But they are freaking useful for God’s sake. USE them! They are here, present on each modern keyboard! And what about the complete lack of navigation via other keyboard shortcuts? How do I logout via a shortcut, or even better how do I open a Red Hat menu (in order to navigate through it and do stuff or log out) via a shortcut or via the Windows key? The Gnome Help didn’t help at all on this issue!
So, there are two questions remain:
How well this distribution would do as a business desktop? Let me answer this like this:
Psyche is better than most of its Linux competitors, but still way behind in both the desktop experience and feature-set from both WindowsXP and MacOSX.
How well this would serve as a server OS?
I am sure it would be good server OS. It is stable and fast. Some GUI utils are missing for configuring more servers, but for the admin who does not need GUI tools, Red Hat 8 would be better and faster than ever.
But as a (business or not) desktop, I am sorry, but I am still skeptical about it. It isn’t ready yet, it has a number of rough edges, and I really do not understand where the whole fuss was about the last two months about Red Hat 8 being a Windows killer on the desktop. It isn’t one. Not yet anyway.
Hardware Support: 8/10
Ease of use: 7.5/10
Speed: 8/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)
Overall: 7.9 / 10
Thanks to Ed Boyce for going through the pain of proof reading this article.