Red Hat is the undisputed commercial leader when it comes to Linux distros. A few years ago more distros were sharing the Linux market/userbase, but these days Red Hat has overcome its competitors in impressions, sales and popularity. Popularity doesn’t always mean quality though (look at Windows9x for example), so after our world’s first review of Red Hat 8.0 a few months ago, I wanted to check out the new product, Red Hat 8.1, destined to be released sometime in the next one or two months. I downloaded and installed the third beta of 8.1, codenamed Phoebe, and gave it a whirl. We will be featuring a full review when the final version becomes available, but here is a preliminary report on the current status, accompanied by three screenshots. Update: Added one more screenshot. The installation process hasn’t changed much, it is pretty much the same, but fortunately this time, Anaconda (the Red Hat installation routine), was able to correctly probe my 19″ Envision monitor and obtain the modelines, without me needing to input them manually. In the past, this didn’t work with my monitors, so everytime I was installing Linux, I had to dig up the monitor manuals and type the numbers manually. Thankfully, this is no more (gtf is a Good Thing (TM)). At the end, my installation of the beta was not as lucky, as GRUB didn’t want to install on /dev/hda2, but later, after booting with the floppy, I managed to install LILO manually, so it’s all good now, up and running.
The UI hasn’t change much since Red Hat 8.0, but Gnome 2.2 is included and things are a bit more refined and polished. Positive surprise would be the launch feedback you get when you load something from the Gnome Panel. Nautilus feels faster, the Red Hat menu is a bit more organized (no “Extras” anymore!), the BlueCurve theme is as sharp and clean as ever and it has seen a clean-up/update in its looks.
New mouse cursors are also there, as Phoebe comes with a beta of the XFree 4.3, which has quite a number of new features (including the ability to change real resolutions (non virtual) on the fly). For a beta, XFree86 seemed very stable to me with the “nv” 2D driver.
KDE 3.1 is also there, included, but it is not as refined as Gnome 2.2. Red Hat has put quite some weight on taking care of Gnome as this is their main environment, but KDE users should be satisfied as well, as KDE is present and works as expected, in my experience with the system.
Red Hat Phoebe 3 comes with a number of development packages, KOffice 1.2.1, OpenOffice.org 1.0.2, Mr Project 0.8, FileRoller while some RPMs created for RH 8.0 that I tried, worked on 8.1beta just fine.
Overall speed is good, but both QT and GTK+ apps should do better when resizing and improve launching times (could someone please explain to me why even the smallest Gnome/GTK+ app takes longer to launch than the much bigger Blender?).
A pretty large number of preference and system tools is coming with the system, making it easier for people to configure their system (however, having 76 setting panels under Preferences, System Tools and System Settings, is really not all that great to be honest).
This is a beta release, so it doesn’t come without bugs. I encountered about 7-8 bugs so far (odd behaviors and/or app crashings), plus some UI bugs (however, I was told that the source tree is in freeze regarding UI bugs). Also, I was not able to hook into my shared Windows XP directory via Samba, not sure why not, yet. Hopefully, these problems will be ironed out for the final release.
Overall, even by being a beta, I feel that the Red Hat 8.x series are the strongest releases today in the Linux world and Red Hat, Inc. the leading Linux power which brings Linux one step beyond to the corporate desktop and the server space. It is the most consistent, polished Linux desktop available, it has major support by developers and companies who partner with Red Hat, Inc. and its server side is also strong compared to other Linux solutions today.
Having said all that, there is always room for improvement. The desktop could be much better and media formats could be licensed to fill the multimedia gap (currently a thorn for my needs) in order to better compete with OSes beyond the Linux scope, like WindowsXP and Mac OS X. But the important thing is that Red Hat is on the right track and they race against the big OS players, having already outpace their Linux-oriented competitors. Red Hat is definately the next big, continuously rising, OS company to watch in the future.