For this article, I chose to take a slightly different approach than the standard "Linux distribution review". As I have written not just one, but two reviews of Fedora Core 2 for this site, I want to base my review of Fedora Core 3 on my experiences with its direct predecessor. Update: FC3 shots here.
I want to work out the development that has happened between these two versions of Red Hat’s community operating system. This will be – as all my reviews before – mainly a desktop-centric review, simply because that’s how I use Linux most of the time nowadays.
Red Hat uses a time-based development schedule for Fedora, that means every six months we will see a new version of it. The other approach would be a feature-based schedule, that’s the way Debian handles its releases, for example. This means that Debian stable releases differ greatly from one another and are easily discriminable, whereas the advancements in Fedora are often much more subtle and it may be even difficult to distinguish the particular versions at first glance. So, today, I want to look at the differences between Fedora Core 2 and 3.
There are some obvious differences: Fedora Core 3 sports version 2.8 of the Gnome desktop (vs. 2.6 for Fedora Core 2), a newer Linux kernel (2.6.9 vs. 2.6.5), a newer version of the X.org server (6.8.1 vs. 6.7), a newer OpenOffice.org (1.1.2 vs. 1.1.1), it includes the final 1.0 version of the Firefox browser and Thunderbird 0.8 (vs. Mozilla 1.6), and much more. Naturally, almost every program got updated some time during the last six months. The question for me is: what kind of benefits do I get from these "slightly higher numbers"? Do they even legitimate a six-month release cycle or should it be longer, let’s say nine or twelve months? I know of course that Fedora’s six-month release cycle is consistent with what Red Hat wants to achieve with it: deliver a bleeding-edge Linux distribution to enthusiasts, also as a testbed for new technologies likely to be included into Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux (like the 2.6 kernel or the SELinux enhancements). Note that I don’t want to judge this: I certainly wouldn’t use Fedora as my primary Linux distribution if it had stability issues, for example. To sum this up: I think that Red Hat does a decent job at balancing between including new features and keeping Fedora stable. I guess I would prefer Debian stable or something like FreeBSD on a mission-critical server (or Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for that matter), but Fedora is certainly stable enough to be used on a desktop. Still, although a lot of people like the six-month cycle because they get all the new goodies delivered twice a year, some do complain that this cycle is so fast that a new version is released only shortly after they finally settled the issues they had with its predecessor. Personally, I am quite happy with the fast pace of new Linux versions. In conclusion: in this article, I don’t want to criticise Red Hat’s development model, instead have a close look at its consequences regarding two particular releases.
The first and most obvious difference between Fedora Core 2 and 3 is the layout of the standard desktop. The Fedora team finally chose to use the standard Gnome desktop, with two panels, the main panel on top of the screen and another one (mainly for the window list) at the bottom. In Fedora Core 2 (and before that), Red Hat always costumised the standard layout, showing only one panel at the bottom. I definitely prefer the standard Gnome layout: I don’t care if the main panel is on the top or at the bottom, but I think it’s far more concise to have shortcuts to programs and "general stuff" like the clock separated from the window list. That’s one thing I always disliked in Windows (and KDE, but here you can at least change it). The "Show Desktop"-icon is in the left corner at the bottom, you cannot ever miss it because you can basically slam your mouse pointer there and it will hit 100%. Same goes for the "Applications"-menu on the top left corner. This is definitely an improvement over Fedora Core 2.
Integration of the Gnome desktop also happened in an evolutionary way. OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Thunderbird, probably the three most important non-Gnome-applications in Fedora Core 3 (I have not installed KDE) now use the Gnome file dialog, OpenOffice.org’s design has been slightly changed and feels now a bit more "bluecurvy". On the whole the system feels even more integrated and consistent than Fedora Core 2. These are only small changes, but welcomed ones.
Some of the changes of Fedora Core 3 are not really visible but " under the hood". The inclusion of SELinux is one of them: while I do not know how the security of my system is enhanced (i’m too lazy and just not interested in it), I generally accept these security-stuff as "good". SELinux was quite a beast to include, it was originally planned for Fedora Core 2 but was disabled because there were too many problems with it. Well, now it works and it works quite well. However, I had a problem with SELinux: after setting Fedora Core 3 up, I could not change the DocumentRoot for my Apache Webserver. The DocumentRoot (the path where Apache searches for the actual HTML-content) is set to /var/www/html by default. I tried to change it to /home/christian/Desktop/Web, because that’s where my websites are stored and got an error that DocumentRoot could not be changed. I initially felt that this would be something security-related and tried turning off the firewall and disabling SELinux. I was right: I noticed that I could change the DocumentRoot when I disabled SELinux. I changed the policy for Apache (that was a simple matter of one click in the Red Hat’s security-configuration tool) and I was set. So, I would not call this a bug, it was probably intentional. Still, I guess there are more people than just me who store their websites in their home-directories (and that makes sense to me for everyone who needs a local webserver that does not actually serve websites to the Internet). So I’d expect more people to have a problem here. I also encountered the first real bug in Fedora Core 3 within the security stuff. Red Hat’s configuration tool, system-config-securitylevel, crashes for me now. It worked in the beginning (otherwise I would not have been able to set the policy for Apache after all), but now it just crashes after the root password dialog. I tried removing it and reinstalling but it just repeatedly crashes. I will file a bug for this one. Overall, I’d say that the inclusion of SELinux went quite well and it was probably a very wise move on Red Hat’s side to disable it in Fedora Core 2 and test another six months.
The other big change "under the hood" is Project Utopia. And here Fedora Core 3 shines: I constantly had problems with the USB memory stick I bought in September. When I plugged it in, an icon appeared on the desktop and I was able to use it. But as soon as I unmounted it and unplugged it, I knew that I would have to reboot to plug it in again. When I just plugged it in again, nothing happened. No icon on the desktop appeared and it was not there under /mnt. I even tried to mount it via the terminal but then it always said: " Resource busy". Sometimes it even didn’t let me unmount it and just kept saying that it was still busy. With Fedora Core 3, I can plug stuff on and off and rarely have problems. Rarely, because I experienced a minor problem one time. I bought a 60GB USB2.0-disc recently and normally, it really "just works". One time, it didn’t correctly unmount, said " Resource busy". I plugged it off, plugged it back in and no icons appeared on the desktop. The disk, however, was there, under /media/usbdisk. My verdict: Project Utopia was a very important innovation for Linux and, while it still may have small glitches, it is an invaluably important step on the way to "Desktop Linux". I expect this to work perfectly in Fedora Core 4.
When I look back, the most horrible problem I had with Fedora Core 2 was that Gnome PDF-Viewer did not display pdf-documents correctly. As I have to deal with those very often, this was very disappointing. This is solved in Fedora Core 3: I have not experienced any problems despite having thrown a good 30 pdf-documents at it during the last two weeks. I’d count this definitely as an important step forward especially concerning business desktop use of Fedora Core – pdf is just essential!
Firefox and Thunderbird still default to English even though I chose German as the preferred language when I set up the operating system. I recently read that the reason for this is a problem in the Mozilla i18n (the internationalisation). It seems that it does not work the way it works in other applications. Well, this situation has not improved and should be adressed soon (and I guess by the Mozilla team, not by the Fedora team).
Then I mentioned a problem with File-roller. It did not start when I right-clicked a file and tried to "Create Archive". This has been solved. Another small point for Fedora Core 3. And there are small Gnome adjustments – I guess a lot of people were waiting for an easy way to turn off the spatial behaviour of Nautilus. Well, now it’s there! Another small visible change is the new MIME-system. That’s a pure Gnome change and it’s better than the old one, for sure. An improvement over Fedora Core 2, one that does not seem to be important, but really makes your life easier when you have to deal with it.
One thing remains: multimedia is still just a big mess in Fedora: aside from the patent issues and therefore the exclusion of mp3, DVD, Flash, and a lot of other formats, there are basic problems that relate to the Gnome desktop and GStreamer in general. Software sound-mixing still does not work on my machine (which is a laptop with a simple AC’97-soundcard that cannot do hardware sound-mixing). GStreamer has a ton of plugins to handle all kinds of multimedia formats, but it still… err, sucks, to say it directly. Some videos only play the sound while the screen stays black, some videos don’t work at all. I usually end up installing Totem-xine or MPlayer. Then I also still use xmms sometimes, and of course Rhythmbox. Gaim no longer really crashes when another program is using the audio-channel, but the sound still does not play. System sounds are completely disabled. These are all not Fedora-, but Gnome-related problems, still I have to adress them because they account for a major drawback in Fedora usability (I experienced most of these with Ubuntu too). The only real improvement over Fedora Core 2 (and a very welcomed one) is that Rhythmbox now no longer crashes when you move the slider to get to another point in a song. So, while the application now works reliably, it lacks so many useful features compared to iTunes, it’s not funny. I was really hoping for a 1.0 series of Rhythmbox in Fedora Core 3. I miss the "Quality-column" (I want to rerip the stuff that I did with 128mbps and I don’t know what it was), I miss the "Last added" playlist from iTunes, Tag-editing is still not available, and iTunes’ "let-me-manage-your-library"-feature is just too cool. I am not even dreaming of CD-burning… So, basically, while I don’t want to diss the programmers (this is probably a lot of hard work), and while I am very pleased to at least have a music management program in Fedora, there’s a long way to go to get to a competitive level. And while I’m at it: Sound Juicer still doesn’t offer the single most important feature, setting quality. It’s a shame. This program is a posterboy for a modern, nice-looking, HIG-ified Gnome application. Still, it’s simply unusable for me.
A new addition in the multimedia arena is the Helix Player: I can’t put this one to good use. In fact, it annoyed me greatly that just about the only time it wanted to do something was when I clicked (yeah, right!) an rpm-file in Firefox. Now this is retarded! I could probably accept this feature in a Debian-based distribution that doesn’t really use rpm-files for package management. But in Fedora? Come on, I certainly do not want to "listen" to my 3rd party packages, *g*. Besides, I remember that I never installed Real Media Player in my Windows years, I loathed that piece. The Helix Player is probably as much better as the old Real player than Mozilla was in comparison to the old Netscape. And I probably have to welcome the fact that Fedora Core now includes a player that is integrated with the browser. Still, rpm-packages probably mean something different to a user of an .rpm-based Linux distribution than to. let’s say, an average Windows user.
When I reread the passages about multimedia in my older articles I have to say that I was probably to mild. But maybe that’s also because I used iTunes a lot recently and it just was a slap in the face for me how good it is. Overall, I am quite content with multimedia in Linux, I accept the limitations that patented file formats impose. I just feel that this is probably the section where "Desktop Linux" is lacking the most as of today.
Final verdict: Fedora Core 3 is a nice improvement over Fedora Core 2. The visible differences may be mostly subtle but if you examine the distributions more precisely, you see the work that was put into the newer version. I’d say that (although I also used Fedora Core 1 and 2 regularly), Fedora Core 3 is the first real version of the Fedora project. With Fedora Core 1, Red Hat just released something that was probably originally planned to be Red Hat 9.1. Fedora Core 2 had the change in the kernel version from 2.4 to 2.6, which was probably huge and had to draw some problems. Fedora Core 3 finally is where Red Hat wanted Fedora to be. A lot of new technology to play with, bleeding edge Linux software, and still a very stable, polished operating system. I guess one could say that it has the kind of "personality" that Red Hat wanted it to have. Decent job, Fedora team!
Almost done with this article, I will summarise what I believe are the main problems that have to be solved for Fedora Core 4: even better integration of Firefox into Gnome (including a working i18n during setup). It would probably be best to let Firefox replace Epiphany and make it the standard browser for Gnome. While I think that Evolution is a very good mailer, I would love to see Thunderbird included into Gnome. I want that "small" mail program, I always used Outlook Express and not Microsoft Office’s Outlook. So I guess Thunderbird would be a worthy addition to Gnome, as a direct competitor to Outlook Express. It is, contrary to Evolution, available for Windows too, that would make the transition from Windows to Linux a bit easier. Then I’d love to see a good HTML editor in Fedora, read Screem or a HIG-ified Bluefish. You might go with gedit, but it would have to be improved a lot (and I’m not sure if it was even meant to be a fully-fledged HTML-editor). The colours for syntax highlighting in gedit are just ugly. A simpler approach to adding multimedia capabilities to Fedora would be very welcomed. Maybe a single meta-package would do the trick, one that would add mp3 playback to xmms, Rhythmbox, Helix Player, Flash and Java for Firefox, mp3 encoding via lame, DVD and video playback to totem, all that with one click. Even though yum shapes up nicely, it’s still lagging behind apt-get in speed. I certainly had a better experience with adding/removing packages and updating my system with Ubuntu. Synaptic for Fedora? It will not happen, because the Fedora team has put too much work into yum (and it certainly has technical advantages over apt-get for Fedora that I don’t know of). Still, the situation in Debian is much nicer, Fedora should try to find a single, central method for adding/removing and updating packages. And put more development resources into Rhythmbox, the program wants to compete with iTunes and it still has a long way to go in this respect. That’s it. I’m still quite content but not really happy with Desktop Linux, but I am excited about the development speed. Who would have thought that Fedora Core 3 would be that polished two years ago when Red Hat 8.0 was released? Now I just have to figure out if I want to keep Fedora Core 3 or switch back to Ubuntu. But that’s another story…
About the Author
Christian Paratschek, 28, Linux enthusiast and regular contributor to osnews.com. View his other articles on his website.
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