Fedora 7.0 is the latest community-based Linux release from Red Hat. Fedora and Novell's OpenSuse are Ubuntu Linux's two chief "competitors". All three Linux distros are free downloads; all have vibrant online communities where you can go for tips, troubleshooting and advice. And all three Linux distributions will hook you up with a modern, friendly environment that you can start exploring right away. If you don't rely much on proprietary, Windows-only applications, you may be able to get to work right away, too.
The big three free Linuxes differ mainly in their focus. Fedora and OpenSuse both serve as proving grounds for new technologies and new approaches; you see new features and capabilities in these distros long before they appear in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise. So Fedora and OpenSuse both do a good job of evolving - and that suits the companies that fund and steer these projects, as their commercial products directly benefit from the evolution.
Ubuntu Linux is good at evolving, too; but in its case, no separate, commercial distribution is ultimately the parent organisation's fair-haired child. Ubuntu is just Ubuntu and, as it evolves, it does so with one chief goal in mind: fixing Ubuntu Bug #1.
So as Ubuntu grows, the focus is more or less always on the user - specifically, on potential converts who can help fix Ubuntu Bug #1 - whereas Fedora and OpenSuse sometimes grow with users in mind, sometimes with system administrators in mind, sometimes with developers in mind, and so forth.
Donning the hat
To install Fedora 7.0, you have two choices. Your first option, the installation DVD, contains a whole boatload of software packages (and of course is itself a mighty big download of nearly 3GB). The DVD boots directly to the Fedora installer.
Alternatively, you can download Fedora 7.0 Live CD. This smaller download provides a bootable CD that fires up a working Fedora 7.0 environment, so you can test your sound card, your network connectivity, and so forth before deciding to install. You end up with fewer esoteric packages installed, too. Live CD installers are extremely cool from the user's perspective (heck, you can even browse the Web while the installer does its work), so I give Fedora big points for heading in this direction.
But whether you run it from the Live CD environment or from the DVD, the Fedora installer disappoints in a few respects. First, as has always been the case with Red Hat offerings, it provides very little support for existing non-Linux partitions.
Most Linux newcomers have a Windows installation on their drive already, usually in a partition that takes up the whole drive. The Fedora installer, however, can choose only to ignore that partition or remove it, whereas other distributions (including OpenSuse and Ubuntu) can shrink the Windows partition and free up space for Linux, leaving you with a machine that can boot into either OS.
The Fedora installer has almost none of these smarts; to shrink your existing Windows partition, you'll need a tool such as the GParted Live CD or a commercial alternative that we cannot in good conscience recommend, given how good a job GParted does these days.
Once you've shrunk your Windows partition and left a bunch of free space on the drive, give Fedora a shot. If you've tried other Linuxes and you pay close attention when Fedora sets up its partitions, you'll notice an approach that may be new to you: a smallish (roughly 100MB) "boot" partition and one large partition for everything else, including swap space, all handled by the Linux Logical Volume Manager. Our advice is to pay no mind and let Fedora do its thing. It's a different approach than you've seen before (with benefits that are largely irrelevant unless you're building a server), but it works just fine.
Fedora, like other modern Linuxes, won't ask scary or oddball questions about your hardware at installation time. It will, however, ask you to assign a password to the "root" account, the account for the system administrator. Remember the password you assign here; you'll need it later when you tweak system settings and such. We think this is a usability bummer for anybody who's not a sysadmin - in other words, pretty much everybody.
We prefer Ubuntu's approach, which has no separate administrator account and therefore no separate password to remember. When you do system-level configuration changes in Ubuntu, you're asked for your own user password, similar to what happens in Mac OS X.
On first boot, Fedora pops open a wizard to ask a few final questions. You'll be given a chance to enable a software firewall - very nice indeed, and Ubuntu could learn something here. You'll also (finally) create your user account and password, and confirm your sound settings.
You'll get a chance to review the system's SELinux settings. SELinux is a security feature originally developed by the NSA, and you can choose to disable it or leave its default settings in place. We chose the latter and never heard a peep from SELinux; but if you find (as some people do) that SELinux gets in your way, you can easily disable it via the System, Administration menu on the Fedora desktop.
When you finally reach the Fedora log-in screen for the first time, it may feel like fairy-tale land, what with the billowing clouds and the hot-air balloons on display. This theme, which always makes me think Peter Pan, is also waiting for you on your desktop once you've logged in, along with the standard Gnome setup of one panel across the top of the screen and another along the bottom. In Fedora's case, the top panel is for launching programs, switching users (a very nice feature, right where it belongs, too), setting the volume, selecting a wireless network, and interacting with the Gnome equivalents of what Windows users call system tray icons.
The bottom panel provides a taskbar, a Show Desktop button, a virtual workspace switcher, and a Trash applet. Ubuntu Linux introduced the Trash applet to the Gnome world out of necessity, there being no Trash icon on the Ubuntu desktop. Fedora places its Computer, Home folder, and Trash icons on the desktop, so why also a Trash applet in the bottom panel? We couldn't say.
Click any of those icons to start exploring your system, and you get Nautilus, the Gnome file manager, in "spatial mode" in which a new window pops up for every folder you visit. We love this behaviour but many people don't; in fact, Ubuntu turns it off by default, and you can do the same via System, Preferences, Personal File Management. Seek out the 'Always open in browser windows' option on the Behavior tab.
OpenOffice.org was not installed on our test system; we imagine that this is because we went with the smaller CD-based installer. Thus did Fedora's package-management tools get their first test. We selected Applications, Add/Remove Software; a dialog box came up, saying we needed to enter my root password to run 'pirut'. Uh, okay. Then we got a friendly window (friendly, yes, informative, not so much - and oh, why are those fonts so big?) named Package Manager, and we could easily select OpenOffice.org for installation.
The Package Manager downloaded and installed the office suite without a hitch, although, oddly, the new entries in the Applications menu had generic labels such as 'Word Processor' and 'Spreadsheet'.
In fact, this foolishness is scattered throughout the Applications menu. Pidgin, the venerable IM client that was until recently known as Gaim, is listed simply as 'Instant Messenger'. The GIMP, on the other hand, is not listed as 'Image Editor', but as 'The GIMP'. Firefox has it both ways, appearing as 'Firefox Web Browser'.
Members of the Gnome community have disagreed for years about how these listings should appear; Fedora demonstrates that the debate rages on. (Ubuntu, on the other hand, has chosen a side in the fight and has mostly standardised its menu entries, providing the name of the application as well as a hint to its purpose, similar to the Firefox entry in Fedora.)
We used the Package Manager to download several other favourite Linux apps, and everything was fine until we booted the machine on our second day of testing. After a while, we saw a text screen that read: 'The display server has been shut down about 6 times in the last 90 seconds. It is likely that something bad is going on. Waiting for 2 minutes before trying again on display :0.'
Now then. We have a lot of experience of using Linux, so we understood what this message was telling us. But a newbie would have no chance at all. What is a display server? What do you mean, 'something bad is going on'? Oh crap, have I been hacked? Of course not, but this message isn't going to put a novice's mind at ease. It's exactly the sort of message people use to make the point that Linux isn't ready for the masses. Yet.
At any rate, we knew what the message meant, but we knew how to fix the problem only on systems built in the Debian style - Ubuntu, for example. Troubleshooting this particular problem on a Red Hat-ish Linux is different, and we weren't up to speed. Google wasn't turning up answers for us, either; in fact, as we searched, even when we specified "Fedora 7" in our queries, we kept getting results for Ubuntu users, a clear sign of Ubuntu's popularity.
Ultimately we gave up and tried to reinstall Fedora. That didn't go well, either. When we booted up the Live CD and ran the installer, it reported, 'The partition table on device sda was unreadable' - sda being the device name for the first hard drive, as far as Fedora is concerned. It then gave me the option of initialising the entire drive, blowing away all partitions, including the Windows one. Sigh. The Fedora installer was the last application to touch the partition table; how did it manage to render it unreadable? We couldn't say.
We finally got up and running again. We could easily access shared resources on the network here at PC World HQ, but didn't seem to have a way to connect to printers attached to Windows servers, nor could we find a way to share folders from our Fedora desktop on the network.
Fedora seems geared toward environments where all the machines are running Fedora (or at least some flavour of Linux); Ubuntu seems more ready to be at home in whatever environment you drop it into.
Lastly, let's address the topic of "batteries". As we've mentioned many times before, most Linuxes - especially the ones you download for free - don't come with built-in support for proprietary formats. Proprietary formats include DVDs, Flash content on the web, MP3 audio files and more. Fedora supports none of these formats out of the box; to add support, you end up doing some legwork that is similar to what you'd do with other distributions.
We're not aware of any Fedora equivalent of Automatix (the automated battery installer for Ubuntu); you're probably going to spend some time on the command line getting this work done. Like everything else, this arrangement is a result of Fedora's focus: Fedora is very Free Software-centric - far more so than Ubuntu, which ships with some proprietary components (including 3D graphics drivers) that Fedora steadfastly eschews on principle.
Fedora 7.0: Specs
- (For graphical mode) 400 MHz Pentium II or better
- 192MB RAM
- 9GB disk space
- (For graphical mode) 400 MHz Pentium II or better
- 192MB RAM
- 9GB disk space
Fedora is solid, and the people who use it and hack on it love it. We think, however, that Ubuntu, because of its different focus, ends up being a more inviting environment for Linux newcomers.