Fedora vs. Ubuntu

Monday Jul 1st 2013 by Matt Hartley
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Does Fedora offer a viable alternative to Ubuntu?

As newer Ubuntu users become more accustomed to their desktop experience, occasionally they decide to try something different—like Fedora. With my previous article, I took a stern look at OpenSUSE vs. Ubuntu. So in this article, I'll explore the differences between Fedora and Ubuntu, along with examining areas where each distribution excels or fails.

Installation Made Simple

One area where both Ubuntu and Fedora have done a great job is in making sure that the operating system's installation is as simple as possible. With both distributions, selecting the desired partitions and continuing with the installation is as easy as clicking "next."

Where things differ, however, is when you're selecting your ISO to download. Fedora provides you with the GNOME desktop, whereas Ubuntu relies on Unity. Both share some things, but for the most part, they're very different user experiences. Personally, I found Unity to be on par with a vanilla GNOME installation, as each provide much of the same functionality.

Another interesting comparable is that both Ubuntu and Fedora offer spins. For example, you can get Fedora with KDE or Ubuntu with KDE. Where things differ, however, is that Fedora largely embraces other desktop environments, like KDE, while Ubuntu, leaves these projects to others to manage.

Software Availability

Ubuntu has ample software available, thanks in part to the popularity of both the distro and the software creators supporting Debian packages. This is then expanded even further through Ubuntu's Personal Package Archives (PPAs). Sadly, Fedora really doesn't have as much to work with in this space. While it's certainly doable to locate RPM packages via RPM search engines, for the most part Fedora's package availability isn't that great when compared to Ubuntu.

Now, I should point out that Fedora users do have resources available. Great options like Koji allow Fedora app developers to host packages and share them with others. But perhaps the closest example of PPAs for Fedora users would be the Fedora People Repositories. Having access to these user repositories is helpful, but I would challenge anyone to show me how Fedora has greater software availability than Ubuntu because I just don't see it happening.

Software Management

Under Ubuntu, software management is handled by dpkg, and the end user relies on the Ubuntu Software Center to install and remove software. The software center is helpful in allowing users to discover new software or even try a new game suggested on the front page. In addition, users can still rely on the terminal, while using APT if they prefer.

Fedora also allows users to install software from the terminal using yum. The closest thing Fedora offers to a Software Center, however, is called PackageKit. The idea behind PackageKit is similar to the Ubuntu Software Center in that you have a GUI tool from which software can be installed. The key differences between the two tools are as follows: First, PackageKit isn't as bloated as the Software Center. Second, PackageKit doesn't provide a featured software scroller like the Software Center does.

FOSS vs. Proprietary Software

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Ubuntu and Fedora is the view of software licensing on each distro. Ubuntu is designed to run whatever works. This means providing a GUI to help install proprietary drivers, plus proprietary apps/games within the software repositories (if enabled). On the other side of the coin, Fedora accepts only FOSS-based applications into its repositories. And while it's certainly doable to install proprietary drivers and so forth onto a Fedora install, it's not as easy as Ubuntu. This lack of ease is by design, however.

To expand on the topic of Fedora's approach even further, one needs only to read Fedora's "Forbidden Items" wiki page. There you'll discover that Fedora lacks immediate access to everything from Adobe Flash to TrueCrypt. At first, this may seem rather limiting. But in Fedora's defense, they do try to offer an alternative for each proprietary option lacking in the distribution.

Unfortunately, there are some suggested areas where Fedora is simply missing the point—most specifically, under the DVD playback and video driver sections. In each case, the suggestion is to either do the impossible or rely on a sub-par alternative. For DVD playback, it's suggested that the user rely on WebM or Ogg Theora. Sounds great in practice, until you realize this is impossible unless you've either decrypted a DVD via Handbrake or pirated the DVD content. As for asking users to rely on non-proprietary video drivers, this works fine unless that user is planning on running common video games. At that point, if the game runs at all, the performance will be so bad with the open source video driver that it makes sticking with this approach impossible.

Fedora really stands its ground with gaming. Even common Linux-friendly games ranging from Frets of Fire to Sauerbraten are clearly marked as software Fedora developers won't package and offer. Ubuntu by contrast, offers each of these things Fedora does not.

Ubuntu and Fedora vs. FSF

Obviously, Ubuntu would never be considered safe to use under the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) view of things. Fedora on the other hand, seems to attempt to meet with FSF approval, as demonstrated here in an email exchange with Richard Stallman. As you read through the email, two things become clear instantly: First, the person asking for clarification on licensing questions clearly seeks the FSF's approval. Second, Stallman isn't completely convinced that Fedora goes far enough when compared to other distributions that the FSF does actually recommend.

And this is where things become very fuzzy overall. If Fedora is trying to reach out to FOSS lovers more so than Ubuntu, yet doesn't meet with the FSF's strict standards, where does this leave Fedora? Some might even speculate that Fedora is a niche distribution.

Ubuntu vs. Fedora for Usability

Currently, I run Arch (and Manjaro), Ubuntu and OpenSUSE. Each distro offers me something unique and compelling in my life. Sadly though, I can't think of a need where Fedora would fit in.

If I were looking for a FOSS-friendly, GNU/Linux experience, I'd likely recommend one of the FSF's preferred distributions linked above. For a strong Ubuntu alternative, Manjaro or OpenSUSE fits the bill. And finally, if you want to take full responsibility for your desktop, Arch is just awesome in how deep you can control your desktop experience. But Fedora, honestly, is not addressing a clear need that I can put my finger on.

All of that said, because Fedora is mirroring a FSF-recommended distro in its inclusion of FOSS software only, it's a distribution best suited to those who dislike MP3s, DVDs, proprietary drivers and non-FOSS applications. Now don't misunderstand me, I think a truly FOSS-empowered distribution is a healthy option. It keeps things pure, for those who prefer a pure Linux experience. But according to Stallman himself, Fedora isn't quite up to the task of being a FSF-recommended distro.

So would I recommend Fedora over Ubuntu? Honestly, no, I wouldn't. I'm more inclined to recommend one of the options listed above instead, as I can better explain how I personally have benefited from each of them myself. Nothing against Fedora—it's fine—but it just simply doesn't have a well-defined niche these days.

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