Fedora 9 Falls A Little Short

Wednesday Jun 18th 2008 by Dan Lynch
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Reviewer Dan Lynch takes a test drive on the latest release of Fedora. His experience: some really neat features overshadowed by a lack of stability and too cutting-edge software.

The Fedora Project is the free community release from enterprise Linux giant Red Hat. It's a testing ground really for a lot of new ideas which usually end up in the company's commercial Red Hat Enterprise products. I've used Fedora in the past on and off but for some reason it's never quite stuck with me. I've often found it buggy and a little too unstable due to it's experimental nature.

I was interested to see how this release would perform on my Dell XPS m1330n, which I actually bought with Ubuntu.

Distro base: Red Hat
Packaging: .rpm (Managed by Yum)
Linux Kernel: 2.6.25-14.fc9.i686
Default Desktop: Gnome 2.22.1

I chose to download the full Fedora 9 DVD but there are some LiveCD versions which will be a familiar format to Ubuntu fans. After firing up the Fedora 9 DVD I was greeted by a pretty standard looking menu where I chose to install the OS and waited to see what would happen (see Figure 1). I was prompted to check the install media and make sure there were no errors. I could have skipped this step but I thought it couldn't hurt to be sure the disc was OK. This test took 9min 36sec to complete. Yes, I timed it.

Fedora uses the Anaconda installer (see Figure 2), which is a long-standing Red Hat development and a standard across their all systems. I've heard all kinds of horror stories about Anaconda and I know a few people who really dislike it, for me though it's always worked well and I have no real issues with it. My only gripe would be that it's sometimes a little slow. I proceeded through the normal settings screens choosing time zone, language and so on, then it was onto partitioning.

I have my system set-up with a 12-Gb root partition and a large partition for my home folder. I decided that in order to give me a quick route back to Ubuntu and preserve my settings I would just install the whole system onto the 12-Gb partition and not mount the other one. The partitioner is reasonably easy to use but in my eyes it's not very intuitive. Perhaps because I've become used to other distros. The whole installer seems aimed at administrative users who know what they're doing. This fits with the kind of users I suspect deploy Fedora and Red Hat systems, administrators and developers mainly. It's not aimed at the newbie, not the faint-hearted ones, anyway.

I let the installer do its thing and it formatted the 12-Gb drive, then began copying and installing packages. It took a whopping 35min 54sec before it was finally ready to eject the disk and reboot. This seems monumentally slow to me; I've been spoiled by the 10-min installs so many distros perform these days.

Upon first booting the new system I was greeted by a prompt to accept the GPL license agreement and then more dialogues asking for user name details and other things. This didn't take long to complete, but it would seem more logical to me to ask you all of these questions in one go during the install. Nevertheless, after about an hour the system was ready and I was looking at my new desktop. It's not a difficult install really but I felt it was very time consuming.

With the base system installed it was time to see if I could get it up and running as a fully working desktop.

My first order of business was to connect to my wireless network. I clicked on the network manager applet in the top right hand corner of the screen and was pleased to see a list of networks to choose from, this meant my Intel wireless card was working and there was no need to configure drivers. I simply entered the key for my WPA2 network and it connected straight away. Nice and simple.

Next I turned to video drivers for my Nvidia card, but this turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. There's no equivalent of the Ubuntu Restricted Driver Manager in Fedora and unlike Mandriva, it doesn't just install the drivers for you. This was not unexpected, as most distros behave like this but I'm always surprised more distributors don't use something like the Ubuntu solution.

Fedora uses the RPM packaging system, it's a Red Hat invention and these software packages are managed by a tool called YUM. It's the equivalent of Apt on Debian based systems and I've always found it a bit disappointing when compared directly to Apt. I make no secrets that I am a fan of Debian, though.

On Fedora 8 I had lots of issues with YUM locking up on me and causing no end of trouble. I'm pleased to report I didn't have that problem at all in Fedora 9, though I did have plenty of other mishaps which I'll get to later.

I searched for nVidia drivers with YUM and found nothing. The Fedora repositories do not contain non-free software and this is deliberate because they only distribute FOSS packages. There is a third-party repository that contains many of the things average users will need, such as drivers and codecs. You can install it by going to http://rpm.livna.org and clicking the link on the front page which says "Fedora 9 RPM", you will then be prompted to download and install a package. It's pretty simple.

There is an Nvidia driver in the Livna repo but I discovered--after doing some research--that this version of Fedora ships with an experimental Xorg server. This is the underlying graphical server and usually works closely with your video drivers. But, because this is so new and experimental, it's not supported by any of the current Nvidia drivers. I did install the package from Livna to see what would happen but upon rebooting the system message appeared "Nvidia.ko not found, module not enabled", the system seemed to work fine but it just wouldn't enable the accelerated driver.

According to all the forums I checked it's a case of waiting for Nvidia to release a new driver. You could downgrade the X server and then install graphics drivers, but it's quite an involved task and I didn't really fancy retrofitting the system to make it work, to me this is the job of the distributor.

I was able to install all the software I needed using the Add/Remove Software tool from the admin menu. I simply searched for the packages I wanted and then selected them. I installed Deluge, gPodder, Audacity and a few other things and found the software repositories quite deep. One advantage of running a Red Hat-based system is finding packages for commercial software is pretty easy, as it's so prevalent in business. RPM packages for lots of things are available often where DEB packages are not--this could be due to the fact that industry giants Red Hat and SUSE use RPM.

A good example of this is the Adobe Flash Player for Firefox. I tried to install it with the prompt in the browser which usually works but this time it failed. They have RPM packages on the Adobe web site though, and after installing this and restarting Firefox it worked in Firefox 3 Beta 5 (see Figure 3).

I was also able to install Skype with the RPM on their website but they are a bit better at supporting an array of different distros than most.

When it comes to managing your software on Fedora, I find the built-in GUI is a bit limited so I usually install something called Yumex. You can install it from the main repos and I find it a much better interface. Yumex is a lot more like Synaptic under Debian systems, which may go a long way to explaining why I like it (see Figure 4). I would recommend it to anyone serious about using Fedora.

I also found I had to configure Nautlius (the file manager) to do browser view and show items as lists but this only takes a minute.

Just as I thought I was getting comfortable with Fedora there was a serious system crash. I had Firefox, Deluge, and Pidgin open at the time, which is nothing intensive for a powerful system like this but the screen froze and I found I couldn't revive the system.

I tried CTRL+ALT+F2 to switch run levels and perhaps recover things from a terminal but the system was completely unresponsive. I couldn't even reset the system with CTRL+ALT+DEL and I had to power it off manually.

When I tried to reboot the system it would get to a certain point and then the whole screen would just flash on and off with no sign of stopping. I tried a few times to make it work and even tried recovering the system with the Fedora DVD to no avail.

In the end I had no option but to completely reinstall from scratch. I'm not sure what caused this but I suspect it was the Nvidia driver I tried to install. I rebuilt the system up the same point as before bit left the video drivers alone, hoping this would prevent a similar crash.

I was able to play my multimedia pretty easily with Fedora but it prompts you to buy codecs from Fluendo which can be a little annoying (see Figure 5). If you're in the US then it's illegal to use these codecs without buying them but this law is largely useless outside the US. I installed the free Gstreamer plugins from Yumex and was able to watch DivX videos and listen to mp3's without any trouble (see Figure 6). I discovered there was no sound though and even after searching for all long time on the net I couldn't see anything that would help. Fedora comes with Pulse Audio enabled by default and I assume it was a problem with that. I checked the Alsamixer in a terminal to ensure wasn't just an errant volume setting but nothing helped.

On top of this I found random applications would just crash and the whole system seemed very unstable. I suppose it's true what they say about the cutting edge also being the bleeding edge. My system fan seemed to be working overtime and the whole laptop got ridiculously hot while just performing normal tasks. So I was left with no 3D video, no sound and an unstable and overheating system. My mission was to make Fedora work as my desktop OS on this hardware and I'm sad to say I failed. This laptop was purchased with Ubuntu as I said and it runs perfectly, no doubt the Dell and Ubuntu guys got together to make sure this hardware worked but the performance of Fedora 9 was disappointing.

The whole release feels a lot more like a beta than anything else. It's always been experimental, but this release seems to have pushed the experimentation to the limit of usability. It just doesn't seem production ready at all and I'm not sure who exactly this distro is aimed at. When Fedora was first spun out of the Red Hat distribution as a way of separating free and paid for versions there wasn't a massive difference but now the gap seems to be widening by the day.

I found Fedora 8 was much more stable and usable for me and I hope this is just a blip because it feels increasingly like it's just a beta for future Red Hat Enterprise releases. If you want a stable and solid free Red Hat system, I would go for CentOS instead. It's a community project to repackage and freely distribute the source code of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and they do an amazing job. I use CentOS 4.6 on my live web server and I find it very stable and full featured, much as I imagine RHEL is.

I certainly wouldn't trust Fedora in a production environment and it makes me really sad to say that; it used to be a great distribution and I hope they can recapture that in future. I removed the software after a few days because I was so worried about the overheating problem damaging my hardware. I reinstalled Ubuntu and it now runs at a normal temperature again I'm pleased to report.

I think if you're a Fedora fan or you're a developer wanting the very latest packages possible to test with then this release may be of interest to you. Other than that I can't see a huge market for it. I'm sure the Fedora community won't like me saying that but I'm afraid that's my conclusion. I would choose CentOS over this any time or even Fedora 8 at a push. Download it for yourself by all means, and see if you agree.

This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.

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