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Fedora Core 6 review

By Jem Matzan

This is the first Fedora Core review I've written, but it's not because I didn't want to write one before. I've tested every Fedora release since the very first one, and have declined to write about it because it never seemed to work properly and I don't like writing totally negative reviews. At first I figured that the bugs and problems were just growing pains from the switchover from Red Hat Linux, and then from the move from the 2.4 to the 2.6 kernel, and other various things. There are no more excuses left, so I think it's time to break the silence about the inferiority of this desktop operating system, now in its sixth release.

Fedora Core overview

This section is for people new to Fedora Core. If you're already familiar with this operating system and just want to find out about the new release, skip down to the next section on what's new in version 6.

Fedora Core has inherited Red Hat's desktop operating system legacy, which ended with Red Hat Linux 9 shortly after the company announced that it was no longer going to offer a consumer-grade product. The money, apparently, is in "enterprise" products, so Red Hat started the Fedora Project to continue development of a desktop product from which the company could derive a more thoroughly tested and specially configured "enterprise" product. So while Fedora Core may be an operating system in its own right, its purpose is solely to provide a basis for development for Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Fedora Core uses GNOME as its default interface, though KDE is also available to those who demand it. The past few releases have distanced themselves further and further from their Red Hat heritage, abandoning the Red Hat logo, the Red Hat Network update service and the up2date update notification applet, and now the Bluecurve desktop theme is gone as well.

Though a decent number of programs are included or available with the distribution, there are a few RPM repositories that specialize in providing even more Fedora software. That expands the Fedora Core software library to proportions that match most commercial GNU/Linux distributions.

Fedora Core is almost exclusively comprised of free (as in rights) software, which means that you have to hack in the repositories that contain proprietary extras like Nvidia and ATI video drivers, the Adobe Flash and Acrobat Reader programs, the Java virtual machine, and the RealPlayer media application. With proper instructions, this task can be completed in a few minutes by copy-and-pasting some commands into a terminal window.

The only architectures supported are x86, AMD64, and PPC.

What's new in version 6

Here are the major new features or improvements in Fedora Core 6:

  • A new theme (DNA), a new default font (DejaVu), and a generally improved user interface.
  • The Compiz window manager has replaced the Metacity, and works in conjunction with the AIGLX desktop effects framework.
  • The Puplet YUM update applet replaces the old up2date notification applet and adds better support for YUM. Along with internal package changes, this makes software more manageable and maintainable.
  • A completely rewritten and enhanced system-config-printer, which uses CUPS 1.2.
  • GNOME has been upgraded to 2.16, and KDE to version 3.5.4.
  • Various behind-the-scenes performance enhancements.
  • Evolution's IMAP support has been significantly improved.
  • Anaconda can now access additional package repositories such as Updates and Fedora Extras, and users can install applications from these repositories directly during installation.
  • Anaconda now supports IPv6.
  • A graphical management interface for Xen -- virt-manager -- has been added.
  • Integrated smart card capabilities for secure authentication with the CoolKey system.
  • A new tool for managing clusters, lvm2-cluster.
  • Kernel updated to 2.6.18, automatically detects multi-core and multi-CPU systems and adjusts accordingly.
  • 7.1 now dynamically configures monitor resolution and refresh rates.
  • Support for Intel Macintosh machines.

The two major improvements in the above list are the Puplet update applet and the better 3D desktop integration.

Fedora Core 6
Fedora Core 6: free and meant to stay that way

Putting it to the test

The installation procedure is inferior to every other desktop GNU/Linux distribution I've used. Partitions can't be resized, the default partitioning scheme is a terrible mess involving logical volumes and groups and such, the boot loader configurator doesn't recognize other operating systems on the same computer, and trying to add extra software repositories results in an unrecoverable crash. Adding software repos after installation must be done from the command line.

Speaking of software repositories, there are no standard proprietary repos for FC6. Two popular add-on repos are Livna and FreshRPMs, but if you add them both you'll run into duplicate packages with slightly different version numbers and dependencies. Sometimes you have a choice among three different kernel versions or architectures for drivers, proving that the package manager is unable to determine the machine type and calculate version numbers on its own (heck -- I'd have been glad to do it manually if such an option had been offered).

A software distribution is meaningless if it does not include all of the software that the target userbase expects to use. Fedora Core 6, like all of the Fedora Cores before it, fails this test miserably -- no support for MP3 or Windows Media files, no support for commercial DVD movies, no support for Atheros or Centrino wireless cards, no Adobe Flash plugin for Web browsers. All of the files needed to add this functionality are proprietary, so Fedora doesn't have them by default. That is understandable -- if regrettable -- but making it so difficult to add the required packages is neither understandable nor excusable.

Wireless network card support is abysmal, and it is very difficult to add driver RPMs after a networkless installation because of multiple dependencies that you don't find out about until after you've made a driver disc and tried to install wireless packages ("RPM hell" as it was once known). Even after collecting a half dozen Atheros-related RPMs and installing them, the network card was improperly recognized and it was impossible to configure it correctly with the graphical tools provided (it was recognized as an Ethernet card instead of wireless, so a wireless connection could not be created on it. Deleting it and trying to install the device manually did not work). On a Lenovo ThinkPad T60p, the onboard Intel network chip was improperly recognized as something else. Removing it and installing the proper driver got the wired connection working, but wireless required adding either the Livna or FreshRPMs repos using the command line, then searching the Add/Remove Software package manager for IPW3945 drivers and firmware. Even after I did that, I still couldn't get the Centrino wireless chip to work correctly in FC6.

The new DNA interface theme may be interesting and modern, but it adds little value to an operating system that once had a distinct identity in the GNU/Linux distribution market. The default Clearlooks theme in the mostly default GNOME environment ends up resembling Ubuntu in blue, and with FC6's new minimalist Add/Remove Software program in the applications menu, the Ubuntu resemblance is even greater. Change a few colors, icons, and the background image, and you pretty much have a more difficult to install and less user-friendly Ubuntu without Synaptic or APT.

One good thing I have to say about Fedora Core 6 is that my ATI Radeon X700 video card did not need a proprietary driver to do direct rendering and GLX -- it worked by default with the Radeon driver with no extra configuration. This also enabled me to easily enable the silly desktop 3D effects that are the subject of so many blog posts with the overused "eye candy" colloquialism in their title. The puny desktop 3D effects configuration program has only two configurable options: cube and wobbly windows.

The ATI FireGL V5200 in the Lenovo ThinkPad T60p was not recognized by the Radeon driver. I tried to install the proprietary fglrx driver, but it had problems with the kernel version or wasn't the right package. An Nvidia GeForce 7300GS card required proprietary drivers from the Livna repository to get direct rendering working properly.

The Puplet update applet worked wonderfully for me, and I have no complaints about its interface and functionality. It's definitely a major improvement over the confusing and slow Red Hat up2date program.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I'm through hoping that the next version of Fedora Core will fix all of the problems with the previous release. Fedora's identity has gradually eroded over six releases, finally ending up as a second class clone of Ubuntu. On the other hand, Red Hat Linux was never really all that easy to install, configure, and use, so I guess this is just the natural evolution of a product that was destined to be eclipsed by more complete distributions like Mandriva and more easily configured distributions like SUSE.

I appreciate the fact that distributions like Fedora Core are still focused on free-as-in-rights software, but today's Web content requires more proprietary browser plugins than yesterday's did, and today's hardware is increasingly designed to be dependent on proprietary binary blobs in the form of firmware and driver packages. Programmers are not falling over themselves to write free replacements for these things (or they are unable to because of a lack of documentation from hardware manufacturers), and the projects that do exist are non-operational and/or several generations behind current technology. Users do not want to hear reasons and excuses for why the operating environment doesn't work with their favorite Web sites or computer hardware -- all they know is that it doesn't work, and making it work is not a simple or obvious process. It is possible to keep the distribution free-as-in-rights while making it easy to add proprietary extras, but the Fedora Project is not willing or able to do it after six releases.

The Fedora Project has failed six consecutive times to produce a viable desktop operating system. I say pack up, move on, and let Fedora Core die, but remember it fondly as the last of the holdouts from an era when desktop GNU/Linux meant missing out on most Web media while struggling to get network drivers installed and configured. It's nice that my video cards worked with the 3D desktop effects with little effort, but wobbly windows and the cube desktop switcher don't make up for a lack of basic network functionality and ease of configuration.

Just for fun, here are some recommendations for future releases:

  • Reclaim your identity. FC6 resembles a less functional Ubuntu. What reason would anyone have to use Fedora Core when Ubuntu uses an almost identical interface, but is easier to install and configure? Fedora Core needs a distinct identity not just through the cosmetics of the interface, but through features that bring it value through uniqueness. Fedora Core was once the premier GNOME-centric operating system, but today it is just an also-ran, lagging behind more innovative software distributions. If this trend is going to change, Fedora needs a new, clearly defined identity.
  • Make it easier to add software repositories. There is no reason why software repositories should have to be added from the command line, especially when Anaconda has a graphical interface for adding repo addresses during installation (even though it crashes when it can't contact the server you put in), so it shouldn't be too difficult to add the same functionality to the built-in software installation tool. YUM needs to have a competent, fully configurable GUI -- or it needs to be replaced by Smart or YaST or something that a desktop user can actually use from within the graphical interface.
  • Improve proprietary driver installation. It may be impossible for Fedora Core to support devices that require proprietary drivers, but it's not impossible to make those proprietary drivers more easily available to people who need them. One RPM per driver is all that should be needed to get a network card to work, and it should be clearly marked so that users can more easily find it. Installing network drivers from a user-created driver disc should be an easy process.
  • Improve network configuration. The network configuration tool is complete junk. It needs to be replaced or dramatically overhauled.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer The Fedora Project and Red Hat, Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T, PPC
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, with some restrictions on redistributing modified versions.
Market Home desktop users
Price (retail) Free to download and use
Previous version Fedora Core 5
Product Web site Click here