Updated: April 16, 2009
You may be wondering why I chose the particular title for this article. Well, you will learn soon. Today, we are going to test the latest (beta) release of the RedHat-based Fedora, version 11 named Leonidas, slated for release in mid-May.
I have tested Fedora only about six months ago. It took me four separate trials to complete the test of Fedora 10 Cambridge. In the first attempt, I found Fedora to be harsh and welcoming. Gradually, I warmed up a bit toward it, as I discovered its softer sides, but still it was a rough tumble. The kernel had occasional oopses, the multimedia codecs were not so easy to obtain, installing packages was not a simple thing ...
If you take all these into consideration from the perspective of a normal, average user, Fedora is not the first operating system you would want installed on your machine. However, if you look at Fedora as a sort of a perpetual beta, intended for users who want to be technologically three steps ahead of everyone, enjoy a fair share of self-inflicted pain and get around tweaking and hacking the innards of a system, then Fedora is ideal for the task.
And so, six months is a long time in the Fedorasphere. Few distros change much in that period of time. Not Fedora. It always tries to grasp the bleeding edge of advancement in computer code, which means that the impressions, experiences and feelings that were true only half a year ago, are obsolete today.
Combined with a feeling of a missed opportunity I had with Cambridge, I approached the latest Fedora release with a fighting spirit. To make things even more interesting, Leonidas is slated for release in late May, about a month or so from now. I was convinced Fedora 11 could never be a beginner's distro. But could it be a distro a beginner would want to aspire to?
Here's what we're going to do today: Check Fedora on two laptops, the good old T42 with 1.5GB RAM and the new T61 with 2GB RAM, and install it in a virtual machine. The usual assortment of tests will follow - Wireless, Bluetooth, Web camera, multimedia codecs, sharing and NTFS support, updates, new software, and even some unique stuff that you would not normally see.
And yes, we're talking beta, a whole month before the official release, so things might change.
I downloaded the live i686 Gnome edition and booted it. The boot menu and the splash are identical to Cambridge. Similarly, the boot times are roughly the same. Overall, Fedora is similar to most standard distros when it comes to speed.
The new desktop features an interesting wallpaper with a Greek motif that justifies the distro name. Like most Gnome desktops, it is simple and functional, with rounded fonts and soft blue colors that radiate serenity.
My reviews do follow a pattern, so yes, the first thing I checked was to see whether my laptops could connect to my routers. On T42, there were no issues. On T61, Fedora failed, but this comes as no surprise, since most distros do.
Like the recently tested Jaunty Jackalope, Leonidas had no issues connecting to my mobile phones. It uses a wizard similar to the one featured in Ubuntu 9.04, except that it offers a more complex PIN code, which is a nice security bonus. We will talk about Bluetooth security in a separate article.
Here, Leonidas did a nasty trick. Trying to connect via Places > Network, the distro threw an error and failed to connect:
However, I then pressed Alt + F2 to run a custom command and entered smb://<ip>, where <ip> is the relevant IP address of the Windows host I wanted to connect to. This worked without any problems.
Fedora 11 does not advertise Compiz functionality out of the box, however it does have a Desktop Effects entry in the System menu. Enabling this functionality worked on both laptops, with windows wobbling when moved and workspaces rendered onto a cube.
I tried grabbing a few screenshots, but they did not come up as well as planned, so no lovely images here, sorry.
I was tremendously pleasantly surprised when I discovered the excellent Cheese Webcam Booth in Cambridge, with the built-in camera device on my T61 working flawlessly. It prompted me to write an article on web camera support across a range of distros and it has been one of the major checks I perform for every distro tested since.
Like its predecessors, Leonidas does the job well.
This was the sore spot the last time and things have not improved much since.
Going to Youtube did not trigger a browser prompt in the browser. Fedora requires a manual installation, details which of you can find in my Flash tutorial. First, I downloaded the .yum package from Adobe website. When I tried to run it, the installation failed:
Okay ... I downloaded the .rpm package and ran it. Again, the same error. Only on the third attempt, using the .tar.gz archive, did I succeed.
Now a question: How many people would give this thing three chances? How many would have given up after the first or the second attempt? Does it really have to be this complicated?
Eventually, Flash was working, although the playback was choppy:
Windows video playback
Fedora prides itself at shipping with free, non-proprietary codecs only. Which brings a curious questions to mind: why did my Windows Moron video, encoded in some nebulous format, which did give quite a few distros a nasty kick, work so well?
And if a Windows video file can be played out of the box, why not MP3? What's so cardinally different? This is not a question to Fedora team as much as a question on the logic of digital code and laws in general.
I struggled here a little. MP3 files would not play, by the way, as expected:
First, I tried locating VLC, which should have been able to play just about anything. I could not locate it in the repositories.
My refusal to go hunting for codecs the last time I tested Fedora (Cambridge) cost me quite a few emails from angry users berating me for my laziness and ineptitude. On a funny note, considering that aptitude is a command-line package management tool for Debian based systems, in-aptitude sounds like an awfully good pun here.
This time, I decided to do it the community way and hunt for answers in the Fedora forums, which still, I believe is the wrong way of doing things, unless you're a knowledgeable user. Newbies should have a simpler alternative at hand.
After about 6 minutes of searching, I found the answer:
First, add the relevant repositories:
Then, install the codecs:
This worked well:
However, I have a better idea. My suggestion to Fedora team is this: create a small wrapper script that does this, call it get-your-mp3-here and place it on the desktop. Can't be simpler than that. New users won't like the idea of command line hacks.
Compared to Cambridge, Leonidas no longer suggests Fluendo packages. This is what I got the last time, on Fedora 10.
On one hand, this is better, because the payware software does not sit well with the free spirit of Fedora. On the other, it makes the tasks of getting the codecs more difficult for new users.
While I explored Leonidas, the system threw a dozen kernel failure error messages, asking me to send bug reports, which I happily submitted. The last time, the errors were restricted to virtual machines. This time, they mushroomed in all three test cases.
The package management was stable overall. yum was fast and responsive.
Fedora is all about unstable applications, so it comes as no surprises that it ships with the latest available kernel version (for those who like numbers) and Firefox 3.1 beta aptly called Minefield.
Another interesting application is Palimpset, a disk management utility, with SMART features, the ability to test devices, create partition tables, install bootloaders, and do a while lot of damage in the hands of unskilled users. Like Minefield, it's a beta, so be very careful when using it.
The CD version is limited in its repertoire, shipping with a basic set of programs. There is no office suite in the CD edition, it's reserved for the DVD. Multimedia applications cover the needs, but you won't get a spectacular array like, for instance, Dreamlinux or PCLinuxOS offer.
I did dig up a few interesting, unique items in the menu. One such was the Power Statistics utility, which monitors the power usage, especially useful on laptops.
File Sharing Preferences also offered a new angle on sharing needs, including a focus on Bluetooth devices.
Not to worry, the package management system is fast and robust, so you won't have issues getting the latest and greatest of what you desire.
After half a day playing with Fedora, I must say I was rather surprised. It was still a far cry from being the stable, friendly distro for masses, but I was neither bitter nor angry. Most of the stuff worked quite well.
There were some issues with kernel and installations, but I believe they are beta related. When it comes to basic desktop functionality, the biggest challenge remaining still is the multimedia support. It is not particular to Fedora, since many Linux distributions have to tread carefully around the legal implications of bundling and distributing proprietary software, but it would be nice to see this handled more elegantly.
It's a bit sad that in year 2009, we have to face a sort of a medieval mentality, on behalf of the media tycoons, as well as the purist communist approach of free software pioneers. I think the truth sits somewhere in the middle. And if distributions like Linux Mint or Dreamlinux can get around the barrier, then I see no practical reason why others should not do it, too.
Back to Fedora, it was working well overall. Wireless support on T61 was nil, but it's something very few distros managed so far. Web camera was working out of the box, most commendable. Multimedia can be enjoyed, but it takes a bit of work. Accessing Windows shares on the network also works, despite the obvious bug somewhere in the menus.
All in all, Leonidas was behaving reasonably. It failed the newb test, but for more advanced users, the issues encountered were relatively easy to bridge. I decided to install it.
When it comes to installation, little has changed in Fedora 11. The procedure is similar to what you get on all RedHat-based distributions. However, what made the attempt all the more interesting was the new EXT4 filesystem, which Leonidas offers as a default. Again, the bleeding edge of technology at work.
The really interesting bit is the partitioning, which caused me quite a bit of grief. Let's what happened:
Thinking in straightforward, classic terms, I created three partitions, root (/), swap, and home (/home). Both the root and the home partitions were set to use EXT4 filesystem.
However, when I tried to proceed, Fedora complained:
It turns out Fedora cannot use bootable partitions on an EXT4 filesystem. This is a bit of a puzzle, because when I tested Ubuntu 9.04, it had no issues with the system booting off a partition formatted with EXT4.
I changed the layout on the root (/) partition to EXT3 and proceeded.
The installation took about 10 minutes and failed. For some unknown reason, Leonidas was unable to mount the root partition. I was forced to reboot and start all over again. The error was persistent.
I was forced to use the suggested layout, which was a mash of a small /boot partition formatted as EXT3 and the rest of the disk mapped by the Logical Volume Manager (LVM).
This time, the installation succeeded.
Not content with the results, I tried to reinstall Fedora 11 several more times. On each attempt, I encountered fresh wonders.
One of those was the same bug that existed on Fedora 10. When creating partitions, even though they were not explicitly set to be primary, they were created as such. This means that I could have only up to four partitions on the system.
However, when I did try to create a layout with five partitions, starting with a small non-EXT4 boot, root, swap, home, and a data partition, the partitioner magically created the Extended partition, yanked the swap from its position as sda2 and placed it there, while leaving some free space both before and after the Extended partition, while I clearly meant to leave no free space at all.
Then, the counter on partition size disregarded the actual physical limitations of the drive, allowing me to input wrong values and receive size errors.
Compared to Cambridge, the partitioning has become more complicated. New elements of difficulty are introduced, namely the "auto-shuffling" of partitions, the inability to boot the system from a partition formatted as EXT4, and the general failure to install without the LVM.
Something like this should not have happened, especially considering the docile and robust nature of RedHat-based installations. I believe some of the issues are beta-related, but even so, comparing to Fedora 10 beta, there are more problems.
As always, my recommendation vis-a-vis partitioning stands: use an external utility, like GParted, to create the partitioning layout. We will have a detailed GParted tutorial soon. I was not pleased with the installation. It was not meant to be this complicated, even for Fedora.
Here's what the final disk layout looks like:
Not very pretty, eh?
There were some differences in the behavior of Fedora 11 in the live session versus the installed system. Most notable were the lack of kernel failure errors and the MP3 codec search prompt, which did not show up when running live.
However, no codecs were found in the default software repositories. You can still install the missing codecs the command-line way, like I did before. Or use an application called autoten, which I'll mention shortly.
I did mention that trying to access Samba shares using Places > Network did not work. After disabling the SELinux (set on Enforced), I was able to access the Windows machines.
Like I've mentioned before, the CD edition is a bit sparse in packages. However, you can easily add just about anything you need using the yum package manager. There is one unofficial application that I did check, though:
autoten is an application created by a guy named dnmouse, named after a lovely cartoon character Danger Mouse, who wanted to streamline his Fedora 9 and 10 installations and make them friendlier to use. It's similar to Automatix, which I used long time ago on Kubuntu 6.06, for exactly this purpose.
For now, autoten is meant to be used only on Fedora 10, but you can get it installed on Leonidas too, by forcing the .rpm installation. The instructions on the website call for the following command to be executed in terminal:
However, this won't work. RPM will complain about dependencies. So you need to force the installation without checking dependencies using --nodeps flag.
This is not something I would normally recommend, but we're way past the normal safety limit here.
Once you install autoten, you can find it under Menu > Applications > System tools > autoten, or use the desktop icon (Danger Mouse himself):
When you launch the application, it will show you a long list of tasks it can do for you:
It will start working, displaying its progress in a terminal window. autoten will stop its activities should the system decide to run its daily update checks and sleep until the system update is complete.
autoten seems like a nice hack for less advanced or lazy users. It would be nice if this kind of wrapper was officially supported by the Fedora team, just as I suggested for MP3 codecs. Thanks to lodore for suggesting this nice application.
Fedora is like having a mistress. You know you shouldn't be doing it, but you can't resist the temptation of sin. The thrill of diving into untested waters of rabid Linux code is simply too much to pass on.
But this kind of lifestyle is not for everyone. If you want a piece of mind, try one of the more conservative distros. If you're a power user, an explorer or a masochist, then Fedora might be the right choice.
And so me likens Fedora 11 Leonidas to King Leonidas of Spartans. Like the warriors of olden, Fedora 11 is living on the edge, on the cusp of joy and destruction, an experience meant only for a few. If you're one of the ordinary people, like me, you will find those worshiping the unstable RedHat technology demonstrator called Fedora a strange lot. And if you happen to be one of the Fedora users, you will probably scorn the rest of the world for not being able to understand your needs and thrills. And so, I think the title is appropriate.
Writing about Cambridge earned me quite a bit of flak from seasoned Linux users. I don't think I'll be spared the wrath this time either, but the trepidation of what is about to come does not change the facts.
Fedora is a continuous beta. What you see in Fedora today will be introduced into the Linux mainstream in a year or so. This cannot be the domain of new or even average users. It's a curse and a privilege reserved for experts. If you're one of the former, you will find Fedora too spicy for your needs. Personally, as someone trying to preach Linux to the world, I tend to enlist in this camp. If you're one of the later, you will enjoy the exciting new stuff Leonidas brings.