Updated: January 31, 2022
Before you say anything, no, this isn't an article about CentOS dying, the competition and all the rest. No, this is Dedoimedo looking at CentOS, the way he's looked at it since version 5, having enjoyed many a moment polishing and tweaking it into a perfect desktop, even though it was never really meant to be used in that fashion. But then, the Stream edition kind of changed that. Or did it?
Today, I want to look at the newly released CentOS 9. See how it fares on modern laptop hardware, see if I can use it for home tasks with the same elegance and fun as the past versions, explore what it can or cannot do, given its broad and somewhat vague mission. Well, let us commence.
Attempt 1: IdeaPad laptop
Things didn't start too well. The distro booted fine, but then, the screen dimmed, and the Fn buttons would not respond. I was left with a screen so dark anything shown on it was barely visible. This is not good, especially if you need to install the system and carefully select the target partitions. So I decided to abandon the attempt and try something else.
Attempt 2: Virtual machine
No luck here, either. I booted CentOS 9 Stream in Virtualbox on top of Kubuntu 18.04 on my Slimbook Pro. The distro launched with the tiny 800x600px display resolution, and I could not resize it. There was no mouse integration, and worse, no mouse inside the guest operating system at all. So I could continue using the keyboard, or quit, because this is no way to get things done.
Attempt 3: IdeaPad laptop, again
I went back to my brand-newish machine and decided to try a GRUB trick to get the brightness sorted. I've already shown you how to do this in MX Linux MX-21, where I faced a similar issue. There, however, the problem could be alleviated using the Fn keys. Anyway, I edited the boot menu for the installation, and appended a fix to force the AMD GPU to use full brightness. Not ideal, but should get me through.
This did work, and I was able to install CentOS 9 fine. The installer is very much like Fedora, except you get no Blivet GUI for partitioning. The installer also warned me about not using any swap. I selected the Workstation configuration, added Internet and Office tools, and clicked on. The procedure took about fifteen minutes, which is a bit long.
Follow the stream
The boot menu has the same weird problem I described in my past Fedora reviews. It loads very slowly, and you can see a horizontal buffer line progressing from left to right and then down, like some ancient printer or a poor imitation of the Space Invaders game. It takes about 3-4 seconds for this to finish, and during that time, the GRUB menu is not responsive, and you cannot switch to other entries in the boot list.
CentOS 9 booted in about 13 seconds (consistent result in subsequent boots, and not too fast). No EULA and no post-install configuration, plus no first-time account and location setup. The brightness was set all the way down, but the Fn buttons did work now, and I could raise it to an acceptable level. The system uses the new Gnome expose feature, so you see your workspaces preview rather than your desktop per se when you log in.
There is a Gnome tour, but it reads Red Hat. I mean really?
I did have to make instant ergonomic changes to make the desktop palatable. I launched Firefox, went to the Gnome extensions site, and installed Dash to Panel. This was a relatively painless process, and even though you can't manage extensions through Gnome Tweaks anymore, I had the panel activated, and could start using the desktop in a reasonable manner.
Speaking of Gnome Tweaks, you get the utility included by default, which is commendable. I increased the font size factor to 1.1 and then 1.15, and the crispness and clarity were quite good (default subpixel hinting). It is amazing how varied and inconsistent the font management thing is in Linux, even across seemingly identical distros, and we're talking all Red Hat family, all Gnome desktop environments.
But beyond this, the results are good. I didn't feel tempted to install new fonts or change the font color. The HD display scaling does not offer any fractional values by default, but I was sort of happy with just having the fonts a bit larger. I have to say I'm positively surprised by this.
I also restored windows min/max buttons, installed La Capitaine fonts ... some new wallpapers, and that's it. Again, a positive surprise. My customization was relatively minimal, and I didn't have to upend half the distro to get a usable product. On the wallpaper side, CentOS 9 Stream only has a single image, but you can add more, and more than one file at a time. More progress!
There were a handful of updates right away, and they installed fast. The system is pretty nimble. No lagging, no stutters. Good. The app selection is somewhat meager. You don't get much. Firefox, LibreOffice ... and Brasero? I mean why include a CD-burning tool in a 2022 distro? Why not add something far more useful? I did play some MP3 songs, and there were no issues. But I'd like to see more cool programs - acknowledging the fact that CentOS is not meant to be your typical desktop distro. Then again, the Workstation category in the installer should hint toward some flexibility in this domain.
I did try to install more software, and here I hit my first real big snag. At the time of writing (so don't panic), the RPM Fusion repos weren't yet ready for CentOS 9, so you won't be getting VLC or Steam or similar just yet. Sometime in the future, there could be these extra repos, but not right now. This currently limits the pure desktop usefulness of the distro.
Performance, resource usage, battery life
Overall, decent results. The system is fast, even if overall memory consumption on idle is quite high. But the responsiveness is solid. CentOS 9 Stream was also stable, and there were no crashes or SELinux complaints. On my laptop, the memory usage was about 1.6 GB, while the CPU ticked at less than 1%. Pretty reasonable.
When it comes to battery life, I am confused. Early on, at 50% brightness, the system said 6.5 hours, which is excellent. Then, moments later, with very lightweight usage, the figure dropped to a more realistic 4.5 hours. However, the percentage needle is stuck at 100% - we've seen this bug in Manjaro Qonos. 'Tis a Gnome bug, it seems.
Samba throughput is about 10 MB/s, which is decent but not the best. The single round of system updates fixed the brightness problem, btw. After I applied whatever dnf gaveth, on next boot, the screen did dim for a second or two, but then the brightness went up to the normal, expected level. I had no problem using Wayland, but my testing has been rudimentary so far, and definitely no gaming or such.
Over the years, CentOS has narrowed the gap between RHEL and Fedora. This Stream edition takes it to the next level. With kernel 5.14 and Gnome 40.4, you're kind of using a long-term Fedora in essence, except there's a dearth of modern software for desktop usage at the moment. But I presume that will be fixed sometime in the near future.
All in all, my early experiment is encouraging, but this ain't the CentOS of old. This is something else. And I don't want to debate the politics of it all. For home users, Stream makes a lot of sense, puts Fedora in a weird light, and yanks CentOS out of the old enterprise game. Since I've always focused in my CentOS reviews here on the (delightfully unexpected) desktop value proposition, this is what I intend to keep doing. At the moment, you won't be able to assemble that perfect desktop, as you don't get the full load of programs for home use and there are some obvious bugs in the software stack. I do intend to keep on testing this distro, and I want to see how it pans out a month or three down the line. For now, you should test and explore, but keep your enthusiasm in check.