Where's the beef? Fedora releases 'Spherical Cow'

After being delayed seven times due to reported problems with the new installer, Fedora 18 has arrived. On the plus side, Fedora 18 delivers new management functionality for IT administrators and offers improved Active Directory support. However, a complicated installation process and some issues with the user interface make it a less attractive option than desktop competitors like Ubuntu and Mint.

We loaded Fedora 18, also known as "Spherical Cow," on three computers: an old Acer laptop, with around 1GB of RAM and a 2.13-GHz Intel Celeron processor; a desktop with 5.6GB of RAM and an AMD Athlon II x2 processor running at 2.80 GHz; and another desktop computer with 3.9GB of RAM and an Intel Core i3-2120 processor running at 3.30 GHz.

Right off the bat, Fedora failed to recognize the wireless drivers on the laptop, which previous installs of Ubuntu and Mint had no problems recognizing. However, there were no problems with Fedora recognizing the wired connections or dual monitors on the desktops.

[BACKGROUND: Fedora 18 finally makes beta]

Fedora is a relatively lightweight platform compared to Microsoft Windows, but slightly more resource intensive than the popular Mint and Ubuntu distributions of Linux. For example, Fedora took up 453MB of RAM on our Intel desktop, compared to 426MB for Ubuntu 12.10.

We ran into a number of minor annoyances when installing Fedora 18, most of them related to the fact that the installation process was significantly different than that of other Linux installs. We found it to be less intuitive, and it took us several tries to get it working.

For example, Ubuntu and Mint give users a choice of erasing the entire hard drive during installation, or installing the new operating system alongside the existing one with a simple slider mechanism to determine how much space to allocate to the new operating system. A third option, a custom install, offers a list of available drives and the free space on each, so the user can decide exactly where the operating system will go.

With the Fedora 18 installation, there were no simple alternatives, and we needed to reclaim space for the operating system by manually resizing individual partitions. In addition, there was no upgrade option, even though the computer was already running Fedora 17.

In addition, the operating system intentionally does not include support for DVDs, and it took us an extra hour of fiddling with packages to get that installed and working. The benefit is that Fedora is completely free, open source software.

After getting Fedora installed and running, downloading software was a headache because Fedora uses a different repository for software than Ubuntu and Mint. The result is less software from which to choose.

Enterprise-friendly functionality

Since it is sponsored by Red Hat, it's no surprise that Fedora comes with some business-friendly features, including an improved Samba setup, which allows users to connect with Microsoft's Active Directory.

Fedora 18 also comes with SecureContainers, which allows applications or services to run in isolated, self-contained environments. This feature, which was first introduced in Fedora 17, is useful when the operating system is on a machine that say, runs multiple web servers simultaneously. In effect, this provides a form of built-in virtualization.

There is also improved storage management, with a collection of tools and libraries for managing storage area networks and network attached storage.

The new release also expands cloud-related functionality. For example, the Eucalyptus tool allows the creation of private clouds that are compatible with Amazon Web Services. It also includes the latest "Folsom" version of the OpenStack cloud platform.

Missing was ownCloud, an open source solution for sharing and syncing files online and with mobile devices. An open source version of DropBox, ownCloud allows a company to control its document sharing, rather than putting its documents in the hands of a third-party vendor. Originally slated for release with Fedora 18, it now seems to be pushed back to Fedora 19, currently scheduled for release in May.

GUI options

One of the things that makes Linux so appealing to developers, but confusing to end users, is the high level of customization available. The biggest of these is a choice of user interfaces. Aspects of the design that are immutable in the Windows world - such as the position of the Start button and the content of settings and configuration menus - can all be changed by switching to a different desktop environment.

With Fedora 18, users can choose from the popular Gnome desktop environment, which comes by default and is the simplest to use. Then there's the KDE Plasma Desktop environment, which offers not only a different look and feel but also more configuration options. Other options include XFCE, LXDE, Cinnamon, MATE and Enlightenment.

Cinnamon and MATE were made popular after being included as the two main options for Linux Mint. LXDE is a light desktop environment, advertised as the lighter version of XFCE, while Enlightenment is a niche environment designed to make it easy to develop user interfaces without using traditional toolkits.

The default Gnome 3.6 comes with its own set of issues. My personal pet peeve is that Gnome now seems to be working from the same playbook as Windows 8, and adding features designed for touch-based devices. This requires that some icons be large enough to be touched by fingertips, rather than pointed to with a pointer. For desktop users, this results in wasted space and fewer features.

To take a common example, when you have a window open there are buttons at the top right to minimize, maximize, or close it. These buttons are normally tiny and very close together - too small for a finger to hit. Gnome 3.6 gets rid of some of these buttons, though you can access the same functionality by right-clicking or mousing over to a corner "hot spot."

The problem is that neither of these alternatives is intuitive, they get rid of functionality we've known for years, and don't provide any visual cues that they exist.

Gnome 3.6 also gets rid of the standard desktop and start menu. Instead of starting out with some default programs and folders, you're starting at a blank screen. You launch applications by mousing over a hot spot or clicking the "Activities" button, or by typing their names into a search box.

We spent some time trying to configure Gnome to allow us to put icons on the desktop, but failed. To get the traditional desktop back, we'd have to install a different desktop environment, such as KDE or MATE.

The result is that the desktop is not totally touch friendly, while adding just enough touch features to reduce the productivity of mouse users. If Fedora 18 is primarily used to run enterprise servers or developer desktops, it seems strange to have a default desktop environment that seems aimed towards tablet users.

Many Fedora 18 users would be better suited to pick KDE or another desktop environment as a result.

However, there's a downside to KDE. In addition to offering a more traditional, Windows-style interface, it comes with a different set of preinstalled software. For example, instead of the LibreOffice productivity suite that comes with Gnome, KDE uses Calligra Office.

While LibreOffice has an interface familiar to users of the pre-ribbon Microsoft Office, Calligra's interface takes a while to get used to and, in general, the software doesn't seem to be as mature as LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Most critically, Calligra doesn't have the option of saving text documents in Word-compatible .doc or .docx format, which is a must-have feature for most enterprise users.

The default web browser for Fedora 18 isn't Firefox or Chrome or anything else I'd heard of before, but Konqueror, which has so little market share it doesn't show up in any market share reports. By comparison, the default Gnome desktop environment comes with Firefox.

In addition to offering a choice of desktop environments, Fedora also has different "spins" - these are configurations of Fedora prepackaged with interfaces and software specifically designed for, say, gaming, security analysis, robotics or scientific computing.

Fedora is backed by Red Hat, one of the top enterprise Linux vendors, and is known for pushing technology forward. But Fedora 18 is not for the casual Linux user, if there's any such thing, and there are better Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu and Mint, for companies looking for a Windows desktop replacement.

Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at maria@tromblyinternational.com. Anastasia Trombly, a freelance tech writer and researcher, contributed to this report.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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