A little over a year ago I fired up the then latest version of Fedora (13) and found much that I liked. Ultimately though, it just wasn’t the right tool for the job and I ended up going back to Ubuntu and Linux Mint.
Fast forward another year, a few more releases have come out from Fedora, and Canonical has been making some choices that, while likely great long-term for Ubuntu, are a bit awkward currently for some of its user base.
The prime example of these choices, Ubuntu’s Unity, while pretty and much simpler to use than Gnome 2, is still rather rough and inflexible. There may also be evidence that Canonical is currently devoting too many of its resources to Unity’s development rather than fixing bugs that have cropped up since Ubuntu’s 10.04 LTS release. It’s this current Ubuntu awkwardness and an admitted distro-hopping itch that provided the push for me to give some alternates another look (even if only to explore!).
With this in mind, I began considering the standard Ubuntu alternates: Linux Mint, and Debian. Both are awesome operating systems (OS’s) in their own rights, but for my needs (mainly considering home theater (HT) and general personal computer (PC) usage) neither is currently appealing for their own reasons.
The reason that Linux Mint doesn’t quite work for my needs is that it necessitates fresh installs (or skipped upgrades) every six months. Admittedly, this might be tolerable come their next Long Term Support (LTS) release as their parent OS, Ubuntu, will be providing updated hardware support for the first two years of their own LTS release (Ubuntu 12.04 LTS). With that said however, Linux Mint’s next LTS release (13) wont be out for another six months and the compulsory re-installations really cause me shy away from this community focused OS (see more of my comments and considerations of Linux Mint 11 here).
Moving on from Linux Mint (which, is based on Ubuntu) I next considered Debian from which Ubuntu itself is based. On that point alone, Debian could be considered a rock star as Ubuntu really is just Debian with a variety of tweaks and updates thrown in (often times for better, sometimes for worse). However, Debian doesn’t need Ubuntu to shine. Consider its rock-solid stability, multiple (stable, testing, unstable) releases, its sheer wealth of packages and supported platforms, and its undying commitment to free (as is freedom) software and it’s really hard not to pine after “vanilla” Debian.
With that said, with its commitment to releasing when ready and rock solid stability, even some of the packages in its unstable branch (sid) are older than those in Ubuntu 11.04 and 11.10 (alsa for example). This is a major concern for an HTPC (at very least) as up-to-date hardware support can mean the difference between a smoothly running and easily configured system and hours, or even days, of messing with configuration files and manually installing and updating packages with no guarantees that the end result will ever work anyway. So again, based on my needs, I must also dismiss Debian as an Ubuntu alternative.
But, what of Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) (or even aptosid)? Unfortunately, the same issue with older packages holds true for these Debian variants as well, as they predominately rely on Debian’s own repositories with only minor changes and fixes sewn in.
Well then, with the ever popular Linux Mint and the rock solid Debian not meeting my needs, where does that leave me? For popular, polished, and user friendly GNU/Linux based operating systems, there’s really not much left.
Fedora is popular, backed by Red Hat, and organized by a community-based meritocracy. Fedora prides itself on being open and transparent while focusing on the latest and greatest free software can provide. For those that are either annoyed with Canonical’s and Mark Shuttleworth’s directing of Ubuntu’s development or, for those that cringe at the thought of having proprietary software on their systems, these two points alone can be huge draws.
Further, many of the fancy new technologies and programs that eventually trickle down to Ubuntu and Debian are first showcased in, or even developed by, Fedora and the Fedora community. This can be great if you’re a techno-phile and want the latest and greatest as soon as it hits the proverbial shelves. Also, for those that are frustrated with the “dumbing down” of certain GNU/Linux distributions, Fedora retains a bit more of that classic GNU/Linux feel (at least during its setup and installation).
Fedora still has a nice graphical installer that can be utilized, but the robustness hasn’t been sacrificed and simplified away. One can still hand pick their own packages and repositories using the DVD or Network install options or, if preferred, have a much more “Ubuntu’esque” experience with Fedora’s installable Live images. These Live images can be obtained with the default Fedora desktop option (using Gnome 3 and Gnome Shell) or one of the various Spins can be chosen instead. For the Fedora screen shots on the right I used the Xfce Spin (see the second page for more on Xfce).
From a Debian and Ubuntu centric view, Fedora can really be seen as having the best of both the Ubuntu and Debian worlds. In addition to this swell combination, Fedora has some unique benefits that aren’t really seen in the Debian derived realm, and to this yum, Fedora’s package manager, is a great example!
Yum really makes me think on Arch Linux’s design philosophy, of “Keep it Simple.” Instead of putting a slow graphical user interface (GUI) (e.g.: Ubuntu Software Center) on an arguably complex command line interface (CLI) application (e.g.: apt-get, apt-cache), make that original application simple and solid. Yum almost renders GUI based package and software managers pointless and is just a pleasure to use. It’s much cleaner to use than apt or aptitude and displays results and information in a much more user friendly way. Yes, there are graphical utilities that can be used on top of it, but yum is such a treat that there’s very little draw to do so.
With all the flexibility that Fedora offers and the convenient CLI tools it provides, it begs to question whether novice users could use or setup Fedora just as easily as Ubuntu. First off, in terms of using a pre-configured system, they absolutely could. However, with the more bleeding edge packages offered by Fedora (in general) compared to Ubuntu, novice users may want to lag exactly one release behind the current offerings to get the most bug fixes and have the most polished documentation and support as possible. With that said, novice users may also have no issues at all running the latest and greatest Fedora has to offer and the system can be configured to automatically install all updates so they never need to muck around with anything more than just clicking on their web browser or text editor and getting about their business.
Secondly, in terms of installing and setting up a system themselves, the Live images offer a very straight forward setup that is only just a bit more complex than Ubuntu’s. For example, during Fedora’s Live image installation users must set their root (or administrator) password, they have a few more options to choose when it comes to partitioning their hard drive, and they have to manually select to enable automatic time synchronization via the Network Time Protocol (NTP). Apart from that though, installing Fedora is fairly similar to Ubuntu. Further, Fedora offers a phenomenal manual that easily includes everything anyone should need to know about any step of the installation process.
So, with this glowing overview of Fedora, am I now running it? Simply put, no. There is a lot about Fedora that makes me want to run it, and that I greatly enjoy when I do run it. But overall Ubuntu (or, Xubuntu which, I’m running currently) just works better for me and my uses.
A prime example here is Ubuntu’s willingness to include support for proprietary software with their distribution. Is this ideal from a pro-free software philosophical standpoint? Not at all, but it does allow dead simple installation of my crucial NVIDIA display drivers which I just could not get to work properly from Fedora’s main third-party repository, RPM Fusion (next page!).