Latest version of open source desktop boast several key improvements, but many usability issues remain
The latest version of Fedora, nicknamed "Schrodinger's Cat," features a number of improvements aimed at IT users. But its strict adherence to the open source philosophy means that it continues to be problematic for typical end users.
We tested Fedora 19 on three machines: 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 a System76 laptop with 7.7GB of RAM, 64 bit, an Intel core i5-320m CPU at 2.60 GHz x 4 processor.
The installation was reasonably smooth, though the user interface leaves much to be desired. We were used to Fedora installation idiosyncrasies, but someone new to the distribution might have difficulties getting through it.
Fedora 19 uses the Anaconda installer, which we encountered in Fedora 18. It was horrible then, and little has improved since. For example, setting up partitions is unnecessarily difficult, a problem we saw in the previous release.
After the install we saw problems with wireless support and media drivers, due to Fedora's policy of only including fully open source software with the release. The installation files took up 951MB, and fit on a single DVD.
There's a utility called FedUp that automates the upgrade process from Fedora 18 to Fedora 19, but we didn't have Fedora 18 running on any of our machines – our preferred Linux distribution is Ubuntu – so we installed Fedora 19 from scratch.
In our testing, we did not encounter any of the other 25 other known issues the Fedora Project lists for this release, most of which are very minor.
The Fedora project is backed by Red Hat, a Linux vendor with a strong history of serving enterprise customers deploying Linux-based servers and applications. So it's no surprise that this edition continues to build on back-end management functionality.
Fedora 19 also includes Red Hat's OpenShift Origin, an infrastructure for platform-as-a-service cloud projects, which was originally slated to be released with Fedora 18.
This release also upgrades support for programming language PHP to version 5.5, adds the newly released Ruby 2.0.0 and includes the preview version of the upcoming OpenJDK8.
MySQL has been replaced with one of its forks, MariaDB. After Oracle bought Sun in 2009, MariaDB was spun off by the original MySQL database developers to ensure that the project would continue, since MySQL is a popular – and free – alternative to Oracle's own proprietary offerings.
Fedora 19 now also includes support for Federated VoIP, which makes it easier to deploy federated voice networks based on the SIP and XMPP standards.
Probably the sexiest new feature, however, is the 3D printing support. Fedora 19 comes with tools for generating and sending code to 3D printers and software for creating 3D models – including OpenSCAD, Skeinforge, SFACT, Printrun, and RepetierHost.
Unfortunately, we didn't have a 3D printer on hand to test this feature.
Not so great for end users
The strong adherence to open source principles makes Fedora a good fit for enterprises concerned about licensing issues, but is a significant disadvantage for regular users.
For us, the biggest and most immediate problem was with wireless networking, which we also saw with Fedora 18. We never were able to get wireless to work on the Acer laptop.
Similarly, there is no out-of-the-box support for playing music and videos. It took us about an hour to find and install the required media packages. We had no such problems with the Ubuntu and Mint distributions of Linux.
In some cases, however, when we tried to open a media file, Fedora correctly noticed the lack of support, and directed us to download the appropriate plugin, after which the media played correctly.
The desktop machine had dual monitors, and Fedora was able to recognize them and use them correctly.
Fedora also comes with the less-than-user-friendly Gnome desktop environment, which not only makes the desktop look different from Windows and Apple, but also different from the more popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu.
For example, windows are missing the `minimize and maximize’ buttons. It's a minor issue, but can quickly get very annoying.
To fix it, users have to download the Gnome Tweak Tool. This tool not only lets you get the `minimize and maximize’ buttons back but make other changes to the desktop, such as disabling dynamic workspaces.
The start bar is on the left side of the screen, as with other Linux distributions, and activated by clicking an “Activities” button on the top left.
By default, this bar includes a launch icon for the Firefox browser, the Evolution email client, the Empathy chat client, the Rhythmbox music player, the Shotwell photo manager, LibreOffice Writer, and buttons for files and documents.
At the bottom of the menu bar there's a link to see all the applications. Pre-installed productivity software includes the LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet application, the LibreOffice Impress presentation application, the Hamster Time Tracker and the Gnote Note-taking app.
Fedora doesn't seem to have a pre-installed cloud backup system, like Ubuntu does with Ubuntu One. We expected it to come with ownCloud support, which is a cloud storage platform like DropBox, except self-hosted.
OwnCloud does work with Fedora, but has to be downloaded from the software repository, instead of being smoothly integrated into the Gnome desktop.
The software manager, meanwhile, looks old-fashioned and bare-bones compared to Ubuntu's, which features popular apps, bundles, and also allows users to download commercial software.
Our final recommendation is to stick with Ubuntu for a user-friendly Linux distribution, but Fedora 19 has its place in the IT department.
Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anastasia Trombly, a freelance tech writer and researcher, contributed to this report.
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