Free Agent: Trying on a New Hat

I got a ton of e-mail responding to my last column, the second update on my "Linux for Grandma" project. Dozens of messages suggested that I download Fedora Core, the community-based distribution spearheaded by Red Hat, whose commercial products now focus solely on enterprise users.

I have to admit that I'd been reluctant to give Fedora a try. I was unconvinced that an active and loyal community would grow up around it, and also feared that Red Hat's enterprise focus would color the Fedora Project's work, distracting it from improvements that matter to nonenterprise users.

Boy, was I wrong--on both accounts. Web sites such as FedoraNews.org and Fedora Extras provide news, tips, and additional software packages for Fedora Core. The Red Hat groups on Usenet (especially alt.os.linux.redhat and comp.os.linux.redhat) remain lively and put a lot of focus on Fedora.

Most of the Linux geeks I know have adopted Fedora. This shouldn't surprise me, as most of them stuck with Red Hat during the years when I bolted and became a Mandrake user. But now I'm growing increasingly frustrated with Mandrake, as I mentioned in my last column. Mandrake has a reputation for being the most cutting-edge of all the commercial distributions. New versions of important system components (the kernel, desktop environment, printing system, etc.) tend to make their debut in Mandrake before you see them in other distributions.

But Mandrake has also earned a reputation for lacking attention to detail. I've run six or seven different versions of Mandrake, and I've hit bugs with every single one. I've been a paying member of the Mandrake Club since its inception, and should therefore enjoy access to high-speed update mirrors and such. But just last night I hit my head against the wall for half an hour trying to find a mirror that was up to date and accepting connections. I just can't shake the feeling that there is no firm hand on the wheel of the Mandrake ship.

So, turning back to Fedora: Many readers pointed out that Fedora's community-generated evolution is keeping up with the latest Linux developments even better than Mandrake. For example, Fedora Core 2 features the extremely cool Gnome 2.6 desktop, which isn't available in the brand-spankin'-new Mandrake 10.0. That got me drooling.

One Size Fits All

You can't pick up a copy of Fedora at the local electronics store. Instead, you order discs from a third party (for example, CheapBytes) or download CD image files and burn them to disc on your own. (See "Free Software Book of the Month" for a third option.)

I took advantage of the bandwidth here at PC World HQ and snagged all four ISO disc images for Fedora Core 2 Test 2, which just about any CD burning program can use to create replica discs. (That's a beta version of the next official release, Fedora Core 2, coming soon.) I burned 'em onto shiny plastic, stuck the first disc in the drive, and rebooted.

The entire setup process took about a half hour, and was every bit as easy as using Mandrake's installer--though not as easy as, say, Xandros's four-click install. But I was surprised to find that Fedora's setup routines can't help much in repartitioning your hard drive. You'll need a third-party utility such as Partition Magic or Partition Commander if you want to set up a dual-booting system and don't have unpartitioned free space on your drive.

It's a treat to watch Fedora boot. I remain partial to the ugly-yet-informative scrolling-text Linux boot screens of yesterday, but it's also nice to see my favorite OS start up with an elegant graphical screen that still manages to impart some useful information.

Once I logged in, I also noticed all the care and attention that has gone into the updated Bluecurve theme that is the standard look-and-feel on Fedora. The environment's icons and fonts are beautiful, much more attractive than Mandrake's. Fedora's default Gnome setup is more Windows-like than the standard Gnome defaults; but there's no mistaking Gnome 2.6, with its extremely speedy file manager, Nautilus, and its simplified Control Panel-like tools. It's too bad Fedora's default Start menu is so poorly organized and packed to the gills with stuff most users don't need, however. There's a hex editor and a "TNEF File Viewer," for example. (What the heck is a TNEF file?)

Fedora's Flaws

Once I started trying to get some work done, I noticed several bugs. It was time to download any updates and see if the problems cleared up. I tried using the graphical version of Up2date, the Red Hat update utility that comes with Fedora. Several different attempts (over several days) to get the app to work failed. Some of the readers who suggested Fedora in the first place also suggested that I leave the rickety and outage-prone Up2date aside and work with Yum, an alternative package manager that comes standard with Fedora.

A few words now on what Linux folks mean by package management: Most Linux distributions have software--the package manager--that provides a centralized means of tracking every single software component on the system. Think of this app as a clone of Windows' Add/Remove Programs applet (found in the Control Panel) that has been kept on steroids for years. The package manager is used to install, upgrade, and remove software with an absolute minimum of hassle. If there is a new version of your e-mail client available, you tell your package manager you want it. It goes and grabs it off the Internet, fetches any system libraries you need, or that you need to upgrade, and takes care of the installation for you.

Yum (like its Mandrake equivalent, Urpmi, or its Debian equivalent, Apt-get) is so smart, it can upgrade the entire OS on its own if properly configured. You point Yum at an online repository of all the latest Fedora packages, and then tell it to bring your box up to date. Two simple commands make this magic happen:

yum check-update

yum update

A snapshot of Yum grinding away at an OS upgrade, one package at a time.
A snapshot of Yum grinding away at an OS upgrade, one package at a time.
Who says using the command line has to be hard? Once you've fired off that second command, the package manager begins downloading various packages, a process that takes several hours. In my case it grabbed more than 600 packages, downloading and upgrading everything from the kernel to Gnome code libraries to Gaim, my instant messaging application of choice--all without any further action on my part.

A few hours later, it was time to reboot. All was well, and when I logged in again, many of the bugs I had noticed were gone. That's what happens when all goes according to plan. However, a later Yum update left my system unable to load Gnome. Apparently, I am still learning. Hmm.

Readers Rooting for Grandma

The final version of Fedora Core 2 will be ready soon. When it arrives, another Yum update should bring my beta installation out of beta. Then I'll be able to start thinking seriously about whether Fedora is the Gnome 2.6-based solution I need for my grandmother, who continues to ask me when the Internet is coming to her house.

In the meantime, several readers responded to my last column by suggesting that Grandma adopt Xandros, a KDE-based distribution I looked at in March. There were also several messages excoriating me for choosing Gnome over KDE. One reader pointed out that KDE is "more customizable and feature-rich for the end user."

Here's the thing: I don't dispute that. Compare the latest versions of each desktop environment and you'll be left with no doubt that KDE is more customizable than Gnome. You can tinker with the environment to the utmost degree.

But as I've said before, while a geek like myself can navigate labyrinthine dialog boxes to tweak settings, typical users get lost. And while I used to be turned on by eye candy, now I'm more partial to a desktop that is simple, straightforward, and speedy. I want to be creative when I'm using my PC; I want to get work done; I don't want to spend my days tinkering with the way my windows look and behave. And I'm thinking that Grandma--who, having never used a PC before, doesn't yet know what a window is and certainly won't care very much whether it is blue or grey or metallic-looking--will appreciate Gnome's simplicity, too. After all, she's got a learning curve ahead. I'm just trying to keep it manageable. That's why I've chosen Gnome for her.

But wait: Stop the presses! Two readers suggested a distribution I hadn't heard of before: Cobind. Is it Gnome-based? Well ... yes and no. The folks at Cobind use a mix of Gnome's Nautilus file manager and the XFCE Desktop Environment, an alternative desktop that doesn't get very much attention. Perhaps it should. I'll be taking a look at XFCE and Cobind over the next few weeks, and should have something to report in my next column. Till then, be as Free as you can. And by all means, if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about Fedora, Cobind, or anything else Free Software-related, I would love to hear from you.

Free Software Book of the Month

Linux for Non-Geeks
Ready to give Fedora Core a shot? Linux for Non-Geeks ($35; No Starch Press, 2004, 800/420-7240) is a fantastic guidebook to Linux for folks who are making the switch. The book assumes you've been working with computers for a while and just want a helpful resource to turn to when you need to learn the Linux way of doing things. There is also a lot of space devoted to the hundreds of third-party apps that come with any Linux distribution. A Fedora Core installation CD comes with Linux for Non-Geeks, so you can head home from the bookstore with your new operating system in hand.

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