Wednesday 18 November 2009

Fedora 11

A Linux review on Blog Squirrel?! Bet you never thought you'd see the day. I didn't think I would see the day in this decade, but once you're blessed with sixteen times more RAM you find you're able to see a lot more... but anyway once upon a time I struggled to run one operating system - now thanks to Sun's VirtualBox-inator 3 and the rise of the Virtual Machines I can run half a dozen at once. We can thank Gordon E. Moore for that.

Turns out that behind all the talk about Mega Drive and NES emulators, there's been a significant amount of effort put into emulating computers, and not just the likes of early 90s classics like the Commodore Amiga or DOS - I'm talking about Windows XP and Vista, 372894 Linux distributions and a heap of other obscure OSes that nobody really cares about. It does come with downsides - you'll need reasonable specs to get nice speeds.

VirtualBox, like most Virtual Machine software, basically runs a copy of an operating system WITHIN another operating system. Though performance isn't quite as spectacular as dual booting, it doesn't take as big of a hit as you may imagine, and in some areas the hit isn't even noticable. In fact, with the wonders of "Guest additions", you can benefit from upgrades such as "seamless mode", which combines the two desktops together into some big wonder machine. I've got a copy of Fedora 11 running through VirtualBox on my laptop, and to me this seems like a much better idea than partitioning hard drives and fiddling endlessly with settings (though because it's Linux you're still forced to fiddle with settings to get guest additions to work!). I don't know what the best version of some of these OSes are, so experimenting with VirtualBox without the risk of breaking hardware is the best way to find out.

Linux is a complicated beast and there's no way around that fact. The Linux community is filled with wackos - long haired unshaven people such as Richard Stallman putting his programming projects before family, numerous fans of strange naming schemes involving Gs and Ks, and hippie extremists that believe all commercial products are money making scams with no credibility. There's far more "normal" Linux users, but because the userbase is so small, the ratio between crazy and normal is far more obvious than with Windows, and on the internet, the wacko Linux community has a much bigger presence. Console fanboys can be irritating, but are often forced to try new things when the next generation of consoles come around. But this doesn't apply to OS fanboys, because if they have the skills, they can stick with the same OS for decades.

Also, in order to wage OS warfare you need to have a good understanding about what you're talking about. After all, it's difficult to find a fault with Windows when it owns 90% of the market and most of the world is on Microsoft's side. Most of the time you have to go out of your way to install Linux due to its free nature, and as I've seen, often the flaws with Linux are far more obvious to normal human beings than those who use it all the time. There's a big one already - you need to install Linux while removing Windows... not many pensioners could do that.

The fact is Linux isn't likely to replace Windows any time soon, and there's a number of fundamental reasons for this, going right back to the OS's name. "Linux" isn't even a complete operating system per se - it's the underlying architecture, which itself is often grouped under the term "Unix-like" because of the way its built. The GUI is up to the desktop environments, the main ones being GNOME (which Fedora uses), KDE and Xfce. Then you've got your distributions such as Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian etc., which are essentially "flavours" of desktop environments along with various pre-installed programs. This is one of the major reasons why it's almost impossible to compare the OS to Windows - whereas everything making up Windows is named "Windows", each section of a Linux OS was made by a different team, each with their own goals and ideas (and lets not even get into the whole "GNU/Linux" debate). Why do we need all these distributions and desktop packages? TO CATER FOR EVERYONE. Open sourced code means if you're not happy, you can fork the project and make your own. And because Linux users are never happy, there's been hundreds of forks, all essentially trying to do the same thing but in a different way.

To just put it into perspective, here's a Linux timeline. Compare it to Windows or the Mac timelines which are effectively one or two straight lines and you'll see why this operating system is so damn confusing, and this doesn't even cover things like the BSD route. Ubuntu, the most popular Linux distribution only makes up 30% of the Linux market, so it's not even a huge majority. Before you can even attempt to offer a better alternative to Windows, you need to find the best version of Linux, and with six month release schedules, the "best" distribution will often change hands two or three times a year (if you have an open mind of course). Oh and lets not forget each release of Fedora has its own codename that often sticks, so that'll need explaining.

Fedora is an evolved version of the now discontinued distribution of "Red Hat Linux". It's supposedly the second most popular distribution, behind Ubuntu, and everyone I've met so far has claimed it's one of the best money can't buy. We're currently at version 12, but I'm sticking with 11 our of sheer laziness (and it barely makes a difference - it's not like we're losing compatibility along the way). Though Fedora's interface has changed quite a bit from it's first release, most of this was down to changes with the GNOME desktop environment, not Fedora itself, and I suspect most of the changes you're likely to care about are GNOME's work too. A lot of the comparisons between distributions degrade to non-essential information like install times and versions of Firefox, so do forgive my naivety when I claim not to understand what Fedora is truly offering over the rest.

If you ignore all the clashing non-Linux icons that have come from multi-platform software, Fedora's one of the nicer looking distributions. Unlike some Linux distributions, it's chosen to not go overboard with fancy effects, thus giving it more of a professional feel. You could argue however that the blandness makes it less appealing to home users, but it's really a matter of taste. I really like Windows Vista/7's interface (except for the parts that have been "simplified" - Windows 95 was never complicated!), but I also don't mind Fedora, even if there are sections that need a bit of work. Then again, when I was able to use Macs ten years ago they weren't so bad either, but it's usually the software that counts in the end, and to put it simply - Windows has more.

There's nothing "revolutionary" in GNOME - lots of ideas were taken from its commercial rivals to produce a hybrid of sorts, but it's not quite at the forefront of new ideas as of now. Linux doesn't make much of an effort to hide technical details like Windows does, so you can see how everything operates fairly easily, but personally I feel that Windows is much easier to navigate and use, even before Microsoft started simplifying things.

Though Fedora/GNOME has the potential to be good for businesses due to its no frills affair, questions still need to be asked about the team's priorities. Remember when people moaned about Windows Vista being bloated? The Fedora package comes loaded with tacky software similar to Windows' Minesweeper, Solitaire, Freecell etc., but also Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and Puyo Puyo clones, and a gimped Quake 3 Arena... so it's hardly "just the basics". I like games, but this seems excessive, and because there's no matching styles like in Windows, the selection seems a bit unprofessional, not to mention the commercial alternatives are often better (and Quake 3 doesn't like VirtualBox much but that's not Fedora's fault). It's a similar situation with the screensavers - Fedora has LOADS but half of them are stupid and unnecessary (and some seem to have tagged along since the mid 90s). If I'd been in charge I'd have skinned Minesweeper to fit in more with the Fedora theme rather than being so generic, but then again if I'd been in charge I'd have probably tried to bridge a gap with the likes of Ubuntu - competing for 1% of the market is pointless.

It's also worth pointing out the huge amount of pointless and outdated screensavers that come bundled with Fedora. At least Microsoft upgrades or scraps older additions - Fedora has heaps of stupid and ugly ones that look more like test programs than anything else. I'll give them some credit though - even though the Doctor Who-like time tunnel one is a bit tacky, it's a nice thought.

Yet despite all these strange applications, there's a distinct lack of fonts. Straight away this ruins the included OpenOffice package, because even though OpenOffice has the potential to do damage to Microsoft's products, the lack of fonts cripples the amount of things you can make with it. Arguably the Excel and Access clones don't require these customisation options anyway, but your presentations will be dull, and, more importantly, not completely compatible with the Windows versions as the font sets are different. You can't blame the Fedora team for not having the Windows set, but you can blame them for not working on compatible alternatives. It can ruin your internet experience a bit too - though it's never been advised to rely on Windows-only fonts, 90% of the market uses Windows, so the internet gears itself more towards Microsoft, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

But despite the lack of fonts, there's still quite a lot of customisation available from the start. I suspect if you were desperate, you could download some of the themes from other packages such as Ubuntu, though I haven't done any research into that because Fedora's default is fine and dandy. The fact that it's open source means the possibilities are endless - people have taken the source and produced things that look as good as Windows 7.

Fedora/Linux is incredibly good at networking, and that's probably why it's a popular operating system for servers. Again this is almost ideal for businesses but compatibility hurts Linux so much that it's worth paying for Windows just to keep things flowing. There are ways to work around a lot of Fedora's flaws, but again, normal people won't understand how its done, and businesses may have to re-train staff for a very minor increase in efficiency. Why bother getting Linux if you spend all your times running Windows programs through WINE? There are many problems with Windows but running Linux instead is not a good solution from my point of view at this point in time, unless you have a well-trained admin on site all through the day.

But then again, despite its flaws, Fedora is completely free, and this is what makes reviewing it so difficult. You might not be getting the entire Windows operating system, but you are getting "most" of it for nothing. You can also emulate it through Windows or Macs for nothing. So though I don't believe it will ever be good as a primary operating system unless you're in an industry that requires it to be, there's certainly no harm in it being the secondary OS. It's also perfect for programming - every text editor has syntax highlighting and you can compile things in seconds via the terminal. I don't hate the idea of free operating systems, but none of them are Windows-beaters as of yet.

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