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Fedora 10 mini-review
by Henry Kingman (Nov. 25, 2008)

Right on cue, the Fedora Project has updated its community-sponsored Linux distribution, notable for being "free for anyone to use, modify, and distribute." Fedora 10 features a really nice NetworkManager (no more calling it "NetMangler"), improved printer tools, and a host of enterprise improvements, too.

In an interview today on InternetNews, Fedora Project Leader Paul Frields is claiming that Fedora is actually the largest Linux distribution, with 9.5-to-10.5 million users -- more than Ubuntu's claimed 8 million. I'd have guessed it to be fourth, behind SUSE, Debian, and Ubuntu, if we're talking global users. Counting Linux users is notoriously difficult, though, due to its myriad distribution channels. And, the best distributions are not always the most popular. How does Fedora 10 hold up?

I installed Fedora 9.93 yesterday, and upgraded to 10 today. One disappoint for casual users might be Fedora's inherent, intentional, and self-imposed limitation of including only software that can be freely redistributed. After installation, there remains a ton of work to do to track down all the codecs and plug-ins needed to have merely a normal Internet browsing experience.

On the upside, though cumbersome for an individual user, having things set up this way could actually help to avoid licensing gotchas for software redistributors, including ISVs selling their wares pre-installed on server appliances, enterprise IT managers creating Fedora images for company-wide use, and of course, any of Fedora's 100+ redistributors. Those assembling custom distributions based on Fedora are forced to take responsibility for vetting the license of each add-on as they go.

The preferred installation process for Fedora 10 is to boot into a "live" environment, test peripheral support, and if all looks well, install to a local drive. As with the previous release, if you are trying it out from a USB key, you may be able to preserve your configuration changes and saved files across reboots, through the use of unionfs or another similar technology. However, that did not work for me. Perhaps it was a media failure (darned MLC flash can't be trusted), but after saving some screenshots to the key, and rebooting, my "liveuser" home directory failed to mount. I had to drop to a root shell (no password required), manually create a home directory, and chown it to the liveuser before proceding with the installation.

The live image's "Install to drive" script used dd ("disk doubler") to rapidly blast an entire filesystem onto the target drive. This method is much faster than file-copying, and is used by most Linux distros nowadays -- even the new Debian Lenny installer seems to have adopted it. However, I kind of missed dropping to a virtual console and watching what-all was getting installed. Heh, me and three other curmudgeons, I guess.

It may be ugly, but the disk partitioner in Fedora 10's installer offers some powerful options
(Click to enlarge)

Once I installed 9.93, and rebooted from the hard drive, I found 118 updates waiting. The process of fetching them from the Internet took much longer than the initial image installation had. After a reboot (voluntary on my part), the system announced itself as "Fedora 10" on the boot-splash screen.

Like Fedora 9, Fedora 10 uses the PackageKit graphical frontend, which aims to present a standard UI, regardless of the underlying update mechanism (apt or yum). It's really great to see RPM-based distributions offering an easy, free way to find and install new software titles and updates. However, the PK front-end seems mind-numbingly over-simplified to me, providing very little feedback about what it is actually doing, or what will actually happen once the "apply" button is pressed. PK would be nice for users with very little experience using computers, but it seemed a bit out-of-place on Fedora. Then again, I still manage files on the commandline, so maybe I'm just being a control freak here.

Fedora 10's network manager and network manager gnome toolbar applet worked really well. The kernel properly koaded free drivers for the Atheros miniPCI card in my test system, and the applet easily found my home wireless network. The interface for adding the security key was intuitive. And, the interface offered advanced features like adding "hidden" networks. Wireless connection sharing is another touted new feature, though I did not try it. I was just happy that all the basic stuff actually worked so well. It is great to finally see Linux's network GUI tools beginning to approach usability.

Network manager lets you create ad hoc wireless networks
(Click to enlarge)

Fedora 10 also boasts better printing management tools, the group says. Ever since "printtool," which predated CUPS, Red Hat/Fedora has been a leader in printing. Fedora 10 seems to carry on the tradition. Its printer set-up utility even prompted me to install the right driver. No complaints there.

The printer bone's connected to the yum bone
(Click to enlarge)

The compact yet powerful Fedora printer dialog
(Click to enlarge)

Fedora 10 adopts the interesting PulseAudio tools, which aim to provide more "real-time" support to audio applications running under Linux. Eager to try it out, I encountered a bug -- probably with ALSA or PlugDev -- when using a pair of passive USB-powered speakers. If the speakers were plugged in during system start-up, PlugDev would see a USB audio device, and route audio in its direction, even though the USB "device" is really just a power tap. Everything works fine if I plug the speakers in after booting, though. Ah, the joys of Linux.

I did not have a chance to further review other touted new Fedora 10 features. However, full release notes are available in dozens of languages, here.

In general, I like Fedora 10. It has a few wrinkles -- like a miasma of confusing security interfaces. But it is of course not intended to be used on production systems. Instead, it represents a fresh sluice of upstream open source goodness (Empathy IM client, 3.0, etc. etc. etc.) delivered right on time to a devoted though probably shrinking (due to Ubuntu) user base that includes the likes of Linus Torvalds. The father of Linux has historically switched distribution loyalties a lot, to avoid any impressions of favoritism, but for the moment anyway is proudly featured atop Fedora's overview page.

More details on Fedora 10, including download links, can be found on the Fedora homepage, here.

-- Henry Kingman

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