Review: Hat Trick For Fedora 9 Beta


The Fedora Project attracts a lot of interest from the Linux faithful. While there are perhaps more newbie-friendly, corporate-friendly, or special-interest-focused distributions, Fedora continues to wear the innovation hat.

Fedora announced Fedora 9 Beta late last month, and Test Center reviewers replaced the current Fedora 8 install to see what the new version has to offer. Since Fedora 9 is still in beta, occasional bugs and some rough edges were inevitable. But there is a solid indication of the new things to come that makes the stable release, expected May 1, worth watching.

The community-driven distribution is sponsored by Red Hat and has more traction in the server space than the more mainstream-friendly Ubuntu from Canonical. (The installer off the bat lets you install Web server components!) That's not to say Fedora doesn't have a strong desktop base -- many unhappy Ubuntu users have adopted Fedora as their platform of choice. Fedora was neck-in-neck with Ubuntu during the Test Center's round-up of Linux distributions last fall.

Reviewers highlighted three intriguing aspects for Fedora 9: the new desktop schemes, the new package management system, and back-end improvements to memory usage and performance.

On the desktop front, Fedora 9 Beta offers GNOME 2.22 and KDE 4.0.2 as the defaults. GNOME 2.22 in Fedora 9 has better file system performance, security improvements, and the ability to manage power right at the login screen (quite handy on a laptop). There's better Bluetooth integration, especially for Palm devices. The world clock applet was nifty, simultaneously displaying time and weather conditions for multiple time zones. A nice feature if you have geographic disparate users. Some of the applications have been improved, such as Totem, with better text subtitles support and a YouTube search plugin. A sound recorder is also now included.

NetworkManager allows multiple network devices to be activated at the same time and has ad-hoc support, to connect to nearby wireless devices quickly and seamlessly. It also has PPP support for mobile GSM and CDMA broadband devices. This is still limited, and a GUI is still in the works. However, NetworkManager does not support Bluetooth devices.

The KDE 4 integration is much more exciting, since this brings an entirely new desktop feel and a set of new technologies to the default KDE desktop in Fedora. The new desktop look, named Oxygen, is, in a word, beautiful. Fedora has in the past bundled ease of use and visual aesthetic, and if this beta is any indicator, Fedora 9 is no exception. The new multimedia API, and hardware integration framework -- Solid -- will require applications to be ported to KDE 4 to take advantage of new capabilities. However, KDE 4 does support older applications. The KDE desktop also now features integrated search.

The installation experience and look essentially remained the same from Fedora 8, except there is now support for resizing ext2, ext3, and NTFS partitions from the installer. Even more innovative, especially considering the amount of privacy data that keeps getting lost, Fedora 9 supports creating and installing encrypted filesystems. When selecting the disk to install to, just check the box for encryption, and you are on your way. The installer also checks for password strength for the root account -- that didn't happen with the Fedora 8 install using the same password. A big thumbs up for getting users to think about security from the start.

Network and hardware detection is very good, after trying on several machines. Sadly, the machine from last fall's round-up (which Fedora 7 had trouble finding the network) was not available to see if the network would be detected with Fedora 9, but there were no issues with the current stock of new machines.

Fedora is offering the ext4 filesystem, intended to be more scalable and better performing ext3. Test Center stuck with ext3 for this review since ext4 is still under development and not stable. Power-users hungry for performance improvements have the option to try out ext4 in this Beta.

The new package management solution, PackageKit, is another interesting feature, and reviewers are very interested in seeing how other distributions will react. Intended for cross-distribution package management, PackageKit will unify different distributions' software management. It continues to use yum in its backend. PackageKit offers the option to download the best available package for existing hardware if the one it requires is not available.

This is more for the back-end performance and memory improvement, but nonetheless worth noting. Fedora maintained separate dictionaries in the past for the applications, OpenOffice.org, Firefox, and the desktop schemes. Fedora 9 will feature a single and consolidated dictionary -- and while it's not entirely complete in this beta, there is definitely an improvement. Now, a word can be added to the dictionary just once, and once only.

It's a Test Center policy to do clean installs for Linux, whether it's an upgrade or a new distribution. It's a way to clean up old packages and just make sure the system starts clean. Generally, /home is kept on a separate partition so new installations do not affect user data. When Fedora 9 Beta was installed, the default is to recreate all partitions and start afresh. This process worked seamlessly. Test Center reviewers also tried to do a custom install, by recreating all the partitions except /home, and the installer had no problem with this. Upon reboot, the new configuration found the /home effortlessly.

All in all, Fedora 9 Beta shows that a lot of work is being done to clean up the operating system behind the scenes. For basic usage, users might not notice a difference, but it's still worth upgrading to when the stable version comes out.