Fedora 15: More than just a pretty interface
GNOME emerges from last century
Review The Red Hat–backed Fedora Project has released the latest version of its Linux-based operating system, Fedora 15, into the wild.
Despite the similarities of the two leading Linux-based PC operating systems, Fedora has long played second fiddle to Ubuntu in the minds of many Linux fans. Now – for the first time – there are actually major differences between the two distros.
For most users, the debate between the two can be distilled down to GNOME 3 versus Unity. But as always, Fedora remains quite a bit different under the surface, as well.
With the Unity Shell making waves – and not always good ones – in the Ubuntu community, Fedora 15 offers something of a refuge for those frustrated with the Unity Shell.
Unfortunately GNOME 3, Fedora's new default desktop, while in much better shape than Ubuntu's Unity, is still very different than any version of GNOME you've used before.
There's no question that GNOME 3 will be something of a shock for those accustomed to working with the GNOME 2.x line, but once you spend some time with it, GNOME 3 really does feel like a vast improvement over GNOME 2. After all, GNOME 2 borrowed much of its UI design and basic interface concepts from Windows 95 – and it's been a long time since Windows 95 was cutting-edge.
Perhaps GNOME 3's most distinguishing visual characteristic is that it doesn't look like a cheap knock-off of Windows. Perhaps that's being a bit harsh on GNOME 2.x, but certainly much of the appeal of Ubuntu, and no small part of its success, came from the customizations that Canonical made to the otherwise dull look of GNOME 2.x.
Of course, the outdated look of GNOME 2.x is no doubt a feature to some. Because GNOME 2.x looks more or less like Windows, it isn't hard to make the transition from one to the other. But given that GNOME has never really made inroads on the desktop, it's tough to argue that mimicking the UI of Windows was a sound strategy for GNOME. GNOME 3 carves its own path, dispensing with any similarities to Windows.
GNOME 3 features a very different desktop and working environment. Gone are the traditional menus, icons on your desktop, and other common metaphors inherited from Windows. GNOME 3 was designed around the "Shell", which takes most of the features once found in the three main GNOME menus and pulls them offscreen and into a shell that you call up and dismiss as needed. The result is a cleaner interface, to be sure, but one that's also very different from most OS designs.
In Fedora 15 there is essentially no desktop as you now think of it. There are no main menus to speak of, and no icons to click. Instead, you invoke the shell through keyboard shortcuts or mouse gestures, and all the old features return, in the form of a single, full-screen panel.
From this panel you can launch apps, search by using the search box, and open windows and browse through applications. When you're done doing what you need to do, the shell slides back out of the way, leaving just your open windows and documents.
I've been using GNOME 3 via Fedora 15 since the Fedora beta was released – and, yes, it did take some getting used to, some unlearning of old habits (and certainly you can debate whether that's a good or bad thing), but after a week or so of day-to-day use, I found it awkward to go back to GNOME 2.x.
Snappier – if your rig can handle it
GNOME 3 isn't just about revamping the interface, it's also about shedding the vestiges of the past. Part of that shedding is good news: GNOME 3 is, provided you have the hardware, much snappier than GNOME 2.x. The speed boost comes from behind-the-scenes changes that take advantage of today's graphics cards rather than the circa-1996 cards for which GNOME 2.x was written.
However, a rewrite that leverages modern hardware is always a double-edged sword. Owners of older or unsupported hardware won't be happy, but at the same time a developer can only support the old at the expense of the new for so long. The GNOME team has decided that now is the time to make the leap forward.
If you don't like GNOME 3, that's one thing – but it's hard to fault Fedora's integration of it. However, there are a few small items that make Fedora 15 feel like more a GNOME 3 showcase than a Fedora update. At the request of the GNOME developers Fedora has stuck very close to the upstream GNOME 3 design. Even the default desktop wallpaper is a hybrid between GNOME's striped look and Fedora's bird theme.
There are also a few minor problems with themes in GNOME 3. While most of the stock GNOME apps have been ported to the new GTK+ 3 default theme, apps that still rely on a GTK+ 2 theme (such as Firefox) have different scrollbars. Combine that with the GNOME-oriented theme, and Fedora 15 will likely feel just a bit off to long-time fans.
While GNOME 3 is definitely the main story in Fedora 15, there are other big changes under the hood. For example, Fedora 15 now uses systemd as the default system and session manager – which was in Fedora 14, but not enabled by default. Systemd's main advantage is faster boot and shutdown times, especially on solid-state drives.
Another major change is the option to use the Btrfs file system. Btrfs, which is being developed by Red Hat, Oracle, and others, is on track to be the default file system in Fedora 16, but it's available for testing in this release.
That said, I don't recommend Btrfs. If you do want to test it, Fedora's release notes go out of the way to suggest maintaining good backups – in other words, Btrfs is getting there, but probably not a good idea for mission-critical work.
Other new features in Fedora 15 include a new dynamic firewall background service called firewalld that watches for configuration changes and automatically applies them without the need to restart your firewall.
Fedora 15 also offers new and improved power-monitoring tools to squeeze a bit more out of your laptop battery, and as always there's the usual slew of the programming-language updates that Fedora is known for.
Should you upgrade? Well, that depends.
If you hate GNOME 3 with the sort of passion most people reserve for politics and religion, well, your best bet is to stick with Fedora 14. Forever.
If you've tested GNOME 3 and can't wait to use it on a daily basis, then Fedora 15 makes a great choice.
If, like most people, you're still on the fence about GNOME 3, you might want to wait. As with KDE's move from 3.x to 4.x, GNOME is going through a major transition at the moment. While GNOME 3.0 is in much better shape than KDE 4.0 when it launched, there are still some features missing and some rough edges to be smoothed out.
It almost never hurts to wait for the x.1 release to come around before you make the leap to something as new as GNOME 3. ®