October 8, 2002

Red Hat 8.0: The new ease and power Linux champ

Author: JT Smith

- By Timothy Lord -

Recently, I tried out Red Hat's new version 8.0 ("Psyche") on my testing
machine -- a machine whose purpose in life is to prevent me from making
stupid mistakes with actually important data, equipped with a hard drive
that's frequently wiped and refilled from scratch. Without trying to
strain your credulity, I will say up front that Psyche's installation
process (and the finished, freshly-installed system) is the best
combination of ease and power that I've seen yet in any version of Linux
to hit my hard drive.

(Note that Knoppix and other run-from-CD demo/rescue systems deserve their own category.) The new Red Hat is so nice that when I screwed
up, and installed Psyche accidentally on a hard drive I hadn't intended to
wipe out (long story), I quickly stopped scowling and started playing on
my new Red Hat GNU/Linux system. Ever since, I've been reading email,
playing games, browsing the Web, importing photos and editing them in the
GIMP, ripping my CD collection to .ogg files, and finding little to
complain about. The new Red Hat is not perfect, but it's nice.

First, an obvious point.

The biggest controversy attached to the new version of Red Hat (even
leading well-known developer Bernhard "Bero" Rosenkraenzer to resign
from the company
) is the inclusion, by default, of a switch-hitting
theme called Bluecurve -- this is a soft-edged, cartoonish desktop which
appears as identical as practically possible under the Free Software
world's two most visible desktop projects, GNOME and KDE. I haven't seen a
Windows XP desktop for several months, but my memory says that Bluecurve
could pass for XP without much hassle. Users accustomed to any version of
Microsoft Windows will without much training be able to navigate WIMPily
and happily through the system. Simple system navigation has been fine for
the past several years, though -- what's new is that with Red Hat 8.0 (as
with Lycoris, and possibly Lindows), former Windows users might not even
notice that they're using a Free, available-for-free operating system. I'm
in favor.

How to screw up a mostly great install

Outside of the small circle of people with the inclination and time to
tweak their computer's OS, there is a much larger and more restive crowd
who want things Just To Work. That's why I think that for any piece of
software, but most importantly for an operating system, that installation,
first impressions, and sensible defaults are more important to non-gurus
than they seem to be to the designers of certain pieces of
high-maintenance, geeks-only software. (And no one will ever accuse me of
being a guru.) With this release, Red Hat's install has passed for the
moment Mandrake, my usual vote for "decent system with the easiest
install." (Because I like and most often recommend Mandrake, that's what I'll draw my comparisons from.)

Two things fouled my install; one of them was trivial (and my fault), the
other (not my fault) I think is more serious.

Trivial first: I grabbed a bad ISO and failed to check the MD5 sum before
starting my install. Like any distribution of Linux -- particularly after
a major release -- just finding the software to download can be the most
challenging step. Even several days after the release, it took a bit of
drilling down the list of
mirrors
to find one willing to shoot me the ISOs, before I started
downloading ISOs with wget and burning them with cdrecord. The first
image I downloaded, burned, and stuck into my testing box's CD drive. It
failed to boot -- and it turns out that it was just a bum ISO. A pain, but
easily fixed with a few more thought-free hours of downloading, this time
from a different mirror site (for luck), and testing the MD5 sum. Success!
However, it turns out that wasn't the last ISO I needed, which is the
bigger complaint.

From comments on Slashdot following Red Hat's release announcement, I was under the
impression that only the first two ISOs were necessary to install Psyche
(Don't trust everything you happen to read on Slashdot). So to conserve
bandwidth, time, and my dwindling supply of white-topped CD-R blanks, I
downloaded and burned only those first two disks. Nowhere did the
installer (called Anaconda) ask me to specify which disks I had to work
with (a question I had anticipated and was expecting; Mandrake's installer
intelligently prompts the user for available disks up front), but I
figured "So what? It'll just give me a dialogue box later asking me to
skip installing from Disk 3, if it even comes to that." Not so; no go.

The install did go smoothly for a while. Before the Red Hat install proper
starts (and this time with a disk less mangled than my first attempt's),
there's a very smart text-based integrity checker that pops up to test
the current install disk, and offers to test your other install disks,
too. I tested all three, and all three were rated "pass." Every
distribution should do this kind of early-stage sanity check.

In "channeling-my-dad" mode, I chose the graphical install rather than the
text version, and started pointing and clicking. As I've come to expect
from modern Linux systems, all of my computer's hardware (most of it
wildly, fantastically powerful no more than three years ago) was correctly
identified. Choosing the path of least resistance, I let Psyche take over
my whole disk, but picked a "custom" install. This provides a decent set
of defaults, but allowed me to select or deselect individual packages; I
ended up with a projected total of about 1,800 MB of software.

The Red Hat approach to package selection, I think, is better than
Mandrake's nested-tree listing of available packages. Anaconda presents a
list of categories (like "games"), and clicking on a "detail" link
attached to each category presents a scrollable, legible list of contents,
neatly separated into base packages (not removable if you want to keep
the category at all), and selectable packages, checked or unchecked as you
desire. (If you think picking categories and packages is a bore, there's
also an "everything" choice to inject your system with more than 4GB of
Red Hat. I was too impatient for that.) When I finally hit the button to
initiate actual system installation, the cute blue progress meter started
moving -- great!

After about 10 minutes, I was prompted to switch to the second disk, and the
install continued. Shortly thereafter I was surprised to hear another
beep, and see a prompt for disk 3. (Wasn't that "just documentation?")
Since I didn't have disk 3, I hit OK, expecting the installer to recognize
that I had no third disk to offer. Instead, the install seemed to hang at
this point, intent on getting that disk at all costs. I was stuck in a
dumb loop: the machine would ask me to insert the missing disk, and I
would doggedly fail to do so. Control-alt-delete wouldn't turn the machine
off, and I couldn't even reach a virtual terminal to gracefully shut down.
So I power cycled the machine, not my favorite thing to do. Red Hat's
installer should fail gracefully at this stage, in fact not "fail" at all
-- it should be designed to deal with missing packages by building a
system around the ones which are available. Wouldn't it be smart
to make the first ISO capable of at least building a working
system?

At least I could tell exactly where the install failed, and try it with
the third disk in place, but I suspect most people just trying it out
would be frustrated out of continuing, which is a shame.

A few more thought-free hours later (find speedy mirror, download, burn),
I repeated the install with all three disks, at which point Red Hat 8.0
slipped happily onto my hard drive. I looked more carefully this time, but
still didn't see a place to specify which disks I had to install from.
Total install time for this round: about 20 minutes, not counting time
between disk changes to grab some chili. Some Linux distros go on faster,
but I found the process pretty snappy. After a necessary reboot, I went
through Red Hat's post-install program (the "Setup Agent"), another few
minutes of dad-friendly pointing and clicking; kudos for the sound-card
test, with separate left, right and stereo samples -- very smart. Faster
than expected, I eluded the Agent, logged into the default Gnome
environment, and smiled.

One nice thing about Bluecurve (perhaps the nice thing in fact,
and the reason for its existence), is that once you log in, it's difficult
to tell at a glance whether you're using KDE or GNOME. You may, like Bero,
consider this instead to be the worst thing about it, because it erases the
distinguishing appearance and feel which stock versions of each desktop
have forged for themselves. Because KDE and GNOME will happily allow
power users (even low-power users) to apply wildly different themes as they
please, it didn't bother me that Red Hat has supplied exactly one
common theme between the desktops. Trivial point: I also prefer the
utilitarian, clean-lined Bluecurve XMMS skin to most of the bizarre
alternatives.

The desktop, and the OS, is supposed to do stuff though, not just
look a certain way. To that end, Psyche has quite a bit to offer, and
you'd do better to look at a list of available
packages
than let me try to list many of the options. As easy summary
is that the included everyday-use software is plentiful and well chosen.
There are the heavy hitters, like Mozilla (version 1.0.1 is nice, but I
hope to see Phoenix in the next RH release as well as the Mozilla browser
itself), Evolution, The GIMP, OpenOffice, KOffice, AbiWord and more, as
well as the goodies that come along with KDE and GNOME, like Konqueror,
Kmail, Nautilus, various CD burning apps, games and much much more. There
are also programming languages aplenty, PDF viewers, media players of
various kinds (though without MP3 tools), and ... you can see why it's a
bad idea to list them here. I can handily assure anyone interested that it
comes with more, and more useful, software than does any version of
Windows.


Complaints Department

I've noticed a few things not to my liking so far. First, getting to a
terminal. Whatever the benefits of graphical tools, there are some things
-- like checking mail with pine -- impossible without a terminal app. With
the Bluecurve theme, there's no icon for a terminal on the panel, and
instead it's found under "system tools," using Konsole under KDE and the
GNOME terminal under GNOME. While it's fair to call a terminal app a
"system tool," it's important enough I'm disappointed that it isn't more visible. Not Red Hat's fault entirely (same is true under every Linux
desktop I've tried, to various degrees), but the assignment of various
tools and applications into menu options is always interestingly random.
For instance, why is there a "games" submenu under "extras," in addition
to a separate "games" listing in the main Red Hat menu? Is that for
second-class games?

(Once I found it, it was easy to drag the terminal app from the menu to
the panel, but not something a new user should need to do. And this must
be done separately for KDE and GNOME. Many new users may never know they
have other window managers available.)

Second, despite the ecumenical graphical approach that Bluecurve
represents, Red Hat has not made it at all obvious to users even how to
change the window manager they are logging in to. This requires choosing
"session" from the X-based login screen itself, at which point one can
choose from the installed WMs, including WindowMaker (yay!).

Upshot

I'm probably going to leave the hard drive I just overwrote with Red Hat
in its new state for a while rather than "fix" that mistake. Why not? Red
Hat 8.0 is clean, responsive, and has given me a desktop system I'm happy
to keep.

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