Author: Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier
Fedora 7 was released last week, a little bit behind schedule, with a spate of new features, updates, and live CD installable “spins” of Fedora in KDE and GNOME flavors. I found a lot of good in this release, but a bug in the FireWire stack that attacked my external backup drive made this release just a little shy of perfect.
Fedora 7 offers several ISO images for installation — a live CD with GNOME, a live CD with KDE, and a regular ISO for users who want to do server installations or customized installs. This is the first Fedora release to provide a single image for desktop users, a la Ubuntu, and it has turned out well.
I installed the GNOME live CD on my IBM ThinkPad T43. The installation required answering questions about partitions and time zone, and providing a root password. After reboot, the post-install wizard asked a few questions about the firewall configuration and SELinux, and allowed me to configure a normal user.
Once that was behind me, I logged in to the GNOME desktop. Almost immediately I received a notification that I wasn’t expecting, about the battery in my ThinkPad. In the lower right corner of the screen, Fedora provided a notification that my battery may be subject to recall. In fact, my battery was subject to recall, so this proved to be a useful notification.
Next, when I opened Firefox, I realized that one of the things that I hadn’t configured during the installation or post-install was the network. Since most users want to do stuff online as soon as the computer boots, it’d be nice if this were configured during install. I had to configure Network Manager to log into my wireless network manually after the install. Unfortunately, each time I reboot, I need to tell Network Manager to log into the network again, and enter a password in the keyring manager.
Once I was logged in, I received a notice from the software updater that I had packages to install. The first time I tried to update packages, the updater told me that there was an error because the packages were not signed. I’m not sure if this was the case, or if there was a glitch in reaching Fedora servers — since it was shortly after the official Fedora release, I am inclined to think that it was related to Fedora’s servers being swamped. Since then, I’ve been able to update packages with no problems.
Fedora 7 is the first Fedora version to drop the distinction between “extra” repositories and the “core” Fedora repositories handled by Red Hat employees. As an end user, I didn’t really notice much difference, except not having to enable the extras repository to go beyond “core” packages.
Other than one issue with FireWire I’ll address separately, Fedora had no problems recognizing my hardware, so sound, networking, video, and external devices I tried with Fedora 7 all worked fine. Fedora did miss one of the finer points with sound, though — my volume control buttons on the ThinkPad don’t work by default under Fedora 7. My understanding is you can fix this by installing the tpb package, but it’d be nice if this were done by default.
Speaking of hardware, I allowed the Smolt hardware profiler to upload my hardware profile for the Fedora developers to use for testing and such. According to Smolt’s stats page, more than 23,000 machines have uploaded data since Fedora 7 was released last week.
The default GNOME install includes the standard desktop productivity apps you’d expect — Evolution for mail, calendar, and contacts, Pidgin for IM, Firefox for browsing, and Rhythmbox and Totem for music and videos, respectively.
Fedora doesn’t ship with any non-free or patent-encumbered codecs, nor does the Fedora team provide any easy ways for installing any.
OpenOffice.org is not installed by default either. Instead the GNOME live CD comes with AbiWord and Gnumeric, and no default packages for presentations or databases. When I used Pirut, the graphical front end to the yum installer, to look for OpenOffice.org, the array of packages to sift through was dizzying. Each component is packaged separately, and you also have to comb through the gazillion or so language packs if you’re using Pirut’s search function to find OpenOffice.org packages. It’s nice to be able to select just one component of OpenOffice.org if all you want to install is Writer, but it’d also be nice to be able to select a single meta-package that installs all you need for the whole suite.
Overall, I like Pirut, with one minor exception. When you switch from the Browse or Search tab to the List tab, Pirut rereads its package database every single time, taking five to 10 seconds each time. I hope that the folks working on Pirut will do away with this by the time Fedora 8 ships.
The Fedora folks have provided a great selection of packages to get started with on the live CD. If you don’t agree, you can always roll your own live CD with Revisor. It’s not in the Fedora repositories just yet, but you can download it from Fedora Project Leader Max Spevack’s director on people.redhat.com.
Fast user switching
Have a computer you share with one or more people? Fedora 7 includes fast user switching, which allows you to switch to another user without having to log out first.
According to the release notes there may be some problems with device ownership with fast user switching, but I haven’t run into any issues in my testing.
I created a second user and switched back and forth throughout the day while testing the Fedora system for this review. There’s a slight lag when switching users, but it doesn’t take as long as it would to log in and out again. I find having multiple users useful for testing — I can switch back and forth between my regular user account and to a test user account — and I’m sure it’d be a useful tool for families that share a computer. Instead of losing your work or having to close everything out when another family member wants to get to their email, just use the fast user switching and each user is happy. It doesn’t solve the problem of only having one machine for more than one person, but it’s close.
New SELinux tools
Fedora 7 includes a couple of SELinux tools that are new or not previously enabled by default in other Fedora releases: a new GUI admin tool (system-config-selinux) and a troubleshooting tool (selinuxtroubleshoot). The Boolean tab of the admin tool — which used to be part of the securitylevel tool — allows you to configure SELinux’s settings for Samba, rsync, PPPD, Apache, and other system services and features. Aside from a non-intuitive name (“boolean” doesn’t tell you much about what the section does), it’s fairly user-friendly. For instance, if you want to allow Samba to share NFS directories, just go to Boolean -> Samba and click “Allow Samba to share NFS directories.” Pretty straightforward.
However, while using the admin tool is simpler than editing text files, SELinux still has a way to go before it’s truly easy to use. Many sections of the admin tool require a fair understanding of SELinux. It’d be nice if it at least had some documentation to explain what the various fields mean. As it is, the tool only sports an About dialog under the Help menu. I don’t care how simple an application is, if it doesn’t have some documentation available via the Help menu, it’s not finished or ready to ship.
One of the features in F7 is a rewritten FireWire stack for the kernel. I’m not sure what was supposed to be wrong with the existing FireWire stack, which I’ve been using for more than a year for storage and transferring video from a digital camera to my ThinkPad and desktop machine, but apparently the new stack is supposed to be better.
I say “supposed to be” because it seems to have a few kinks that need working out before it’s ready for widespread use. Not more than three hours after installing Fedora, my system beeped twice and locked up tight. I wasn’t sure at first what the cause might have been — at the time I had several programs open, including Pirut, Firefox, several terminal windows, OpenOffice.org Writer, and a few Nautilus windows.
I rebooted to see if I could reproduce the problem. After about two hours, once again, I received a couple of console beeps and the machine locked up. I checked the system logs and noticed an error about a hardware problem on the PCI bus. I thought the problem might be related to enabling desktop effects, so I disabled desktop effects and went about my business, but it turned out that wasn’t the issue at all.
After disabling desktop effects, I found that I couldn’t access my external FireWire drive, and I was receiving error messages when I attempted to reconnect it. I thought the problem might have been a dying drive — until I connected the drive to my Ubuntu desktop and was able to access it with no problem. Since removing the drive, I’ve had no further problems with Fedora, other than a couple of Firefox crashes.
After getting all my data off the drive, in case the drive really was going wonky, I kept an eye on it and copied several gigabytes worth of files back and forth to see if I could cause a failure or even find any error messages. After a couple of days, I’ve had no further problems with the drive. I have to conclude that the problem was the new FireWire stack in F7 rather than the drive.
Setting aside the FireWire bug, I think that F7 has a lot to offer. I really like the single-CD spins, which make installation a bit simpler and give users just one ISO to download. Sure, the single CD may not include every app that you want, but it’s faster to download a few extra applications than to download four or five ISO images. If you prefer the full install approach, Fedora offers that too, so it’s a win-win for everybody.
Even though F7 has just landed, Fedora fans won’t have to wait long for Fedora 8. According to the project schedule, the Fedora folks are going to try to put out Fedora 8 in less than the usual six months, to coincide with Halloween.
If the Fedora folks stick to the ambitious schedule, I hope they go with a more modest feature set and focus on fixing bugs for this release. When I reviewed Fedora Core 6, I ran into a installer bug that was apparently known at the time of release and never should have seen the light of day. In this release, I stumbled on a bug that could have meant data loss on my backup drive. I’d like to see a Fedora release without any major bugs.
- Fedora/Red Hat