Sunday, June 19, 2005

Living with Fedora Core 4 - Initial Impressions

I upgraded up to Fedora Core 4 when it hit the servers this past Wednesday. This was a big change over past procedures. In the past, I'd copied/saved all my critical configuration files (stuff out of /etc and out of my home directory) and performed a clean install (reformat and clean install). This time, I threw caution to the wind and decided to just update my FC3 installation.

I pulled the DVD ISO down and burned a single disk. It was that or else burn four CD-ROMS and do the media shuffle. With the DVD I'm back to just setting things up and then walking away and letting the installation grind through. I started it late in the evening, went to bed, and when I got up the next morning I removed the DVD and booted the system into FC4 for the first time. It kept all my original settings and I just logged in like I normally did.

General Impressions

Out-of-the-box FC4 runs with kernel 2.6.11, KDE 3.4, Gnome 2.10, and gcc 4.0 with patches. It's also got OpenOffice Beta 2 (build 104) which I find to be fast and useful. I'd already installed KDE 3.4 on my FC3 system, and I'd set up my login to use KDE instead of Gnome. I much prefer KDE over Gnome. With KDE 3.4 that preference grows. The overall look-and-feel of KDE 3.4 on FC4 is gorgeous, much more than KDE 3.4 on FC3. I believe that the fonts were updated on FC4, so that web pages in particular render nearly identically on Firefox 1.0.4 on FC4 as they do on Firefox running on Windows XP. And everything runs fast and stable.

I got to try out gcc 4 this evening when I pulled down the latest kernel (2.6.12) from the kernel archives and built it. One reason I like Fedora Core is that I can pull a stock kernel, build it on Fedora Core, and then boot Fedora Core with the newly minted kernel. I have a nice collection of kernel configs, and I just copied the latest I was using from into the kernel directory tree. After building and installing everything, I rebooted the box into the new kernel. Everything worked as expected.

Normally I use up2date to automatically track new changes and updates. But it looks like it's broken with FC4, so I decided to use yum to pick up any updates. I had yum pull all the updates, and it nearly succeeded until it ran into a dependency problem with an old library carried over from FC3. Remember when I said it kept the FC3 config bits? One of those bits was a failed attempt to install ATI hardware acceleration using ATI's latest "automatic" installer. I say automatic because it pops up a lovely graphical installer and does the kernel module build and installation behind the scene. Unfortunately it failed the last time because the latest kernel no longer has a call the ATI module depends on. The ATI installer installed it's version of the OpenGL library, but failed to build and install the kernel module. Great. I forgot about it until I was reminded by yum's inability to install all the new updates. I had to use RPM to remove the complete package, then restarted yum. Yum, fortunately, had everything cached and it picked up where it had stopped.

When it was finished I had, among other things, the latest Xorg updates and KDE 3.4.1. I still wasn't finished. When I forcefully removed the ATI driver bits, my xorg.conf file was no longer valid. When I logged off my local account so that the new X and KDE would start to execute, it failed because the configuration file was now referencing resources no longer on the system. Fortunately I have an original (stock) xorg.conf file, so logging in as root I copied it over and restarted X. The X windowing system and KDE came back up.

Do Not Try This At Home

Fedora Core is not the kind of OS you give to your grandmother. You just read what I went through to get the latest updates and to fix a problem with my graphical desktop. I've worked with Linux distributions since 1993 and I've reached a point where fixing problems are second nature. I can work equally at the command line or the GUI. But while this works for me, it is of no use to the casual user who just wants to turn it on and have it Just Work. For that you have to pay extra, and you do with Redhat's commercial desktop.

I put up with this because of the freedom it gives me. I have all the source and I can do anything I want, including breaking it utterly if I so desire. My system is built around two partitions: root and opt2. Everything goes on the root partition and that's the part that boots. All my tools and information goes on opt2. That means that if I want to scrub and reinstall the OS I can do so with impunity. If I want to install an alternate distribution I can do that as well. I don't have to worry about activation or other digital rights issues. I don't care about playing movies or MP3s or running somebody's high-cost software off a warez site. Instead I take real delight in experimenting and trying out new things, of taking apart the digital watch and seeing if I can put it all back together so that it works. Maybe even better than before.

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