Friday, May 04, 2012

At Work with Linux: Fedora 16 Updates

Fedora 16 with Gnome 3 desktop, Firefox 12
Fedora 16 with Gnome 3 desktop. Terminal has "fake transparency" enabled.

A few days ago I wrote about my experiences with Ubuntu 12.04 vs Ubuntu 11.10. After giving 24 hours to think it over, I've decided to drop all Ubuntu support in the lab. We're pretty much a Redhat shop,using RHEL 6.2, filling in with Fedora and CentOS as needed. The key to this is what do my sponsors use, and it turns out that for official deployment when they use Linux they use RHEL or CentOS, while the developers pretty much use Fedora (I use Fedora). I wish Ubuntu the best of luck, but I doubt it will show back up, either on regular computing platforms or portable devices such as tablets. If anything we've adapted Android as our small device OS, as have all sponsors who use Android. The other portable device OS they use is iOS and certain Apple devices, but only in very narrow niches.

My favorite Fedora release by far has been Fedora 14. It Just Works, and except for really weird devices such as a 64GB SDXC cards that required installation of a special Google-supplied driver, every single device on my Dell notebook has worked out-of-the-ISO without any special work-around or incantations. Installation of tools, such as Oracle's Java and Eclipse, have been extremely straightforward. As I documented in my recent Ubuntu posts I had to perform five additional steps more than it would have taken to install an RPM in RHEL/Fedora/CentOS.

Fedora, like many other distributions, is supplied with multiple desktop environments. The nice thing about virtual machines is you can install a few or more of those variations and then check them out. I elected to create two Fedora 16 VMs, one with Gnome 3 and the other with KDE 4.7. Under the desktop they pretty much operate the same, but there are some obvious differences between the two on the desktop that extends well beyond look-and-feel issues.

At one extreme is Fedora 16 with the Gnome 3 environment. The switch to Gnome 3 has taken something of a toll with Gnome users. Many of them such as myself either elect to stick with older versions of Fedora 14 with Gnome 2, or else move to a different Redhat distribution such as RHEL 6.x or the equivalent CentOS releases.

A key issue with both of these decisions is the kernel we wind up with: a 2.6 version rather than a reasonably up-to-date 3.x version. Since all my sponsors are using the same versions I am that's not such an issue, but if I want to do any kind of R&D work in preparation for some future design and development then I have to figure out how to accommodate my current work habits on the Linux desktop. I depend on a number of basic features, such as adding launchers to the upper menu bar or on the desktop, and Gnome 3 (like Ubuntu's Unity) make that very difficult to accomplish. I like the lean look and feel of the Gnome 3 desktop, but it's notable lack of "creature comforts" with regards to customization no longer make it the go-to desktop for my personal needs.

Which leaves me with Fedora 16 and the KDE 4 desktop.

Fedora 16 with KDE 4 desktop, Firefox 12.
Fedora 16 with KDE 4. KWin message that "desktop effects could not be activated."
Desktop Theme application with various "inconsistencies".
Fedora 16 with KDE 4 desktop and a terminal on the desktop. Plastik window theme.

KDE has evolved enough that at version 4.7 it's more than usable. I've been away long enough from KDE 3 that I've pretty much un-learned (i.e. forgotten) any "bad habits" I might have picked up from KDE. As a reference, my first and for a long time most favorite Linux distribution was SuSE with KDE 3. It's ironic that I was led from KDE to Gnome in part by the excellent Gnome 2 implementation on earlier releases of Ubuntu, specifically 7.04. Now it looks like Gnome 3 is pushing me away in pretty much the same way that the initial release of KDE 4 pushed me into Gnome 2's waiting arms.

Having said all that about KDE 4.7, it still has it's quirks and issues. I wanted to turn on KWin's desktop effects, but was informed that KWin couldn't be activated (see above). I certainly won't loose any sleep over that, but still, I've grown spoiled by the very nice effects under Ubuntu in the same VM environment.

One excellent feature in Ubuntu 11.10 and 12.04 has been how well its desktop effects work on a VMware VM. The latest Ubuntu releases perform extremely smoothly in a VM, and the effects, such as transparency and subtle shadows on desktop objects (windows), is first rate. I have to give credit to Ubuntu's desktop "user experience" with regards to look and feel; it's better than what you'll find on Fedora in the same environment.

The problem with Ubuntu, especially with 12.04, are the regressions that have been introduced with regards to very basic capabilities such as window resizing and text rendering on the desktop. The problem is that, to me, such smooth rendering is irrelevant if I can't easily perform a fundamental task such as resize a window. And believe me, I do still use windows on a desktop, as does everybody else I work with, young and old. And then, of course, there's the added effort to install and re-introduce tools I need for my style of productive development.

As I noted earlier, Gnome 3 is exceptionally sparse when it comes to customization of the desktop. KDE 4.7 goes in extremes in the other direction. You have a selection of themes to choose from (three vs. two for Gnome 3; be still my beating heart). On a separate tab labeled "Details" you can tweak each and every little feature to your heart's content. I think the details tab is a bit of overkill (quite a bit actually). Looking at the top row I'm struck by two observations. The first is that somebody went to the trouble to include variations for installation on a netbook. The last time I bothered to look the netbook had faded into the background, at least in the American market. Yes, I can find them on Walmart's and K-Mart's on-line stores, but they all ship, without exception, with Windows 7 Compact (for the exceedingly low-end) or Windows 7 Starter.

Besides that, the text identifying "Air for netbooks" is different from "Verne netbook", where "Air for netbooks" over runs the sample effect. The Air widget should be labeled "Air netbook" for consistency sake.

One other observation: these VMs had been idle for some time, so when I powered them back up I went in and ran updates on both. Each had over 300 updates to install. For the Gnome 3 I used the graphical software update tool, and it succeeded just fine. The KDE update tool was essentially a complete failure. In the end I fired up a terminal and used 'yum update' to grab everything. Bottom line is both were successfully brought up to date, with the nod going to Gnome 3 for better execution using a graphical tool. I was pleased that Fedora is tracking, pretty closely, the Firefox official releases. I sincerely doubt, however, that Fedora will enable Firefox's direct update when Firefox 13 is released. But then, who knows; I certainly don't. It would be sweet indeed if I could get immediate updates for Firefox directly from Firefox when they're released. Time will tell.

In the end I'll probably stick with, and recommend, Fedora 16 with KDE 4.7. It's comfortable and KDE 4 is tame once again. It comes closest to a classic WIMP desktop. I can even select my old Plastic window decoration, something I started using way back in the halcyon days of 2006 and Suse 10.2. Fedora 16 runs with a reasonably current kernel, and it installs all the core tools I care about just fine.

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