Monday, July 9, 2007

Fedora 7 as Home PC Linux

I am sure that if you are Linux or computer savvy that you are likely the tech support person for the folks that know you. It is the technical version of owning a pickup. Linux folks of course are often asked by those interested in getting started "What is the best version of Linux to install on my PC?". What they do not want is an answer like "It depends...". But technical people have a hard time not answering questions accurately. One of the great communication gulfs of our time.

One of the things that I hope to simplify by having two blogs is an easier time creating the conversational schism between what works and what is needed for an office desktop, or data center version of Linux, and what one wants for their home version. If it is a conversation about the former, then more than likely I'll be talking about it over at The latter I'll cover here.


Here are the things I think a home Linux does and does not need:

Does need:

  • Easy to install
  • Easy to upgrade
  • Easy to install new applications
  • Consistent look and feel and application behaviors
  • Little knowledge of Linux required to run basic things like word processing, web browsing, and email.
  • Leading edge hardware detection and automatic setup

Does Not Need:

  • Central management capabilities
  • Central calendar / mail application like Evolution
  • Latest and greatest kernel features, except where such features are needed for leading edge hardware support.

Fedora 7's home hardware

I have Fedora 7 installed on my personal IBM X30 laptop. This machine is often referenced in my BMC weblog, but as a level set:

  • 1.2 Ghz Pentium "Mobile" (1 idle speed of 600 Mhz)
  • 512 MB RAM
  • 80 GB Samsung hard drive
  • Wireless via PCMCIA card with Atheros chipset (Dlink DWL-650)
  • Low speed USB
  • Docking blade contained boot CD/DVD
  • Spare external battery for long (5 hour+) undocked time.

By 2007 standards it is a low end computer, and this one is made a bit worse for having started life as many other X30's bought off eBay and combined to create one unit. The hard drive started out as a replacement unit for one in my eMachines 5312, and when that computer died it's final death, migrated about to a Compaq M300 and then to the X30. Linux always booted, but the MS XP Home partition was useless once it left the eMachines, and I have left the space there until I finally get around to re-organizing the disk. I should also note: this is not my main home Linux computer. That is an Acer 5610 running Linux Mint 3.0 right now.

Fedora 7

Finally we are to the main point of this post: Is Fedora 7 a good version of Linux to use on a home PC, especially a laptop?

If you accept my criteria above as valid for your home situation, then I would have to say "No". I am not unfamiliar with installing Linux. I have been using it since the mid 1990's, and it has been my primary office desktop OS since 2000. It has been my primary home OS even longer.

When I installed F7 on the X30 it took hours. I admit that part of that was that I was installing in old, slow laptop that has been assembled from a scrap pile. But this does not excuse everything: Ubuntu 7.04 or Mint 3.0 install on the same exact computer in 20 minutes.

I recently installed MS XP on another computer of similar specification, and while the time to install was about the same, I found the screens of Fedora easier and more intuitive than the ones XP presented. That is largely familiarity with Linux on my part. I have not installed MS XP for a long while. I just had forgotten that I did not miss it's install program.

One of the problems for a home install: Fedora assumes you know what packages you want installed using the traditional installer A usable default set is selected, you are still asked if you want to install more or change the defaults, and if you have never done this before, you have no idea.

If you use the LiveCD version of the installer, you are in better shape because only so much stuff fits on the CD, and that it what is installed if you click the install icon. If you are using hardware that is utterly supported with all open source, Fedora version-ed drivers, you are probably OK at this point. If you are not, then your Odyssey is just beginning.

Who needs that stinking wireless anyway?

That would be me. The X30 is a real frankencomputer. It's major problem is that the built-in Ethernet does not work. I have to put it in the docking blade to get a working ethernet. This is a real PITA with Fedora. The first time I installed it I spent hours hacking it till I had it set up the way I wanted. Then I undocked the blade, plugged in the extra battery (which plugs into the docking port on the X30) and I was good to go. The wireless card I like to use, a Dlink B/G unit with an Atheros chipset inside, does not work by default on Fedora. It does Ubuntu and Mint, but not Fedora.

I accept that once.

I put FreshRPMS and Livna and everything into the "yum" repositories so that the MadWifi stuff is picked up the first time. The card is working now. My little X30 is a cute little machine with portability, long undocked time, etc. The perfect blogging platform.

If the first sentence of the last paragraph made no sense to you at all (at least till you followed the links), then that is part of why I think this is not a good home Linux. It is fun for hacking, but you have to know how to add repositories to the maintenance tool and then know the name of the project that adds the Wifi support to the particular chipset you have before you can get on the air.

Who needs updates?

Then I ran update. I admit it: I am a hacker at these types of things. I want to know how the new kernel works, and how the new Gnome and KDE appears, etc. Not a typical home user at all. A home user probably wants what is working to just stay working.

After update had downloaded and installed 227 packages, I rebooted. Wireless was busted again. Two commands told me why:

uname -a
rpm -qa | grep -i madwifi

The update had not loaded the version of MadWifi that matched the new kernel.... Sigh. Detach battery. Attach Blade. Config wired network to come up. checked FreshRPMS: there are new packages. They just are not set up to come down as a co-req it would appear. Manually install them. Wifi card working again. Config down wired network. Detach docking blade. Attach external battery.

Really: If you are not a Linux hacker, would any of this have been any fun at all? Sure, I was having a blast. I was learning new things. However: this is my job.

For a home user, I think Ubuntu or Mint are far better than Fedora these days. Even the LiveCD version of Fedora. In Linux-space, things move rapidly. It will be interesting to see if Fedora leverages their LiveCD install over time to make that less true.

They only will if they also "byte" the bullet and do something like Ubuntu's restricted source manager though.

Just to be clear here...

We use Fedora at the office for all sorts of things. Fedora is a very good distro of Linux. As a way to see where RedHat is going, it is terrific. As a way to access lovely new data center features early, like NFS Version 4 support, or the tickless kernel, it is great.

Fedora is hackers paradise. Fedora in not a home Linux. There is a reason Dell went with Ubuntu.

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