Fedora 27 WorkstationFedora is a community developed distribution sponsored by Red Hat. Fedora ships cutting edge, open source software and is sometimes viewed as a testing grounds for new technology, such as systemd and Wayland. Fedora has a strong stance on shipping open source software and packages which are not encumbered by license or patent restrictions, with one of the few exceptions being non-free firmware which is provided to help Fedora run on a wide range of hardware.
Usually Fedora ships in three main editions (Workstation, Server and Atomic Host) along with several community spins. With the release of Fedora 27 the Server edition was delayed and is scheduled to ship in January 2018. The Workstation edition of Fedora ships with GNOME 3.26 and features GNOME's new settings panel. The distribution also reportedly offers improved search results from the GNOME Activities screen and includes the ability to sign LibreOffice documents with OpenPGP keys.
The Workstation edition of Fedora is available as a 1.5GB download. Booting from the project's installation media brings up a graphical interface with a window where we are asked if we would like to try running Fedora's live environment or immediately launch the project's system installer. The first time I booted Fedora 27 the interface locked up at this point and I could not choose either option. I performed a hard reset, booted back to the selection screen and, the second time around, I was able to select the live desktop option.
I poked around the live GNOME Shell desktop for a while and found it to be a sparse environment. The desktop is mostly empty, unless we open the Activities menu, which brings up a full screen search area and a dock where we can launch or browse available applications.
Fedora uses the Anaconda system installer. It is a graphical utility which begins by asking us to select our preferred language from a list. Then we are guided through two hub screens where we can perform additional configuration options in the order of our choosing. The only two modules we really need to complete are the partitioning section and setting up a root password. We can also optionally adjust the computer's time zone, change the keyboard layout, create a user account and adjust network settings. For the most part, these modules worked well and I think Anaconda may be faster now than it was in past years. However, I still find the partitioning section overly complicated. Partitioning is spread over two screens (selecting drives and arranging partitions) and, in my opinion, the controls are not clearly presented. The installer also asks us to specify whether we are using multi-device volumes such as LVM and Btrfs, or using standard file system partitions such as ext4. Most distributions just treat all three options the same way and let the user mix and match as they like. My final gripe with the installer was it complained about the size of my swap partition, saying it should be bigger, which seems strange in an era where many people do not even bother using swap space.
In the end, Anaconda finished its work successfully, and fairly quickly, and returned me to GNOME Shell.
When Fedora boots we are presented with a graphical login screen. We have three login options: GNOME (running on Wayland), GNOME Classic and GNOME on Xorg. GNOME Classic provides an experience somewhat like the traditional GNOME 2 and MATE desktops, though with some features removed or moved around. The plain GNOME option loads GNOME Shell running on Wayland and the GNOME on Xorg session again runs GNOME Shell, but with the X display server in place of Wayland.
I tried all three environments and they each have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, running GNOME on Wayland on Fedora provided a relatively slow and unresponsive desktop in my test environments. When run on my desktop computer, GNOME was just a bit sluggish and programs were slow to load, but when running in VirtualBox, the Wayland session was so slow I could watch dialogue boxes be drawn element-by-element. The GNOME-Shell process used more CPU than expected, sometimes as much as 20%.
The GNOME on Xorg experience was smoother. On my desktop machine, GNOME Shell running on the X display server was pretty responsive. Performance was almost perfect, except when dealing with the Activities view, which was still a bit slow to respond. When running in VirtualBox, GNOME on Xorg switched windows and opened new applications three to five times faster than when I was running the Wayland session. GNOME Classic offered the same performance as GNOME on Xorg, but without the slow Activities overview screen.
The first time we sign into GNOME a configuration wizard appears and walks us through selecting our preferred language and keyboard layout. We are also given the chance to enable on-line services and automated bug reports. We can also link our local account to on-line services such as Google and Facebook. Once this wizard completes its steps, the GNOME Help application opens. The Help documentation provides us with tips for performing common tasks under the GNOME desktop, complete with diagrams. I really like GNOME's documentation, it is unusually detailed and a very helpful resource for new users.
Shortly after signing into GNOME Shell, a notification appeared at the top of the desktop, letting me know software updates were available. I was too slow to click the notification to follow-up, but I did open the distribution's software manager (GNOME Software) and clicked on the utility's Updates tab. The day Fedora 27 launched there were 21 updates available. There doesn't appear to be a clear way to select which updates we want to install, the software manager assumes we want them all. Clicking the update button warns us that installing updates will require a reboot. Fedora is almost unique among Linux distributions in requiring a reboot during package upgrades and it feels like an unpleasant return to my days using Windows.
This feeling persisted when I found out just how long it takes Fedora to apply updates. When the software manager rebooted the system, I was stuck waiting for over 15 minutes for the updates to finish applying, an unusually long time compared to the update processes on most Linux distributions. This delay meant it was faster for me to walk to the local post office and check my mailbox than to reboot Fedora and open my e-mail client.
One of Fedora's better characteristics, in my opinion, is the distribution's hardware support. Fedora detected and worked with desktop computer's hardware. Networking was set up automatically and sound worked out of the box. When run in VirtualBox, Fedora was able to automatically integrate with the virtual environment and use my host computer's full screen resolution.
While everything worked in both environments, I found Fedora worked much faster on the desktop computer. When run in VirtualBox, tasks performed on the desktop took about three times longer to complete, whether it was opening an application or performing a search through the Activities screen.
I found the distribution was sometimes slow to boot. Apart from the delays caused by software updates I mentioned earlier, Fedora would sometimes pause and display the notorious systemd message: "A start job is running". These pauses resulted in Fedora occasionally taking over a minute to boot.
In either environment, Fedora used a little over 900MB of RAM when signed into the desktop. The GNOME on Wayland session required about 960MB and GNOME on Xorg required 930MB. A fresh install of Fedora took up about 5GB of disk space.
Fedora ships with a fairly lean collection of software by default. The Workstation edition provides us with the Firefox web browser, the Evolution e-mail client and LibreOffice. GNOME features a map application, a simple calendar application and simple image viewer. The Shotwell photo manager is included along with a scanner utility and an app for checking the weather. We're also given a document viewer, archive manager and system monitor.
Fedora 27 -- Running the Firefox web browser (full image size: 154kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Fedora ships with the Rhythmbox audio player and the Totem video player. I found I was able to play most audio files, including MP3 files, out of the box. Video formats were not as well supported. Totem will offer to check Fedora's repositories for video codecs, but cannot find suitable matches. To gain additional multimedia support, Fedora users can enable the RPMFusion repositories which contain additional packages, codecs and non-free extras. Even with the RPMFusion repositories added, when Totem tried to find matching codecs to play videos, the best it could do was come up with a list of about six packages which might contain the proper codec. Since most codec packages do not carry descriptive names, I found it easiest to simple install all of them.
Back when I reviewedUbuntu 17.10, I found the Totem video player would work when run on the Xorg session, but not when run on a Wayland session. I was curious to find out if the problem was with Totem and could be duplicated across distributions, or if the issue was specific to the Ubuntu distribution. I found Totem displayed the same behaviour on Fedora, failing to run when I tried to launch it on Wayland, but running smoothly under the GNOME on Xorg session. This leads me to wonder why both distributions continue to ship Totem as the default media player when their default desktop session is not compatible with it.
But I digress. Rounding out Fedora's software selection, we are provided with Network Manager to help us get on-line. Java is installed for us and systemd is used as Fedora's init software. Fedora 27 ships with Linux 4.13. When running programs from the command line, if we type in the name of a command which has not been installed, but which is available in Fedora's repositories, a prompt will appear and offer to install the missing utility for us.
One of the items mentioned in Fedora's release announcement was a feature which allows LibreOffice to sign documents by using the user's OpenPGP key. This feature interested me as it provides a useful way to confirm the origin of a document. The LibreOffice suite does indeed include a feature (presented under the File menu) which allows the user to sign the current document or an existing PDF. One catch to this is LibreOffice cannot create signing keys, only use existing ones. If we do not already have keys installed under our account we need to make one and Fedora does not include a desktop utility for creating signing keys.
I also found performing searches in the Activities menu for programs that could create OpenPGP keys tended not to return results. Searches for "openpgp", "gnupg" and "pgp" returned no results. I finally got hits off the terms "cert" and "keys". Once I had installed a certificate manager and generated keys, LibreOffice was able to find them and use my keys to digitally sign documents I had created. Then, when we open a document which has been signed, assuming we have the author's verification key, LibreOffice will automatically display a message saying the document was signed and verified.
There is one other hurdle in LibreOffice's new feature, apart from needing an outside program to create and manage the keys of authors. Every time we edit and save a document, the process removes all signing keys, including our own, from the document. We need to manually re-sign the document every time we change and save it. I think it would have been convenient if, once we had signed a document, LibreOffice automatically signed it again when we had altered it.
Fedora's primary tool for installing and updating software is the GNOME Software application. This software manager is divided into three tabs where we can browse available software, remove installed items and install updates. I have already touched on the update feature and the tab for removing installed applications is fairly straight forward. The tab for browsing available software lets us find programs by either browsing categories or searching for items by name. GNOME Software presents search results and software categories in nice, clear lists with icons and short descriptions. We can click on an application to bring up a full screen description with a screen shot. Installing new software can be accomplished with a button click.
On the whole, GNOME Software is a capable front end for dealing with software. There were just a few cases where I ran into issues. For example, GNOME Software would sometimes lock up for a few minutes while installing new applications and the window would go blank. The software manager always recovered from these lock-ups on its own, eventually. The other problem I ran into concerned the difference between using GNOME Software and the DNF command line package manager. There were times when I would go into GNOME Software and check for package updates and be told none were available, even after hitting the manager's refresh button. However, if I opened a terminal and ran "dnf update", the DNF tool would display packages waiting to be upgraded.
I talked about GNOME's new settings panel in an earlier review and I must say the new layout is growing on me. I like that I can see all the categories while inside a module. This means I don't need to back out of one module to see other available options. I find it odd the GNOME team has hidden some categories inside others, for example we manage user accounts by first going into the Details category and then opening the Users module. Other than this quirk, I quite like the new settings panel; it is visually clean, easy to navigate and responsive.
On the whole there are several things to like about Fedora 27. The operating system was stable during my trial and I like that there are several session options, depending on whether we want to use Wayland or the X display server or even a more traditional-looking version of GNOME. I am happy to see Wayland is coming along to the point where it is close to on par with the X session. There are some corner cases to address, but GNOME on Wayland has improved a lot in the past year.
I like the new LibreOffice feature which lets us sign and verify documents and I like GNOME's new settings panel. These are all small, but notable steps forward for GNOME, LibreOffice and Fedora.
Most of the complaints I had this week had more to do with GNOME specifically than Fedora as an operating system. GNOME on Fedora is sluggish on my systems, both on the desktop computer and in VirtualBox, especially the Wayland session. This surprised me as when I ran GNOME's Wayland session on Ubuntu last month, the desktop performed quite a bit better. Ubuntu's GNOME on Wayland session was smooth and responsive, but Fedora's was too slow for me to use comfortably and I switched over to using the X session for most of my trial.
Two other big differences I felt keenly between Ubuntu and Fedora were with regards to how these two leading projects set up GNOME. On Ubuntu we have a dock that acts as a task switcher, making it a suitable environment for multitasking. Fedora's GNOME has no equivalent. This means Fedora's GNOME is okay for running one or two programs at a time, but I tend to run eight or nine applications at any given moment. This becomes very awkward when using Fedora's default GNOME configuration as it is hard to switch between open windows quickly, at least without installing an extension. In a similar vein, Ubuntu's GNOME has window control buttons and Fedora's version does not, which again adds a few steps to what are usually very simple, quick actions.
What it comes down to is I feel like Ubuntu takes GNOME and turns it into a full featured desktop environment, while Fedora provides us with just plain GNOME which feels more like a framework for a desktop we can then shape with extensions rather than a complete desktop environment. In fact, I think that describes Fedora's approach in general - the distribution feels more like a collection of open source utilities rather than an integrated whole. Earlier I mentioned LibreOffice can work with signed documents, but Fedora has no key manager, meaning we need to find and download one. Fedora ships with Totem, which is a fine video player, but it doesn't work with Wayland, making it an odd default choice. These little gaps or missed connections show up occasionally and it sets the distribution apart from other projects like openSUSE or Linux Mint where there is a stronger sense the pieces of the operating system working together with a unified vision.
The big puzzle for me this week was with software updates. Linux effectively solved updating software and being able to keep running without a pause, reboot or lock-up decades ago. Other mainstream distributions have fast updates - some even have atomic, on-line updates. openSUSE has software snapshots through the file system, Ubuntu has live kernel updates that do away with rebooting entirely and NixOS has atomic, versioned updates via the package manager, to name just three examples. But Fedora has taken a big step backward in making updates require an immediate reboot, and taking an unusually long time to complete the update process, neither of which benefits the user.
Fedora has some interesting features and I like that it showcases new technologies. It's a good place to see what new items are going to be landing in other projects next year. However, Fedora feels more and more like a testing ground for developers and less like a polished experience for people to use as their day-to-day operating system.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: