Fedora 28 and GNOME 3.28I should start my review with a disclaimer. I have been using Fedora with the GNOME desktop as my daily driver for about two years. For me, Fedora strikes the right balance between shipping the latest and greatest software and providing a stable operating system. Fedora is a test-bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and a pioneer when it comes to technologies like Wayland, SELinux, Firewalld and, dare I say it, systemd. Equally important, all these technologies are thoroughly documented.
I like Fedora better than I like the GNOME desktop environment. The GNOME desktop on my main PC has been customised quite a bit and there are only two GNOME applications I use regularly: Files and GNOME Terminal. For this review I have tried to stick with the default GNOME desktop as much as possible. In last week's newsletter we had an opinion poll about the vanilla GNOME desktop as provided by Fedora vs. Ubuntu's customised GNOME experience, and I want to share some of my thoughts on that discussion in this review.
There are three distinct editions of Fedora 28: Workstation, Server and Atomic. This review is about the Workstation (i.e. desktop) edition, but I briefly want to mention the other flavours. The latest Server release is noteworthy because it introduces a feature called "modularity". Put simply, it is now possible to choose which version of certain applications you want to install. The Atomic edition is similar to Fedora Server but is more geared towards all things containers. I haven't tried either edition but I have heard people talking about them fondly. It seems Fedora has become a serious contender for servers, in particular if you are using Docker and Kubernetes. A year ago I would never have considered running, say, NextCloud on Fedora - if only because of its rapid release cycle - but now I am not so sure.
The latest release of the Workstation edition is interesting for a few reasons. Fedora 28 ships with the latest GNOME desktop (3.28) which has improved Thunderbolt support as one of its main features. For the first time it is also possible to install a number of proprietary software packages via Fedora's software centre. Other changes include improved battery life and the inclusion of VirtualBox Guest Editions (which makes it easier to run Fedora in VirtualBox).
Fedora Workstation is available for 32-bit and 64-bit architectures and the ISO is roughly 1.7GB in size. If you are running an older version of Fedora then you can upgrade your install via the software centre or the DNF package manager. The latest Fedora ships with version 4.17 of the Linux kernel (a release candidate - the latest stable kernel at the time of the release was 4.16.8) and the latest version of systemd (version 238).
Installation and first impressions
Fedora's Anaconda installer has seen some changes. The Btr file system is no longer available and the default file system is ext4 - I think this used to be XFS, but I could be wrong. User accounts are now created when you first boot into your system and there is no longer an option to set a root password. If you prefer using su rather than sudo, you can run "sudo su" in a terminal window and then "passwd root" to set a root password. Other than that Anaconda is still Anaconda: it works and it is quite fast, but the partitioning is scary.
Fedora 28 -- Partitioning with the Anaconda installer (full image size: 134kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The first thing I noticed after I had created my user account was that the GNOME login screen didn't give me the option to use Xorg rather than Wayland. This worried me as there are a few things that don't work properly on Wayland yet. The Shutter screenshot application, for instance, is completely broken on Wayland. I can RDP to Windows machines in a Wayland session but there are small nuisances - using Alt-Tab to cycle through open applications on the remote desktop will cycle through applications on the local machine, for instance. It turns out that the option to choose which session to run is only disabled on the first boot - after rebooting my laptop the GNOME on Xorg session was available (GNOME Classic, a desktop session resembling GNOME 2, is available as well).
Fedora 28 -- A screenshot taken with Shutter in a Wayland session (full image size: 259kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The GNOME experience
As already mentioned, Fedora ships with a largely vanilla GNOME desktop environment. The project obviously decides which applications are pre-installed and you get a Fedora-themed wallpaper. Other than that it is up to the user to customise their desktop. Fedora doesn't in any way prevent you from customising GNOME but it doesn't help you either. Applications such as GNOME Tweaks and Dconf Editor are not installed by default and you get just one pre-installed theme (Adwaita) and two wallpapers (you can get more wallpapers by installing the f28-backgrounds-extras-gnome package).
Almost all the pre-installed applications in Fedora 28 are GNOME apps. One good thing about GNOME applications is that they have got sensible names - it is obvious what applications such as Calendar, Contacts, Files, Terminal, Software, Maps, Photos and Videos are. Another common denominator is that the applications follow GNOME's design principles. There are no application menus and just a single toolbar with a few buttons. The aim is to provide a clean, consistent and distraction-free interface.
One of the few applications that doesn't follow GNOME's design principles is Evolution. The e-mail client has an abundance of toolbars, buttons and configuration options. It also includes functionality that is already provided by other GNOME applications, such as a calendar, task list and contacts manager. Evolution is, however, nicely integrated with the desktop environment. For instance, events you add to GNOME Calendar will show in Evolution's calendar, and visa versa.
I found that there is an e-mail client available which does follow GNOME's design principles: Geary. It looks like Geary is no longer maintained and although the interface is pretty, the application itself isn't very functional. For instance, the window with settings for e-mail accounts was too tall to fit on my screen and lacked scroll bars. As a result some settings were effectively inaccessible. Geary was also the only application that froze during my trial.
Whereas Geary isn't quite ready for prime time, Photos has replaced Shotwell. Like other GNOME applications, Photos has a straight forward, clean interface. The application automatically retrieves image files from your Pictures directory and displays them in a grid. Right-clicking on an image gives you the option to edit the selected photo or to add it to an album. Like most GNOME applications, Photos has zero customisation options. There is no option, for instance, to display the structure of your Pictures directory. If your photo collection is organised in directories you will have to right-click on each and every image and assign it to an album. Good luck with that if you have thousands of photos.
To illustrate the point, below are screen shots of Shotwell and Photos. In Shotwell, I can easily select all the photos in a directory named alms_houses. In Photos, I have no way of displaying the same collection of images, unless I move each individual photo to an album.
Fedora 28 -- Searching for photos of alms houses in Shotwell (full image size: 402kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Fedora 28 -- Searching for photos of alms houses in GNOME Photos (full image size: 304kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
After exploring Photos a bit more I found that the application didn't display all my photos. For instance, Photos retrieved only five images of a directory containing 18 photos - the other 13 were missing. I wanted to compare the number of photos in my Pictures directory with the number of photos in Photos but alas, to keep the interface clean and simple Photos doesn't reveal the number of images the application is managing.
At this point I should mention Documents. As the name suggests, Documents is a document manager. Like Photos, it finds files of a certain type (such as PDFs and LibreOffice documents) and displays them in a grid, and it is possible to create collections of documents. I have made quite an effort in the past to use Documents. I used to even change the "title" and "keywords" tags in PDFs (using Exiftool) to get everything neatly organised. But then Documents failed me: new documents wouldn't be displayed and tags I had added or changed were suddenly ignored.
The default music player is Rhythmbox. Like Evolution, the application has a more traditional interface. To get a more GNOME-like experience I tried Music. As you might guess, Music tries to automagically retrieve music from the Music directory. At first, it didn't find any music files but after I had rebooted my laptop the application suddenly worked. Once Music was up and running I found the application to be very nice indeed. The application organises your music collection by album, song and artist and has the option to create playlists. That is all I need a music player to do, and in the case of Music I therefore appreciated the minimalist interface.
The only non-GNOME applications in the latest Fedora are Firefox (version 59) and LibreOffice (version 6). GNOME does have its own web browser, called Web, but it is not pre-installed in Fedora. I tried Web and kept it as the default browser. It rendered web pages perfectly fine (Web uses the WebKit engine) and out of the box it blocks adverts and other nuisances, such as social media buttons designed to track you. Third party cookies are disabled by default and DuckDuckGo is the preferred search engine (Google and Bing are also available). It is nice to have a browser with sensible default settings. I was also pleased to find that Web can manage GNOME extensions without having to install an addon (in Firefox you need the GNOME Shell Integration addon).
Fedora 28 -- GNOME Web and Firefox (full image size: 218kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
A final application I want to mention is Boxes, which is GNOME's application for running virtual systems. Compared with VirtualBox the interface is very minimalist but it has all the options I need and a few nice extras. For instance, when you create a new virtual machine you can now install various Linux and BSD operating systems without having to hunt for the relevant ISO image - Boxes will download the ISO for you and then create the virtual machine. Among the available ISOs is Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7. To install RHEL you do need to create a Red Hat Developer account, however, which involves handing over an excessive amount of personal data and agreeing to ridiculously long terms and conditions.
Fedora 28 -- Installing Red Hat Enterprise Linux in Boxes (full image size: 34kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
One of the headline features of Fedora 28 is the option to enable selected third party software repositories from within GNOME Software. Like many other distros, Fedora only includes free and open source software. To install various proprietary applications and codecs you can add third party repositories such as RPM Fusion via the command line. These third party repositories are provided by users and not endorsed or supported by the Fedora project.
When you open Software in Fedora 28 the new feature is clearly advertised and the repositories can be enabled with the click of a button. Alternatively, selecting "Software Repositories" from Software's menu will also let you enable (or disable) the new repositories. The third party software repositories are fairly empty at the moment: the only repos available are for Google Chrome (from Google's repository), PyCharm (from the Copr repos), NVIDIA graphics drivers and Steam (both from RPM Fusion).
I tried the new feature by enabling the Google Chrome repository and found it didn't quite work. When I tried to install the Chrome browser via Software I got a message to say that I needed to enable the repo I had just enabled.
Fedora 28 -- Software asking if the Google Chrome repository should be enabled (full image size: 69kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
After double-checking that the repo was indeed enabled already I decided to hit the "Enable and Install" button. That resulted in an error: Software told me that Chrome couldn't be installed because the Google Chrome repo was already enabled. As with the Music application, the solution was "turning it off and on again" - after I had rebooted my laptop I could install Chrome.
Fedora 28 -- Software refusing to install Google Chrome (full image size: 74kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
In general, GNOME Software felt a little buggy. Installing and removing software from the default repositories worked fine but Software failed to notify me of available software updates. A week into my trial the Updates tab in Software still showed that my software was up to date. Running "dnf update", however, showed that there were in fact 231 updates waiting to be installed.
Fedora 28 -- Software up to date? (full image size: 334kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
As a final note on the repositories, Fedora includes the Linux Vendor Firmware repository. The repo provides firmware updates for your hardware, provided that the hardware vendor has made updates available to the excellent fwupd project. (Unfortunately, my Thinkpad X220 isn't on the list of supported devices).
Fedora's release announcement failed to mention Flatpak. The package format markets itself as "the future of application distribution" and has close ties with Fedora. I looked into Flatpak about a year ago and didn't find it all that useful. Flatpaks I installed worked fine but always use the Adwaita theme. Unless you use GNOME's default theme your Flatpak applications look rather out of place.
To install Flatpak applications you first need to add the FlatHub repository via the command line:
Once that's done you can install Flatpak applications via Software. I installed Gradio (an application to find and listen to on-line radio stations). As I expected, Flatpak applications still don't blend in with any custom theme you might have installed. As I am quite happy with the legacy way of application distribution I decided to remove Gradio and the Flathub repository. To my surprise, though, that didn't work. I could uninstall Gradio but I couldn't get rid off the Flathub repository. When I tried removing the repo in Software I was told that I didn't have permission to do so (and I wasn't prompted for my password). Running the command
sudo flatpak remote-delete flathub
resulted in another error: "Can't remove remote 'flathub' with installed ref runtime/org.gnome.Platform/x86_64/3.26".
Fedora 28 -- The Gradio Flatpak using the Adwaita theme (full image size: 489kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
For this review I used Fedora Workstation with a vanilla GNOME desktop environment, and I tried to use native GNOME applications as much as possible. I found vanilla GNOME to be a mixed bag. There were many aspects I really liked but there also a few things that made me cringe.
Let's start with the positives. The documentation is quite good - it is well written and covers all the basics. I also quite like how GNOME handles notifications; they are displayed underneath the clock and clicking on the clock brings up a menu that shows recent notifications. The notification area is also used to display calendar appointments and what music is playing. At first I saw the notification area as an ugly, humongous monster but I grew to like it.
Most GNOME applications are pretty, and the absence of toolbars and buttons encouraged me to learn various keyboard shortcuts. After a few hours I no longer missed the minimise button on windows - using the Super-H shortcut is quicker and easier than clicking with the mouse on a minimise button. GNOME applications also use a pleasantly consistent work flow. For instance, applications such as Files, Music and Photos all give you the option to mark items as a "favourite", which in effect is a handy bookmarking system. Similarly, to perform a search in applications such as Files, Web and Software you simply start typing. It takes a little time to get used to but it soon becomes second nature. Having to use the Ctrl-F keyboard combination to do a search now feels a little slow.
That said, I don't buy into the "distraction-free" philosophy. The GNOME desktop certainly looks very clean - there is just one panel with a few items. Personally, though, I like to be able to open applications with the click of a button, and I like to see what applications I have got open at all times (whether via a dock or task bar). I can't get used to constantly opening the "Activities overview" to access applications, work spaces and the search menu. It feels like I am using a mobile phone desktop environment on a PC.
My main gripe with GNOME, though, are applications such as Photos. In Shotwell, I can instantly see how many photos I have. I can easily find images by browsing to the relevant directory. I can choose which directories photos are imported from, and if Shotwell's toolbars become too overwhelming I can simply hide them. GNOME Photos has stripped all these functions and assumes that I am happy to spend hours organising my photo collection in a new way, by adding them to albums. And then Photos doesn't even find images in the directory it is supposed to automatically retrieve images from.
Of course, this is my personal opinion, and it is more about GNOME than it is about Fedora. As I mentioned in the introduction, I like Fedora for its release cycle, package manager and because it is at the forefront of many new technologies. I work in a web hosting environment with many CentOS and CloudLinux servers, and Fedora seems a natural fit. Plus: GNOME can be tweaked.
As for Fedora itself (sans-GNOME), it seems Fedora 28 is another solid release. I upgraded one my PCs from version 27 to 28 without any issues. SELinux hasn't thrown any mysterious alerts at me yet. Updates are applied quickly and cleanly and just about all software I want to use is available. It is a pleasantly boring experience.
I also like where Fedora is going with the third party repositories. Fedora's project leader, Matthew Miller, recently talked on the Late Night Linux podcast about how Fedora is trying to find the right balance between software freedom and providing a functional system. He was unapologetic about the third party repos: "[...] being a theoretical, pure freedom distribution that doesn't actually work on anybody's hardware doesn't help anybody." I very much agree and hope Fedora will add more third party repositories. At the same time I would like to see better integration of Flatpak repositories and applications.
Finally, I should mention that there are various Fedora spins. If you don't like GNOME, you have the option to install Fedora with the KDE, Xfce, LXQt, LXDE, MATE, Cinnamon or Sugar on a Stick desktops.
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Hardware used for this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a Lenovo Thinkpad X220 with the following specifications: