Fedora 31 WorkstationFedora 31, like all recent Fedora releases, has a wide selection installation media available, each focused on some different function or desktop environment. The Fedora website treats the Workstation edition, which is the desktop version featuring the GNOME desktop, and the Server edition as the main downloads. Below Workstation and Server are three emerging Fedora versions: Fedora CoreOS, "an automatically updating, minimal, container-focused operating system"; Fedora Silverblue, "an immutable desktop operating system aimed at good support for container-focused workflows"; and Fedora IoT, which is designed to "[provide] a trusted open source platform as a strong foundation for IoT ecosystems". Tucked down closer to the bottom of the page are the options to download Fedora Spins, which are installation media with different default desktop environments, and Fedora Labs, which provide a preselected set of packages designed around a specific task. For the purposes of this review, I mostly look at Fedora 31 Workstation, but also take a brief look at Fedora Silverblue to see how that project is progressing.
To begin, I downloaded the 1.8GB Workstation image and the 2.2GB Silverblue image. I copied the Workstation image to a flash drive, rebooted my computer, and started the Fedora Workstation live desktop. Once the live desktop started, I explored a little bit, but quickly started the Anaconda installer to start the installation process.
Installing Fedora Workstation is a very straightforward process. For the Workstation variant there are only three tasks that can be performed inside the installer: configure the keyboard layout, set the date and time, and partition the the disk that Fedora will be installed on. Manual partition configuration using Fedora's Anaconda installer is easy, and there is an advanced option for power-users that offers a little more control, but this time I opted to use the automatic option and let Fedora pick its own defaults.
Using the automatic partitioning option worked out okay. I installed Fedora 31 on a small 64GB eMMC drive, but neither my root nor my home volumes were overly cramped. I will probably manually configure things the next time I install Fedora 31, but the 38GB root volume and 19GB home volume are comfortable to work with. My root volume is currently 25% full with all my must-have software installed, and my home volume is about 10% full with all of my important files.
The other half of the installation experience, creating a new user account, is handled on first boot by GNOME's Initial Setup application. This part of the process makes a new administrator account, which has sudo privileges, lets the user set up various on-line accounts, and configure a few other options.
Overall, there is not much choice presented to the user during Fedora Workstation's installation process, which may, or may not, be an issue. I find Fedora Workstation's options to be close enough to what I like that I only have to install a few extra things post-install, but other users may want an installation process with more options.
GNOME desktop and default applications
The Fedora Workstation desktop is a very standard GNOME 3.34 desktop. Other than a custom desktop wallpaper, there are few, if any, major changes to GNOME's default settings. The only GNOME extension that is enabled is one that displays "Fedora" on top of the bottom right corner of the desktop wallpaper. For some people, including myself, that is great. I love GNOME's defaults and usually only change a handful of settings, but other users might feel very differently. If that is the case, maybe one of Fedora Spins is a better option as they provide other desktop environments and software.
The default selection of software is good and provides tools for most basic tasks. Fedora Workstation comes with Firefox 69 (which was updated to version 70 almost immediately after Fedora 31 was released) and LibreOffice 6.3. The rest of the default applications are the usual collection of GNOME applications and utilities: Boxes, Calendar, Cheese, Clocks, Contacts, Document Scanner, Files , Maps, Photos, Rhythmbox, Software, Text Editor, Videos, Weather, and various utilities. The one thing that is missing is an e-mail client. Recent releases of Fedora Workstation do not come with Evolution preinstalled. In the age of webmail, that might be okay, but I always end up installing it.
Fedora Workstation's GNOME 3.34 brings some nice improvements over earlier releases, but the changes are mostly small, but welcome, quality of life improvements. For example, it is now possible to drag and drop application icons into application folders. When I did this with LibreOffice's various applications, the group was automatically named "Office". However, this feature is not without bugs. While I was testing out this feature, I ended up with double and triple icons for some of the applications I have installed. I had icons labeled gVim and Vim when I only had one icon before, and I ended up with three identical icons for Zotero even though I had not actually done anything to the Zotero icon. Logging out and back in again fixed some of this, but it was still annoying.
One other headache I had was with certain Flatpak games. Several games would not cleanly exit and left a slightly faded and distorted image of their final screen stuck overlaying everything else. Full control returned to GNOME Shell, so I could interact with the desktop using the mouse and keyboard shortcuts, but I could not see what I was doing. I would have to terminate my session and log in again to get a usable desktop. At first I thought the issue might be caused by an older Freedesktop Platform, but that turned out to not be the case. Freedoom: Phase 1, Freedoom: Phase 2, and FreeDM were using version 18.08 of the Freedesktop Platform, but they were recently updated to use version 19.08 and still exhibit the same problem. The games exit perfectly fine when I use a non-OpenGL renderer in the game, or if I switch the an X.Org session instead of Wayland, but they will not work correctly using Fedora's default Wayland session and with the default settings for the games.
One change I really liked in this new version of GNOME was the enhancement made to the GNOME Classic session. This session is using a layout closer to the old GNOME 2 style, and the changes make this new version also behave more like GNOME 2. The Activities overview behavior has been altered to make it not so jarring. The GNOME Classic session is not GNOME 2 revisited, but it is a nice, slightly more traditional desktop experience for users who want that instead of GNOME 3's standard settings.
Installing additional software
Like I noted above, Fedora 31 Workstation has a nice selection of default software, but there is plenty of other software available in Fedora's repositories. Fedora Workstation uses GNOME Software as the graphical tool for installing additional packages. When GNOME Software is run for the first time, it asks the user if they want to enable some third party repositories. This option provides a few proprietary packages, including a small subset of RPM Fusion packages, but does not provide full access to RPM Fusion's repositories. Users who want to enable those repositories need to do so by installing the RPM Fusion release RPMs.
Just like with RPM Fusion packages not being included by default, the Flathub Flatpak repository is also not enabled. Users who want to use it need to install it. Thankfully, that is as easy as heading over to Flathub.org and following the instructions, but it is still an extra step users need to take. There is now a Fedora Flatpak repository, but the selection of software is very, very small, mostly consisting of games and various GNOME applications.
On the command line, Fedora uses DNF to install and update RPM packages. There is not much to say about DNF; it works just like it has on all the recent release of Fedora. However, there does seem to be an issue right now with the "dnf autoremove" command wanting to uninstall the kernel-core package or complaining about being unable to autoremove because kernel-core is a protected package. Flatpak applications can be installed using the flatpak command line program which does keep improving over earlier releases. It is much easier to search for and install packages than in earlier Flatpak versions, especially the version of Flatpak that comes with RHEL 8 and CentOS 8.
Aside from the fact that users need to know about RPM Fusion and Flathub before they install those sources, and Fedora does little to make users aware of those sources, Fedora's software selection is solid. Even without Flathub and RPM Fusion, I found most of the software I needed in Fedora's repositories. I have a short list of software that I cannot get from Fedora's repositories, but I always compile those programs from source anyway to get the latest development versions.
Fedora Silverblue is a very interesting alternative to Fedora Workstation. They both feature the same GNOME desktop environment, but Silverblue does not use DNF to install and update individual packages. Instead, the base image is a single unit, which can be updated using rpm-ostree on the command line, or by using GNOME Software. Additional packages can be layered on top of the base image, but the concept for Silverblue is to have minimal base image and use Flatpak applications on top of that image. The problem with that is Fedora Silverblue, like Workstation, does not come with Flathub enabled, so the selection of software that shows up in GNOME Software is limited to the applications from the Fedora Flatpak repository, which, like I noted above, is lacking in software. Most of the standard GNOME applications are in the Fedora Flatpak repository, and they will need to be installed from either there or from Flathub, because the default selection of software in Silverblue is very, very minimal. There is no office suite in the Fedora Flatpak repo, so Flathub or layering packages using rpm-ostree is absolutely necessary for having a usable system, if the user needs an office suite.
Do not get me wrong, once Flathub is added and applications are installed, Silverblue is very nice to work with. Some things like video thumbnails in Files do not work, unless the appropriate packages are layered on top of the base image, but even without doing so, I found the system very usable for my workflow. The Flathub release of GNOME Videos comes with the right codecs to play all my media files without having to install RPM Fusion's packages. However, video playback in the browser was hit or miss as a result of not adding packages to the base system. I was impressed when I installed GNOME Clocks and GNOME Weather, both of which integrated with GNOME's notification/calendar area. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for GNOME Contacts, which could not integrate with the on-line accounts I had configured in GNOME Settings, but other applications could successfully connect to those accounts.
One of the most interesting features in Silverblue is Toolbox, which creates a container for the user to work in that, unlike the base system, is managed by using DNF to install and update packages. This allows the user to install packages like programming languages and other tools without having to layer packages. When inside a Toolbox container, the user can access their entire home directory, so they can work on projects and edit files without having to worry about syncing files between two different environments. Toolbox is also available in the Workstation version, and in other Fedora variants, but it is included by default in Silverblue as part of Silverblue's intended workflow.
Fedora 31 is another in a long line of recent Fedora releases that are slightly more polished and updated than the previous version. Fedora 31 brings in updated packages and some nice polish, but it is a very boring release for anyone looking to try something different. However, users looking for a combination of mature, polished GNOME desktop should be very happy with what Fedora 31 Workstation offers. There are a few minor issues, but those should be fixed shortly. If you are looking for a distribution that fits nicely between mature and bleeding edge, Fedora 31 Workstation is an excellent choice. If you want to try something very different, Fedora Silverblue is also an excellent choice, but be aware that is does take more effort to get the system to a usable state.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was an ASUS VivoBook E406MA laptop with the following specifications: