I’ve been using Fedora Core for a while now on my laptop, and also on several computers at home and work. In the past I’ve tested Fedora many times, but only Fedora Core 5 was good enough compared to other major Linux distros that I thought it deserved to be run as a primary OS (mostly due to the GNOME 2.14 desktop, which despite still some annoyances matured enough to actually be a useful desktop). I’ve been running with rawhide – Fedora Core’s development branch for a few months now and I really liked the direction that Fedora was taking and I expected Fedora Core 6 to be even better then Fedora Core 5 – even though the latest GNOME, 2.16, isn’t so much different from 2.14 (as 2.14 was from 2.12) it does fix most of the problems that were still present at the previous version, but more so Fedora have introduced a lot of really interesting technology under the hood, from getting hardware to work better and easier, through kernel 2.6.18 the inclusion of Xen and other interesting tools such as the Sabayon user profile editor, to modern desktop compositing with AIGLX.
So when a friend asked me to help him install Fedora Core on his new laptop – a Lenovo 3000 N100 – I suggested he tries the Fedora Core 6 pre-release: 6 is scheduled to be released sometimes next week, and though he can’t wait till then due to external time constraints, I though that this late in the game there’s no reason the current rawhide snapshot shouldn’t be almost as good as the full release – I have a lot of experience with pre-release distributions – Mandriva and SuSE for example – and in my experience, as the products nears its release date (especially this close), there usually aren’t any major issues preventing a competent user who knows what he’s doing to install and use the product as a primary OS. So I was completely unprepared for what followed next.
The laptop comes preinstalled with Windows XP Professional on 2 partitions, each 40Gb in size. So we had to start by repartitioning the hard-drive. My friend didn’t want to remove Windows completely (mostly as the laptop was provided by his company and there are some things that he needs to use which are only available on that installation), so we started by booting into the latest Mandriva One. When I need serious partitioning work, Mandriva is often my first choice. Regardless of the fact that I use it on one of my desktops and I think its a brilliant product and the last version – 2007 – is again better then ever before, its been established years ago that they have one of the best free partitioning tools available anywhere – DiskDrake. Its definitely the best partitioning tool available as part of an OS installation (saving the need for me to lug around a handcrafted rescue disk) and the only graphical tool that I know of that supports resizing of NTFS partitions. Fringe benefit is that these days I can get it on a modern Live CD based distro (Mandriva One), making it so much more fun to use.
So Mandriva One booted successfully on the Lenovo and everything just works – compositing AIGLX desktop on the Intel 945GMA (it was supposed to be i950, but someone fucked up apparently), wireless access using the ipw3945 built-in chipset and while I haven’t tried it, I’m pretty sure that accessing the NTFS partitions would also be a no-brainer. After removing the second (empty) partition and resizing the first one down to half its size, we closed down the Mandriva and booted up the Fedora Core 6 pre-release to do the rest of the work.
This should have been a dead-giveaway if I would have considered it – unlike other operating system’s development roadmap, in which a series of public betas follows a series of private or public alphas, after which one or more release candidates are released for testing by the community before the official product is declared final, Fedora follows a much shorter testing phase in which 3 or 4 “test releases” are done, labeled test1 and onward and versioned as X.90, X.91, etc’. I’ve played around with Fedora Core 6 test2 (I often skip test1) and it was ok – considering the early stage. I haven’t managed to find time to run test3 (released about a month ago), but I understand there were some serious issues with it. Due to the time constraints on the release schedule – Core 6 is slated for release the 17th this month (after being delayed by a week) no test4 was scheduled, but as test3 was such a mess, the Fedora Core team had to do another test release so they had a special pre-release version. The message linked here also details the two main problem we encountered in the installation: Support for setting up additional repositories during installation (specifically Extras, but I hope we can also add Livna) is great, but when trying to enable it, the installer crashes. Even just trying to change the default installation category selection (i.e. to select the “web server” or “development” category) causes the installer to start the additional repository process and as a consequence to crash. Also, the firstboot wizard allow no keyboard input so one can’t add a new user during first boot – you have to login as root, add a new user and logout before you can do anything else.
Additionally, they still haven’t fixed the installer time-zone selection stage where you have to aim really carefully when choosing between cities close together on the zoomed-but-no-by-much world map – a practice which gets really old fast when your installer crashes – again.
But still, we have the Fedora Core 6 pre-release finally installed, and now its time to install the most basic things, such as a decent package manager front-end (Pirut is even slower then the snail-speed of yum, you must install yumex), wireless driver for the ipw3945 and some desktop utilities. But apparently it was one of these days: unlike the ipw2100/2200 driver that is available everywhere, ipw3945 is only available at ATrpms (which thankfully have a Fedora Core 6 repository – before any other source, including RedHat), but ATrpms have their problems (specifically they have less and older software then the much better Livna which also features much more homogeneous package quality). Yumex as well as many packages I want, from core and extras, is sorely missing from the mirrors (although strangely they’re available on the main download sites) – when the mirrors did work, which most didn’t as they had checksum mismatches.
(also, from the release notes I gathered that we’ll have AIGLX available by default and a simple setting dialog from the preferences would enable the compiz compositing window manager – which is visible though not working on my rawhide laptop – but I couldn’t find that option anywhere)
When its started getting late, and we didn’t manage to get the wireless working – I tried even to rebuild the ipw3945 source RPM, but the build tools didn’t want to install over yum and when we finally managed to install them from the CD (*) the source RPM failed on broken macros which I didn’t really have time to fix – nor any of the other “essentials” such as MP3 support, we called it quit, and its back to FC5 for now.
(*) I find it incredibly annoying that after installing a basic system off the DVD, and with 3.3GB of software available just a PCI bus away, when installing new package you have to use remote repositories – there is no way that I know of to tell yum to try to satisfy dependencies using the local media, nor anyway to specify repo priorities (like urpmi does, for example) so even if you could use a local install, then there is no guarantee that yum would try to get packages from the disc before it goes out to the network.
All in all it was a very frustrating experience. I don’t know if Fedora Core 6, when released, is going to be an easy OS to install as was FC5. It might still make it, or it may suffer several months of post-release stabilizing process – but compared to other distros that were recently released, and with the release date 7 days away while serious bugs (installation and otherwise) are evident in the last “Release Candidate”, I seriously doubt that we’ll see the stable release that everyone is expecting: this late in the game they should be tweaking menu ordering and not dealing with installer crashes.