Review: Fedora Core 4
The latest version of Red Hat’s community-developed operating system, Fedora Core 4 (FC4), has been released by the Fedora Project. Fedora Core 4 comes packed with GNOME 2.10, KDE 3.4, Firefox 1.0.4, OpenOffice.org 2.0 (1.9.104), X.org 6.8.2 and a 2.6.11-based kernel. FC4 adds to this impressive lineup, by including the GNU GCC 4.0 compiler suite, built-in OS virtualization with Xen, GFS clustering file system, PowerPC (ppc/ppc64) architecture support and Fedora Extras. As with previous releases of Fedora Core, this latest version aims to deliver stability, performance and security along with a great mix of the latest open source technologies. So let’s take a look at what’s good and what’s not in Fedora Core 4.
The installation package is available on four CDs or a single DVD. Ever since Fedora Core 1, the stability of the Anaconda installer has improved with each release. No surprises this time either. A full installation (6.9GB) from the single DVD took approximately 1 hour 20 minutes on a generic PC with an AMD Athlon 1.1Ghz processor, 1.5GB memory and a 60GB hard drive. FC4 correctly detected the Linksys 802.11b PCI card too.
The most noticeable improvement when you boot-up FC4 is how much faster the process is. It took only 55 seconds to get from the GRUB boot menu to the graphical login screen, compared to a minute 40 seconds in Fedora Core 3. GNOME’s startup time was a mere 16 seconds, down from 27 seconds in FC3. I found most applications to be more responsive, startup times for OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Thunderbird have improved quite a bit.
GNOME 2.10 users will notice the new menu structure in the top panel. Previous GNOME releases used two top-level menus, Applications, and Actions. The new menu structure incorporates three top-level menus, Applications, Places and Desktop. Applications lists all the GNOME applications along with Run Application, which lets you type in the exact the command to run. Places provides links to your home folder, the desktop, file chooser bookmarks, mounted removable devices, networked servers, the recently used files, and file search. The Desktop links the Preferences submenu (to configure desktop settings), the System Settings submenu (to configure system resources), entries for locking the screen, logging off, and accessing the Help documentation.
The new default GNOME ClearLooks theme is visually appealing and all widgets are well defined. However, the default theme in Firefox could be better. Some of the icons (e.g., New window, new tab) are unclear, especially without text labels below. This was easily resolved by installing the “Qute” theme from the Firefox themes website.
Multimedia applications Totem (video player) and Sound-Juicer (CD ripper) are now officially part of the GNOME desktop. Due to licensing issues, MP3 support is missing from FC4. Hopefully this will be resolved as the newly announced Fedora Foundation assumes development of future Fedora Core releases. I added MP3 support by installing the “gstreamer-plugins-mp3″ package from the Livna.org RPM repository. The trusty XMMS audio player is now available via Fedora Extras. Rhythmbox is the preferred audio player. HelixPlayer could not play RealAudio files out-of-the-box, so I installed RealPlayer 10 instead which worked fine. Note that you’ll need to have the GCC 3.2 compatibility libraries installed, as RealPlayer was compiled with GCC 3.2.
Evince is a simple document viewer that comes with GNOME, replacing gpdf. Currently, Evince only reads PDF and Postscript documents. However, support for other document formats may be added in the future as plugins are developed.
OpenOffice.org 2.0 (beta version 1.9.104) makes its debut in FC4. This new version uses the new OASIS OpenDocument XML standard by default. Offering greater flexibility to users, the OpenDocument format is vendor neutral, and is also supported by KOffice. Note that OpenOffice.org 1.1.x will support this format starting with 1.1.5, which has not yet been released.
Another area of improvement is OpenOffice.org’s interoperability with Microsoft Office. Numerous MS Office document features now translate directly into OpenOffice.org documents. I was able open older versions of Word and Excel files without any problems. For greater compatibility with Excel, Calc spreadsheets now support a maximum of 65536 rows.
The word count feature is now able to calculate the number of words in a selected block of text, not just the entire document.
OpenOffice.org 2.0 adds a new database component, Base, which enables you to use database data within OpenOffice.org. You can create and modify tables, forms, queries, and reports, using the built-in Java-based HSQL database engine or external databases (e.g., ADO, Microsoft Access, MySQL) via standard ODBC/JDBC drivers. Base also incorporates wizards to assist newbies with otherwise complex tasks like constructing SQL queries.
In the past, package management has been one of the weaknesses in Fedora Core. Unfortunately, there is little improvement in FC4. Both up2date and system-config-packages leave you using the yum command-line tool for most tasks. To ease package management, two excellent packages worth installing are Synaptic and Yum Extender (yumex), a graphical front-end for yum.
In its ongoing effort to provide a high quality, up-to-date development environment, the Fedora Project ships FC4 with the GNU GCC 4.0 compiler, Eclipse IDE (compiled with GCJ), PHP 5.0.4, Perl 5.8.6, mod_perl 2.0, and many components of the Apache Java project.
Fedora Core 4 introduces operating system virtualization, based on Xen 2.0. Originally developed at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory as part of the XenoServers project, Xen 2.0 features enhanced hardware and operating system support, greater configuration flexibility, and usability. Keep an eye on Xen, as it promises to be the open source virtualization environment for everything from cluster computing to kernel development.
Every Fedora Core release outshines the previous one, Fedora Core 4 maintains this pattern with an excellent collection of the latest open source packages and improved performance. Two areas that still need some work are out-of-the-box sound mixing and package management.
My hope is that future releases of Fedora Core will attract even greater community participation, especially as the Fedora Foundation takes shape.