Fedora 17 & GNOME 3.4: Return to a useful Linux desktop (Review)

Fedora 17, after the Fedora 16 desktop fiasco, is out after several weeks of delay and it's back to being a truly useful Linux desktop distribution.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Fedora 17 with GNOME 3.4 is much better now, but is it good enough?

Fedora 17 with GNOME 3.4 is much better than the last version, but is it good enough?

UPDATED FOR FINAL RELEASE: May 29th, 2012: I have been using Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux distribution, since day one back in September 2003 when Red Hat split its commercial Linux, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). Back then, people hated Red Hat for this move, but businesses soon learned to love RHEL and Linux fans grew to love Fedora. But, then along came GNOME 3.x, Fedora's default desktop choice, and it all changed.

GNOME 3.2, which was Fedora 16's desktop, was dreadful. You don't have to trust me on that though, just ask Linus Torvalds, Linux's founder. He hated GNOME 3.2.

That was then. This is now. Fedora 17, with the ungainly name Beefy Miracle--no I'm not making that up, that really is its name--is now out and it's much better than it was.

Finding your way through Fedora 17 (Gallery)

Fedora 17's release was delayed until May 29th,  but some last minute bugs were ironed out in the process. so I have no complaints.

I tested Fedora on my faithful old Lenovo ThinkPad R61. This four year old notebook is powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and has 2GBs of RAM. I also used it on a VirtualBox virtual machine on one of my Dell Inspiron 530S PCs. This systemis powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This PC has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set.

Fedora 17 is built on top of the Linux 3.3 kernel. Its default file system though is not, as was once expected, btrfs, aka Butters FS, but ext4 instead.

One fundamental and controversial under the hood change is that Fedora 17 has started work on "getting rid of the separation of /bin and /usr/bin, as well as /sbin and /usr/sbin, /lib and /usr/lib, and /lib64 and /usr/lib64. All files from the directories in / will be merged into their respective counterparts in /usr, and symlinks for the old directories will be created instead."

The idea behind this switch to a unified file system is that it will increase Linux's compatibility with other Unix-like systems such as Solaris. Its supporters also argue that it will reduce the complexity of Linux systems and make it easier to run virtual systems, share files, make back-ups simpler, and so on. Fedora is the first of the major Linux distributions to make this move. The critics of this change simply don't see much point in making such a fundamental transformation to the traditional Linux file systems. For day to day use, you won't notice any of this.

Fedora 17 also includes a wide variety of open-source programs. These include Firefox 11, for its default Web browser; Evolution 3.4.1 for e-mail, Empathy 3.4 for IM; and the just released GIMP 2.8 for graphics work. Its office-suite, like many Linux distributions these days, is LibreOffice 3.4.3 instead of OpenOffice.

Firewalld is now the Fedora's standard firewall. Unlike earlier Linux firewalls Firewalld lets you reset your firewall's rules but never takes it down even for an instance. I like that in a firewall!

As you would expect given Red Hat's recent interest in high-end and cloud-computing, Fedora includes an improved cluster stack. It also includes built-in support for the Nebula Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and the OpenStack cloud. Fedora's take on OpenStack includes support for OpenStack's latest edition, 2012.1, aka Essex.

As usual in Fedora, which has always been a Linux distribution, which was first and foremost for developers and bleeding edge users, Fedora includes a pre-release of Juno, the next release of the Eclipse software development kit (SDK). For better or worse, considering how Oracle is being with Java these days, it also comes with Java 7 and OpenJDK 7 as the default Java runtime and Java build toolset. GCC 4.7.x is now Fedora's primary compiler.

Fedora also includes a lot of D programming language tools. In addition, as you'd expect in a Linux that's the staging platform for RHEL, which is meant mostly for server use, it includes the latest updates of Ruby, PHP 5.4, and Erlang.

The improvement that everyone wants to know about in Fedora is GNOME 3.4.1. It's much better than the version of GNOME used in Fedora 16. Unlike earlier versions, GNOME 3.4.x will now run without the need for a 3D driver. This has been a real problem for some users trying to run GNOME in virtual machines.

Borrowing from Ubuntu's GNOME desktop forks, Unity and Head Up Display, GNOME 3.4 new and improved search function in its activities overview makes it easier to find programs. Search functions in general are much faster than they were than in its interface's earlier incarnations.

This new edition of GNOME also includes an application level menu that sits on the top of GNOME Shell bar and contains the application's menu. If that sounds familiar, it should. It's also taken from Ubuntu's Unity interface. The bad news is that, just like Unity, not all applications use it so the interface has a half-finished feel to it.

It also doesn't help any that the scrollbars are smaller, and thus harder to use, than ever. Even more annoying, there's still no easy way to minimize or maximize applications. While it's better than it was, this is still a design decision that I find annoying.

Still, it's a lot easer now to use multiple programs and file systems in GNOME than it once was. The new GNOME box interface also makes it easy to use remote systems or virtual machines. The Documents application finally supports search, removable devices, and other features which I have long considered minimum requirements for what was a de facto file manager.

Last, but far from least as silly as it may sound, you can finally easy log out or turn off Fedora. Believe it or not, under GNOME 3.2, simply shutting your PC down was a major chore.

Still, while Fedora 17's GNOME 3.4 desktop is a lot better than it used to be, I still find it far less useful than Unity or Linux Mint's recreation of the very popular GNOME 2.x interface, Cinnamon. Take a look at them yourself, and I think you'll see what I mean.

A first look at Ubuntu 12.04 (Gallery)

A walk through Mint Linux's new/old Cinnamon desktop (Gallery)

Ubuntu's Unity, like GNOME 3.x, is quite different from earlier Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointer (WIMP) interfaces, but it's easy to use. Heck, my 80-year old mother-in-law can use Ubuntu 12.04. And, Cinnamon is a recreation of the very popular GNOME 2.x desktop on top of a GNOME 3.x foundation.

That said, I did find this new Fedora with GNOME to be usable. I have to say I didn't find the last version to be at all useful. Still, I'm left wondering why Fedora and GNOME first went in such a mis-guided direction in the first place. It's great that Fedora and GNOME are much better than they were, but they're still not for me, anyway, as useful as the last Fedora with GNOME 2.x was. I can see that Fedora is better, but I'm going to be sticking with Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and openSUSE for my daily desktop use.

If you want to make up your own mind, you can download Fedora 17 and check it out for yourself. Some people though are telling me that they're running into very slow downloads from the direct links. If you find that to be the case, try downloading the new Fedora  by BitTorrent instead.

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