Fedora 20: Hands on with five different desktops

I've been exploring Fedora Heisenbug in five different guises - Gnome 3, KDE, Xfce, LXDE and MATE
By J.A. Watson, Contributor
1 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET

Fedora 20 (Heisenbug) Gnome-KDE-Xfce-LXDE

Fedora 20 (Heisenbug) will be released today: my comments are based on Release Candidate 1.1, which was declared 'Gold' so there should be no significant changes between it and the final release. 

For purposes of this post, I loaded the five different Fedora versions on five different computers:

  • Gnome 3 — Acer Aspire One 725 (sub-notebook)
  • KDE — Lenovo T400 (notebook)
  • Xfce — HP Pavilion dm1-4310ez (sub-notebook)
  • LXDE — Samsung N150 Plus (netbook)
  • MATE — Dell Dimension E521 (Tower)

I think it says a lot about the quality and stability of the Fedora release that it installed on every one of these systems without a single problem. 

Not one hiccup in the installer (anaconda), not one device that was not supported or not working properly. 

Fedora gets a good bit of criticism for being "bleeding edge"  and too much of a research/testbed to be a reliable everyday use system, and from what I have seen here I don't think that is deserved. 

It also gets some criticism about selinux and security being a pain, and I think it has come a long way on that front too, I remember very well the struggles with some older Fedora releases when it seemed like selinux either got in the way of everything I tried to do, or it soaked up huge amounts of system resources in the background. Those kinds of things have not happened to me for at least the last three or more releases. 

Finally, Fedora also gets some criticism about not being as fully loaded and configured with additional packages as some other popular distributions, and I think that is only partially true today. 

As you can see in the following description, the "Fedora Desktop" (Gnome 3) distribution includes just about all of the popular packages and applications possible, within its bound of FOSS-only software. 

The other "spins", though, still come pretty much bare-bones, with the desktop and associated packages and utilities but not much more. With those you have to pretty much "put together your own", but even that isn't a huge burden, the packages are available through the software management utilities, and you just have to click through and install the ones you want.

Enough preliminaries, let's get busy with the installation.  The distribution ISO images can be downloaded from the Get Fedora page. What you will find there are:

  • Live Images, under 1GB each. You can copy these to a USB stick or DVD (the "lightweight" Xfce and LXDE images are still under 700MB, so they will even fit on a CD) then boot and run Fedora 20 from that, so you can test it, see if all of your hardware is supported, decide if you like it, and then install it from that Live image if you choose to do so. There are various other spins besides the five that I cover here, including SoaS (Sugar on a Stick), Security and some other special purpose or focused versions.
  • DVD Installer image, just over 4GB. This is not a Live image. You can boot it (from USB or DVD), but the only thing you can do with it then is install it. This image is most useful if you are installing on systems with no/slow internet connection.
  • Network Install image, less than 400MB. This one will fit easily on a CD, but it is also not a Live image, you can only install from it, and you have to have an internet connection to get the software you choose for installation. In addition to the smaller size, the other advantage of this image is that when you install you always get the latest stable versions of the packages you choose, so you don't have a potentially large update to make immediately after installation. This image gets more and more interesting as time goes by and the number and size of updates increases.

All of these images are compatible with either Legacy Boot (what most of the world still considers "normal") and UEFI Boot, and on UEFI boot they will work with Secure Boot enabled.

The Fedora distribution includes FOSS software only, no exceptions.  Many people consider this to be either its strongest or weakest attribute, depending on whose opinion you ask.  Personally, I just figure it is what it is, and get on with it.  Some typical examples of things it does not include which generate significant criticism are:

  • Flash player — I don't care, I decided quite some time ago that the security vulnerabilities and seemingly constant stream of updates and patches are just not worth the trouble. There is another unexpected bonus to not having Flash installed, those extremely irritating auto-playing videos (especially advertising videos) that lots of web sites are adding to their home page don't come up.
  • Proprietary video drivers — particularly Radeon and nVidia — I don't care, I am not a gamer, the FOSS drivers are plenty good enough for my purposes.  The last time I played a game on one of my computers I think it was Zork.
  • Other proprietary drivers, for example wi-fi adapters — this one sometimes hits me a bit closer to home, for example with various recent Broadcom and Ralink wireless adapters.  But the truth is, Fedora is almost always one of the first to have working drivers for most common hardware, so it's not often a problem.

Anyway, for these cases and tons of other additional packages which are not included in the Fedora repositories, you can always go to the RPM Fusion web site, which provides software which Fedora (and Red Hat) chooses not to include.

Just to get a couple of the basics out of the way, this release includes Linux kernel 3.11.10, and X.org server 1.14 in all of the spins.  For details on the rest of the packages and versions in the various spins, read the following pages.

2 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET

Fedora Gnome 3 Desktop

Fedora is generally considered to be the "Flagship" (or perhaps "Posterchild"?) Gnome 3 distribution, or looking at it from the other direction, Gnome 3 is considered to be the "Standard" desktop for the Fedora distribution. 

When you go to the Get Fedora page, you find that the image simply called "Fedora Desktop" is Gnome 3, while the rest of the image names include additional details to differentiate them from that.

The Fedora Gnome 3 release is probably the most complete of all the spins, in terms of the packages included.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Gnome 3.10.1
  • Firefox 25.0
  • Evolution (email/calendar) 3.10
  • LibreOffice
  • Rhythmbox (Audio Player) 3.0
  • Totem (Video player) 3.10.1
  • Shotwell (Photo Management) 0.15.0
  • Cheese (Webcam) 3.10.2
  • Document Viewer (PDF and others) 3.10.3
  • Software 3.10.4 (Software Management)
  • Nautilus 3.10.1 (file manager)

You might notice that a lot of those packages have version 3.10.x, this is because the Gnome desktop comes with a variety of utilities and applications which are specifically designed and tailored for it, and their version numbers track the Gnome versions pretty closely.

Gnome 3 still generates quite a bit of discussion and debate in the Linux community. Personally, it is not one of my favourite desktops, but I can live with it, and work with it, and because I too consider it to be the "standard" for Fedora, this is the version that I install most frequently.

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Fedora 20 (Heisenbug) KDE Desktop

The content of the Fedora KDE spin shows the difference in philosophy from the "fully equipped" Fedora Gnome 3 distribution.  Here is a brief list of the packages included:

  • KDE SC 4.11.3
  • Konqueror 4.11.3
  • Kmail 4.11.3
  • Calligra Words / Sheet / Stage 2.7.4
  • Amarok 2.8.0 (Audio player)
  • Dragon Player 2.0 (Video player)
  • Gwenview 4.11.3
  • Okular 0.17.3 (PDF viewer)
  • Apper 0.8.1 (software management)
  • Dolphin 4.11.3 (file manager)

That list might surprise a lot of people, but the idea here seems to be pretty simple. This is the KDE spin — if you want KDE, you get KDE, and that is a "Software Collection" so you get the applications and utilities which go with it. Konqueror, rather than Firefox. Calligra rather than LibreOffice. Kmail rather than Thunderbird or Evolution. If you prefer those other versions, they are all available in the Software Management utility (Apper), you can get them installed in no time at all.

4 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET

Fedora 20 (Heisenbug) KDE Netbook Desktop

This is the KDE Netbook desktop on Fedora 20. As I have said so many times before, I just love this desktop on my netbook systems.  

Everything is laid out very simply, choices are clear and easy, favourites are right there at the top, the search bar is obvious, and there is a graphic (icon) two-level hierarchical menu.  When you use the search function, whatever matches is shown graphically in the menu area.  

New windows automatically start full-screen, and window controls are contained in the top panel, so the window gets the most screen area possible. The top panel also includes an "active window" selector, or you can un-maximise windows and work with several on the screen at once. There is also a second page (Page One) which contains live feeds for News/Weather/Chat and such. It's just plain good.

I don't want to take too much of a dig at Ubuntu, but when I compare this to Unity, with its seemingly endless column of baffling icons down the side of the screen, and the window controls only sometimes included in the top panel, and even then only sometimes visible, and even then on the "wrong" (left) side of the panel/window... well, I just don't get it.

The actual content of this version is identical to the previously described standard KDE desktop — this is not a different spin or different installation, it is only a different selection in the KDE System Settings / Workspace Behavior.

5 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET

Fedora Xfce

This is the Fedora Xfce spin.  

The first thing I noticed about it was that it does not include the Whisker Menu that is becoming popular with a lot of other Xfce distributions. The philosophy here seems to be about the same as I explained for the KDE spin - if you want Xfce, you get Xfce, and if you want more on top of that, it's easy enough for you to add it.  

The second thing that I noticed was that the content of the Xfce panels has been grouped in the way that I have always preferred it on my netbooks. Large items with incorporated text are in the top panel, which spans the entire display; more compact items, strictly graphic icons with no text, are in the bottom panel and it is set to minimal size and auto-expands as necessary when items are added.  

In the screenshot above, I have gone one step further and changed the icon panel to vertical orientation, and moved it to the side of the screen. Netbooks have limited display area (that's one of the things that makes them netbooks, duh), they have more horizontal space than vertical, and users tend to feel "cramped" or "limited" vertically rather than horizontally, so why not make the best possible use of the screen, give up horizontal space for the panels rather than vertical space.  Of course, the other thing I always do is auto-hide both panels, so they are not always consuming so much screen space.

I also made a couple of other changes to the default Xfce desktop. First, I don't display desktop icons for removable filesystems.  This is a preference that is driven by my specific situation, because my systems tend to have anywhere from five to fifteen disk partitions (for other Linux installations), and that makes for a very cluttered desktop, which I really don't like.

However, this means that I don't get desktop icons when I plug in USB sticks and such, so my second change is to add the mounted devices icon to one (or both) of the panels, so that I can still easily unmount/eject USB devices. Third, I add a shutdown icon to the side (originally bottom) panel, because I don't want to have to remember which one has that when I want to shutdown or reboot.

Another useful functional difference with Xfce is that you can not only get to the menu hierarchy through the top panel Applications Menu button, you can get the same thing by right-clicking on the desktop background, as shown in the screenshot above.

As for the specific content of this spin, the focus is obviously on keeping everything small and light:

  • Xfce 4.10
  • Midori 0.5.5 (lightweight web browser)
  • Claws Mail 3.9.2
  • Abiword 3.0.0
  • Pragha Music Player
  • Parole Media Player 0.5.2
  • Ristretto 0.6.3 (Image Viewer)
  • Geany 1.23.1 (Editor/IDE)
  • Yum Extender 3.0.13 (Software management)
  • Thunar 1.6.3 (file manager)

That certainly fits with the "lightweight" philosophy, besides having minimal versions of pretty much everything, there's not even a spreadsheet or PDF viewer included in the base distribution! Of course you still have the option of adding what you want - LibreOffice, Firefox, PDF viewer, whatever, they're all available in the Yum Extender. So start with the base, and make what you want.

6 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET

Fedora LXDE

LXDE is another "lightweight" desktop, and like Xfce it has benefited from the recent turmoil in Linux desktops.  

While Xfce has slowly added at least a few "bells and whistles", LXDE seems to have stayed much closer to its hard-core lightweight roots.  I have loaded this version on my Samsung N150 Plus, and I can tell you first hand that even on that old and rather underpowered (by today's standards) netbook, LXDE is still quite snappy.  As with the other spins, the base distribution that Fedora has put together also respects the lightweight philosophy:

  • LXDE
  • Midori 0.5.5 (lightweight browser)
  • Sylpheed 3.4.0b5
  • Abiword 3.0.0
  • Gnumeric 1.12.8
  • LXMusic 0.4.4
  • GPicView 0.2.1
  • Yum Extender 3.0.13 (software management)
  • PCmanFM 1.1.2 (file manager)

As always, you can add whatever else you might want via Yum Extender (or yum CLI of course).

7 of 7 J.A. Watson/ZDNET


Finally, this is the latest addition to the Fedora spins — a MATE desktop version, for those who still prefer the Gnome 2 desktop. This one strikes me as a bit odd, because it is so minimally equipped with additional packages. 

I suppose that I see the difference as particularly stark because I was just looking at Linux Mint 16 MATE last week, and that is nearly identical to the Cinnamon distribution, whereas this one has almost nothing beyond the minimums necessary to get it running and useable:

  • MATE 1.6.1
  • Midori 0.5.5
  • Claws Mail 3.9.2
  • eye of Mate 1.6.1 (Image viewer)
  • Atril Document Viewer 1.6.1 (PDF)
  • Yum Extender 3.0.13

 As always, pretty much anything else you might want or need is available from the repositories via Yum Extender.

Further reading

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