Oh, Just Go For It!
Long time readers know that I’ve been using Linux on my home PC (networked with the Astro-wife’s XP box). I had been rather happy using the Mandriva distribution for a few years.
Mandriva always had a good reputation within the Linux community, and was considered a good choice for those new to Linux. That (well deserved) reputation was mostly due to its marvellous installation package. Installing Linux can be daunting, you see, because of the nearly infinite customization possibilities. There’s a fine balance between the power to build and fine-tune your system from scratch and being overwhelmed and lost in the details. Mandriva found a “sweet-spot” between too-complex and too-powerless when it presented its choices.
Even better, the distribution was very good at having at-the-ready suitable drivers for all the peripheral devices that consumers put into their PCs. When a manufacturer decides that its only going to support Windows, that can be a daunting effort. Finally, like all Linux distributions, Mandriva has a great selection of software available for download.
Mandriva’s biggest downside was that it’s French. I keeed! I kid because I love! But only partially. That means that many of their best servers (but not all, of course) are in Europe and relatively slow.
Mandriva worked very well for me, so like the fool I am, I had to try something different.
Fedora is a long-standing, well regarded (and well used!) distribution that’s supported by Red Hat (trust me, you don’t want a distro that’s not going to be around for a while. Support, especially financial support, is important). It’s considered a bit of a stalking ground for Red-Hat Enterprise Linux, which is most explicitly not free, and very, very well tested. Fedora is therefore thought of as “bleeding edge” and more or less up-to-the-minute. Me likey.
Of course, all that means you’ll be introducing some bugs sometimes, when you use Fedora… which I’ve been doing for six months now. Just recently I’ve upgraded to their newest version, Fedora 11.
Wow! It’s fast. Installation went very smoothly. It was only weeks ago it seems (well, actually it was years ago, but it seems like weeks), that getting wireless to connect to routers was a major, major hassle, more black-art than science in Linux. No more. The full distribution immediately recognized my wireless card (D-Link with an Atheros chip set), chose a suitable driver (Ath5k, but madwifi is available) and connected as soon as I entered the password for my router’s encryption. I might as well have been wired to the ‘net – it was that straightforward.
Printer, CD-RW, SATA-II hard drive, all recognized, all working properly, but those are the easy ones these days. Sound and graphics – that’s harder.
I have seen complaints about Fedora’s inability to recognize certain sound cards. Some of Creative’s models come up frequently in the user’s forums. I haven’t experienced that problem, because I’m not using a separate sound card (I’m using on-board sound). Regardless, it appears that the problems have much more to do with, not with Fedora, but with Pulse-Audio. That’s a package that sits between the applications that play music/sounds (CD players, video and game players, internet radio players…) and the software that controls the hardware. Pulse-Audio is not made by Fedora, and it does works very well. But people are still confused by it, and apparently Pulse-Audio is not 100% bullet proof yet. Again, my on-board sound works fine under Fedora’s selection of software.
Graphics support has been a sore point. Many Linux users are gamers, or would like to be, and require the latest graphics cards be powered by the latest drivers. Unfortunately, none of the manufacturers fully support Linux. They don’t like the idea of free video drivers, even if people pay for the cards. The good news is that for both ATI and Nvidia (the most popular brands) default drivers exist and are getting to be pretty good. The bad news is that the free default drivers do not support 3-D graphics yet (and 3-D graphics are becoming standard quickly). The better news is that Nvidia has provided proprietary, but free of cost, drivers for its cards that work very well in 3-D mode, even for Linux (Yeah!). The worse news is that ATI has not (boo!). The best news is that Intel graphics cards are fully supported in Linux (Yes!).
I’m using an Nvidia 9600 ePCI card, myself, with the proprietary drivers provided by Nvidia, and it works marvellously. It does mean, though, that the driver has to be installed manually, and that can be intimidating to a novice Linux user. The very good news here is that the Fedora users community is one of the best and most knowledgeable around (take that, you Ubuntu users!). It’s easy to find access to great scripts (look up ‘Autoten’ if you’re interested) that do all the work for you. It took me less that an hour to install Fedora 11, restore my browser bookmarks, get online to install the last minute updates and bug-fixes, and run Autoten to install the video, DVD playback, assorted codeces for multimedia, and configure the desktop interface the way I like it. Compare that with the 8 hours I spent installing XP on the Astro-wife’s box two months ago.
After using Fedora for six months I’m more than happy with it. The most recent release, Fedora-11, is very fast booting and has been tremendously stable for me. That’s amazing, considering that some of the software is supposed to be right there at the edge. Fedora uses the Gnome desktop by default, but I prefer KDE myself. KDE 4.x has been controversial, to say the least, but I really like the latest (4.2). It installed flawlessly and has not crashed on me once. Can’t beat that.