After nearly a year of development, the Fedora Project has finally released Fedora 21, a fairly large release with many new features and a new sense of direction for the project. Notably, instead of a single distribution, Fedora is now shipping three particular spins – workstation, server, and cloud. This allows users and developers to have an easier time managing packages and customizing their systems as they see fit.
This article will focus on the workstation variant, which Fedora describes as “a polished, easy to use operating system for laptop and desktop computers, with a complete set of tools and helpers for developers and makers of all kinds”. By default, Fedora uses GNOME 3.14 as its desktop environment, but additional “spins” with KDE, XFCE, LXDE, and MATE are also available for download.
In 3.14, GNOME has made many large improvements to its usability as a desktop environment as well as a standard set of applications. HiDPI support is improved for those using 4k screens, or other high resolution devices such as recent Lenovo Yoga laptops or Retina Macs. They’ve also revamped many stock applications, such as the Weather application getting a complete overhaul with very attractive high-contrast icons. Totem video player has also been renamed to simply “Videos.” Package installation has also gotten a new coat of paint – when installing an RPM, rather than the simple dialogue in past versions, the user now sees an install screen with details of the package, displaying its version, description, source files, license, size, and if it has been updated lately.
Fedora 21 also has a preview of Wayland, the display server that will eventually replace the aging X11. However, Wayland is not ready for regular use, and it is advised that it not be used in production environments at this point. Wayland will work well on apps that support it, but it can fall back to Xwayland, a compatibility layer, without input from the user, though there will be some slight lag when opening and resizing it.
Some things simply don’t work at all yet, such as any application that has to take settings from another application. With the current sandboxing, even taking a screenshot doesn’t work because the screenshot app would have to get data from another program.
With Fedora 21, Fedora also adds new features for users that intend to use it as a server or for cloud services. Notably, there’s a new tool called Rolekit that is designed to easily deploy a specific type of server, a tool called Cockpit for configuration and monitoring, a modular kernel option for cloud services to cut down on unwanted drivers, and support for Openstack and Amazon Web services.
The Anaconda installer hasn’t changed much from Fedora 20. It’s still a bit archaic, but usable to anyone that’s installed an OS before. Sadly, it is missing a few nice things other distros have, such as Ubuntu’s ability to pull updated packages as it installs.
As a warning to those that use multiple disks, I encountered a problem during initial installation on my desktop – the installer kept erroring out, saying there was a problem with my 3TB internal drive that I use as my primary drive for pictures, music, and movies. It said that it had failed an end-to-end SMART test, and the installer would not proceed from the beginning until I had disconnected the drive. Seagate Seatools passed the drive after the install, and it later mounted with no problem. If you have multiple disks, it might be advisable to disconnect them during the install if that error occurs.
Once installed, most users will need to install additional software. Fedora has a very strict policy of no proprietary software being included in the system or Fedora repositories. As a result, out of the box, there is no support for common multimedia codecs, Flash, and other applications are not in the repositories.
The author recommends using a tool called Fedy, which can automatically install common applications such as Google Chrome, Dropbox, Skype, Teamviewer, multimedia codecs, Flash, and set up the RPMFusion repository, which will host non-free software such as Steam, or proprietary Wi-Fi blobs, to provide for easy installation.
Of course, Fedora still has a very robust repo of it’s own by default. Many common cross-platform free software is there, such as Firefox (which is the default browser), Thunderbird, Pidgin, Filezilla, LibreOffice, Eclipse, KeePass, GIMP, Inkscape, and Blender. Outside of video games, iTunes, and Microsoft Office, most users should feel perfectly content with the software available. Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Libreoffice, GIMP, and others are identical to the Windows/Mac versions. Notably, however, Microsoft has neglected Skype for Linux… the interface can be a bit clumsy, requiring multiple windows, but the core functionality of voice calls, chatting, and calling to landlines work without issue.
Overall, this is quite a good release. Even though it took a year, there are updated versions of core components of the system, and eventual Wayland support is coming along nicely. For most users, an upgrade to Fedora 21 from older versions is a no-brainer. GNOME continues to add new features and polish its existing features, making it a more versatile desktop environment suitable for desktops, laptops, touchscreens, and HiDPI.