Review: Fedora 18 "Spherical Cow" GNOME

Although I have reviewed a number of Fedora remixes, I haven't reviewed proper Fedora since the very first review/comparison test I posted on this blog over 3 years ago. There are, however, a few reasons for me to be trying this out today.

GNOME 3/Shell Activities
Fedora is typically more for Linux users with intermediate levels of experience and comfort with Linux, as well as for developers and administrators who want to see what is coming in RHEL/CentOS. That said, it can sometimes make a good consumer-grade desktop distribution as well, as long as it is done right; that's why there are so many remixes of it out there. But that doesn't explain why this review exists. I am trying Fedora today because I have not checked out GNOME 3/Shell in a while. I am also trying it because the Anaconda installer is supposed to have been thoroughly revamped. But mostly, I am trying it out because as a physics student, the codename tickled me enough to give it another look. (For those who don't know, a popular joke about physics problems takes such modeling to its logical extreme by applying it to a cow milking: "Imagine that this cow is spherical and radiates milk isotropically...".)

I tried the live session through a live USB system made with MultiSystem. As the revamped installer is a new feature, I tried the installation as well through a 64-bit Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce live USB system made with MultiSystem as well. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After getting past the boot menu, I saw the usual Fedora boot splash of the logo filling up. This happened quite quickly, but then a few more seconds were required to get from there to the login screen. The login screen for GNOME 3 looks really slick and polished; anyway, clicking on the username led to the desktop. Before anything else though, I should say that now Fedora comes with a screen asking the user whether to try the live session or install immediately, much like what Ubuntu does now. I think this is a great feature for newer users, and it's a good thing that it has been implemented well too.

Fedora ships with essentially stock GNOME 3, and the Shell interface is automatically enabled for hardware that can handle it. The interface has not changed too much since the last time I saw it. There are only a few things I can see that are different. One is that the user session menu now has an option to shut down rather than simply log off. The Activities overview has moved the button to switch between the application launching button and the window management screen to the side dock. The buttons and scrollbars in the Adwaita GTK+ theme are thinner and sleeker. Also, some GTK+ applications lose their window decorations entirely when maximized while others do not, which is confusing. Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I complained about Elementary OS not moving windows when clicking while holding 'ALT'. A commenter there said to try 'SUPER' instead, and that worked there; interestingly, the same was the case here too. I guess this is now the new shortcut for GNOME, which is a bit annoying. Otherwise, not much has changed.

Mozilla Firefox
Mozilla Firefox is still the default browser, despite large changes in GNOME Web (formerly Epiphany). It seems to have some codecs included but not others, as some YouTube videos were able to automatically use HTML 5 (even without me turning that switch on in YouTube), while others required Adobe Flash. Also, my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts were recognized properly.

LibreOffice is the default productivity suite. Unfortunately, its green splash screen upon starting clashes with the blue theme for the rest of the desktop; that can and should be changed.

Nautilus is now called GNOME Files. I generally like the interface and the better design of the buttons, breadcrumbs, and other UI elements. Plus, the use of symbolic icons is pretty cool as well. That said, I am rather disappointed at the deliberate removal of features like split-screen browsing; just because it wouldn't be used as much on a tablet computer does not mean it has to be removed for everyone. Fedora also seems to include GNOME Sushi, which has gotten better since the last time I tried it; especially because it renders PDF files very clearly, I almost like it better than my preferred Gloobus-Preview, so I hope that the people who fork Nautilus/GNOME Files into other browsers (i.e. Nemo in Linux Mint, Athena in SolusOS) can preserve compatibility with this amazing file previewing program.

LibreOffice Writer + GNOME Files + GNOME Sushi
There are a bunch of other included programs that seem to be either GNOME 3 staples or applications as included by Fedora made for power users. Things like Brasero, Cheese Webcam Booth, Shotwell, and Rhythmbox are all present. GNOME Documents is present for people who use cloud services a lot. GNOME Clocks is included as a proof-of-concept. GNOME Boxes is a lightweight, GNOME-branded virtualization tool kind of like VirtualBox. I thought I might be able to use that instead to test the installation, but that attempt ended in failure over a clash with SELinux.

PackageKit is still the default package management front-end for YUM. It still works fine, though the programs I wanted were outside of the default repositories.
Skype was one such program. Downloading the RPM file from the website went fine, but the installation failed due to issues with dependencies and the package signature. I was able to rectify this by finding instructions to install the dynamic package from the CLI. That worked much better, though oddly, the CLI download tool "wget" was not installed by default, so I had to install even that. Also, Gedit did not work for text editing at one point in the installation process for Skype, while Emacs and Nano were not installed, so I had to use Vi instead. I find it strange that so many basic CLI tools aren't included in Fedora. Anyway, that aside, Skype worked just fine after that.
Google Talk was another such program. Installation of the normal RPM file failed here as well. Unfortunately, the alternate instructions were somewhat outdated, so they did not work either. I tried a couple other methods as well, but none of those worked either.

Anaconda: Disk Choice
The usual GNOME 3/Shell desktop effects worked fine. At idle, Fedora used a whopping 570 MB of RAM; of this, 220 MB was directly attributable to the Shell interface, and while I am glad that I was able to pinpoint this particular memory issue, I have no idea why this needs to be the case when the main processes in my installed Xfce + Compiz setup use less than 50 MB of RAM at idle in total.

At this point, I switched to the other live USB session to install VirtualBox and start the installation process. Surprisingly, upon starting the VM, I was able to use GNOME 3/Shell rather than GNOME 3/Fallback despite the general lack of resources for the guest OS. Anyway, after logging into the guest live session, I opted to start the installation rather than try the live session further.

Anaconda: Partitioning
The Anaconda installer has indeed been vastly simplified and improved. The first thing to do is to pick the language and, if necessary, the keyboard layout. In my case, the default layout for US English was the standard layout that I use anyway. After this comes the locale/time zone selection, but this was already done as somehow the live session correctly determined the time even inside the VM. After this came the partitioning process. The first step of this is to pick on which drives Fedora will be installed; this makes sense in the context of Fedora using LVM by default, though in my case, the partition layout would be simple and would exist on the only virtual hard drive that is there. The second step is to specify the actual layout. I opted for the Fedora-recommended layout: on an 8 GB virtual hard drive, that became a 500 MB boot partition, a 2 GB swap partition, and a 5.5 GB root partition. The great thing about this step is that all of the terminology is clearly explained in lay terminology. Plus, the layout itself made a lot of sense. After this comes the installation process, during which time the root password can also be set. The only confusing thing is that in some of the steps, proceeding is done through a button in the bottom-right of the window, while in others, proceeding is done through a button in the top-left such area. The whole process took about 15 minutes, which is a little more than usual but still pretty OK; I think part of that can be attributed to the slowness of the VM. After that, I rebooted the VM, finished creating the normal user account, and was able to log in normally.

Well, that's where my time with Fedora 18 "Spherical Cow" GNOME ended. Despite the nerdy name, I wouldn't use it mainly because of the issue with Google Talk. I would also probably use a DE other than GNOME 3/Shell. Plus, having to upgrade every year would be a pain. However, I am generally impressed with its stability, and I am really impressed with Anaconda, which has successfully combined the simplicity of Ubiquity with the sensibility and power of YaST2. I wouldn't recommend this to total newbies, but I would recommend this to Linux beginners who may be ready to get their hands dirty outside of the Ubuntu wading pool.
You can get it here.