Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fedora 12 mini-review

I've actually been running Fedora 12 for a week now. It's a nice update - but to be clear, this is mostly an updated version of Fedora 11. No "must have" tools in this release, at least for how I use Linux.

First, the install process:

The installer is very easy to use, and has gotten a few improvements that help streamline the process. For example, in previous versions, you had a separate step at the end to specify how to boot your system (MBR, or some other method.) In Fedora 12, you do that at the same step where you tell the installer what disk(s) to use to set up your system.

I always reinstall my system from scratch, rather than upgrade. I did that again this time, which was important since I wanted to manually re-do my partitions. When I installed Linux on a USB thumb drive last time, I set it up as a single filesystem - almost like how the installer would have done it. (The difference was that I didn't use volume management, since I don't expect to extend the filesystem on a thumb drive.) The entire filesystem was encrypted, in case my thumb drive was ever lost or stolen.

This is a USB thumb drive, so reads data at up to 30 MB/s, and writes at about half that. Updates take a long time. But I figured part of that slowness might also come from encrpytion - so for this install of Fedora 12, I manually set up my partitions so my "/home" was a separate filesystem, and only "/home" was encrypted. (Yes, all filesystems use "noatime" and I back up my stuff regularly.)

So all my personal info is still safe. Updates don't seem to bog down the system so much, although it definitely takes longer to run system updates - compared to my wife's Linux laptop, which boots from a hard drive.

The entire install process was quick and painless. It took about 15-20 minutes to boot the LiveUSB and install everything. After that, I was up and running in Fedora 12.

And, the changes:

In the comments on my previous post, "some guy" pointed out:
F12 changed how users can install packages. In F11 and earlier releases, users needed the root passwd to install packages. In F11 for example, PackageKit prompted you for root's password (as a GUI).

But in F12, they've changed it. Still not clear why this was a good idea to someone - but in the desktop version only general users can install any signed package without root's password.

If you don't like this behavior, it's a simple [conf file] fix to change it back [...]
You don't need to edit any conf files to change this behavior. As I mentioned in the other comments, the Fedora guys listened to the feedback, and updated the system to require the root password to install any package, signed or not. All you need to do is let the system update process automatically update your system - that's it. After that, when I installed a package using "System - Administration - Add/Remove Software" (which uses packages from the [signed] Fedora software repository) I was prompted for the root password before it would actually install anything.

Aside from that, no major changes to report in Fedora 12. The default window controls have changed a little, and the default desktop background, but that's about it. The Linux desktop still looks like it has in previous releases, where the top bar shows things you can do, while the bottom bar shows things you are doing.

I am a typical "general user", so I can't comment on the software development environment. I spend most of my time in Firefox or writing docs, and that is still very familiar.

In my next post, I'll talk about the boot time in Fedora 12. It's still very fast, but I haven't run a stopwatch against it. To compare, Fedora 11 booted in 1 minute 7 seconds from the same USB thumb drive, about a minute faster than Vista on the same laptop.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fedora 12 is out

Fedora 12 is now available!! Get it here.

There are some new features in this release, but mostly it's improvements like better graphics support, performance, NetworkManager, OpenBroadcom. For details, see the documentation, or just read the 1-page overview. Also check the list of known bugs if you think you've found a problem - but these should be weird "edge" cases.

I figure I'll probably wait until next week to install Fedora 12 (while I'm away for Thanksgiving) so expect a mini-review then.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Linux on USB

When I installed Fedora 11 on my wife's laptop back in June, I really grew tired of not being able to run Linux anymore at work. I still can't run Linux at work, but I figured out I can run Linux at home. I realized that if I can boot a LiveUSB on this laptop, I can certainly boot a USB drive with Linux installed on it.

And that is what I have done. I am using an 8GB USB flash drive, about the same capacity as you'd find in a netbook, for example. (I boot into Linux on weekends, on my own time.) Works great!

It occurs to me that this may not have been an obvious solution to everyone, so I'd like to talk about it.

Maybe you're in a similar situation as me, where you want to boot Linux but aren't able (or allowed) to install another operating system on your computer. Or maybe you just want to install Linux on a PC you own, but don't want to mess about with the sometimes-scary task of resizing a Windows hard drive so you can dual-boot. Or perhaps you just want to be able to bring your own Linux installation with you, so you can boot it anywhere (in an Internet cafe, friend's house, etc.)

One obvious way to do this is to convert a LiveCD version of Linux into a "LiveUSB". That's how I originally did it, and it worked well.

I wanted to have a full install of Linux, something that was just the same as installing on a hard drive. But without actually installing to the hard drive. So I picked up an 8GB USB drive (to compare, same capacity as many netbooks) and installed Linux on that.

Was it easy? Yes, it definitely was! Just booted my laptop using the LiveUSB that I'd used to install Fedora 11 for my wife, and told the installer to install Linux on the USB drive. It's exactly the same as installing on the hard drive, but you do need to pay attention at two points in the installation process:
  1. When you let the installer create the partitions, make sure to specify the USB drive. Check the capacity of the drives it presents to you, and that should be an obvious clue which one is the USB drive. (The hard drive on my laptop is 80GB.)
  2. When the boot info is installed, make sure to select the USB drive, not the hard drive. Again, check the capacity of the drives it shows you, and you'll be sure to pick the right one.

I manually created my partitions, but you can let the installer do it for you. It's your choice.

In case I ever lose the flash drive, I made sure to encrypt my data. Just as in previous releases, the Fedora 11 installer makes encrypting your system very easy. During setup, just check the box to encrypt your hard drive, type in your passphrase, and the installer does the rest!

That was it. It took about 20 minutes to install everything - and it doesn't touch the hard drive, so Windows remains completely unaffected. Now, when I'm at home and want to run Linux, I just boot from the USB drive. When I'm at the office, I boot from the hard drive and run Windows.

To be honest, there is a side effect from running Linux from a flash drive: Typical flash drives read at up to 30 MB/s, and write at about half that. On the other hand, because all my data lives on the USB drive, the hard drive never spins up. The trade off is longer battery life (the hard drive can spin down if it's never used) but writing files is slower. It's unnoticeable when doing "everyday" activities (writing docs, browsing the web) but it definitely takes longer to run system updates - compared to my wife's Linux laptop, which boots from a hard drive.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Move your family to Linux

In a future post, I'll talk more specifically about how to be a good "Linux at work" advocate, but for now let me talk about how to move your family to Linux.

I've been a Linux user since 1993. But it was a few years before my wife decided that Linux was something she could use for herself. I helped my wife migrate to Linux (from Windows) after she finished her Master's thesis. Before, on Windows, she experienced regular crashes and lock-ups, and other weird behavior. Now, on Linux, everything runs fine. My wife uses her laptop to do email, write docs, browse the web, that's it. Not very complicated, so for her it was an easy move.

I did the same for my mom several years ago. My step-dad thought himself a great PC technician, despite knowing nothing about computers other than "point and click". So the PC was often hosed, usually through some malware problem. They used the computer just to browse the web, check email, write docs, do spreadsheets (home finance), play solitaire and freecell, play Flash games, watch Youtube. It was an easy move for them to migrate to Linux, and they've been problem-free on Linux.

The key in making the transition easy is for you to understand their computer use, what they use the computer for. In my experience, people who are "casual" PC users aren't doing anything that couldn't be done on Linux. Note "casual" ... with the people I support, that means no World of Warcraft, no Half Life 2. Just basic computer use, and simple "diversion" games. (PC gamers find it more difficult to move off Windows, because the hot games aren't available for Linux.)

The next step is for you to show your audience that Linux is okay, that it will meet their needs. My wife was an easy convert because she saw me use Linux every day, to do the same things she did. My mom was a little more difficult because I wasn't over there all the time. But if you can sit down with the family and show them how Linux is really just the same as Windows, then you may be in luck. If you have a Linux laptop, bring it with you when you visit for Thanksgiving. If not, consider running a "'live CD" version of a popular distribution, such as Fedora or Ubuntu.

Don't push it too hard, and don't expect to change minds right away. May take several visits, with casual demonstrations of what Linux can do.

When you demo Linux, don't tweak out your desktop. Let it be pretty much default. No odd themes, no cute backgrounds, no desktop effects turned on. That "geek stuff" kind of freaks out your potential audience. You'll note that the screenshot I used to talk about the Linux desktop used default settings.

Show that the same applications exist under Linux, but with a different name. OpenOffice versus "Microsoft Office". Firefox (same). Or Firefox vs IE. Make sure to install the Flash plugin ahead of time, so visiting Youtube is the same experience. I'd turn off Flashblock or not install it, so it's as close to the Windows experience.

If you do this, you might be able to make your family tech support easier. I find Linux harder to break, and certainly it isn't vulnerable to the Windows malware that's out there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Linux desktop

I'd like to switch gears for a little bit here, and talk about the Linux desktop. This is a topic I'd like to return to on this blog, from time to time.

I've been a Linux user since 1993. While the Linux desktop was very immature at this point, I was drawn immediately to the concept of virtual desktops. This allowed me to keep my work separate and organized - rather than cluttering up a single desktop with lots of application windows, I could put related programs on their own virtual desktop.

If you followed the "virtual desktop" link above, you can see a tour of some older Linux desktop environments. Many people who dismiss Linux on the desktop may have had their first experience on TWM or FVWM. I'll be honest - looking back, those were not great window managers. They were good for the era, but they don't age well compared to modern desktops.

So I'd like to introduce you to the Linux desktop today. I've been using Fedora 11 since June (but Fedora 12 is due soon.) Here is what my desktop looks like: (click to see larger version)

I created a "demo" user to take this screenshot, so that all the settings are at their default values. This is what a fresh install of Fedora 11 would look like.

Looks kind of like Windows, right? It's not too far off, although there are some differences:

The "Start" menu is at the top of the screen (Windows puts this at the bottom.) The Fedora logo is that blue-circle "F", so you click that (labelled "Applications") to launch programs. That top bar also has menus with bookmarks to folders, or to run system tools (like, to add a user or change your password.)

At the bottom of the screen, you have a window list (shown empty in my screenshot, because I'm not running any applications) and the workspace switcher (virtual desktops!) By default, Fedora 11 gives you 4 virtual desktops.

I usually explain the two "task bars" as: the top bar shows things you can do, while the bottom bar shows things you are doing.

By the way, making that screenshot was dead simple. Press the Print Screen key (may be labelled "PrtScr" on some keyboards) and Linux saves a screenshot of your desktop to a file: (click to see larger version)

If you don't want to save a file, you can choose to copy the screenshot to the clipboard, and paste it into a document later. Or to grab just the active window, use Alt-PrtScr.