Desktop Linux Trio Offers Look at Whats To Come

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2007-11-27
 
 
 

Desktop Linux Trio Offers Look at Whats To Come


With Windows Vista turning fewer heads than XP SP3, and Apples Leopard exhibiting spotty security, companies and individuals would do well to ask themselves whether tis the season of desktop Linux.

With the fall release of three of the most popular leading-edge Linux-based operating systems—OpenSUSE 10.3, Ubuntu 7.10 and Fedora 8—behind us, the case for running Linux on mainstream desktops is stronger than ever. However, plenty of integration work remains to be done.

All three releases are fast-moving, short-support-span Linux-based operating systems that package the best of whats available in open-source software.

Each can serve excellently as a general purpose desktop operating system, provided that the users or maintainers of these operating systems are prepared to upgrade about once a year, and are capable of sorting out the hardware compatibility issues that might arise at install/upgrade time.

For organizations that are interested in deploying or piloting Linux desktops, but that require a more stable support and maintenance path, this Linux trio is still well worth evaluating: Each provides an early look at the capabilities—and limitations—found in the forthcoming, longer-lived "enterprise" incarnations of Ubuntu, Red Hat and SUSE Linux.

To view an eWEEK slideshow about the Desktop Linux showdown, click here.

For this review, Ive focused on the hardware and software fundamentals of each distribution, as they apply to desktop use. Stay tuned for follow-up coverage of these distributions in server roles.

Cost/Getting It

Ubuntu 7.10, OpenSUSE 10.3 and Fedora 8 are each available in x86, x86-64 and PowerPC versions.

Each of the three Linux OSes are free to download and free to redistribute.

On the positive side, the all-free nature of Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Fedora makes these operating systems rather easy to acquire, and allows for a broad network of mirrors from which to acquire disc images and software packages.

On the negative side, the all-free nature of the Linux trio I tested means leaving out any software components that arent similarly redistributable. For instance, Adobes Flash Player, Suns Java Runtime Environment and an assortment of hardware drivers and multimedia codecs must be acquired through separate software repositories.

Of the three distributions, Ubuntu does the best job of easing access to these non-free components, beginning with an official "restricted" software repository that I was able to access by clicking a check box in the systems Software Sources tool.

With Fedora 8 and OpenSUSE 10.3, I sought out and configured community- or vendor-hosted repositories to download the software I required, although I found that both distributions left me searching for instructions to complete certain configuration tasks.

In particular, I was not able to configure ATIs proprietary graphics adapter on OpenSUSE 10.3 or Fedora 8 without stepping outside of each distributions software packaging system—something I recommend strongly against, as compiling software by hand means surrendering the management benefits of remaining within ones software packaging framework.

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However, OpenSUSE and Fedora have both made strides toward bridging the free/non-free software divide. I was impressed that, upon attempting to play an unsupported video type under Fedora, the distributions new Codec Buddy tool pointed me toward a Web site from which I could purchase the required codecs legally.

I was pleased to see that the OpenSUSE project has reached out to vendors and projects to set up OpenSUSE software repositories for the particular components that these groups provide. For instance, the ATI driver I sought for OpenSUSE was hosted by ATI, and the MadWifi driver I sought for enabling the Atheros wireless network adapter in my test notebook was hosted by the MadWifi project.

A number of open-source project repositories for OpenSUSE—including sites for acquiring official and test OpenOffice.org, Mozilla, KDE and GNOME binaries—are hosted through OpenSUSEs Build Service. With this service, developers can take advantage of Novell-provided build resources to create packages tailored for OpenSUSE or other distributions.

Beyond the improvements that each distribution has made regarding improved access to software components that cannot ship on their install media, the latest versions of Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Fedora each boasts advances in tools for adding, removing and updating software packages.

To read about why Linux is stuck playing catch-up with Windows 2000, click here.

OpenSUSE, which has undergone a major package management framework overhaul during its past few releases, appears to have settled down in Version 10.3. New in this version is a command-line package management tool called zypper that does the best job of any command-line software tool Ive used at presenting information in a concise and easy-to-read format.

Its fortunate that zypper works so well, because I found that its graphical cousin had the annoying habit, upon launch, of spawning a procession of pop-up status windows (one for each separate repository Id configured). I found that each of these windows stole the focus from whatever other application I was using at the time.

Also worthy of note for OpenSUSE 10.3 is the distributions support for delta RPMs—package updates that contain only the changed bits, saving bandwidth and time, particularly with large packages. Delta RPM support isnt new in 10.3, but its a feature that neither Fedora 8 nor Ubuntu 7.10 yet offers.

On Fedora 8, I noted that the systems graphical and text-based software management tools have grown faster since Fedora 7. Other than this speedup and the new Codec Buddy feature, I found little else to report on the Fedora package management front. The projects package management tool efforts appear to be stalled at the moment, perhaps in preparation for the new, cross-distribution PackageKit front end slated for inclusion in Fedora 9.

In previous Linux distribution reviews, Ive expressed my preference for Ubuntus software management tools over those of its rivals, and the release of Ubuntu 7.10 hasnt changed that preference.

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In addition to the distributions strong graphical Synaptic and Add/Remove applications, and its command-line apt-get application, the newest Ubuntu version ships with an Add/Remove Extensions tool for locating and managing Firefox Web browser extensions.

The new tool appears as a link alongside the standard Get Extensions link within the Firefox Add-ons configuration dialog. In addition to being a bit easier to install, the 17 Firefox extensions listed in the new configuration dialog are supported by Ubuntus corporate sponsor, Canonical.

Hardware Support

I tested the x86 versions of all three distributions on on a Lenovo ThinkPad T60p with a 2GHz, dual-core Intel Core 2 processor, 2GB of RAM, an ATI Mobility FireGL V5250 graphics adapter and an Atheros AR5418 wireless network adapter.

Theres no open-source driver available for the ThinkPads graphics adapter, so I had the option of sticking with 2-D-only VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) graphics, or of downloading and installing ATIs proprietary driver.

Upon Ubuntus first boot on the same hardware, the OS exhibited an annoying bug in which the systems GNOME Display Manager would start and crash six times in a row, before announcing that it would rest for 2 minutes, before starting the restart cycle again.

Click here to read about the Linux Foundations findings that desktop Linux is on the rise.

To break this cycle, I had to hit Ctrl-Alt-F2 to switch to a virtual terminal, log into the system, stop the GDM service and then start up Ubuntus graphical interface with the "startx" command.

I then installed ATIs proprietary driver using Ubuntus handy Restricted Drivers tool, which made the process as easy as clicking a check box, entering my password to authorize the installation and rebooting to allow the changes to take effect.

The GDM-restart issue doesnt appear to affect all ThinkPads with recent ATI adapters, as Ive also tested Ubuntu 7.10 with a ThinkPad T60 and not experienced this issue.

On OpenSUSE and Fedora, I had to locate and configure the right third-party software repository, install the driver package from the respective systems command-line or graphical software utilities, and then complete the configuration for the new driver manually.

As it turned out, I didnt manage to successfully enable the ATI driver on Fedora or OpenSUSE. Once Id installed the driver on OpenSUSE, the systems display configuration utility offered me no option to switch to the new driver. Under Fedora 8, my display server refused to start with the ATI driver enabled, and Fedora failed, uncharacteristically, to return me automatically to a sane display configuration.

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On all three distributions, getting the T60ps wireless adapter up and running also took a bit of work. Atheros does not provide Linux drivers for its products at all, and multiple workarounds exist for addressing this lackluster vendor support.

Fedora 8 did offer the prospect of out-of-the-box support for Atheros cards, through the inclusion of a fledgling open-source driver called ath5k. However, the driver did not work on my test system.

On each of the three distributions, I turned next to the MadWifi driver, a forebearer of the ath5k driver that is open source but that requires proprietary firmware to operate. Ubuntu offers MadWifi in its software repositories on the Internet; OpenSUSE and Fedora, in contrast, required that I seek out and configure third-party repositories (as they did with the ATI driver).

MadWifi didnt work for me, either, so I cycled next to NDISwrapper, a project that wraps around a standard Windows networking driver to enable wireless devices to operate under Linux. NDISwrapper has a reputation for spotty performance, but the driver functioned well in my tests: I was able to use the Atheros adapter, complete with WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) encryption, under Fedora, Ubuntu and OpenSUSE.

Forrester calls desktop Linus a credible threat to Windows. Click here to read more.

Under Fedora 8 and OpenSUSE 10.3, my test machines suspend and hibernate power management functions both worked well. (Suspend sends PCs into a low-power mode, and hibernate saves PC state to disk and turns systems off.)

With Ubuntu, I couldnt get hibernation or suspend working, due to a reported bug in the way that the proprietary ATI graphics driver interacts with the system. Rather than hibernate or suspend, the display of my ThinkPad turned black and the machine hung, requiring a hard reset.

I also tried suspending and hibernating without the proprietary ATI driver (and without the systems restart-plagued display manager). In these tests, Ubuntu 7.10 suspended properly, but hibernate did not work. On the positive side, the system told me that it could not hibernate, rather than just hanging.

I wasnt able to discern whether Fedora 8 and OpenSUSE 10.3 suffered from the same ATI driver hibernation woes, since I wasnt able to get either distribution working with ATIs driver.

Whats more, without ATIs 3D-enabled driver, I wasnt able to test Fedora or OpenSUSEs hardware-accelerated desktop effects. However, based on my tests of these features with Ubuntu 7.10, with other Linux distributions and, for that matter, with Microsofts Windows Vista, these eye-candy elements are of limited value.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

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