Desktop Linux face-off: Ubuntu 8.04 vs. Fedora 9

The recent releases of Ubuntu 8.04 and Fedora 9 mark another step forward in the evolution of the Linux desktop

The changes in the default apps seem judicious rather than sweeping. Brasero, for instance, is a far more complete disc-burning utility than Serpentine, the relatively simple CD burner found in previous versions of Ubuntu.

Hardy Heron still lacks a few features that I had hoped to see as defaults by now, such as a Desktop Effects Manager for Gnome. Downloading Compiz Configuration Settings Manager through apt-get (the command-line tool for handling packages) isn't hard, but it should really be there in the first place. Without it, newbies have no idea how to turn on the desktop cube they've heard so much about. Also still absent is a decent theme manager to take advantage of Desktop Effects.

Minor quibbles aside, Ubuntu 8.04 is the best-assembled and most polished Linux distribution I've ever used. Ubuntu 8.04 performs well where Windows XP and Vista screech to a halt, particularly on older hardware. And since it comes with OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Evolution Mail, and a host of other apps right out of the box, it may be the best way to breathe new life into a seemingly moribund PC.

Fedora 9

Fedora was born as an all-open-source alternative to the business-centric Red Hat Linux. As such, it enjoys a solid legacy of Linux development. Unfortunately, as the nonprofit cousin of a major commercial distribution, Fedora doesn't always seem to get the attention it deserves. But last year, Fedora doffed the shadow of rival Ubuntu by releasing of Fedora 8, which offered a simple, graphical installer and the best hardware support we'd seen from the Fedora distribution. Nevertheless, it lagged behind Ubuntu in ease of installation and overall usability — largely because its commitment to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) left it without complete drivers for some major hardware, including nVidia and ATI cards and various wireless cards. Any astute Linux user could add these, certainly, but the process was too geeky for average Joes who just wanted to give Linux a try.

With version 9, Fedora has stepped up its ease-of-use game. Gnome 2.22 brings a host of great new features, including support for Webcam videos. A prerelease version of Xorg 7.4, however, causes problems with nVidia cards, preventing Desktop Effects — which is now standard in Fedora 9 — from working. At posting time, this problem remained unresolved, though contributors to the Fedora Forums suggested that it would soon be corrected. Fedora 9 also has a newer kernel (2.6.25) than Ubuntu 8.04.

One of the most important changes in the new Fedora is immediately visible: its Anaconda installer can dynamically resize NTFS hard-drive partitions, making the task of adding Fedora to existing Windows installations much easier. Ubuntu users have long enjoyed a similar feature, so it's nice to see Fedora catch up. Another new feature of the installer is a one-click option for drive encryption. Overall, Fedora's revamped install routine is the distribution's best yet, and it nearly matches Ubuntu's in simplicity and ease of use.

I liked Fedora 9's new PackageKit, a graphical interface for Fedora's Yum update utility, too. PackageKit is the nicest update manager I've tried in Linux, with big, friendly icons for bug fixes and security updates. Also, like Ubuntu 8.04, Fedora 9 now uses PulseAudio to control sound devices throughout the OS.

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