Time for some self-criticism: Free Agent has become a bit of a one-trick pony of late. Recent output might lead you to believe this is PC World's Ubuntu Linux column. Well, it isn't. In fact, Free Agent is not even intended to be a Linux column per se; the overarching topic here is Free Software.
My recent focus on Ubuntu has stemmed in part from a lack of time to explore other Linuxes--my daily work at PC World has little to do with Linux or desktop computing in general--and in part from the happy reality, for this time-pressed Ubuntu user, that Ubuntu is the hottest distro out there for people (like many PC World readers) who may be giving Linux a look for the first time.
This month, however, I had a chance to install and test Fedora 7, the latest community-based release from the folks at Red Hat. Fedora and Novell's OpenSuse are Ubuntu Linux's two chief "competitors," if you care to frame things that way. All three distros are free downloads; all have vibrant online communities where you can go for tips, troubleshooting, and advice; and all three will hook you up with a modern, friendly environment that you can start exploring right away. If you don't rely much on proprietary, Windows-only applications, you may be able to get to work right away, too.
The Big Three Free Linuxes differ mainly in their focus. Fedora and OpenSuse both serve as proving grounds for new technologies and new approaches; you see new features and capabilities in these distros long before the features and capabilities appear in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise. So Fedora and OpenSuse both do a good job of evolving--and that suits the companies that fund and steer these projects, as their commercial products directly benefit from the evolution.
Ubuntu Linux is good at evolving, too; but in its case, no separate, commercial distribution is ultimately the parent organization's fair-haired child. Ubuntu is just Ubuntu, and as it evolves, it does so with one chief goal in mind: fixing Ubuntu Bug #1. Follow the link in the previous sentence, and you'll arrive at Ubuntu Linux's bug-tracking site, where you will see that Bug #1, the biggest problem (in the eyes of Mark Shuttleworth, whom we might as well think of as Mr. Ubuntu), is that most people are still running one disappointing variant or another of that commercial operating system that hails from Washington state.
So as Ubuntu grows, the focus is more or less always on the user--specifically, on potential converts who can help fix Ubuntu Bug #1--whereas Fedora and OpenSuse sometimes grow with users in mind, sometimes with system administrators in mind, sometimes with developers in mind, and so forth. I had forgotten how much this difference in focus can affect the user experience until I spent some time with Fedora 7.
Donning the Hat
To install Fedora 7, you have two choices. Your first option, the installation DVD, contains a whole boatload of software packages (and of course is itself a mighty big download of nearly 3GB). The DVD boots directly to the Fedora installer.
Alternatively, you can download Fedora 7 Live CD. This smaller download provides a bootable CD that fires up a working Fedora 7 environment, so you can test your sound card, your network connectivity, and so forth before deciding to install. You end up with fewer esoteric packages installed, too. Live CD installers are extremely cool from the user's perspective (heck, you can even browse the Web while the installer does its work), so I give Fedora big points for heading in this direction.
But whether you run it from the Live CD environment or from the DVD, the Fedora installer disappoints in a few respects. First, as has always been the case with Red Hat offerings, it provides very little support for existing non-Linux partitions. Most Linux newcomers have a Windows installation on their drive already, usually in a partition that takes up the whole drive. The Fedora installer, however, can choose only to ignore that partition or remove it, whereas other distributions (including OpenSuse and, yes, Ubuntu) can shrink the Windows partition and free up space for Linux, leaving you with a machine that can boot into either OS.
The Fedora installer has almost none of these smarts; to shrink your existing Windows partition, you'll need a tool like the GParted Live CD or a commercial alternative that I cannot in good conscience recommend, given how good a job GParted does these days.
Once you've shrunk your Windows partition and left a bunch of free space on the drive, give Fedora a shot. If you've tried other Linuxes and you pay close attention when Fedora sets up its partitions, you'll notice an approach that may be new to you: a smallish (roughly 100MB) "boot" partition and one large partition for everything else, including swap space, all handled by the Linux Logical Volume Manager. My advice is to pay no mind and let Fedora do its thing. It's a different approach than you've seen before (with benefits that are largely irrelevant unless you're building a server), but it works just fine.
Fedora, like other modern Linuxes, won't ask scary or oddball questions about your hardware at installation time. It will, however, ask you to assign a password to the "root" account, the account for the system administrator. Remember the password you assign here; you'll need it later when you tweak system settings and such. I think this is a usability bummer for anybody who's not a sysadmin--in other words, pretty much everybody. I prefer Ubuntu's approach, which has no separate administrator account and therefore no separate password to remember. When you do system-level configuration changes in Ubuntu, you're asked for your own user password, similar to what happens in Mac OS X.