Red Hat 7.3 beta: A Product Review
The Linux community has remained active, developing improved software, and the desktop environment also continues to improve. Both the KDE and GNOME projects have added functionality, improved performance and made the desktop environment more fun and usable. The XFree86 project has continued to improve hardware support. The overall appearance, quality and selection of fonts continues to improve.
Red Hat has been working to incorporate many of these improvements into their next release of software. While Red Hat is probably best known for their Linux server systems, their desktop systems have undergone considerable improvement. Their latest development effort, code named "Skipjack", incorporates a number of these improvements.
My personal interest in Skipjack arose mainly because this release includes a test version of KDE 2.99, which is really KDE 3.0 Release Candidate 3. I was so excited about this release because there have been claims of great performance improvements. In fact, the final version of KDE 3.0 was announced on April 3.
So, how well does Skipjack, Red Hat 7.3 Beta Release 2, meet my expectations? Very well, indeed.
I installed Red Hat 7.2 on my Dell Dimension 4100 desktop computer a few weeks ago. Then I ordered a copy of Skipjack from Tech Broker. The unsupported download release came in a five CD package. Tech Broker CDs usually cost $4 per CD, so ordering Red Hat's Skipjack test release from Tech Broker cost $20. (You can download Skipjack during the testing period from ftp.redhat.com/pub/redhat/linux/beta/skipjack.) I decided to install Skipjack as an update to the 7.2 distribution to see how well that would work.
I was very impressed with the results. It took between 30 and 40 minutes to complete the installation. Most of that time was spent detecting the existing software and determining which packages needed to be upgraded. On my system, I used the Workstation configuration (Red Hat installations provide a choice of Workstation, Server or Custom package selections). In addition to the Workstation packaging category, I also selected the option to modify the selection group and install any other software that I'm interested in. (I tend to install extra text editors, web browsers, and e-mail programs; these are the tools that interest me most).
The installation was flawless. Every menu was clear and concise. Every screen provided an explanation of the choices to make, so it is not even necessary to read a manual in order to install the software (if you are at least somewhat familiar with software installations). The appearance of the Red Hat software installation program is familiar; if anything, the graphics, explanations on each screen and mechanics of performing the installation are more streamlined than ever.
For those who have not installed or upgraded Red Hat software in a while, GRUB is now the default boot loader, though LILO remains available. The default GRUB boot loader now offers optional password security. If the system you're using is located in a public place where you have a need to secure the system loading process, this is a much-needed improvement (though it does not address the issue of physical system security, nor does it prevent someone from booting the system from a floppy disk). Still, this touch is a good idea, and it's not found on many other Linux distributions.
What about the desktop? I mentioned that I was interested in trying out KDE. How well does it work? It is incredible! I'd heard that there might be as much as a 40% improvement in the overall memory usage and performance of KDE 3.0 over KDE 2.2.2. While I did not confirm those numbers, I can attest that the Skipjack implementation of KDE is both solid and fast.
KMail is KDE's full-featured and user-friendly e-mail client and supports both the popular IMAP and POP3 mail standards. Users can have multiple accounts and multiple identities. (Previous versions allowed multiple accounts to a limited degree, allowing you to read from multiple POP3 and IMAP4 servers but not allowing you to send to multiple SMTP destinations). Its address book is based on the vCard address book standard and is shared with the rest of KDE.
I don't personally use all of the KDE applications and tools, but it bears mentioning that the Personal Information Management (PIM) tools provided in KDE have also undergone considerable improvement. The list of PIM components in the Skipjack implementation of KDE 3.0 include:
KMail, the e-mail client
KAddressBook, an address book viewer/frontend for the K Desktop Environment
KOrganizer, the calendar and scheduling program for the K Desktop Environment
KPilot, a replacement for the Palm Desktop software from Palm Inc, which makes your Palm/Palm Pilot/Visor computer capable of exchanging information with your Linux-powered computer
Kandy, a tool to provide synchronization of phonebook, organizer and other data on your mobile phone with the data stored on the desktop
KArm, a tool that tracks time spent on various tasks. It is useful for tracking hours to be billed to different clients or to find out what percentage of your day is spent playing Doom or reading Slashdot.
KNotes, a small tool to scribble down some notes
KAlarm, a quick way of setting up personal alarm/reminder messages. The messages pop up on the screen at the time you specify.
In addition to the core desktop functionality and PIM capabilities outlined above, KDE also has a growing office suite called KOffice.
The following parts of the KOffice suite are being developed:
KWord, a frame-based word processor capable of professional standard documents
KSpread, a powerful spreadsheet application
KPresenter, a full-featured presentation program
Kivio, a Visio-style flowcharting application
Kontour,a vector drawing application
Krita, a raster-based image manipulation program like The GIMP or Adobe Photoshop
Kugar, a tool for generating business quality reports
KChart, an integrated graph and chart drawing tool
I don't use the KOffice suite often, but I can tell you that KWord is quite capable of reading basic Word documents. Advanced features, such as embedding Active X controls, cannot be handled by the KOffice tools, but in fairness, few if any competing office suites can accurately render all of the features found in Microsoft's latest arsenal of office applications. IF you're looking for a functional office suite that is bundled with a system, however, this suite is worth a look.
So far, I've mentioned that Skipjack installs effortlessly, contains a new boot loader that works well and has security improvements, incorporates most of what will be found in the final KDE 3.0 desktop and runs well. What about the other features?
Another thing I use my system for frequently is web browsing. Red Hat delivers here, too. As part of the available software, Red Hat includes not only the browsers that are integral components of the desktop managers, it also includes recent releases of the Netscape and Mozilla suites. You can choose between the "old style" version 4 Netscape browser, Netscape Communicator 4.79 and the most current release of the Mozilla browser, 0.99. Both browsers have web browser and e-mail client components.
Speaking of browsers, I have to mention the Galeon Web browser, which is included in the Skipjack release as part of the GNOME desktop environment. While Galeon requires both Mozilla and GNOME libraries in order to function, other than the obvious disk overhead, Galeon is a very effective and efficient web browser. Skipjack comes with the newest and best version of Galeon I've seen yet, version 1.2.0. Galeon is arguably one of the leading standards compliant web browsers currently available. So Skipjack gets my nod for including a very up-to-date and usable version of Galeon.
What about GNOME, the default desktop environment included in Red Hat distributions? The Skipjack release, as far as I can tell, does not incorporate any upcoming test releases of GNOME software. The good news, however, is that the Nautilus File Manager, which is a core component of the overall GNOME, seems more stable than I've seen in the past. Perhaps this is because the image rendering engine used with Nautilus is the Gecko engine that's part of the latest release of Mozilla. Since Mozilla 0.99 comes with the Skipjack release, Nautilus benefits from recent, significant improvements in Mozilla's functionality and reliability.
I have not touched on any of the server features found in Red Hat; that is beyond the scope of this review. During the installation, however, I did notice that Red Hat has continued to work on integrity, security and stability issues, and it really shows. Whether Red Hat decides to produce this software as an incremental update to it's existing release and calls the next release 7.3, or if they decide to create a new major release, from my perspective as a desktop user this is without question their best release ever. Even in beta form, it is solid.
I wrote this article using the Gvim text editor. I wrote the first part of the article while running the desktop using KDE, and I wrote the second part using GNOME. I tried out Konqueror, Konsole, KWord, Vim/Gvim, Netscape, Mozilla, Galeon, Nautilus, GNU Emacs, XEmacs, NEdit and GNOME Terminal, and I experimented with the GRUB boot loader. During my testing (while admittedly not exhaustive but representative of the kinds of daily tasks I perform) I did not encounter a single application or system failure. There probably are still some bugs out there, but this is great beta software, among the best that I've ever seen from anyone.
Was it worthwhile to run this release? Absolutely. While Red Hat explicitly recommends not running beta software in a production environment, if you are a desktop user like me and you like the latest software, you will be hard pressed to find a more complete and usable piece of software (at least until the other vendors incorporate this software into their release).
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