Red Hat – Linux 8.0 review

professional Linux distribution
Photo of Red Hat – Linux 8.0
Personal edition £34.99 , Professional edition £129.99

When we first installed Red Hat 8.0 and saw the new ‘Bluecurve’ theme that tries to unify the look of the KDE and Gnome desktop environments, we thought the company had made a mistake changing the menus to such an extent. But we felt like this when we first saw Windows 95 too. It doesn’t mean that Bluecurve is no good – just that we weren’t used to it. It’s testimony to Red Hat’s hard work that we’re now at ease with it after only a matter of days.

Of course, Red Hat has a vested interest in the success of Gnome: Red Hat wouldn’t use KDE years ago when it couldn’t be distributed under the GPL license, and has since provided Gnome as the desktop environment of choice in just about every release, while it’s been the other way round for most distributions. The newly released Gnome 2.0 is provided with Red Hat 8.0, and we have been very impressed with what we’ve seen. It makes KDE look cluttered, for a start, has greatly improved font anti-aliasing, a clean layout, nice icons and the menus are easy to use.

Certainly Gnome 2.0 has to be one of the key reasons why this is a ‘dot zero’ release of Red Hat: As the first incarnation of a major version number, it’s unlikely to achieve widespead adoption by corporates and IT personnel who are interested in stability, but it could well be a catalyst for increased adoption by home users and ‘newbies’. Having said that, we’ve experienced fewer crashes and bugs than in the supposedly stable 7.3 release.

Making an appearance in this release is another popular application making a major version number change. Apache 2.0 is provided, and Red Hat is the first distribution to provide it in the standard install. As always, many other associated programs are provided like PHP, MySQL, Sendmail, Samba, and so on, plus a firewall package.

As a desktop operating system, however, there are a few tweaks most users will want to make. The same GPL licensing puritanism that caused Red Hat to shun KDE has meant that there is no built-in MP3 support (it costs about $50,000 to add). For our entertainment while testing, we resorted to 90′s technology: the CDs that we’d so laboriously ripped to MP3 format for convenience. Of course, resourceful Linux-ers will have no trouble finding and downloading MP3 support if they want it.

For desktop productivity, OpenOffice is installed by default, which is the GPL version of Sun’s Star Office. For MS Office compatibility, this is just about the best Open Source bet. Considering we hadn’t installed any Windows fonts, some fairly complex Word documents were rendered very well. Textbox layout, hyperlinks and colours all translated faithfully, so very little reformatting was required. The spreadsheet solution also supports many Excel-like features, although of course those dependent on Windows filesystem syntax don’t translate. For most home users, OpenOffice is going to provide all the necessary features, and at no extra outlay after the cost (if any) of the operating system, so we doubt many will complain.

One excellent application that deserves mention is the Ximian Evolution mail client and contact management package. Looking strikingly similar to MS Outlook, it has collaboration and MS Exchange support, as well as some import filters such as Outlook Express 4, which might serve as a way of getting old messages from a Windows machine. A unique feature is the ability to create ‘virtual folders’, which are basically nothing more than saved searches displayed in their own folders, but which are immensely useful for viewing all messages from certain users or on certain subjects in a quick and easy fashion.

If you like, you can download six ISO images from Red Hat’s servers (although they were very busy at the time of writing). An easier option is to buy the CDs. There are two versions being released as retail boxed products. The first is Red Hat 8.0 Personal, which contains an extra CD with the Macromedia Flash player, Adobe Acrobat Reader and other commercial programs. The ‘Professional’ edition contains more printed documentation, a DVD, and a credit-card sized ‘sysadmin’ CD, as well as a longer period of support.

We have two main criticisms of this release which we feel might impede its acceptance as a consumer desktop-oriented release. Unlike SuSE and Mandrake, it’s not possible to resize Windows partitions during install to facilitate installation alongside another OS, and there is no central control centre that matches SuSE’s excellent YaST or Mandrake’s Control Centre for ease of use and functionality.

Company: Red Hat

Contact: 01483 300 169

Clearly, Red Hat has made some real effort with this release to make it as user-friendly as possible, and it is certainly an undemanding Linux distribution for new users once installed and configured. However, we'd recommend Mandrake or SuSE for those who want to install it in dual boot configuration with Windows. The Bluecurve desktop theme, Gnome 2 and Ximian Evolution are the highlights.