Fedora or Ubuntu? That is a question that Linux users are asking with increasing frequency.
The question is not random — the two distributions have consistently topped the downloads on Distrowatch for the last two years. Read Fedora and Ubuntu mail forums, and users who despair of one are constantly announcing their intention to try the other. Although other distributions, including Linux Mint, openSUSE, and Mandriva, offer comparable features, for better or worse Fedora and Ubuntu are widely viewed as the desktop distributions of choice.
Unsurprisingly, you can find dozens of comparisons of the two on the Internet. However, except for one posted on PolishLinux.org, few answers are detailed enough to be of much use. And since the one on PolishLinux.org was made in 2006, it’s at least six versions behind the current releases (Fedora 12 and Ubuntu 9.10). So a new extended answer seems overdue.
The only trouble is, providing a definitive answer to the question is not as easy as it used to be — a discovery that, if nothing else, suggests the current state of desktop Linux.
Backgrounds, goals, and community
Fedora, formerly known as Fedora Core, is sponsored mainly by Red Hat. In fact, many of those who work full-time on Fedora are Red Hat employees, and the Fedora Leader and four of the eight members of the board of directors are appointedby Red Hat.
This connection has caused some critics to dismiss Fedora as a beta version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Yet while it is true that releases of Red Hat Enterprise Linux are snapshots of Fedora, the truth is that Fedora largely manages its own affairs.
Similarly, Ubuntu is the community arm of Canonical Software. Both were founded by Mark Shuttleworth, who jokingly refers to himself as Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life. General direction tends to be decided by the Technical Board, which tends to be dominated by members who have served several years and are Canonical employees. However, as with Fedora, daily decisions are mostly left to community-based teams.
The Fedora desktop
In the last five years, both Fedora and Ubuntu have attracted large and rapidly growing communities, often governed by codes of conduct and having their own in-person meetings — FUDCon for Fedora and the Ubuntu Developer Summit for Ubuntu. Members of both are also active in other free and open source software meetings, especially GNOME’s GUADEC.
In short, Fedora and Ubuntu have evolved surprisingly similar structures. The main difference lies in their goals: Ubuntu aims to provide “an open-source alternative to Windows and Office,” and is currently focusing on usability improvements, while Fedora‘s goal is to create “a Linux-based operating system that showcases the latest in free and open source software.” (FOSS)
At times, these goals leave both open to criticism. Some suggest that Ubuntu’s eagerness to make changes means that the distribution may make changes without ensuring that the changes are spread throughout the FOSS community. Similarly, users sometimes accuse Fedora’s emphasis on innovation as being made at the expense of stability.
Installation and Desktop Choices
Most users install Ubuntu and Fedora from Live CDs that require minimal input from users and complete in well under half an hour, including some post-install configuration. Should you have problems with either one’s installer, you can use them in text mode. Ubuntu also boasts an alternate installer that is actually Debian’s standard one, which gives fine-grained control over every aspect of installation.
The two distributions also include other variations, including ones for USB drives and remixes or spins –customized installation disk images, often ones for less popular desktop choices such as LXDE or Sugar. Ubuntu also offers WUBI (Ubuntu Installer for Windows), which installs on to an existing Windows partition and chooses an operating system as your computer turns on.
Fedora and Ubuntu alike are centered on the GNOME desktop. However, each also includes packages for KDE and Xfce4. In fact, Ubuntu has separate distributions for theses other desktops called Kubuntu and Xubuntu. Both distributions, especially Fedora, are sometimes said to neglect these alternative desktops by focusing too much on GNOME.
Productivity Software Selection
Apart from themes and desktop wallpaper, Fedora and Ubuntu’s default GNOME desktops differ only in minor ways. A few tools are in different positions, and Fedora installs with Abiword instead of the GIMP, while Ubuntu includes F-Spot and Xsane by default. But for the most part, the differences are so slight that twenty minutes of adding packages to each would cancel them out.
What is noticeable is that in the software selection is the different approaches to proprietary drivers. Neither distribution installs a Flash player by default. However, Fedora has a policy of not including proprietary hardware drivers in its software repositories. That means that, if you want to use NVidia’s proprietary video drivers, you have to a site like RPM Fusion and run the (usually slight) risk of installing from an unofficial site.
Like Fedora, Ubuntu also has a policy of not using proprietary drivers if possible. But, unlike Fedora, Ubuntu includes them in its repositories, leaving users to decide whether to install them. Ubuntu also includes a Partner repository that includes third party proprietary software.
In addition, to a small but vocal minority’s anger, Ubuntu installs with applications like the F-Spot photo manager and the Tomboy note application that depend on the non-free Mono development framework. By contrast, Fedora installs with no Mono-based programs, replacing Tomboy with its C+ clone Gnote. This choice was cheered by free software advocates when it was announced, but it is only a matter of saving space on the install CD — Mono-based programs are still available to those who want them.
In the future, the differences in the default software are likely to increase. For example, to save space on the CD, Ubuntu will drop the GIMP from is default software. Unless the distributions drop CD support and move to DVDs exclusively, such choices will probably become more frequent as each distribution struggles with space restrictions.
Package Management and Software Installation
In the past, the fact that Ubuntu uses Debian packages and Fedora RPM packages would have been a major difference between the two distributions. Seven or eight years ago, Debian packages would automatically install missing software needed to run the applications you chose, while RPM packages would leave you having to install the missing software yourself, and often send you into an endless loop of requirements unfondly known as dependency hell.
The Ubuntu desktop
But, today, thanks to Yum, dependency hell is largely a forgotten trauma. With both Fedora and Ubuntu including graphical software installers, most users are unlikely to notice any difference when installing software.
Because it is based on Debian, which probably has the largest number of packages of any distributions, Ubuntu may give you a greater choice of software. However, if so, Fedora’s selection is still rich enough that you are unlikely to notice any difference.
Software for administration differs only slightly more than general productivity choices. What at first appears to be a greater selection of tools in Ubuntu proves, on closer examination, to be simply a preference for displaying the tools in the Administration menu rather than in a System Tools Applications menu in Fedora.
Still, both distros have tools that the other might benefit from. Fedora has Desktop Effects as a standard item in the Preferences menu, although using it requires a video driver with 3-D acceleration. Fedora also includes the option of using a fingerprint system for logging in rather than the more common user name and password.
For its part, Ubuntu includes Computer Janitor to help you remove unnecessary files from your computer. It also has a tool for Language Support that includes not only the locale used in the interface, but also the keyboard layout. This enhanced language support has been a feature of Ubuntu since its early releases, and is still an area in which it leads most distributions.
To minimize the time you spend with root user privileges, Ubuntu uses sudo. This setup requires you to preface administrative commands with “sudo” and to enter your password before the command proceeds. Most users quickly accustom themselves to this procedure, but some may find it a nuisance. Some may even consider it less secure, since getting hold of a user account may give an intruder root access immediately, without the need of getting a second password.
Fedora does not use sudo. Instead, it opts for a separate root password, while restricting graphical access to the root account – a choice that seems pointless, since most intruders are likely to be at home at the command line.
However, Fedora does include the extensive reactive tool called SE Linux, set to a level of security high-enough that users may need to disable it in order to install some software. Although some users loathe SE Linux, largely for such inconveniences, its share of system resources is slight and its security strong enough that it is well worth enduring. In daily computing, you probably won’t even notice it is there.
Maturity and the lack of choice
As you probably guessed some time ago, neither Fedora nor Ubuntu has any major advantage over the other. Behind the scenes, Ubuntu may use Upstart instead of Init, and Fedora may speed its boot time with Plymouth. But to the average user, these changes are largely invisible, and tend to cancel each other out if you notice them at all.
The same is true of the latest Ubuntu’s use of GRUB 2 of the newest Fedora’s use of ABRT for reporting bugs. Generally, only advanced users will notice the differences.
The only way you can make a meaningful choice is if some feature is of special interest to you. You might install with Ubuntu’s alternate installer if you are having trouble getting any distribution onto a particular set of hardware, or go with Ubuntu because you need easily configurable non-English language support.
Similarly, you might choose Fedora because of the peace of mind that SE Linux brings, or because you want to use fingerprint authentication. Someone who feels strongly about the use of Mono would probably want to avoid both in favor of something on the Free Software Foundation’s list of free distributions.
The truth is, given the mature state of the free desktop and each distro’s undoubted wish to match the features of rivals, it is becoming increasingly harder to find features that make one stand out from the other. There are still significant differences in desktops. But when distributions use the same desktop, the way that Fedora and Ubuntu do, then the differences are likely to be unnoticeable to three out of four users. These days, you are even unlikely to find any differences in speed or stability unless you have some unusual hardware configuration.
That may be an unsatisfying answer to those who like to pick a side and defend it. But look at it this way: the lack of a clear victor shows the general sophistication of free software today. Now, in most cases, you don’t have to choose between major distributions — no matter what your choice, it is likely to be a reasonable.
ALSO SEE: Open Source Downloads: the Monster List