For the past several releases, the Fedora Project has been pursuing what it calls Fedora Next. Essentially, Fedora Next took a step back and looked at how the distro is used and came up with editions specifically tailored to those use cases. The most notable of these are Fedora WorkStation and Fedora Server (the desktop/laptop and server versions respectively).
Previous Fedora releases also had a “cloud” edition, but with the latest release—Fedora 25, a major update for this Linux distribution—that’s been replaced by Fedora Atomic. Fedora Cloud, aside from having a meaningless name, didn’t quite pan out. “Cloud” is just a word for “someone else’s server,” so it doesn’t make much sense for Fedora to release a “cloud” distro.
But as interesting as Fedora Atomic is, many of the highlights for Fedora 25 come from the WorkStation edition. And they can be summed up in a single word: Wayland.
Yes, after being pushed back from release after release, Fedora 25 finally defaults to using the Wayland graphics stack (assuming you have a supported graphics card). This is perhaps the biggest change to come in the Linux world since the move to systemd. However, unlike that systemd transition, the switch to Wayland was so seamless I had to logout and double check that I was in fact using Wayland.
I called Fedora 24, released earlier this year, “the year’s best Linux distro” but one that I would have a hard time recommending thanks to some ugly kernel-related bugs. Well, Fedora 25 is here with an updated kernel, the bugs appear to be gone, and I have no reservations about recommending it. Not only is Fedora 25 a great release, the updated GNOME 3.22 running on top of Wayland appears to be slick and very stable.
Wayland: The gripes first
The biggest change in this release is undoubtedly the move to Wayland as the default, erm protocol, replacing the venerable X Server. Wayland’s goal is to be easier to develop and maintain. To a lesser degree, it also aims to get rid of the X’s confusing clutter of accumulated bits that have been bolted on over the years.
Wayland is not, strictly speaking, a display server like X. Wayland is a protocol for a compositor to talk through. To make things more confusing the compositor can be a Wayland client itself. It could also be an X application, some input device or a standalone display server. Wayland doesn’t actually do much and that’s by design. As the Wayland FAQ puts it, “the compositor sends input events to the clients. The clients render locally and then communicate video memory buffers and information about updates to those buffers back to the compositor.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable for a change that’s so low-level, and in fact one that’s taking a lot of X functionality and moving lower down into the stack, is how unlikely you are to notice it. During testing so far (encompassing about two weeks of use as I write this), the transition to Wayland has been totally transparent. Even better, GNOME 3.22 feels considerably smoother with Wayland. It’s difficult to describe without seeing it, but little moments of tearing that used to happen under X are gone and common tasks like dragging windows are much smoother.
To be clear there are still plenty of things that don’t work with Wayland. In fact there likely will always be legacy system elements that don’t know what to make of Wayland and will never be updated. For that situation there’s XWayland, which is a plugin for Wayland compositors that runs a real X server inside Wayland. XWayland is a big part of why you’re unlikely to notice the move to Wayland.
There are some things to bear in mind about using Wayland with GNOME, especially since more than a few GNOME hacks won’t work anymore. For example, take desktop icons. These aren’t really a GNOME 3.x thing, though you could use Gnome Tweak Tools if you can get them, but they are not supported in Wayland and never will be. I’ve also been unable to find a clipboard manager that works properly under Wayland.
The other problem I’ve run into is that neither of the tint-shifting applications I use work with Wayland. Neither f.lux nor redshift do anything when running under Wayland. Judging by posts from around the Web, video playback is sometimes an issue too, though I have not actually experienced this problem. In terms of hardware support and Wayland, I would definitely suggest sticking with kernel 4.8.x or newer, which is exactly what Fedora 25 ships with.
The other major gripe I have with Wayland is that it doesn’t appear to support fractional scaling for HiDPI screens. It works great at 2X, which covers most screens, but there are those where 1X is too small, but 2X is too much. If you have a screen that works best at 1.5X, you might want to stick with X for now.
Those are, however, relatively minor issues. The biggest caveat to all the good news in Wayland is that Nvidia’s proprietary driver does not support Wayland. The open source Nouveau drivers do, but those drivers can be a noticeable step down depending on your system and what you’re trying to do. In my experience, the Nouveau drivers are also a little buggy, though to be clear I haven’t tested them with Wayland.
A new kernel
Along with Wayland, Fedora 25 brings Linux kernel 4.8.6, which means any lingering Skylake bugs should be fixed. I tested Fedora 25 on the Dell XPS 13 I reviewed earlier for Ars and found Fedora 25 worked flawlessly.
I should also note that for the first time, I was able to update from Fedora 24 to 25 using the GNOME Software system upgrade tool without any issues at all. That’s a first in over ten years of using Fedora (to be fair most of that time I didn’t even try because it was flat out hopeless).
This goes a long way to making Fedora a distro that’s friendly to less sophisticated users. In the past, updating Fedora meant you’d need a few days to troubleshoot all the things that broke. It was a pain point that the project has been aware of and working on for some time. The nicely named FedUp tool arrived around Fedora 23, and it helped some. Then the dnf upgrade tools came along in Fedora 24, and now there’s a completely graphical upgrade path via GNOME software. Shockingly, it just works.
The only caveat I would add is that, I maintain an install of Fedora primarily to get a rough idea of what’s coming in future CentOS releases (I imagine many Linux users do this, too). So while Fedora gets a partition on my drive, I have not heavily customized it and don’t have a ton of RPM Fusion repos installed, which could make for more problematic updates. Still, judging by comments sections, forums, and posts around the Web, my experience is not uncommon for the move from Fedora 24 to Fedora 25. That’s not to say you’re guaranteed a smooth upgrade, however. The real problem for most people seems to be with conflicting dependencies, often related to packages installed via RPM Fusion or other less-than-official repositories.
My long standing criticism of Fedora is that major updates come too frequently for how terrible the updating process has been historically. With Fedora 25, updates are smooth and even have a nice GUI via GNOME Software. So with this precedent seemingly changing, Fedora could start to find a wider audience going forward.
Listing image by Fedora Magazine