Updated: August 22, 2011
I have reviewed Scientific Linux 6.0 only three months ago, and here we have a service pack release, which means back to the test cave. In particular, today's review should be all the more interesting given my spectacular delight with CentOS 6. My desktop setups rarely change, but they sure will now, with CentOS as a new addition. The only question is, can Scientific Linux fit in there as the ultimate RedHat offspring?
Pitted against the likes of Linux Mint, Kubuntu and openSUSE, especially given the radical terraforming in the Linux desktop environment landscape, bulldozed by the likes of Unity and Gnome 3, staying with a proper and functional Gnome 2 desktop or the massively reformed KDE 4.6 one is more than just an aesthetic challenge. But Scientific did not quite best the competition in its six-oh-zero release. Perhaps the service pack brings in the much needed perfection?
I chose the live CD edition this time, a handsome 700MB release. All went well, barring one minor omission on my behalf; I forgot to save all of the screenshots collected during the live session testing and the installation. In a moment of spectacular oligophrenia, I had the images saved to the live user home directory. After the installation, I rebooted happily. Once the system reached the GRUB menu in a solid dual-boot configuration, I realized my mistake, but it was too late now. So you will forgive me for a spectacularly boring expose on the live session, but there's a ton of goodness coming in the actual, installed system.
Just for reference, in the live session, all of the following worked: Wireless, Bluetooth, Samba sharing, desktop effects, multimedia focused on Flash and MP3 playback, some other formats did not work, we will elaborate more soon. Suspend & resume, no sweat.
The desktop is simple and elegant, classic Gnome 2 with a wallpaper that looks a little livelier than before, but it's still not the most appealing choice. C'mon scientists, grab your fancy Fermi-Dirac thingies and suchlike and make some hyper-cool screenshots.
I begin with this item, which may not seem like the most important part of a desktop test, but it is. Not all the stuff you need is available in the standard repositories. Some extras can be obtained only by enabling additional repositories. If you choose to do so, there's a handful of these you can use - RPMforge, ATRPMS, EPEL, and more. You can find a detailed listing of repositories in this forum thread.
So we will enable some of these to get extra multimedia plugins and new software. But herein also lies the danger of repository conflicts. Without staggering their priority, you may end up with more than repository serving the same package with different versions, which can lead to installation and update deadlocks.
As part of my testing, I tried four additional repositories - and did encounter some glitches. Bear this mind. For now, a brief overview of what can be done, but we will have a dedicated tutorial on software management in Scientific Linux shortly.
Things worked fine, up to a point. Microsoft Media Server (MMS) and QuickTime plugins are not installed, so if you're into Apple Trailers or similar and radio streaming, some stuff may not work for you. Flash and MP3 are ok, which is what most people need.
After enabling the additional repositories and installing the missing plugins, you get all of the functionality you need.
The live CD is very lean when it comes to programs, a bit of a disappointment really. You get zero office programs, not even Abiword. There's Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Movie Player, and that's about it really.
If you spend some time tweaking the repositories and downloading programs, you can easily bolster your arsenal to a very respectable level. Some 400MB worth of downloads and half an hour later, I had VLC, Abiword, OpenOffice, Google Chrome, LyX, and GIMP installed and running happily.
Jolly well, no problems.
System stability, check, suspend & resume, check, memory usage at about 300-320MB cold, which is a decent number, although not as spectacular as some implementations of Gnome. One thing that did surprise me is a bit was the temperature of the graphic card. For an elderly laptop with a cripplish ATI card, 96 degrees Celsius is a fine point to boil some eggs and maybe finer bits of plastic. But the temperature is steady and the system behaves well.
Some posh art-like stuff ere the end. With a lot of great programs installed and a handful of sharp wallpapers, the distro begins to ooze cool like a canister of liquid nitrogen that physicist so much love. So we have some nuclear blasts and Chernkov radiation; I hope you approve the choice.
Some exist, carried over from the major release, some new items that I discovered during this specific test. The biggest one was with printing. The live CD edition comes with so little software that even the printing configuration wizard is omitted. So if you expect to find a menu item that reads printer or print or something along those lines somewhere, your search will be a long and futile one.
To be able to configure printers, you will need to install the system-config-printer tool first, then get the appropriate menu entry and then things will work fine, including discovering network-based printers connected to Windows hosts over Wireless network.
Ah, there you go, the challenge. If you've read my review, and more importantly, the pimping article, you will notice that CentOS is a beautiful system with no issues or conflicts. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Scientific Linux yet. True, it's a much younger distro that will require more time to polish and make as robust, but to users who need total stability and predictability this very moment, the finer details of reputation and future growth are lost.
Scientific Linux is a very good system, I repeat VERY good system. But CentOS is just that much better. It's all about the tiny details, like printing, repository conflicts, some of the administrative clarity, the available information online.
I guess by the third service pack, Scientific Linux might become the preferable modern alternative, and I have yet to explore the full capabilities of both RedHat clones on more recent systems, with Nvidia cards and other fancy stuff. But today, Scientific Linux loses by a small margin to its more conservative brother.
Scientific Linux deserves a lot of praise and credit. I think it was the first desktop-oriented RHEL spin that truly offered what normal people need without too much extra fuss. The 5.4 release was truly phenomenal in a time when neither RHEL nor CentOS would mount NTFS partitions without tweaks. Since, version 6.0 has been released, bringing new goods to the table, alongside some early-rushed glitches, which persist into the service pack.
Overall, Scientific Linux works well - it's fast and stable and modern and can easily be turned into a beautiful and fully functional desktop with everything you need. But it does all of this with a fairly high margin of risk. Users can so very easily make mistakes and ruin their systems. The repository management must not be given to users. It must be centralized. Printing and a weak default collection of programs in the live CD version, that's another pair of faults. Nothing major, but perfection is won by tiny, tiny details.
Scientific Linux 6.1 is a little better than its predecessor, about 9/10. Not bad. If you ask me, get all the extra repositories sorted and prioritized so that users can grab stuff like VLC and Abiword and other programs without risking complete system failure. That alone would bring the grade up by half a point. Then, a more varied application set. Finally, the perfect multimedia support as it used to be in the 5.4 release!
For now, my eyes are set on a handful of replacements for Ubuntu systems, including Kubuntu, Mint and CentOS. Scientific Linux is almost there, but it needs some more magic dust to break through. That's it for now, have fun.