Meeting users, lots of users

Every year, I introduce Fedora to new students at Brno Technical University. There are approx. 500 of them and a sizable amount of them then installs Fedora. We also organize a sort of installfest one week after the presentation where anyone who has had any difficulties with Fedora can come and ask for help. It’s a great opportunity to observe what things new users struggle with the most. Especially when you have such a high number of new users. What are my observations this year?

  • I always ask how many people have experience with Linux (I narrow it down to GNU/Linux distributions excluding things like Android). A couple of years ago, only 25-30% of students raised their hands. This year, it was roughly 75% which is a significant increase. It seems like high school students interested in IT are more familiar with Linux than ever before.
  • Linux users tend to have strong opinions about desktops (too thick or thin title bars, too light or dark theme, no minimize button etc), but new users coming from Windows and MacOS don’t care that much. We give students Fedora Workstation with GNOME and receive almost no complains about the desktop from them, and literally zero questions how to switch to another desktop.
  • The most frequent question we receive is why they have multiple Fedora entries in GRUB. Like many other distributions, Fedora keeps three last kernels and allows you to boot with them via entries in GRUB. When you install Fedora, there is just one entry, but with kernel updates you get the second and then third. And new users are completely puzzled by that. One guy came and told us: “I’ve got two Fedora entries in the menu, I’m afraid I’ve installed the OS twice accidentally, can you help me remove the second instance?” Hiding the menu is not a solution because most students have dualboots with Windows and switching between OSes is a common use case for them. But we should definitely compress the Fedora entries into one somehow.
  • Hardware support evergreen are discrete graphics cards. They’re still not natively supported by Linux and you can find them on most laptops these days and laptops of students are not an exception. So this is currently the most frequent hardware support problem we get installing Fedora. Someone brought a Dell Inspiron 15 7000 series where Fedora didn’t boot at all (other distributions fail on this model, too).
  • Another common problem are Broadcom wireless cards. It’s easy to solve if you know what to do and have a wired connection. But some laptops don’t even have ethernet sockets any more. With one laptop, we ended up connecting to WiFi via phone and tethering with the laptop via a microUSB-USB cable.
  • Installation of Fedora is simple. A couple of clicks, several minutes and you’re done. But only if everything goes ideally. Anaconda handles the typical scenario “Installing Fedora next to Windows” well, but there was a student who had a relatively new Lenovo laptop with MBR and 4 primary partitions (MBR in 2016?!) which effectively prevents you from installing anything on the disk unless you want to lose a Windows recovery partition because MBR can’t handle more than 4 primary partitions. Someone had a dualboot of Windows and Hackintosh which is also in “not-so-easy” waters as well. It also shows how difficult life Linux installer developers have, you can cover most common scenarios, but you can’t cover all possible combinations laptop vendor or later users can create on disks.
  • We’ve also come a conclusion that it’s OK to admit that the hardware support in Linux for the laptop model is not good enough and offer the student an installation in a virtual machine in Windows. You can sometimes manage to get it working, but you know it’s likely to fall apart with the next update of kernel or whatever. Then it’s more responsible to recommend the student virtualization.

6 thoughts on “Meeting users, lots of users

  1. Hiding the multiple versions is the obvious option. It’s what Debian does for example: One menu entry “Debian GNU/Linux”, a submenu “Advanced Options for Debian GNU/Linux”, and menu entries in the sub menu like “Debian GNU/Linux, with Linux 4.7.0-1-amd64 (systemd)”

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