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Valuing System Simplicity

Last year I wrote about my experience installing and using Fedora Silverblue.

For the most part I liked the experience, but when I got around to installing Linux on my new PC a couple weeks ago I decided to go with Fedora Workstation instead of Silverblue. The two are nearly identical except for under the hood differences, so why did I switch?

First, what I liked and still like about Silverblue

The big thing for me was reliability and the way updates are handled. The root filesystem is immutable which reduces the risk that you’ll be able to mess something up by making changes. On top of that, updates are deployed atomically all at once in the background. The new deployment will automatically be used after a normal reboot and the previous deployment is always available from the boot menu just in case. In practice, that means I hardly ever had to think about updates at all.

Those sound like good things, so what was the problem?

Atomic updates do a lot towards guaranteeing you’ll always have a working computer, but they’re not a magic bullet. At one point I found myself troubleshooting a problem in the update process itself, which took a while considering I was unfamiliar with it and how hidden the error was. Thankfully, once I remembered the system still had a previous deployment I could boot from I was able to use that to successfully complete the update. I technically always had a working machine, but I still burned a lot of time trying to figure things out.

Installing software was a mild annoyance. For your typical desktop program things are straightforward — just do a search in the Software app and install via Flatpak. But I also rely on a lot of command line and development tools, some of which can get pretty niche. There’s a couple different ways to install these like installing to a container or overlaying it onto your base system. Neither method is especially difficult, you just have to learn some new ideas. Personally, I started getting tired of the added complexity this introduced.

Both of those points bring me to the bigger idea of why I switched. Fedora Silverblue is really neat but I realized it was feeling like a black box. I love what it’s doing but I also don’t really know how it’s doing it. I totally could take the time to dig deeper and I’m sure it would be rewarding, but I’m also at the stage of Linux distrohopping where I’m really starting to value simplicity and familiar conventions.

My takeaways

Fedora Silverblue and distros like it would be near perfect for me if my computer needs were a little bit different where I could rely solely on Flatpaks. I felt like I was making my system increasingly complex with each non-Flatpak package I installed, and if anything ever did go wrong it would take me longer to troubleshoot due to the whole system’s unfamiliarity.

Fedora Silverblue is still helping me out even though I’m using Fedora Workstation now. It got me used to using the Toolbox utility to install and run things in containers, which I found myself using again on Workstation last week to build a project. Like I said, it does a lot right that I love, but for a complete package I think I enjoy something simpler.

— JP

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