It’s been a while since I posted a really meaty distro review and I apologize for that, I won’t bore you with all the reasons and excuses but instead get right back into it. I’ve started distro hopping again on my main machine (Dell M1330 laptop) to keep me on my toes and my first stop on the tour was Mandriva One 2009. I had great things to say about the 2008 release and I was eager to see how the new version would measure up, here’s how I got on:
Distro base – Red Hat (Forked many moons ago though it has to be said)
Packaging – .rpm (Managed by URPMI)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.27-desktop586-0.rc8.2mnb
Default Desktop – KDE 4.1 or Gnome 2.24 (in the versions I tried)
The first step in the process was obviously to download and burn a copy of the software to install. On the download page you are presented with 3 options: Mandriva One which contains all the software you could need on one LiveCD, Mandriva Free which only contains completely free (as in speech, GPL) software, no proprietary drivers or packages and lastly the Mandriva Powerpack which is a paid for version you can either download or have delivered in a boxed set. Powerpack comes with additional commercial software bundled in, you also get some support and access to services other users don’t, this is on top of all the packages you could ever want on one DVD disc. I decided to go for Mandriva One as I did last year because it suits my particular requirements, I like to support GPL software wherever possible but I also want my freedom hating Nvidia graphics card to work. I’m far too cheap to put my hand in my pocket and order Powerpack, so One it is. I started with the KDE 4.1 version, not usually my favourite environment but I figured I should give it a proper try.
Edit: When I originally wrote this I complained about the lack of promotion for the Gnome version of Mandriva on the download page but it seems the site has been updated since I looked a couple of weeks back. I cut that section out but wanted to set that record straight.
I booted up the LiveCD and was immediately prompted to accept a license agreement up front which seems strange in a Linux distribution but doesn’t particularly bother me as I know it does some others. I was then prompted for my choice of 3D desktop effects, either Metisse or Compiz Fusion. Metisse looks very interesting I must say but I selected Compiz as I normally do. After a quick flash of the Nvidia splash screen the LiveCD booted up and I had full 3D effects even in the live session. This is the same experience as I had with Mandriva 2008 and I think it’s great for new users, there are of course many political issues when dealing with proprietary drivers but I think the Mandriva approach of assuming if I have an Nvidia card in my machine I’d like to use it is a fair one. I did find the LiveCD ran a little slowly on my machine, I’m not sure why and there’s always a lag when running from an optical disc but this was slower than I’ve noticed in other releases. I clicked the install icon on desktop and got down to business anyway. It took just over 10 minutes to reformat the drive and install. As usual I used my existing partitions a 12gb root partition, 4gb swap and around 140gb home partition. I removed all the hidden settings files and folders from my home partition before leaving my previous distro so as not to confuse things but retained all my data and only formatted the / (root) partition.
The install went smoothly and the installer is intuitive enough to use but every time you think you’ve finished another dialog pops up. Once you reboot the machine you get more screens asking you to set up your new user account, answer a survey, register the product, think about buying the paid version and so on. I understand the company needs user feedback and would like you to graduate to a paid version of the product, that’s all perfectly normal but even with the option to skip these pages it feels a bit like badgering to me. It’s like those people who approach you with clip boards asking your opinion on something when you just want to get to the bus stop, we all know somebody has to do it but we don’t want it to us and we avoid them. One innovative feature of the installer I’d really like to highlight though is the option to remove packages that don’t apply to your hardware from the installation profile before you actually install. This saves space and may increase performance. A minor problem I encountered on both the KDE and Gnome install was the machine freezing while trying to reboot and compete the install. I had to manually power off the machine. The installation worked once rebooting from the hard drive and it may be something limited to my hardware but it was a little worrying.
Please follow the link below if you’d like to see a full slideshow of the installation process:
Configuring the system:
I noticed upon booting the new install that the screen resolution was set wrong for my laptops display, even though it was using the proper Nvidia driver. The 13.3 inch screen should run at 1280×800 but it seemed to be running at 1024×768. After selecting 1280×800 from a dialog in the Control Centre and rebooting the X server i had the right resolution but now the main KDE task bar didn’t fit the screen width. This puzzled me a bit but I was able to fix it by right-clicking on the bar and using the settings menu to stretch it out. I should really take a moment to talk about the system administration tool in Mandriva called the Control Centre, for me it represents as full a collection of GUI tools available in any distribution. Much like OpenSUSE everything is collected into one applet not unlike the Windows Control Panel structure which some people love and others hate. I think for a new user though, especially one moving from a Windows background the layout of these tools is really useful and easy to pick up. My display was looking pretty good by now but I found Compiz seemed a little sluggish, switching desktops was jittery and something just wasn’t right. Once again I found the fix in the Control Centre, this time under 3D Desktop Effects configuration section. You will see from the screen shot (figure 1 bellow) that under Compiz Fusion there are 2 radio boxes marked native and XGL. I selected XGL as the compositing engine and suddenly things got a lot quicker. I don’t think my graphics card was being used to it’s full potential and it seems strange after the Nvidia card was set up so easily for me in the install.
Next up it was time to sort out my wireless internet connection which was so easy I really can’t fault it. I simply clicked the icon in the tray next to the clock, selected my home wireless network SSID from the list and entered the my WPA key. Within a minute I was online and everything worked. I’m a big fan of Network Manager in Gnome but this Mandriva Network Centre compared very favourably. I was able to find and install software very easily via the “Install & Remove Software” tool which appears on the main menu in both Gnome and KDE versions. It works very much like the Ubuntu tool of a similar name. You enter search for your package by name or browse the categories then you just tick a box and add it to your list. When you’re ready you click the “apply” button to download and install. This can be confusing for users coming from the likes of Windows where the “add and remove applications” tool is really only ever used to remove that annoying program you thought was a good idea late one night. I found the collection of software in the Mandriva repositories to be pretty comprehensive and certainly comparable to Ubuntu and it’s ilk.
I installed Gpodder, Deluge, Mediatomb, Bluefish, Pidgin and much more very easily and quickly. All of the apps were also at the latest released version which is very good, you want your repos to be up to date and this seemed right up to the minute. I installed Checkgmail from the RPM package on their website and it worked very well. I also found the multimedia codecs I needed were available, when trying to play a file I was prompted by a tool called Codeina to either buy a commercial codec or download a free community one. This is done through Fluendo who sell legal licenses for many restricted codecs in the US, they do a valuable job but not living in an area affected by this restriction and always naturally drawn to the free option I chose the community option and it worked just fine. At this point you’d think all in the garden was rosy but it wasn’t.
The Sound Of Silence:
Wait, did you hear something? No neither did I and it was at this point that I realised my machine wasn’t producing any sound at all. There wasn’t even a little volume control applet in the system tray which didn’t bode well. It seemed my internal Intel sound card wasn’t being supported by the distro. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the lack of sound until opening a video for the first time but there we go. I did some searching on the Internet and luckily it didn’t take too long to turn up this thread from the Mandriva forum. After reading through I discovered the sound device used in a lot of new Dell laptops like the m1530, m1330 (mine) and others isn’t supported by Mandriva 2009 or at least not by the stock kernel on the disc. It seems this was a minor problem with the release as it had worked in 2008. I found through following the forum thread some other users had fixed their problems by installing a new kernel (kernel-linus-2.6.27-0.rc8.3.1mdv-1-1mdv2009) from here, so I downloaded the packages as suggested and followed suit which was as easy as a double-click of the RPM package files. After rebooting the system I was able to select the new kernel on boot from my GRUB bootloader menu. To my relief this time I did hear sound when logging in all be it with an slightly annoying buzz from the speakers. The last step in the fix was editing my GRUB settings to boot this kernel by default. I did this in a terminal with the following command:
“sudo nano /boot/grub/menu.lst”
I set the default selection parameter at the top of the file to 3 so it would choose the kernel I wanted each time. I found that the buzz was being caused by the mic input on the front of the laptop, muting it in the PulseAudio settings helped but it wasn’t ideal. All in all this fix wasn’t too hard and for a user with a reasonable amount of Linux experience it’s fine but I can’t help thinking this is a quite an oversight. I know many people probably installed Mandriva on their machines with no trouble at all and this may well be limited to the hardware in my machine but I’ve never had this problem with another distribution and it was a bit disappointing. I should point out that I was impressed with the response to this problem and I was also pleased to see Adam Williamson of Mandriva involved in the forum thread. It’s possible this was an upstream problem with kernel development of course but it still seems like a QA oversight which a lot of novice users may struggle with.
You get the latest Gnome which is 2.24 and it’s very nicely done I must say, I immediately felt at home with the Gnome desktop, this is probably down to my personal preferences. All of the latest Gnome apps were present, I still had the same problems with screen resolution and the lack of sound but fixing them was a lot easier having done it once before. I installed all the software I easily and had the system working fine in no time. I stayed on the Gnome version for over a week and was very comfortable I must say, I really enjoyed it.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 4/5
Speed & Stability: 3/5
Community Support & Documentation: 4/5
If I’m honest I found Mandriva 2009 a little bit of a let down after raving so much about 2008. There seemed to be a few rough edges in this release, not least my sound problems which I accept are probably limited to my hardware but still don’t create a good impression. Last year I recommended Mandriva and Linux Mint 4 as my personal favourite distros for newcomers to the platform and a lot of the things I liked are still there. Maybe my expectations were too high because I found 2008 to be such a quantum leap over previous versions but 2009 seemed a little less polished to me. It has many good points of course and for a user wanting an easy to learn rpm based distribution I would still say it’s probably my personal favourite over OpenSUSE or Fedora. I find OpenSUSE is really suited to the office environment more than home use and Fedora is often a little too experimental and unstable for me. Make no mistake this is a good distribution and while it may not seem as fashionable these days as it once was, if you want something different from Ubuntu and a new experience then it could be right for you. I also think it’s a really good implementation of KDE 4.1 so KDE fans might want to give it a look just for that. To sum up, it’s a nice distro but this release has some minor problems and I wasn’t as impressed by it as I’d hoped to be. You may find things different so please try it out and leave a comment to let me know what you think.
You can download Mandriva 2009 here
I had planned to try out my first BSD after Mandriva but then of course I’d forgotten about the big Ubuntu release which was imminent. I’m no running Intrepid Ibex and I will write up my thoughts on it soon but I only plan to make it a quick stop as I know Ubuntu so well already, I need fresh blood ah ah ah. If you have a suggestion please feel free to leave it in a comment. See you all soon for the next installment…