Today I’d like to take a look at a newly released distribution, Mandriva 2010. In the past I’ve found it to be a well accomplished and easy to use desktop distro, even if the last release wasn’t quite as stellar as I’d hoped. How would this version stack up? Let’s find out.
I also talked about Mandriva 2010 on episode 121 of the Linux Outlaws podcast if you want too hear more.
I still remember the first time I saw Mandriva, or Mandrake as it was then known. It was way back in 2002 when a university friend introduced me to this alternative operating system known as Linux. I really knew nothing about it at the time, but obviously that’s changed over the years. Real old school Linux users who were bootstrapping Slackware back in 93 will laugh at that, I’m still wet behind the ears in comparison. But this was the moment my world changed, at least in software terms. I defend Mandriva when people make jokes about it being yesterdays distro, perhaps because it was my first exposure to Linux as a whole, but also because I think it has a lot to offer. It’s true that after the heights of 2000 Mandriva fell off the pace a little, and then Ubuntu burst onto the scene in a brown blur, but it shouldn’t be written off by any means. I returned to it with Mandriva 2008 and would still rank that as one of the best desktop distro releases of recent years. 2009 wasn’t quite as good, I had some problems getting things working on my hardware, but 2010 offers renewed promise. With these thoughts floating around my excuse for a brain, I downloaded both the Gnome and KDE versions of Mandriva One 2010 on release day.
I installed the Gnome edition first, not for any particular reason, just because it was first to hand. So I’ll give you a quick run down of that before getting into more detail about the KDE variant. Upon booting the live CD I was prompted to accept the license. That’s a bit odd for a Linux install but reading through the Mandriva license it seems to mainly consist of the GNU GPL, which of course I am happy to accept. I couldn’t see any particularly nasty EULA stuff in there, but then I’m not a lawyer. I was also prompted to choose a keyboard language and whether to enable 3D effects via Compiz or Metisse. I like the way Mandriva assumes that if you’ve got a freedom hating Nvidia card, you’re likely to want to use the binary driver, and it just works. I could spin the Compiz cube even on the live CD. Ubuntu prompts you to enable restricted drivers rather than just installing them, and while I can see the philosophical argument for trying to educate users, it’s nice when your card just works. They have a whole other release which on consists of 100% libre software anyway, Mandriva Free. I won’t be looking at that in this article. The install was very quick at about 12mins and all seemed to go smoothly. I won’t go into precise detail about that as I spent more time examining the KDE edition, we’ll get to that in a minute. I did find I was immediately at home with the Gnome edition though. Software is easy to install with the built in tool and the repositories are refreshingly deep. For example, I was able to just grab the latest gPodder (2.0) without any hassle. I did miss a few tools like Tasque for keeping track of my TODO lists, but most of what I needed was there. I had to install Nano, the command line text editor, and also set up Sudo to allow me to do jobs quicker as root. I suppose that’s a reflection of the way I’ve gotten used to working personally. It was a 2 minute job, so I wasn’t too worried. Fedora and other distros also work in this way. They don’t give you sudo for running commands as root because they say it’s less secure. Some professional security people I know would say the opposite, but that argument is beyond the scope of this article. I won’t bore you with it now.
I did run into a couple of teething problems I should report. Firstly the update manager kept prompting me to “upgrade” to Mandriva 2009, which seemed a bit odd since I was on 2010. I wouldn’t claim to be a maths expert but I’m pretty sure 2010 comes after 2009. I was still able to install normal package updates and fixes without a problem, so I just ignored it. This was fixed by a package update after a couple of days, I can only assume someone made a mistake with version numbering in the release. I also found my machine started to get slow and bogged down after some updates. I couldn’t browse my home folder with Nautilus, it just gave me a blank window and it became something of a problem. Much to my relief this was completely fixed after a reboot, and I can only assume an update changed some underlying system component as the machine was running. It probably should have prompted me to reboot and complete the update though. These problems were pretty isolated and overall I enjoyed the Gnome edition immensely. Browsing a Windows network share in Nautilus just worked. The package manager was lightening fast for both searches and installs. I can only assume this is something to do with the way it caches package data locally on your machine. Most package managers do this, but they don’t always perform so quickly. I was impressed. Next I moved onto the KDE edition, so lets look at that in a bit more detail.
Installing the KDE edition of Mandriva 2010 proved to be a lot harder for me than Gnome. I don’t say that as a convicted Gnome fan, before all the KDE supporters jump on me. I ran into a couple of strange bugs in the installer I haven’t seen on any distro before. These were nothing to do with KDE itself I don’t think, they just cropped up during that install. Let me describe what happened. First of all the live CD took over 5 minutes to boot for some reason, this pattern would later repeat itself. I went through the license and settings screens as I had with Gnome, but this time there was no prompt to choose 3D desktop effects. I was puzzled by this at first, then it occurred to me that KDE4 contains its own compositing effects, and you probably wouldn’t use something like Compiz on top of that. I later confirmed that the Nvidia driver was indeed loaded and KDE4 effects were working. It’s nice to see the developers have thought about the differences between the two desktops. I was able to connect to wireless easily in the KDE4 live session. It worked very much like Network Manager in Gnome, I just clicked the icon and entered my key. One area of 2010 I’m not so happy with is the changes to DrakeX, the partitioning tool. In the release notes they say they’ve simplified it for new users. I found it more confusing, but perhaps that’s just me. I also discovered while using the installer that it has no “back” button. If you make a mistake on one step and want to go back, you have to cancel the whole thing and start again. It’s not a massive job as the whole installer only has about 6 screens to it but still, I think the addition of a back button would be helpful. Most other installers have them these days and it shouldn’t be hard to implement technically.
On both installs I was asked if I wanted to remove packages for hardware I didn’t have from the install profile, this would make it slimmer. It’s a good idea and seems to work well enough. I suppose if you add new hardware later you’d need to install the additional packages again, but it makes sense not to clutter up the system with unused drivers. This stage of the install was really quick and smooth. It only took about 10 minutes, but I would soon discover this wasn’t the end of the process. You have to log out and shut down the machine manually after installation. There’s no “would you like to reboot now?” prompt at the end. That would be another bit of polish they could add. Upon rebooting the system things got a little hairy. I was prompted about repository updates during boot time and it seemed to be downloading packages. I was asked to create a new user account and choose a root password. The machine then hung for about 20 minutes. The hard disk like was blinking like crazy and it was clearly doing something, but it totally locked up during this time. I was left with a blank screen and no idea what was going on. I decided to just let it carry on in hope. Eventually, after a long wait, I was taken to the registration and survey wizard, which if I’m honest I usually just skip. I appreciate they want to get people to buy Mandriva upgrades but I’m not that interested. I actually used to have a Mandriva Club account and didn’t see much benefit to it. That may have changed since 2004 or whenever it was I paid. When skipping the survey the machine locked again for another 10 minutes or so, before booting into the new KDE4 desktop. Even when I did get to the desktop the machine clearly wasn’t happy at all, it took minutes to open the KDE menu and the processor was working overtime. I tried to do a few little tasks but got frustrated by the delay and decided to reboot again. Miraculously everything was fine after that. I don’t know what caused all these system hangs or bugs during the KDE install, but it took an hour to complete because of them. A lot longer than the Gnome version. Perhaps my installer disc was damaged but I ran an md5 checksum and it passed with flying colours. I should be clear to point out, the system is running great on KDE4 now, fast as anything and I’m very happy. I’m typing this from my KDE desktop now! It was just the initial install that caused me pain. Hopefully the developers have fixed that and this was just a faulty release I had. Time will tell.
Using the system:
I found installing software on the KDE edition as easy as with Gnome, it’s all the same tools. I installed Gwibber 1.2 from the repo as I had before, but although it installed ok it just wouldn’t open, crashing out with no useful errors. This might be because it’s a Gnome application but I’d expect Choqok to be available instead, it wasn’t in the repos. I have to conclude that the repositories aren’t quite as deep as the Ubuntu and some other distros, though they are still very respectable. EDIT: Thanks to @marqueue on Twitter for pointing out that there is a working RPM on the Choqok website. Would still be nice if it was in the repo though I think. Installing Pidgin, Easytag, VLC, Audacity, gPodder and more was easy. I installed both Nano and Sudo, setting them up as before. Once again I was prompted to upgrade to Mandriva 2009 a few times, but this went away after some packages updates. I’ve been using the KDE edition a couple of days now and everything is worked well, I can do pretty much every task I normally would. I’m confined to the web browser for my microblogging which is a shame, but I can manage. In some ways it actually helps me get off Identi.ca and Twitter and be more productive. I like the Dolphin file manager and the KDE plugger a lot, I’m not sure if that’s the official name for it so I apologise if it’s wrong. It notifies you when you plug in external devices and offers a range of actions. Gnome does something similar but it’s not quite as slick in my opinion. Overall, I think KDE4 is really getting into it’s stride now with 4.2 and 4.3. I still don’t understand the wisdom of releasing a testing version as 4.0, saying it’s supposed to be low key, but then having a massive release party at the Googleplex. The KDE developers say this was always a testing version to iron out bugs and 4.1 was the first proper release, but personally I think that backfired. It gave KDE4 a bad name as buggy and unstable in the early days. It isn’t now, far from it as I said, but whether they can shake off a bad first impression I guess we’ll find out. If you’re interested in KDE I would say 4.3 is well worth a try, and this Mandriva implementation is as good as any I’ve seen to date. I still felt more comfortable on Gnome, but that’s my own preference.
Going Mobile With Mandriva:
One of the unique things about this Mandriva release is it’s the first major distro to come out with its own customized Moblin desktop. In case you don’t know Moblin is a project to produce a dedicated mobile Linux OS for netbooks and other devices. It has a simplified user interface and was originally started by Intel, then later handed over to the custody of the Linux Foundation. They expect all the major distributions to take Moblin and build on it for their own netbook editions. In Mandriva 2010 you can install the Moblin desktop packages easily from the software management tool. You then just select that session type at login. I’m not sure if they have a dedicated Moblin/netbook download yet but that would be very handy if the intention is to get Mandriva installed on more of those devices. There’s a demo video available if you’d like to see how this implementation of Moblin works.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5 (Would have been 4 but for the KDE install problems)
Speed & Stability: 4/5
Community Support & Documentation: 3/5
I’ve enjoyed using Mandriva 2010 and one thing I wanted to see was how the different desktop editions compared. In the past I’ve always thought of Mandriva as a mostly KDE centric distro, rightly or wrongly, that’s been my impression. I can definitely say there’s no favouritism here, both versions are well thought out. There are little differences but you won’t be missing anything no matter which you choose. I did run into some rough edges in the initial release, the false upgrade prompt to an older version was a bit confusing. This was fixed a couple of days after release though and I hope the installer images on the mirrors have been fixed accordingly. I don’t know what to make of my troubled KDE install, I hope that was just an isolated incident. Maybe it was my hardware, and it has run well since rebooting after that initial painful install. All in all this is a good release and I particularly enjoyed the Gnome edition. I was very comfortable on that and could happily use it as my full time desktop. I found the package manager really fast and efficient. There are also nice little features like the automatic backup prompt when you plug in a USB drive. It allows you to take a snapshot of the system and even set up scheduling for that if you want. Handy if you ever have an accident and need to restore things. The Mandriva Control Center works well and gives you a simple way to configure things. I did find installing a network printer from a remote Windows machine wasn’t straightforward. I couldn’t browse for it as I have done on Ubuntu and Mint, amongst other distros.
So what’s the bottom line then? Well, if you want a solid, easy to use desktop distro you should give Mandriva a look. I don’t feel this release is quite up to the heights of 2008, but it’s probably better than 2009. The minor bugs have been ironed out now and I think it’s a good starting point for Linux beginners. It may not have the kudos or large community of some other distros these days, but you count Mandriva out at your own risk. If you’re looking for something a little different to Ubuntu or Fedora but still easy enough install, try Mandriva. You might be surprised at what a great little distro it is.
If you do decide to install it, let me know how you get on in the comments.
The big distro releases keep coming thick and fast at the moment, they all seem to be doing it at once. Perhaps Mark Shuttleworth’s calls for synchronised releases haven’t fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps it’s just coincidence, we’ll see. At the time of writing OpenSUSE 11.2 has been released today. In the past I’ve found SUSE to be a business focused distro, great in an office, but not so much for the home user. Is this justified? I’m going to install it in the next couple of days and find out. So why not join me and we’ll discover it together, don’t forget your toothbrush…