The end of the year traditionally is a very busy time for distribution lovers…although things are a bit quiet at the moment. Ubuntu 8.10, OpenSuse 11 and Fedora 10 are just around the corner, and Debian 5 should have been released already but is delayed. That means the only major release so far has been Mandriva 2009. Let’s see if its place in the spotlight is deserved.
Mandriva, of course, needs little introduction. It’s one of the undisputed Linux greats, although it has slipped a bit in the Distrowatch rankings lately. To be honest, a couple of years ago the Mandriva releases weren’t that good. These days though, the quality seems to be improving again.
There’s a lot to like about Mandriva. It offers (or tries to offer), a complete, good-looking desktop OS for the computer user who can’t be bothered with too much fiddling or fidgeting…in other words, 99% of the people out there. Another plus is Adam Williamson, Mandriva’s Community Manager. This guy is an example of how to communicate to the public and/or the customers. While other Linux prominents are able to start a message board flamewar with a few hasty comments, Adam W always seems to remain calm, informative and helpful. This is a rarity on the internet, so I think it deserves mentioning ;)
Anyway, when 2009 came out a couple of days ago, I quickly decided to try it out. Mandriva’s not the distribution I’d run (as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’m an Arch fan, which means I like to do stuff myself) but I’m always curious what distribution I should recommend to others. Mandriva’s come close a couple of times, but there were always some things that irked me a bit. Not much, but enough to prefer Ubuntu. Let’s see if that’s changed.
I grabbed the KDE4 version for two reasons: normally I’m working in a GTK environment, so I wanted a change, and more importantly, I wanted to know what Mandriva did with the new (and still a bit rough round the edges) KDE.
Almost every major Linux distribution is a LiveCD these days, which makes installing it even easier. Usually I don’t bother with it much, but now I decided to have a look around.
Mandriva 2009 certainly looks good. The boot splash and the wallpaper are reminiscent of the 2008 version, but darker, and more abstract. I liked it, but if you don’t, there are a lot of other gorgeous pictures to choose from. I don’t know if they’re stock KDE, or Mandriva additions, but they look good. I did notice that, in contract to Mandriva 2008, the background doesn’t change with the time of day anymore. This probably is because of the change from KDE3, to KDE4 (KDE 4.1.2 to be exact). The style is a new an improved version of Mandriva’s LaOra. I’m not sure yet if I like it better than KDE’s default Oxygen. It’s a bit too blue for my tastes, but otherwise quite pretty without being intrusive. The screensaver also deserves a mention, because the pictures provided are just that beautiful. I could let this system idle just to look at them. Whoever’s in charge of this obviously had taste, because I felt that way too about the screensaver in 2008.
I noticed the LiveCD used the nVidia driver when it started X, which I like. Installing the nVidia driver manually is one of the last annoyances in modern Linux distributions. It did, however, pick the wrong resolution for my widescreen monitor (1600×1200 instead of 1680×1050). It was easily fixed in the Control Center, with the only hiccup being the panel which now occupied only half the screen. Adjusting that wasn’t hard either, and after that things looked much better. I tried both Compiz Fusion and KDE4′s inbuilt desktop effects, and both worked just fine. Personally, I prefer KDE’s own effects…I find them more tasteful and easier to configure, but that’s just me. I did notice some weirdness in the systray icons, an example of which which is actually visible on the screenshot (the black square around the speaker icon). It always disappeared when hovering the mouse pointer over the icons.
Speed didn’t impress me much, but it’s not meant to be a rescue system either. It was fast enough to use normally, without being snappy. I fiddled around some more and didn’t notice any obvious bugs, except when I tried to reboot (without installing). The progress bar just stopped, and I had to do a hard reboot. This happened every time, but otherwise, things worked just fine.
Installing Linux is easy these days. I’m in a position to compare, because the XP installation of my girlfriend’s Dell laptop was totally borked, and had to be reinstalled. I disliked the idea of yet another XP install so much my brother ended up doing it, with my help. It was hellish, and took two days to finish properly.
By contrast, installing Mandriva 2009 was stupidly easy and took something like ten minutes. I didn’t time it, because I was still writing these very lines. As I said, easy.
Upon first boot there was some configuration left to do (mainly giving a root password and adding a user), and then KDE4 started up again, this time a good deal faster. Though nowhere near the speeds I’m used to on my Arch + Openbox partition, it never felt as if my hardware had troubles with the OS.
I was pleased to see the configuration changes I had made were still apparent, and even the screenshot I had taken was saved in my home directory. The weird backgrounds in the systray were back too, however, and the panel didn’t have the right width again.
Configuration and usage
I then started to setup the system so it was usable on a daily basis. As I said, one of the things I always have to do is to install the nVidia driver. After first boot, I found the desktop effects working great, so I assumed X was using the nVidia driver. A quick look in xorg.conf confirmed that, but when I had a look in the Configuration Center, it told me that a non-free driver was available, and would I like to use it? Nonplussed, I clicked “Yes”, and sure enough, a lot of packages were downloaded and installed. I then had to log out of KDE and log back in…and then the screen blacked out and threw me back to the login screen. A second attempt was more successful. I’m not sure what happened there, but so far, it hasn’t repeated itself.
Sound worked well, and so did accessing the network. I’ve recently bought a printer, which means I have an extra way of testing hardware support. It’s a small, simple HP, and I’ve been able to make it work in every Linux distribution I’ve installed since. Mandriva baffled me here though, because of the lack of a printer configuration module in the Configuration Center. There was a heading “Configure printing and scanning”, but it only offered a wizard to configure scanners. Then, I remembered that the LiveCD had asked me if I wanted to remove unwanted hardware support, and sure enough, my printer wasn’t switched on at that time. That meant that the package system-printer-config had been removed, and now I had to install it again (Edit: As Adam Williamson has pointed out, I was wrong here. This is actually a bug.).
Now, this is the point where Mandriva always acts flaky to me. Installing software with the command-line tool urpmi always works just fine. Using the GUI installer always results in irritation on my part. Sure enough, I got some errors when updating the software repositories, but I decided to ignore them. Then, I got told that RPMdrake needed to be updated first. I clicked “OK” but nothing seemed to happen. I tried again, and got the same message. Clicking “OK” this time resulted in installing the printer configuration tool with all its dependencies. It was a bit confusing, but at least it got the job done: the printer tool was now present. Clicking it resulted in the installation of another wad of packages, then the printer was found, and the driver installed. In the end, it all worked out fine, but it’s still far from plug and play.
I must add that the Configuration Center itself is a joy to use. The layout is clear and the modules are easy enough for even novice users. In comparison, the Desktop Configuration utility (which is KDE’s own) feels messy and cluttered, but that isn’t Mandriva’s fault.
So far for the hardware, let’s see what Mandriva 2009 offers in terms of software. For chat-addicts, there’s Kopete, which I detest, but Pidgin is available in the repos. There’s Firefox and Konqueror for browsing, but Firefox is the default. In these days, I guess that makes sense. Flash and movie plugins are provided (using Totem for movies) and work well. The only site that gave me trouble was apple.com, where the movie trailers started to play and then halted. Other sites with Quicktime movies played just fine.
To my surprise, Amarok 2 is also included. At this point, it’s still very much in development, and I’d question the wisdom of using this over the older, but more stable 1.4.9. The build here dates October 3rd, which means it pre-dates Beta 2. It didn’t ask me where my collection was stored, and when I entered the right path in the Settings, it refused to scan my music. Then, it crashed on me, and I had to delete the configuration files in order to make it start again. In the end, I got it working, but to me it’s clear that Amarok 2.0 simply isn’t ready yet to be included in a stable release.
Also included is OpenOffice 3.0, which is a good deal faster than the 2.X releases, and The Gimp, but it’s 2.4.7, not the most recent 2.6 release. It’s a pretty small selection, but if you want the whole kitchen sink, there’s always the install DVD, which comes packed with all the software you might need.
Every time I try Mandriva, I come to the same conclusion: “I like it, a lot, but…”. It’s easily installed, it’s pretty, it probably has the best and easiest Configuration Center of any Linux Distribution, and it mostly works out of the box. I ask myself why I don’t recommend Mandriva to others, and I honestly don’t know. The refusal of the LiveCD to boot down could be because of a bad burn, and in any case, it isn’t an issue with the normal installation. The printer issue was my fault too, since I told the installer to remove unnecessary hardware support (simply removing the printer module still seems a bit drastic though). The Apple trailers don’t play, but maybe the website is to blame. Installing software resulted in some errors the first time, but then worked fine afterwards. The systray icons behave a bit wonky, but this is the most minor of points. It’s also possible that none of these things happen in other installations. Your mileage may vary.
On the other hand, I never could install Mandriva without four or five nagging issues. They’re never the same from release to release, but they’re always there. I had hoped that this install would be trouble-free, but that wasn’t the case.
I feel more strongly about the inclusion of Amarok 2.0 though. In my opinion, it’s simply not stable enough at this time, and should not have been included. It looks about a million times better than the old version, and it will be far superior when it’s ready, but it isn’t yet. If you disagree with that, chances are you’ll find Mandriva perfectly suited to your tastes.
Edit: Thanks to the comments to this post, some of my issues have been cleared up. As I have mentioned before, the printer tool issue is a known bug. The errors during installation of the printer tool must have been due to busy/down mirrors. They didn’t show up again. The systray weirdness is probably caused due to the fact that the nvidia driver doesn’t like KDE4…or the other way around.