November 18, 2002

Fun with Mandrake PowerPack 9.0

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Last week a friendly delivery driver brought me a copy of Mandrake's PowerPack Edition 9.0. This is the complete boxed set, full of bells, whistles, and bangles. As others have said before me, 9.0 is the smoothest Mandrake yet. This article is more in the "tips and tricks" vein than a review, since I think Mandrake's latest has already been reviewed more than enough, more often favorably than not.

The biggest warning I have for anyone installing Mandrake 9.0 on a laptop with both a built-in network card and a PCMCIA wireless adaptor is, "Don't set up your network during the install." I tried to do this not once but three times, and all three times my laptop hung on its first post-install bootup. I looked through the manual for a way to click past that service's start and didn't find a way to bypass the hung-up part of the install routine. Finally I did an install without setting up the network, and set up the wireless network later, and everything went fine.

Users who don't have multiple network devices won't ever see this problem, and I suspect users who don't have PCMCIA -- that is, desktop computer users -- won't see it either. This was my only installation glitch. Everything else went so smoothly that it isn't worth writing about.

Software Installation

As long as you stick to Mandrake RPMs you won't have any dependency problems when you add new software, and Mandrake's software installation process has gotten so simple that almost the only thing harder than Windows about it is the need to log in as root before you begin, and that's a necessary security precaution Windows really should have built into it, too.

One quirk Mandrake has had for a long time, and has kept in 9.0, is a set of default package choices I think are just a little silly at times. Why wouldn't Flash install as a Mozilla plugin automatically? Why both OpenOffice and StarOffice instead of one or the other? Mandrake needs to put more thought into package selection. Right now the choices are overwhelming, and nearly useless for a new Linux user who doesn't know the difference between StarOffice and OpenOffice, and probably has no idea what all the image programs Mandrake includes do.

The Installation and User Guide doesn't help much in this area. I advise any new Linux user to look through it before an install -- there's enough material in it to save some potential hassles -- but if you run into a problem or want to know which IRC program to use, it isn't much good. Yes, I know, "There's much more available online." I have multiple computers now, so I can try an install on one and if I have problems I can jump on the Internet with the other and look for answers. People who only have one computer can't do this. Online help only helps if you can get online. This is not a Mandrake-specific problem, but is one I wish Mandrake would work on solving.

As far as the usability of Mandrake's software selection and installation utility, it works fine, but it takes some figuring out that shouldn't be needed. Indeed, all Mandrake setup and configuration routines are more obscure than they need to be. This doesn't bother me because I've been using Mandrake long enough to know what to do, but I can see how someone new to Mandrake would easily have trouble to the point of giving up and reinstalling Windows.

A No-Sweat Upgrade

I installed Mandrake "fresh" on one laptop, then did an upgrade on another that was running 8.2. The upgrade was flawless. All my data, including my screen settings, email, and other personalizations came through intact. I have never had such an easy upgrade experience on any operating system, not even a Mac going from 9.2 to 10.1. Naturally, I backed up all my data first, but in this case that turned out to be a "peace of mind" thing, not a life-saver, although more than once in the past -- including with Mandrake -- not backing up data before an upgrade has led me into disasters. Backing everything up is always a good habit, in any operating system. Even if all the software is lovely and stable, a hard drive can die as fast under Linux as under any other operating system.

DrakSync: A Promise Finally Kept

Draksync, which famously didn't work at all in Mandrake 8.0, is now a thing of beauty, possibly one of the Mandrake's best features. It didn't install by default for me in 9.0, but since Mandrake software installs are so easy, this was not a barrier. Once again, though, you need to get through a little quirkiness to get this going.

The big thing you need to know is that one of the machines you are synchronizing must be a server; that is, if you are using OpenSSH one of them must have the OpenSSH server package installed. I have not found this clearly explained anywhere in Mandrake documentation. I only know about this because my friend Russell Pavlicek figured it out and told me. But I know it now, so I made sure I installed OpenSSH server as part of my "fresh" Mandrake 9.0 install, then installed DrakSync, which was not one of the packages installed by default.

The next step was to log the new machine into the old machine, including password for the user whose data I wanted to move. (The DrakSync screens are not terribly easy to figure out, but they aren't overly hard. This might take you a few moments the first time, but will go smoothly after that.) You need to know the IP address of the "remote" machine, of course, same as with almost any other networking activity or data transfer.

A big huge caution when using Draksync!!! - by default, it will remove the files from the "sending" machine as it transfers them to the "receiving" machine. Uncheck that box if you just want to copy files, not move them!

Okay, these hurdles jumped, I managed to transfer my entire /home/robin partition to the laptop with the new Mandrake installation on it -- in two passes. The first pass got directories, the second pass got all the files in those directories. And since I was moving lots and lots of data, like all the stories I've written in the last year, a few hundred (legally obtained) MP3s, and all my email, bookmarks, desktop settings, and the entire contents of three small Web sites I maintain, this two-step backup process took close to four hours over an 11MBPS (MegaBytes per Second) 802.11b wireless network. I didn't care about the backup taking so long. It was an automatic process that didn't need watching. And the results were worth it.

One of the big hassles with putting a new computer into service has always been getting all your favorite settings going on it and all your data moved to it. Windows and Mac people pay good money for programs that help them do this, and the Windows ones I've seen were just as quirky, in their own way, as Draksync -- and Draksync comes as part of Mandrake 9.0, and the whole Mandrake PowerPack Edition, at $70 US, costs less than most of the Windows backup/sync utilities all by themselves. This is a deal. A huge deal. Yet another reason Linux is worth the learning curve.

And now that I had a complete install, with all my personal stuff, going on my new laptop (new to me, anyway; a middle-aged IBM T-20 ThinkPad), I was ready to do an updgrade on my old HP OmniBook 4150, which I did without any problems while I used my fresh machine to work.

Once the upgrade on the old machine was complete, DrakSync showed its true power: Now that all the directories and most of the files in both machines were the same, and the only things being moved from the fresh machine to the older one were file changes (mostly new email) since I moved from one machine to the other, the sychronization process only took a few moments, and all future backups will be just as fast.

I have achieved data backup nirvana: Two laptops with exactly the same software and up-to-date data on them, even if I'm on the road with one of the laptops and the other one is at home.

What Else Can I Say?

I have not experienced any of the CD "supermount" problems other reviewers say they have had with Mandrake 9.0. I have been shoving CDs in the slot and either listening to music on them or grabbing data from them without a thought.

Mandrake's PowerPack Edition includes all the software I need to do everything I need to do, including setting up a test server (behind our home hardware firewall) for a site my wife hopes to launch early next year.

KDE 3.0 is nice, and it's the desktop I'm using now, just as I used KDE 2.x before, and 1.x before that, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my desktop. I am more interested in the applications that cover it, particularly Mozilla, since I work on the Internet all day, and Mozilla 1.1 (included with Mandrake 9.0) is smoother and nicer than the 0.9.8 version included with Mandrake 8.2.

In general, I would say "a little smoother and a little nicer" is the best way to sum up Mandrake 9.0 and the applications included in the PowerPack Edition. Nothing struck me as ground-breaking, and a lot of the traditional Mandrake quirks are still there.

I've become so used to those quirks that you'll notice I call them "quirks" instead of "bugs" or "flaws" or "irritations," which I'm sure many consider them to be.

This is a very human thing, to prefer the familiar and its known flaws to something unfamiliar even if the new whatsis is better than your current preference. This human trait is one of the biggest reasons people keep using Windows, and I'm sure it is the biggest reason I keep using Mandrake even though I'm sure [your favorite distro here] is superior in many ways.


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