May 1, 2002

Mandrake 8.2 is boring -- in the best way

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -

Less than an hour after my review copy of Mandrake 8.2 Powerpack arrived, I had everything up and running, including my printer, wireless connection, and StarOffice, along with Mozilla and a number of popular plugins. It was about as ho-hum an operating system install as anyone could want.
I have been using Mandrake for quite a while, but that didn't really matter. This was strictly a "stick the coaster in the cupholder thingie and turn the switch on" install. I chose defaults from beginning to end, mindlessly clicking on everything that was presented to me. I swapped coasters when the cupholder thingie opened up, then clicked "okay" after I put the next coaster (they have numbers) into the cupholder and shoved it back into its slot. In between I read The Wall Street Journal. On paper. The Journal was more exciting than the install.

The manuals

Because there's nothing to say about the Mandrake 8.2 install beyond, "it worked," let's look at the books that came in the box. The first one, and the most important one for new users -- and I mean a user either new to Linux or new to Mandrake -- is the Installation and User Guide. It is 371 pages (including index) of real, honest-to-bonkers user manual that tells you how to use all of Mandrake's graphical-install and setup tools and how to run many of the most popular programs included with this distribution. It has sections with names like "Office Work" and "Using the Internet." People who might have asked, "What's a Linux?" yesterday could read this book and know how to do almost every ordinary computer task in Mandrake after they were through.

The second book, titled Reference Manual, has paragraphs like this one in it:

environ This file contains all the environment variables defined for this process, in the form VARIABLE=value. Similar to cmdline, the output is not formatted at all; no newlines to separate between different variables, and no newline at the end either. One solution to view it: perl -pl -e 's,\100,\n,g' environ.

Mandrake starts out easy, but if you want to go deep, they don't stop you, and they give you the basic written material you need at every step of the way. 8.2 just makes the start a little easier than it used to be.

Linux for the lazy

You could, no doubt, set up all the packages that come with the Mandrake 8.2 Powerpack yourself, and you'd probably make a cleaner and faster system if you did, what with you being an elite hacker and all, but just as it's nice to have someone else clear the table when you're done eating now and then, sometimes it's nice to have that RealPlayer plugin install itself automagically into the .9.8 Mozilla that comes as the default, then to automagically click on a couple of thingies and have the current 1.0 release candidate download and install itself, fast as an apt-get if not faster, and be able to add software that's not in the default install, like NEdit (my favorite text editor), and have it show up in the KDE menus without doing a thing, with all dependencies handled for you.

Or maybe you're not lazy but just short of time. I know some highly skilled Linux programmers and sysadmins who like Mandrake because it lets them get not just "an" installation, but one complete with all kinds of neat stuff (Flash) going in very little time, while paying attention to something else.

Is the 8.2 Powerpack worth $69 US (plus shipping), including StarOffice? I can't make that judgment for you. The download edition, plus OpenOffice, is free, and if that'll do for you, then that'll do for you. I find it enough faster and easier to have everything install quick-like-bunny in one lump that I'm willing to pay $69 for the convenience, plus the extras you get with StarOffice that don't come with OpenOffice. Not to mention the manuals. I bought a laptop recently with Windows XP pre-installed, and to learn anything deep about XP, I'm sure I'd need to spend at least $70 for books, because I certainly didn't get much XP documentation with it. Then I'd have to get some sort of office suite for Windows, and most of them cost a bunch of money, plus I'd want to get at least some sort of image manipulation program (Mandrake includes The GIMP and some other utilities) and manuals for them, and so on.

Yeah, I talked myself into it. I'll spend the $69. Of course, I'll also use the same copy of Mandrake on the laptop with XP (which is running the Mandrake 8.2 download edition 99% of the time already), so that brings it down to less than $35 per computer. And then I have this other, older computer I use as a backup, so now we're down to $23 per install. I can live with that, even if a friend or two doesn't bum the CDs from me (which will inevitably happen) and maybe buy me a drink or two in return.

This is the best Mandrake yet. Just like that. Now I'm going to stop typing and go watch some Quicktime movie trailers, Yes, a trial edition of the justifiably famous Crossover "run Windows browser plugins in Linux" program is included, as are trial versions of many other interesting commercial programs for Linux. Anyway, here's the Mandrake 8.2 product page for the version I tested. There's also a less expensive Standard Version that's not quite as fancy (OpenOffice instead of StarOffice, for example), but still includes the fine manuals, that's probably plenty for most home users.

Now I really am going to stop typing. I've spent longer writing these few words -- and lots more keystrokes -- than it took to install and set up this latest Mandrake. That's sure a change from how a Linux install was just a few years ago, eh?

Note: The review platform was a common HP Pavilion 5340 laptop with a Savage S3 video card and ESS Technology ES1988 Allegro-1 sound card. The printer is an HP Deskjet 940. Wireless connection is through an SMC card; I don't remember the model number (it's on the bottom), but it's pretty standard. I also got a Linksys PCMCIA combination NIC/modem working without thought -- after watching some Quicktime trailers.


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