October 2, 2002

Mandrake 9.0 vs. Mandrake 8.2 for new Linux users

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
This article concentrates on describing a basic Mandrake 9.0 installation and setup from a new user's viewpoint, using nothing but default settings all the way through. I've also tossed in a few notes on how Mandrake 9.0 differs from Mandrake 8.2 and other previous Mandrake releases.

The test laptop is a ThinkPad T20, a pleasant, well-aged "mid-range" machine known to run Linux well without any tweaking. The only peripheral attached as I start my installation is an SMC "EZ Connect" Wireless PC Card, Model No. SMC2632W, another device that has already proved to be Linux-capable. I'm using a "download" version of Mandrake 9.0 supplied on preburned CDs by linux-download-cds.com.

I stick the coaster (CD #1) into the cupholder (CD Drive) and look at the install screen. It's similar to the one I saw in earlier Mandrake versions, with its choice of upgrade, rescue or full install. I choose full install by hitting "Enter." The install begins. Mindlessly, I click on the default choices as I begin, and partitions are created automatically, with my 12 GB hard drive split more or less equally between / and /home (ext3) partitions separated by a 243 MB swap partition. Nothing radical, no work to do, no thought required. It has been a while since partitioning was a concern for new Linux users who chose "commercial" distributions, and this latest Mandrake has made the partitioning process literally invisible unless you choose the "expert" option.

I choose automatic package selection, and decide to use all the "package groups" in the left column of the two-column menu, which is all the client/desktop stuff, while not choosing anything in the right column, which is all the server-type stuff you don't really want running on a home/office workstation-type computer anyway. And away we go!

All I do now, having chosen my keyboard and time zone, is sit there. I change the CD once and glance at the screen now and then while answering email on my other laptop, the one with Mandrake 8.2 on it. About 36 minutes later I am asked if I want to configure my network. Yes I do. I click on the "autodetect" default. A few moments later the network claims it's configured, video is working and tested, and we are in business. I remove the CD -- the install program even kicks the CD drive open for me -- and reboot into my shiny-new Mandrake 9.0 installation.

Uh oh. No boot!

It's that danged network. First the boot hangs when it tries to start the ThinkPad's built-in Ethernet port, because it's not connected to anything. Well, duh. I want to use my wireless network, right? At least the timeout on the failed eth0 start is a lot shorter than it was in Mandrake 8.2 and earlier versions when this sort of thing happened. But now we're looking at a try to start eth1, which ought to be the wireless network. Nothing. Five minutes, nothing. 10 minutes, nothing. 15 minutes, still hung. If you are a new user, not familiar with Linux, without the experienced Linux user's knowledge that all problems have solutions, this is when you give up. Maybe you hit the power switch (the only obviously available move at this point) and try to boot again. Same thing. Damn! This Linux thing doesn't work! This sucks! Back to Windows!

Now, if you don't think this is a fairly typical new user reaction, you are wrong. I'm telling you, it happens all the time. This is why everyone who installs Linux for the first time ought to get a little hand-holding, ideally from someone who knows the point-and-click side of things instead of from a SuperGuru who will type in a lot of incomprehensible commands, then say, "Here you go. All that was needed was to parse the cat root slash dev etcetera file for eth 0 and pugle the forward identity-locking rehooliginator and symlink it to the libgc perl humongisooler module after a kernel decompile and basic repatch update. Nothing to it, just RTFM and you'll figure it out!"

Um, yeah. Like that isn't just a tad confusing to most people who never used Linux or Unix before, as in confusing enough to make them run screaming back to Windows -- or DOS or Amiga or OS/2 or whatever else they're accustomed to.

So I don't ask any gurus. Instead, I take the clue from all the functions that scroll by during the boot process that indicate my problem is with the network setup, and I install again, except this time I hit "cancel" when I'm asked if I want to configure a network, and everything is groovy, even my reboot -- although I thought KDE (my desktop choice) had some sort of startup sound that came with it, and I hear nothing.

Real hard solution to the sound problem: Turn up the ThinkPad's volume control using the little buttons with speakers on them. Okay. We have sound now. And a pretty KDE 3 desktop and an OpenOffice that looks okay except I still need to figure out how to get it to boot without that darn splash screen taking everything over (another article) and basically we now have a fully functional Linux system with a lot of software we can use to go to work if we can connect to the Internet somehow, hopefully through our beloved 802.11b network.

The basic Mandrake rule: Start small and grow

I have learned, and hereby pass on to new Linux users thinking about giving Mandrake a try, that you are generally better off doing the least possible setup during the install itself, and doing as much software installation and configuration as you can later. For instance, networking. Now that Mandrake 9.0 is installed and running right, we go to the Mandrake Control Center icon in the little (KDE) panel at the bottom of the screen, click on it, put in our root password, then choose "Network and Internet" from an attractive menu. Now we choose "connection" and we see that both eth0 -- the ThinkPad's built-in Ethernet card -- and our eth1 wireless connection have been detected but neither are running. We click on the "eth1" selection, then on "Wizard," and after clicking "DHCP" a few times, we're done. Our wireless network is "up" while our built-in wired connection is "down," and that's just what we want. I reboot to confirm. Yep. Feeling groovy. Fully connected. In business.

At this point I decide to add some other software I like that wasn't installed by default, including the Bluefish HTML editor, the NEdit text editor, XChat for IRC, and some other items you probably won't want but I do. That's okay. You'll have things you want that I don't. It's all about choice, right? Each program I add automatically jumps into the menu. Nice.

The only thing I can't find is the friendly "kill" button that has been in every Mandrake version since 5.1. It has been left out of 9.0, and Mandrake cofounder Gael Duval is as sad as I am to see it go. "It was my idea, and developers killed it -- ah... cruel world!" he says. The "kill" button was my favorite Mandrake feature back in Netscape 4.x days, when Netscape was prone to crash or freeze at least three or four times every day. Yes, the Mozilla 1.1 browser included with Mandrake 9.0 is many orders of magnitude more reliable the old 4.x Netscapes, but it still barfs now and then. Perhaps we should bring back the "kill" button, Mandrake developers? C'mon. Make me happy. Make Gael happy. Please?

Another lack in the Mandrake 9.0 download edition, thinking of browsers, is plugins. Out in new-userland, a system that doesn't play Real media and display Flash and let you look at Acrobat documents just isn't complete. The lack of Windows Media Player and Quicktime in Linux is bad enough, and even though you can install the Crossover plugin and get Quicktime and WMP and all that, who's going to know that if they download Linux and install it by themselves the first time, without manuals?

The futility of these "first look" reviews

I was just about to mention how the little laptop battery icon in the KDE panel that I couldn't find in Mandrake 8.2 was back by default in 9.0 and I was glad that it was, when the ThinkPad running 9.0 froze up, apparently in "sleep" or "suspend" mode, and wouldn't reawaken. KDE may now be 3.x, but neither it nor Mandrake install the APM (common laptop power management utility) by default, and the instructions on how to do it yourself are just as confusing as they've always been. Maybe this will be corrected in the ~$70 "PowerPack" Mandrake 9.0 package I'm supposed to get by the end of the month. Maybe that more extensive product will have RealPlayer and the other browser gew-gaws, same as 8.2. (I don't recall having them in the 8.2 download edition, either.) And maybe the boxed set will automatically install the online manual for OpenOffice. The download edition does not. OpenOffice is not terribly hard to use for simple tasks, but if you are going to use it for anything beyond basic typing and printing, you will need to look up a thing or two in that manual.

I didn't notice the power management glitch or the missing OpenOffice manual until I had been playing with Mandrake 9.0 for several hours, and I'm sure there are many other bugs -- and many good new features -- I didn't spot during my short test period. Every time I do an early preview/review on a new distribution I know I'm going to miss a lot. Really, to do a complete software package justice, I should use it as my production system for a few weeks. That's the real test.

But I will say this: If you are a new Linux user, you are better off with Mandrake 8.2 for the moment, and you should get it in a package with instruction manuals. That will save you a lot of fumbling around. Leave the latest "download" versions of Mandrake or any other Linux distribution to the experimenters. Stick to the tried and true. You will have a system up and running and fully useful a lot faster, and you will find help easier to get for a product that's been around for awhile than for one that's so new only a few people have much experience with it.


A Gnome moment

Gnome 2 is nice, and the way Mandrake 9.0 installs it, with menus that have everything in the same place as KDE menus, makes the transition easy for KDE users who would like to switch. Gnome configuration -- especially panel configuration -- seems much easier than it was the last time I looked at it. The only thing I couldn't figure out how to do in a few minutes was move the Mac-style menu bar from the top of the screen to the bottom, which is where I would like to have it. The default Gnome bottom-of-the-screen panel configuration Mandrake gave me seemed rather sparse. There wasn't even a "foot" that gave me a menu when I clicked on it. I'm sure, given time, I could figure out how to configure a Gnome panel to my liking and get rid of the Mac-style menu bar, but I don't have much time right now. (Do I ever?) I need to spend some serious time with Gnome -- and with Galeon and Evolution. I haven't had much luck with them in the past. Maybe I will now. Worth a try, anyway -- and an extended try, long enough to get used to them and unused to KDE before I write much about Gnome -- or any other Window Manager or desktop environment. (Or maybe you should write about them. Your opinion is probably as valid as mine or any other reviewer's.)

The upshot

Mandrake 9.0 is pretty. The installation and admin utilities are smoother and more polished than in previous versions. The CD/floppy supermount is great -- far better and easier to use than in earlier Mandrakes. When I get my copy of the PowerPack edition and get all the files in my /home partition moved over from the laptop I'm using now (running Mandrake 8.2), chances are that I'll make it my primary day-to-day distro. But not now. There are just enough little frustrations here, and enough items that are hard enough to deal with (like Mozilla plugins) that I'd just as soon wait a few weeks for the 9.0 packaged version that is comparable to the 8.2 package I'm using now.

And then, after I've used the complete Mandrake 9.0 long enough to have experienced most of its quirks and features, I'll write about it again.

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