November 1, 2006

Mandriva 2007: Back in the race

Author: Bruce Byfield

Beginning with an easy-to-use installer and booting into a well-thought-out desktop, Mandriva 2007 provides an environment that is aesthetically consistent and makes new users feel at home. Where Mandriva 2006 failed to provide an appropriate level of support for more advanced users, Mandriva 2007 includes prominently displayed tools for configuration from the desktop. Although these tools are marred by sluggish package management and an unhelpful security rating system, as well as instability on some machines, overall Mandriva 2007 re-establishes the distribution as one of the most advanced desktop experiences in GNU/Linux.

Mandriva 2007 comes in several editions. Those who prefer to use only free software have a choice of the One live CD for either GNOME or KDE, or the Linux Free edition. For those without philosophical objections to proprietary software, Mandriva offers the Discovery edition for beginners, the Powerpack edition for more advanced users, and Powerpack+ for small businesses and home offices. In addition, the Mandriva Club edition includes unspecified packages available only to members. I installed and tested the Discovery edition.

Installation

Mandriva has had more years than most distributions to perfect its install. Its maturity shows in the care with which basic and advanced options are positioned in each window. When creating a user, for example, beginners only need to worry about the user name and password, while advanced users can toggle options for setting the new user's groups and preferred shells. With this practice, Mandriva 2007's install program should satisfy all levels of users. Equally noteworthy is the fact that it is one of the few install programs that includes both printer and sound configuration. When the most noticeable difference in the latest edition is the Windows-like ads for new features that run if you choose not to view the details of what's happening, you know that you are using an install program with a long pedigree.

Click to play video

(Click here for an Ogg version of the installation video.)

All the same, the install program does have some room for improvement. The disk partitioner could potentially cause confusion because its column of buttons mixes configuration choices such as Type (of filesystem) with actions such as Format. Similarly, the Summary page -- which is misnamed, since it is actually where most of the configuration takes place -- needs to place network configuration higher than other features that require it. Users who work systematically through the installation can likely overcome any confusion caused by these two problems, but they shouldn't have to do so.

Desktop

The fact that Mandriva is a desktop distribution is driven home by the fact that, to get to a root shell, you need to select System -> Configure Your Computer -> System -> Open a Console. Even after so much drilling down, the shell that opens is unconfigurable, and blocks the opening of any other part of the Control Center. Nor is there any way without previous knowledge to add an icon for a command line to the desktop or panel. Mandriva's collection of graphical software and administration tools is exhaustive enough that many users may not miss the command line, but, all the same, the message is clear: in this distribution, you use the desktop.

To experienced users, that dictum probably seems limiting, but Mandriva has obviously put considerable effort into the desktop. Its new default La Ora theme, a mixture of shades of yellow and orange, may not be to everyone's taste, but is likely to find wider approval than the blacks and grays of Mandriva 2006's default theme. As part of the overall look, home directories contain color-coded folders for documents and other types of content, and tools such as OpenOffice.org are configured to use the designated folders. Similarly, the menu displays only a selection of the installed software. The menu can be customized on the System tab of the Control Center, but, given that users can only discover the differences between the Discovery and Mandriva menus through experimentation, while reverting to the original default KDE menus removes Mandriva-specific items, changes are inadvisable. The result is a desktop that inexperienced users will find friendly, but that veterans used to doing things their own way may chafe at.

For those with high-end machines, Mandriva 2007 also includes the option of a 3-D desktop using AIGLX or Xgl. Featuring desktops that revolves as though on a top, these novelties are fascinating to try, but probably too memory-intensive for most people's everyday work -- which may explain why only two workspaces, rather than KDE's usual four, are part of the default configuration. If you are curious about 3-D desktops but unsure whether your machine supports them, you should either disable automatic login or try them in a user account created specially for the purpose. Otherwise, a failure to load one can mean that the X Window System hangs every time you reboot.

Software selection

The software in Mandriva 2007 is current as of about mid-September. It includes the 2.6.17 kernel, KDE 3.5.4, and GNOME 2.16, all of which are reasonably current, but also Mozilla 1.5.0.6 and OpenOffice.org 2.03, both of which have had recent upgrades with significant new features or improvements in performance. The rest of the software available on the DVD seems well-selected but occasionally limited. At times, you may have to hunt the default menu to find a tool, because items are described by function rather than name; the GIMP, for example, is under Graphics -> Image Editor.

Mandriva 2007 also includes a careful selection of proprietary tools, including Cedega for online gaming, Skype for Internet phone calls, Java Runtime Environment 1.5.0_08, and Acrobat Reader 7.0. Aside from the convenience of having Nvidia video drivers available on the DVD, probably the standout among the proprietary programs is LinDVD, which provides a legal way to play movies under GNU/Linux. These tools are excluded from the free versions of Mandriva.

The strongest software offerings in Mandriva 2007 are not third-party, but developed by Mandriva itself. Most of these are centralized in the Mandriva Linux Control Center, which is available in the menu under System -> Configure Your Computer. The Control Center is not new with Mandriva 2007, but this incarnation is especially thorough, providing option-filled GUI tools for everything from disk partitioning to hardware configuration and boot options. The Network and Internet tab of the Control Center is especially welcome, since they give advanced users the same level of tool support as beginners. Although the Mandriva's Control Center overlaps with KDE's at many points, it remains one of the most complete centralized collection of system tools available. However, its response time can sometimes be slow and its inability to open multiple windows without starting a new instance is frustrating.

Package management

Mandriva 2006 included both RPMDrake and Conectiva's Smart for package management. This year, Mandriva has dropped Smart in favor of a version of RPMDrake that has been merged into the Control Center on the Software Management tab. The tab includes a tool for creating an account with Mandrake's online services -- which the tool does not specify, and which, rather alarmingly, requires sending a list of installed packages and your hardware configuration to Mandriva.

The rest of the icons on the Software Management tab open on RPMDrake, a three-paned window with general package categories in a tree on the left, a list of packages on the top right, and a summary of the currently selected package on the right. A search tool sits in the toolbar, and update tools are in the menus. Although, like any modern package manager, RPMDrake automatically resolves dependencies, I found it much slower than Yum in Fedora Core 6, let alone apt-get in Debian. At times, too, updates blanked the list of packages, requiring it to be uploaded. For all RPMDrake's user-friendly interface, urpmi, Mandriva's command line tool, seems generally a more reliable means of package management.

Security

Since the earliest versions of Mandrake, Mandriva has offered five levels of security during installation. In Mandriva 2007, they are named Poor, Standard, High, Higher, and Paranoid, without any indication of what configuration choices each represents. Since Standard is described as the minimal setting for a machine with an Internet connection and Higher as the basic setting for a server, users are given some guidance, but reliable security can hardly be based on such a lack of detail. Although the default level of High sounds reliable, during the installation, users have to take its suitability on trust, but the fact that High includes automatic login to the user account created during installation is enough to make anyone with even a smattering of security knowledge withhold that trust. For that matter, experienced users may also wonder why the lowest level, which is described as suitable only for an unconnected machine, should even be offered, or why the highest level has a name that discourages anyone from using it.

Click to play video

Click here for an Ogg version of the Running First Time video.)

Even with this inadequate system, Mandriva 2007 represents an improvement in desktop security for the simple reason that DrakSec, a security tool that has long existed beyond the menu or even release notes, has finally been added to the Control Center, where users can easily find it. This simple addition is long overdue, because DrakSec, with more than 50 options divided into four tabs, is little short of comprehensive. Unfortunately, it is handicapped by its adherence to the rating system, since users have no way of knowing what the default for an option happens to be for a particular security level, but, except for a few options where definite knowledge rather the choice from a drop-down list is required, you can at least use DrakSec to turn a setting on or off. If DrakSec would only include explanations of what files were being altered, then even the most security-aware of users would have little left to ask for.

To DrakSec, the Security tab of the Control Center adds tools to set the permissions on system files and to configure the firewall. Anti-virus software from ClamAv and Kaspersky Labs rounds off Mandriva 2007's security tools.

Problems, but back in the race

In addition to the weaknesses in its package management and approach to security, Mandriva 2007 also shows some signs of instability. Some of these are acknowledged in the release notes and already have upgrades that correct them, but others are harder to pin down. At different times during testing, I found that the ALSA sound drivers failed to load, that logging out crashed the X Window System, and that the desktop failed to open while I was logging in. Since these problems were not consistent, I was unable to pinpoint them, but their very randomness suggests the need for more testing, especially when they are accompanied by some minor lapses in grammar in the window dialogs such as "The change is done, but to be effective you must log out." Another two or three weeks in the QA lab might have lifted this version from the merely promising to first-rate.

Still, a point release or two should take care of these problems. In recent years, Mandriva's software has been overshadowed by the company's business news, such as its near bankruptcy, its acquisition of Conectiva and Lycoris, and the departure of founder Gaƫl Duval from the company. With its latest version, Mandriva returns attention to its software development and re-establishes itself as a leading desktop distribution that can give Ubuntu serious competition.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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