March 25, 2005

My workstation OS: PCLinuxOS Preview 8

Author: James LaRue

I found the GNOME desktop more appealing than KDE until I found Mandrakelinux 10. Mandrake looked good to me, from its fonts to its slide bars. On the functional side, it had some wonderful system administration tools, graphical and centralized. But for some reason Mandrake 10 didn't find my home wireless network. That led me to search for alternatives. I discovered PCLinuxOS, a free LiveCD distribution originally based on Mandrake.

Recently a significant new release came out: PCLinuxOS Preview 8, or P8 for short. PCLinuxOS looks like Mandrake, with the same great tools. So what distinguishes P8 from Mandrake 10.x? Several things:

  1. It's on one disk. Try it as a LiveCD and write your settings to a pen drive, or install it to your hard drive. Installation is relatively painless, featuring about eight choices, all in a graphical environment. For expert users, P8 offers a clear and clean partition manager.
  2. Despite its RPM roots, P8 uses an apt-get (apt4rpm, actually) front end for software installation, updating, and removal. Whether through the command line, or the graphical program Synaptic, apt-get is a quick, powerful, and reliable tool to add or remove packages. RPM remains available, but I rarely touch it.
  3. P8 includes all kinds of things that usually take me several days to set up on a Linux distribution, especially in the area of browser plug-ins; Flash and Java were right there in both Firefox and Konqueror, and functional. P8 adds MPlayer to the list of functioning Firefox 1.0 plug-ins. Of the top 10 distributions on Distrowatch, P8 is the only one to play Apple trailers out of the box. P8 flashed the nVidia screen at me.
  4. The fora for P8 are rich and deep. You can hang out on the #PCLinuxOS IRC channel on the EFNet IRC network and talk with main developer Texstar and other developers. A preconfigured IRC chat icon is right on the desktop. I have found the community to be dedicated, smart, funny, and helpful.
  5. Speed of development. P8 is cutting edge. As near as I can figure, Texstar doesn't sleep. There are daily changes to packages. There are, on occasion, small bobbles, but Texstar and colleagues move fast to fix them. When you use P8, you get to see the front edge of Linux software development -- with lots of safety nets.
  6. Pure polish. PC8 is, hands down, the prettiest KDE-based desktop I've seen. Too many KDE distros bristle with options; P8 tames and integrates them.

Odds, ends, and issues

Despite so many good points, no Linux distribution gets everything correct. Given the near infinite combination of hardware out there, that's no surprise. Here's a list of recommendations and problems I've run across on my system.

  • Don't install PCLinuxOS with less than 256MB of RAM. Like many other modern distributions, it's too slow on anything less than that. In fact, it won't boot.
  • The hard drive installer icon is only available from the guest account, not root.
  • Read the installation instructions for the GRUB installer. "Please note if you have Grub installed in the MBR as your current bootloader, LILO will have problems trying to overwrite it."
  • The user I created during install didn't seem to have permissions to do much. I recommend creating users after installation.
  • For some reason, the CUPS printing service is turned off by default.

Conclusion

PCLinuxOS may be the best Linux distro available for home use. It's handsome, thoughtfully integrated, easily accessible to newcomers, and stable. It's hard to imagine a better introduction to Linux. Texstar is targeting the release of version 1 for later this year, but it's already light years ahead of the competition. P8 is my desktop of choice.

James LaRue is a public library administrator.

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