March 24, 2004

PCQuest Linux: A Fedora-based distro for India

Author: Aditya Nag

PCQuest Linux 2004 is a new version of a Linux distro from the publishers of PCQuest, a popular 15-year-old computer magazine published in India. PCQuest distributed Slackware on CDs in 1996 and Red Hat in 1997. Later, PCQuest started making its own distribution, based on Red Hat, now Fedora. The three CDs that make up the distro came with the March 2004 issue of the magazine. I have been using the new distro for a week now, with some interesting results. 

The new release includes a lot of the latest software, such as kernel 2.6.2, KDE 3.2, JDK 1.4.2, and Gnome 2.4.2. PCQuest does a decent job of bundling new apps, especially some multimedia apps, and generally customizing the base Fedora software for Indian users. For example, they bundle a popular cable modem authentication application, which makes it easier to set up PCQuest than a standard Fedora install.

The machine I tested on is a standard 1.7GHz Pentium 4 with an Asus motherboard, 512MB SDRAM, Western Digital 60GB hard drive (with a 50GB Windows XP NTFS partition and 6GB of unpartitioned free space to start with), Nvidia GeForce 4 Mx440 video adapter, SoundBlaster Live 5.1 audio adapter, Macronix NIC, and Samsung DVD/CD-RW combo drive.

When I began installing PCQuest Linux, the first thing I saw was a typical Fedora/Red Hat boot screen. Though the Fedora origins were evident from the installer, the team at PCQ has done a good job on the color scheme and the graphics, both of which are pleasing to the eye without being too garish. There are a few notable differences from the Fedora distro. PCQuest lacks an option to select a different language or keyboard layout. The installer starts by detecting the mouse. Also, in the install types screen, instead of the usual four choices, there are seven:

  1. Personal Desktop
  2. Developer Workstation
  3. Multimedia workstation
  4. Sysadmin Workstation
  5. Gateway Server
  6. Departmental Server
  7. Experimental

I chose Experimental, which is rather like the Custom option in Fedora. It installs packages like the 2.6.2 kernel, OpenMOSIX kernel, and the Sun JDK, and provides NTFS support.

The next screen was the package selection screen, and the rest of the install was like a normal Fedora installation, with nothing really changed.

After half an hour of installing packages, the PCQuest installation completed. When I rebooted, the Sun JDK installation started. Apparently, PCQuest had to include it in this way because of the licensing deal they worked out with Sun.

After all this was over, the new graphical boot started. It looks nice, and has been modified slightly from the Fedora boot screen. Next, PCQuest ran the first-time wizard. I set up my defaults. Gnome Display Manager then started and gave me the option of logging into Gnome by default. I chose not to and logged into KDE.

KDE's default desktop background has been replaced with a nice-looking wallpaper designed by PCQ, giving the system a modern look. My NTFS partition had its own icon on the desktop.

I started to explore the menus, and quickly found that PCQuest had not integrated the menus on KDE well. For example, even though Real Player 9 and Mplayer are installed, they do not appear in any menu. A menu item labeled "Lost and Found" contains the Add/Remove Applications, Network Setup, and Terminal utilities, among others.

After a few days, when I logged into Gnome for the first time, I realized that the developers had designed Gnome to be the default, and all the menus were done perfectly for Gnome. I found this rather strange. I prefer KDE, as do many other people, and if the developers were fixing the menus for one window manager, they should have done it for the other as well.

The Gnome mindset also led to some strange problems. For example, when I started to set up K3B in KDE, it refused to fit on the screen at a resolution of 1024x768. The OK and Cancel buttons were not visible, no matter what I did. I tried resizing, pulling it around, decreasing screen resolution, all to no avail. In Gnome, however, it worked fine! I don't know if the fault is PCQ's or KDE's, but it left me with a bad impression.

Next, when I tried playing some MP3s, I came across what PCQuest's biggest omission -- no XMMS! And no alternative either; MP3s refused to play in Noatun or Kaboodle. I had to download and install XMMS. DVD playback, however, worked perfectly through Mplayer -- no skips or hangs while I watched Gladiator.

Finally, I started to work on some projects in OpenOffice.org. After a few hours of working with my computer as opposed to working on it, I forgot I was working in a new, raw distro. This is an important test for any operating system to pass. When you forget about it, that means it is working perfectly. Windows, with its viruses and security holes and spyware problems, does not allow you to forget about it. Even many Linux distributions suffer from the problem of users having to configure everything by hand, and wondering what went wrong when something breaks.

PCQuest Linux manages to tread the fine path between being too simple, a la Mandrake, and too complex, a la Slackware. Power users and sysadmins will find all the tools they need to get their jobs done, while Joe User can get down to watching movies (Mplayer), streaming video (Real Player), and possibly doing some work (OpenOffice.org).

After the initial glitches with XMMS and the menus, I have found PCQuest Linux to be a very nice distribution with a wide variety of packages installed. It's fast and responsive. All my hardware works perfectly (though I did have to install the Nvidia drivers for my GeForce adapter). I am able to connect to my Windows LAN and share files easily.

In fact, PCQuest is a boring distribution. After a little bit of initial setup, which takes a few hours and an Internet connection, it just works. And unlike Mandrake 9.2, it has the kernel sources installed as well as many other libraries. In fact,I was able to compile a lot of software from source without having to jump through any hoops. Updating it is easy, thank to Yum. And there is an active users forum at www.pcquest.com, where the people who made the distro regularly answer tricky questions.

One major barrier to international users is the lack of language options. To include more software, PCQuest removes all foreign language options. Indian languages are well supported, but if you want KDE in Italian, you're going to have to do it yourself. But this makes sense for PCQuest, because it's a distribution supplied with a single-country magazine, not aimed at people using European languages.

All in all, PCQuest Linux 2004 is a robust, full-featured distribution which is easy to use and fast. Except for a few minor glitches, the team at PCQuest has produced a good desktop distribution.

Aditya Nag is a law student at the National Law University, Jodhpur, India, and has been a Linux user since 1997.

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