September 11, 2008

Red Flag Linux Olympic Edition fails to medal

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Red Flag is China's biggest Linux supplier. The Red Flag Linux distribution is based on Red Hat Linux. Red Flag recently announced the release of a beta edition of Red Flag Linux 7, called "Olympic Edition." While it contains the expected bugs of a beta system, it also gives us an opportunity to preview the next release of Red Flag. What I saw didn't blow me away.

This edition of Red Flag Linux contains a special graphics kit to celebrate the Olympics, in addition to being a regular beta release of the software. The graphics are undoubtedly nice, but I was more concerned with getting to the meat of the distribution, so off I went to boot the CD. The first time it booted I allowed it to go its course in peace. That gave me the default Chinese desktop, which, as you can imagine, I had a little trouble navigating. I rebooted the computer, but this time I pressed Enter when the bootloader said it would automatically boot in X seconds. I was then presented with an options menu in which I could choose English for the live CD. Unfortunately, some of the windows that load upon boot are still displayed in Chinese, but luckily none of these were required to use the system.

Once the live CD was running, I ran the hard drive installer from the Kicker menu, and selected the simple install option. This form of the installation required only that I select a partition and set a root password. Red Flag also offers a form in which I could set additional users. All in all it was very simple indeed. There was an even easier version in which the installer automatically chose how to partition the drive, but I did not want it to do that. After the install was completed I was offered a choice of where I wanted to install GRUB -- either on the master boot record or in another location that would be called by the master boot record.

A quick reboot brought me to my new Red Flag system. The first thing I noticed, after closing the Chinese pop-up I didn't understand, was that Red Flag had correctly detected all my hardware, including correctly setting my wide screen monitor resolution. Things were off to a good start.

A look at the included applications, starting with the multimedia software, showed the selections aptly labeled as CD player, music player, video player, and sound mixer. Respectively, the applications in question are KsCD, JuK, Dragon Player, and KMix. This selection of programs covers the multimedia niche well. The office software was not so well represented. It consisted of an address manager (KAddressBook), personal information manager (Kontact), and personal organizer (KOrganizer). I found it unusual that this distribution did not include some sort of word processor or spreadsheet. If any was included, it was not in the menu, or any other place I could find. The applications in the Internet category were only minutely more comprehensive than those in the office category. You get a standard Web browser (Firefox), email client (KMail) and instant messaging client (Kopete), as well as a desktop sharing application (krfb), newsreader (KNode), feed reader (Akregator), and the Akonadi tray utility. The graphics category was also minimally populated, including merely a graphics editor (the GIMP), a paint program (KPaint), and some less powerful utilities such as a screen capture program (KSnapshot).

I was a bit curious by this point where exactly Red Flag used the space it saved from not including a word processor or spreadsheet application. I discovered the answer when I reached the games category. Red Flag offers a great selection of simple card, board, arcade, and strategy games -- far too many to list individually, but suffice it to say that if you like playing computer games you'll probably find something to suit your fancy. I don't think I'd choose these games over the standard office software if given the option, but not everyone likes what I like.

As I used Red Flag, it became more and more apparent that the developers gave relatively little attention to the English version of their software. Several windows didn't appear to have English equivalents and still popped up in Chinese. In addition, the English copy of the Red Flag Web site appears to be somewhat out of date, although, not speaking Chinese myself, its hard to confirm whether the Chinese version is any more up-to-date. I find it difficult to fault the company on this, considering that it is a Chinese company. It is, however, an indication to me that a primarily English-speaking user would probably be more comfortable with a different distribution.


Under normal circumstances I'd have listed the bugs I encountered as they came up. Since this is beta software, however, I thought it better to keep the bugs separate from the features in order to allow you to judge Red Flag on its content, not problems that may be fixed in the final edition.

On the first system I tried, the installer crashed after selecting either the "simple" or "advanced" option. On the second system, the installation seemed to work fine but failed at first boot. I tried it again, but this time I selected Chinese at boot in case it had been the English version causing problems. This still left the option of choosing English in the installer for the final system, and while I was doubtful, it turned out to work. There was one small hitch: at first boot of the new system it made me manually set a symlink for /dev/root to my root partition. In addition to this, the Dragon Player video player crashed several times, as did the Dolphin file browser. These were fairly serious problems that I would hope to see fixed for the final release. Because of them, I would not suggest a normal end user try the beta version.

Even without considering the bugs, Red Flag does not stand out amongst its fellow Linux distributions as a superior product. From what I can see, the major cause of its success in China has been the language support from a local company and not any technical merits over other distributions. I found in it no particular reason to recommend it to an English user over other Red Hat-base distribution, such as CentOS.


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