December 12, 2006

Review: Mandriva Flash delivers Linux to go

Author: Tina Gasperson

Mandriva Flash is a 2GB Dane-Elec USB key loaded with Mandriva Linux 2007. It gets points for style: the key is an attractive deep blue surrounded by a sturdy metal fence that leaves room on both ends to attach the key to a lanyard or keychain. The release notes say that the operating system and related files only take up half the space on the USB drive, leaving 1GB for my own files. This little powerhouse packs a lot of punch, once you get it up and running.

Mandriva Flash is based on the 2.6.17 kernel, and includes Glibc 2.4, 7.1, KDE 3.5.4, GCC 4.1, OpenOffice 2.0.3, Mozilla Firefox, Flash® Player 7.0.68, and RealPlayer® It retails for USD $69.99.

Mandriva 2007 on a USB drive lacks little in the way of desktop productivity software. In addition to OpenOffice, it comes loaded with goodies like KOrganizer personal organizer software, KAlarm scheduler, KCalc, KDE's fax utility, a Palm Pilot manager, plus KMail, Kontact, and the Kopete instant messenger, which asked me to set up KWallet the first time I ran it, since I told Kopete to save my password. KWallet stores your passwords and other personal information in an encrypted file on the disk.

Since I spend a lot of time on IRC, I noticed Mandriva didn't include an IRC client on the program menu, but I found that KSirc was installed and simply added it to the menu myself. Because Mandriva Flash lets you save changes onto the USB drive, little customizations like this are worth the time, unlike a Live CD installation in which changes are lost every time you shut down.

Mandriva Flash includes most of the multimedia software you want: The GIMP, the digiKam photo editor (which didn't recognize my Kodak EasyShare P850), Ksnapshot screen capture software, and even Kdenlive, a digital video editing package that wasn't on the program menu and doesn't include dvgrab, which is needed in order to capture raw video directly from the video camera. Again, since you can save files on the USB drive, if video editing is important to you, go get dvgrab and configure your video camera.

The operating system had no problem playing audio files, including CDs, this is another advantage of a USB drive over a Live CD - if you only have one CD drive it remains available.

Networking support includes WiFi, standard Ethernet, LANs, ISDN, satellite, and Edge/GPRS. I had the same old problems with the built-in Broadcom wireless adapter on my Gateway MX6131, but Mandriva smoothly picked up the Ethernet connection on my eMachines desktop with no interference from me required.

One of the more attractive features of Mandriva Flash is that it essentially becomes an ultra-portable personal desktop, including 1GB of storage space. If the drive completely lived up to its potential, that would be really pretty cool, but not totally the ultimate in cool.

Because you have to reboot the host computer with the drive plugged in, it can be inconvenient, if not downright impossible, to gain access to your operating system (the librarians really get irritated when you try to shut down one of the library workstations). Even under the best of circumstances, shutting down and rebooting a computer that's not your own can be impolite.

Another complication is that not every computer has a BIOS that will allow the computer to boot from a USB stick. Some of the newer BIOSes that do will recognize the stick and stop to ask if you want to boot from it. But many of us will have to reconfigure our systems to boot from the USB drive first. I can see myself at my sister's house, "Wait just a minute, sis, while I reconfigure your BIOS..." OK, it's not that big of a deal, it's just... inconvenient.

For those systems that don't include an option to boot from the USB drive, Mandriva includes a boot image ISO you can access from the host operating system. Burn it to a CD and bring it with you to avoid the BIOS reconfiguration kerfuffle. Boot from the CD with the USB drive plugged in, and Linux is loaded before you can pour yourself a cup of coffee.

I like Mandriva Flash. If you want to run your own Linux desktop anywhere and bring your files with you, and you have a rebootable host computer, this is a pretty good way to do it. Just don't forget to burn that boot CD before you leave home.

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