November 2, 2005

Review: Mandriva Linux 2006

Author: Bruce Byfield

MandrakeLinux always had a reputation as an ideal distribution for beginners. Now that the renamed Mandriva has included technologies from Conectiva and Lycoris into Mandriva Linux 2006, this reputation seems more justified than ever. From its installation program to its selection of software and desktop design to its package design and security options, Mandriva is one of the easiest to use distributions available today.

At times, however, Mandriva's ease of use comes at the price of locking users into a limited relationship with the software. It threatens to lock users into their traditional roles of consumers, rather than enouraging them to understand and take control of their computing. This limitation is in stark contrast to many other features of Mandriva, which are designed to educate and inform.

Installation

Mandrake was one of the first distributions to introduce a graphical installation program. Over the years, the graphics and some of the details have changed, but the installer remains much the same: The steps in the installation are listed on the left, while a pane for selecting choices is on the right. The general maturity of the installer is shown in such small measures as the fact that, if a required CD is missing for any reason, you can skip installing the selected packages on it, as opposed to cancelling the entire installation.

The same maturity is visible during the initial setup and installation of the software. Consistently, Mandriva offers intelligent defaults, while making more detailed options available in another window. For example, users can click the Auto Allocate button or manually partition with a full range of options. On a 40GB hard drive, Auto Allocate created a 1GB swap partition, and a root partition of 5.8GB, and a /home partition of the remaining space, the latter two both formatted with the ext3 filesystem. These are sensible choices, but those who want something more cutting-edge -- or simply different -- can format a drive with partitions as desired, using any filesystem supported by the Linux kernel, with any mounting options. The same combination of reasonable defaults with more complex options hidden a mouse click away is available for package selection.

In fact, up until the configuration of the system, Mandriva's installer offers both a quick solution and customizations to satisfy the most demanding user. However, once you've created users, the installer abruptly changes its approach. In earlier versions of Mandrake, details such as display configuration were separate steps in the installation. In Mandriva 2006, most configuration options are crammed into a single step called Summary. While this change may make the installation process seem simpler at a glance, having a dozen different steps jammed into one may bog users down and tempt them into carelessness.

Even more importantly, at this crucial stage, users are often left to their own resources. True, Mandriva's hardware detection usually does a thorough job, and both the boot manager and service configurations offer the same level of help as in the earlier part of the install. Yet, in other areas, users are largely abandoned. Help is lacking for many stages, including network and Internet configuration. Sound is configured, but cannot be tested. Nor does the software detect available ports to help with firewall configuration, or -- at least on my test system -- detect a running printer connected via a local parallel port.

This lack of assistance is all the more surprising given the first-rate process in the first half of installation. Too often, it leaves users either having to trust that the hardware detection is reliable, or that configuration tools are available on the desktop -- and they are.

Software and desktop

Like its predecessors, Mandriva is a KDE-centric distribution. GNOME is available, but it is slightly less customized, with its default icons unchanged. By default, both KDE and GNOME feature a simplified but incomplete menu, including a black and white wallpaper that looks like a visionary penguin gazing heroically upwards. If you ignore warnings and log in to a desktop as root, the default wallpaper is bright red, to remind you of the potential damage that a root user can inflict.

Mandriva Linux 2006 KDE desktop - click to enlarge

In most software categories, Mandriva's menus offer a limited but representative sample of what's available. For Web browsers, for instance, it offers Epiphany, Firefox, Konqueror, and Opera. Similarly, Mandriva offers three choices for system administration: the KDE Control Center, the Mandrake Control Center, and Webmin for advanced users and networking. While experienced users may miss their favorite software, Mandriva's policy generally balances introducing newcomers to the available variety without overwhelming them. Some software, including the GIMP, is installed, but not on the default menus.

As might be expected with a commercial distribution, the standard software is current to a month before the software's release in mid-October 2005. The free software includes a 2.6.12 kernel, Firefox 1.06, and GIMP 2.2, the non-free software Acrobat Reader 7.0, Flash 7.0, Opera 8.5, and Skype 1.2.0.17. The most unusual feature in the general selection of software is OpenOffice.org 1.1.5, as opposed to a release candidate of 2.0. Mandriva also opted for GCC 4.0 rather than Java, and apparently built OpenOffice.org with it.

New to Mandriva 2006 is Kat, a Mandriva-sponsored desktop search tool similar to Google's Desktop Search. Cataloging both file metadata and contents, Kat currently supports a wide variety of graphics formats and a more limited selection of text formats, including PDF, HTML, Microsoft Word, Excel, OpenOffice.org 1.0, and OpenDocument. It requires an OS with lnotify activated; lnotify is a kernel module originally designed to search logs for suspect entries and the running of the kat daemon. Once set up, it provides quick and detailed responses. However, considering that Mandriva attempts to organize users by adding subdirectories such as Documents, Download, and Pictures to each home directory, I am uncertain about what advantages Kat itself offers over well-organized directories and a file manager in everyday computing.

Mandriva Linux 2006 GNOME desktop - click to enlarge

The most noticeable feature of the Mandriva desktop are the more than 20 wizards. They vary from the multi-paged guide to setting up Evolution to Mandrake-specific ones such as the message box for setting OpenOffice.org to use either Microsoft Office or its native format.

On the whole, these wizards have the same strengths and weaknesses as similar helper applications on Windows. On one hand, they help new users to ramp up quickly. On the other hand, they rarely tell users how to change settings on their own. Granted, many users may not care to edit configuration files, but they could at least be told how to change the settings within the graphical program itself.

As far as I can tell, the software selection shows few if any legacies from Lycoris. Unique features of Lycoris, such as AI2 (Advanced Application Integration Infrastructure), a third-party installer, or the remote access assistance, a tool to enable remote login for technical support, have yet to find their way into Mandriva. Nor does Mandriva offer any of Lycoris' proprietary font packs. Conectiva's contributions to the default desktop seem equally sparse, except for a possible merging of its control center with Mandrake's.

Package management

Mandriva's dedication to software choice continues with package management. In addition to RPMDrake, Mandrake's graphical package manager, Mandriva includes Conectiva's equivalent, a tool called Smart. Smart and RPMdrake closely resemble each other and Synaptic, one of the more popular graphical tools for Debian package management. Just as Synaptic is a front end for apt-get, RPMdrake is a front end for urpmi. Smart is available in both command-line and desktop versions. All three automatically determine dependencies (or "relations," as Smart calls them), show status in a series of progress bars, and have limited problem resolution options. Smart is not installed by default, perhaps because it is only at version 0.40, but it's as functional as RPMDrake albeit rougher around the edges.

Security

Mandriva attempts to educate users about security. For instance, opening XChat while logged in as root opens a message window that bluntly states, "Running XChat as root is stupid." The trouble is that these messages do not explain why an action is stupid. In general, security in Mandriva tends to be more reactive than architectural.

Early in the installation, Mandriva offers a choice of four security levels: standard, high, higher, and paranoid. This choice is acceptable for new users, but anyone with an awareness of security issues will find it lacking. For one thing, even in PowerPack Plus, the edition intended for servers, the default choice is standard, which the install program describes as suitable for desktop users.

More importantly, each level is described only in terms of its suitability for different programs. Exactly what configuration choices are made on each level is unspecified. As a result, although you can specify security options during the installation for partitions and the boot manager, and any of Mandriva's three sets of tools are suitable for tweaking the system after installation, security administration is flawed at the start. Administrators have no idea what the original state of the system might be. As a result, securing it requires careful investigation. Even then, administrators cannot be sure that they have done all they should.

This state of affairs is unlikely to bother home users, but for network administrators it makes doing a responsible job next to impossible. Of course, you could choose the paranoid option -- although its name may steer users away from it. That way, settings could be loosened instead of tightened, which is always a sounder practice in security. Yet the inefficiency of administration would still be no less with the paranoid setting than with the standard. By making the level of security easier to choose, Mandriva takes control of the system away from users who need it.

On the plus side, Mandriva includes an interactive firewall and a graphical interface for ClamAV, a tool unnecessary for GNU/Linux but useful when setting up a Samba server to interact with Windows. Yet these reactive measures may not be enough for a conscientious administrator. In effect, Mandriva asks administrators to trust it rather than their own efforts -- something that most will be reluctant to do.

Conclusion

Mandriva Linux 2006 is available in three editions: Discovery/LX for beginners; PowerPack for advanced desktop users; and PowerPack Plus, for desktops and servers. Each is available in 32- and 64-bit versions.

The difficulties I've described are probably especially obvious in PowerPack Plus, which I used for this review. Still, even with the other editions, what you think of Mandriva Linux 2006 will likely depend on your view of GNU/Linux in general.

If your main interest is a mostly free operating system that Windows refugees can easily learn, then Mandriva is almost without rivals. With the possible exception of Linspire, no other distribution is as focused on the desktop and the creation of GUI tools. Its accomplishments are all the more impressive considering how often interface design has been neglected in free and open source software.

If you believe that GNU/Linux implicitly includes a hands-on philosophy that encourages users to understand their software and take control of it, then your admiration may decrease a few levels. Mandriva's tools for both average users and administrators are not only separated by a large gulf, but are (except in the first half of the installation program) largely unbridged by any attempt to educate users. Mandriva has few wizards for administrative tasks, and still fewer on-line help files for them. As a result, while new users can get up and running quickly with Mandriva, they are unlikely to progress any further.

For many, this may be enough. Yet, because Mandriva does not offer a clear path for users to travel beyond their initial experience, some users may find it ultimately unsatisfactory. At first, they may delighted to find such a polished operating system. Later, though, they may start to hunger for alternatives.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge and the Linux Journal Web site.

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