May 29, 2008

Review: Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring

Author: Mayank Sharma

Last month Mandriva announced its latest Spring edition. Despite a few minor glitches, after several weeks of testing the two Mandriva flavors, I have finally come across a distro that gives you the best of the GNU/Linux and proprietary worlds in terms of ease of use, range of software, and stability on hardware that ranges from old Celerons to newer multi-core machines.

I tested two Mandriva offerings. Mandriva's flasgship edition, Mandriva One, comprises a half dozen live CDs, three each for the KDE (version 3.5.9) and GNOME (2.22) desktops, each of the three distinguished only by different Internationalization support. There is no DVD available for the One version. I also tried is the commercial Mandriva Powerpack edition, which is available for a fee ($59 for the download version and $89 for a boxed set) that includes support as well. Powerpack is an install-only DVD version.

Software selection

Mandriva One's single-CD distro is a throwback to the days before we had so many free software options, 3-D desktop add-ons, and 3-D games, not to mention multi-core hardware and fat connections to the Internet that allow users to grab 3.3GB ISOs in a couple of hours. Nevertheless, despite their small size, the two Mandriva One flavors have the best collection of software I've ever seen on a single-CD distro. On machines on which I don't need to play shoot-em-ups, the default list of bundled software serves all my purposes, from browsing the Internet to typing documents to editing images and video. Both the Mandriva One and Powerpack editions run a modified Linux kernel. Sound is handled by PulseAudio, video by Xorg 7.3, and 3-D effects by Compiz Fusion 0.7.2 and Mandriva's own Metisse.

Common software bundled in both Mandriva One live CDs includes 2.4.0, Mozilla Firefox 2.0, GIMP 2.4.5, and Totem 2.22.0. Each live CD has its desktop environment's own software for burning CDs and DVDs, managing photographs, instant messaging, reading email, playing music, and other tasks. The KDE live CD lacks a video editor, while the GNOME live CD bundles Kino. The KDE system in Powerpack bundles the Kdenlive video editor. None of the live CDs bundle any virtualization software, nor is any installed by the default package selection group in Powerpack. The biggest branch of software missing from the One live CDs is games.

On the bright side, you can download dozens of games and both Virtualbox and Xen virtualization software from the Mandriva repository, which also packs the latest KDE 4. Additionally, Mandriva Linux Spring's release notes page lists new software in the repository that includes Elisa media center, the Mac OS X-inspired task manager Avant Window Navigator, Conduit data synchronizer, and Miro for watching Internet TV.

Out of the box, the live CDs play MP3 music files and patent-free formats such as FLAC and Ogg. For all other types of formats, Mandriva pops up a message via Codeina that asks you to get a decoder by either paying Fluendo for it or using a reverse-engineered decoder from Mandriva's repository. To configure your Mandriva repository, run the software installation utility and select the option to update repositories when prompted.

In addition to the software on the live CD, the commercial Powerpack edition packs in games as well. Paying for the distro also gets you Cedega, for playing Windows games, and Fluendo codecs worth €28, in addition to support and online training.

Working with One and Powerpack

I like the fact that the GNOME and KDE live CDs have a consistent look and feel during bootup and after loading the desktop, with same wallpapers and same configuration tools. Before loading the desktop, both live CDs ask the same set of basic questions, giving you the option to set up your keyword, location, date, and time. You are also asked to select a 3-D desktop if Mandriva has determined that your computer has the resources to run one. On offer is Compiz Fusion and Mandriva's own Metisse.

When I tried to play music on a desktop box with a 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 CPU and Intel DG965RY motherboard, the speakers (powered by an onboard Sigmatel sound card) oozed a continuous buzzing sound, while the audio was hardly audible. Mandriva Control Center, the distro's configuration tool, refused to display sound editing options. Even Powerpack couldn't do anything about the buzzing, though it did let me edit the sound options. No other machine had this issue.

Both live CDs ran flawlessly on a 2.0GHz E4400 dual-core desktop. Even after almost a day of using the distro to create documents, browse the Internet, and listen to music, the live CD environment didn't show any signs of stress. The live CDs exhibited the same sturdiness on a 1.3GHz Celeron laptop with 1GB RAM.

Installing the operating system to the hard drive from the live CDs is a quick walk in the park. Both live CDs use the same installer. The partitioning tool in the live CD installer can create, resize, and delete partitions. The only issue with the One live CD installer is that it doesn't add GRUB entries for any Windows partition you might already have on the machine.

By default Mandriva creates ext3 partitions. While installing from either the live CD or the Powerpack installer, if you wish to create Logical Volume Manager (LVM) partitions, you'll have to toggle Expert mode. The live CD installer will prompt you to install the lvm2 package before it can create LVM partitions, but the Powerpack installer is equipped with all the tools and packages to help you create LVM partitions.

Hardware support

Apart from the sound issue on one of the dual-core machines, Mandriva recognized, configured, and activated all the devices I have attached to my three test machines. It detected the Linksys Wireless USB adapter, which didn't seem to run properly with the built-in drivers but did so later when I installed its Windows drivers via Ndiswrapper. The Linksys Wireless PCMCIA card on the laptop didn't require any special treatment, nor did the wired Ethernet card on the desktop.

All Mandriva flavors correctly configured a 19-inch 1440x990 LCD monitor and 17-inch 1280x1024 LCD monitor on the desktops. The onboard graphics on both the Intel boards were also configured properly and powered the 3-D desktop and 3-D games like Torcs and Tremulous.

I had to install the GSPCA drivers for my Quantum QHM500LM webcam before I could get it working. But a Sony Handycam plugged in via the FireWire port worked right off the bat with both Kino and Kdenlive. A Canon 400D DSLR camera was also mounted automatically when connected via the USB port.

You can check the Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring Errata to see if there's a known issue with your hardware.

Things you can do

I really appreciate the fact that the only difference between the free (as in beer) Mandriva One editions and the paid-for Powerpack edition is the extra proprietary software and support you get with Powerpack. In terms of features and functionality both versions are identical.

Both versions bundle the same Mandriva Control Center (MCC), which features a few new tricks as compared to the last spring release. In addition to backing up the entire system, you can now setup Mandriva to periodically take snapshots of a particular folder, a bunch of folders, or even the entire system.

There are five preset security levels you can choose from in the MCC, depending on how paranoid you are about system break-ins. You can also set or review audit parameters and the level of authentication required for tasks such as network configuration and scheduling backups.

If you are a concerned parent, using the MCC you can set up parental controls to help you block sites (with the help of a white list and a black list) and restrict Internet access during time periods that you can set.

On the package installation front, there's a small utility that keeps track of the various packages on your system, along with stats like when was the last time you ran a particular package. This can help you identify packages that you can safely remove from the system.

Mandriva Linux Spring 2008 also has an improved software installation utility. Adding a repository is fairly quick now because the package manager downloads extra information about a package when you click on it. By default the package manager now lists only programs with a graphical user interface, in order to help new users who are baffled by the choice of software and libraries in the package manager. Experienced users can browse and search all packages by selecting the appropriate option in a prominently displayed pull-down menu within the software manager.

With the Powerpack edition you can use the DVD as a repository and save time by grabbing stuff off of it when you install new software. That would be a great option for users with the GNOME and KDE live CDs. For example, if I install Mandriva One from the GNOME live CD, the only way I can install KDE on this system is by installing it from the online repos, which is OK unless I have a Mandriva One KDE CD lying next to me.

I couldn't test two Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring additions because I lacked the necessary hardware. You can run this Mandriva release on an Asus Eee PC, and the distro can synchronize many types of mobile devices, including those running Windows Mobile 5 and 6, Blackberries, and most Nokia phones.


Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring comes pretty close to a perfect Linux distribution. It has a good selection of software in its various editions as well as in its repositories. To help new users, there's useful wiki-based online documentation and an active community on forum boards, IRC channel (#mandriva on Freenode), and several mailing lists, including one for beginners.

It's unfair to expect a distro to work with all sorts of hardware across multi-core and single-core platforms without any tweaking, yet apart from the sound issues on one dual-core machine, Mandriva work effortlessly with all my hardware devices. Never once did I felt the need to launch a terminal to manage the system. Mandriva detected and set up my wireless cards, FireWire and USB devices, graphics cards, and monitors. I could schedule backups, update repositories, install new packages, and tweak and enable a firewall, all within a graphical interface.

No matter whether you are a Linux newbie or power user, you can always use a stable desktop distribution, and they don't come any better than Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring.


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