In the quest to find the perfect Linux distribution, we often hit an obstacle that makes the grass look greener on another distro’s lawn. When we reach that point, the first instinct is to turn to another distribution and hope that something fresh will also be something better. This time around, I decided to see if PCLinuxOS was indeed greener.
Time and time again, I have learned that something new is not always something better. Take Ubuntu’s switch to a new desktop shell with Unity in Ubuntu 11.04. This switch has left a number of Ubuntu users pondering other distributions in search of more familiar territory.
One user-friendly distro that’s popular is PCLinuxOS, and they have just come out with a new release. But what does it have that other distros do not? That’s my goal, to explore PCLinuxOS and see what you can expect that you won’t find elsewhere. And, with that said, let’s dig in.
Desktop Options and Integration
There are two different desktops you can opt to go with on PCLinuxOS: KDE or LXDE. KDE is an obvious choice and is offered by plenty of distributions. LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) on the other hand is primarily distributed by Lubuntu and Knoppix. Because there are already two other distributions shipping with LXDE, what about the PCLinuxOS take on this desktop would make anyone want to use PCLinuxOS over these two distributions?
The first thing a user might notice is that, out of the box, PCLinuxOS is set up with both NVidia and ATI fglrx support built in. No matter which type of graphics card is on the machine, PCLinuxOS — with the LXDE desktop — should work great! With either Lubuntu or Knoppix (should anyone actually use Knoppix as a desktop distribution), it is likely that either proprietary or extra drivers will need to be installed to get the same working graphics as found in the out of the box experience of PCLinuxOS.
Another out of the box experience users will appreciate with PCLinuxOS is with multi-media. Instead of having to mess around with installing the proper codecs to get various multi-media files to work, those files should simply play — out of the box. A welcome change for anyone frustrated with having to always install extra packages just to play music or video.
PCLinuxOS has one of the strangest takes on package management I’ve run into on Linux. PCLinuxOS is based on Mandriva, so it uses RPMs. I will admit that I’ve always been a fan of RPM and Yum for managing packages. What I’ve never been much of a fan of is PackageKit. PackageKit is a graphical front-end used to handle RPM and Yum, as well as Debian packages when used on those distributions. PackageKit has always (in my opinion) been inferior to the likes of Synaptic. And that is where PCLinuxOS shines. The developers of this rpm-based distribution have taken the Synaptic front end (usually associated with apt and apt-get) and added it as the package manager for PCLinuxOS.
Although I say that the PCLinuxOS take on the package management is strange, in my opinion this was a very strong move on the developers part. Synaptic is far and away easier to use than PackageKit. This ease of use, however, comes with a price — outdated software. The Synaptic version installed is a few releases out of date (and will remain that way because of the way it is set up to work with rpm.)
The LXDE flavor of PCLinuxOS ships with two different control panels — the LXDE control panel (see Figure 1) and the Mandriva control panel (see Figure 2).
The simplicity of the LXDE control panel will please the purists at heart.
Each panel offers different tools and a completely different take on administering a system. The LXDE control panel offers a very minimal, simplistic approach to the control panel and focuses on the desktop. But even with this minimal take on the tool, much can be done here. From the GDM login screen to session saving to screen resolution to much of the appearance of the desktop — the LXDE desktop is nearly completely covered by the control panel. But when it comes to system configuration, the Mandriva control panel (branded as the PCLinuxOS Control Center) is the place to be.
This is where nearly all system settings are taken care of.
Thankfully, the PCLinuxOS developers included the Mandriva control panel so system settings would not have to be done via command line or through multiple tools chosen from a hierarchical menu system. Of course, this isn’t really anything new to Linux distributions as most newer releases now make use of a control panel-like tool. PCLinuxOS is one of the few (maybe the only) that offer a control panel for the desktop and a separate control panel for the system.
Applications: A Change Of Pace
One of the more refreshing aspects I found with PCLinuxOS was the list of software pre-installed. Instead of the usual line up of pedestrian software, this distribution includes some unusual (and welcome) suspects. This list includes:
- Claws Mail: One of the most configurable and powerful e-mail clients available.
- Bleachbit: Outstanding system cleaning application.
- Clementine: DAAP server.
- Flashplayer-plugin: That’s right, a distribution finally installs Flash out of the box.
- The Gimp: Linux isn’t Linux without The Gimp.
Of course, if the KDE version of PCLinuxOS is installed, the standard KDE software will be included. And according to the PCLinuxOS web site, Dropbox is supposed to be pre-installed — it is not.
Target Audience Perceptions
There is a mis-perception with PCLinuxOS in that it is an ideal distribution for new Linux users. I have to disagree with that sentiment. I’ll explain. Distributions built for new users tend to pull back on the users’ ability to tinker. Why? Because when new users tinker, they break things. Take Ubuntu, for instance. With Ubuntu it’s much harder for a new user to break the install than, say, a Fedora distribution.
PCLinuxOS falls in place nearer to Fedora than Ubuntu in that more things can be easily broken. Just open up the PCLinuxOS Control Center (Mandriva control panel) and look around at what can be tinkered with. For example, a new user could easily install a web server, an ftp server, configure NFS or SMB sharing, or easily modify security settings. On a distribution for a new users, these configuration options would be a bit less obvious and/or easy to access.
Does this take away from PCLinuxOS as a distribution as a whole? Not in the slightest. In fact, I would recommend that anyone looking for a distribution to alleviate the Ubuntu Unity/GNOME 3 headaches should give PCLinuxOS a try. Which flavor depends on exactly what is desired from the desktop. If a desktop resplendent with special effects and eye candy is preferred, go with the KDE flavor of PCLinuxOS. If a lightweight, faster, minimal (yet highly functional) desktop is preferred, go with the LXDE flavor.
What it all Means
The latest release of PCLinuxOS brings to the table a good amount of relief for those suffering from the upheaval brought about by the release of some of the game-changing desktops that have come to light. Although I don’t believe PCLinuxOS to offer any one single deal breaker or deal maker aspect, it’s still a solid distribution that does have a few unique twists to the Linux desktop distribution.