Chas' Compilation

A compilation of information and links regarding assorted subjects: politics, religion, science, computers, health, movies, music... essentially whatever I'm reading about, working on or experiencing in life.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mandrake Revisited: a Lycoris user revisits his former OS.

A review of Mandrake 10.2 Limited Edition 2005
Originally published 08-18-05 at www.desktopOS.com


By Chas Sprague

Years ago, I was a Mandrake Linux user, because it seemed the best available Linux desktop at the time. I eventually switched to Lycoris Desktop LX, because it seemed less buggy and more promising.

Now years later, Mandrake has merged with Conectiva, to form a new company, "Mandriva", which has now acquired Lycoris and it's CEO, Joseph Cheek. We are told that there is going to be a special discount for DLX users to upgrade to the next version of Mandriva. So I have decided to reconsider Mandrake/Mandriva, starting with it's current version.

Mandriva 10.2 Limited Edition 2005 is available as a three CD set, completely free of cost, via download. I tested it on an older Pentium III desktop and a newer Celeron laptop.

I would just like to clarify here that I consider myself to be a novice at using Linux, not a "power" user. My point of view is that of someone who wants to use Linux as a desktop system to get things done, and I approach this review from a computer user's perspective.

The Mandrake website now says Mandriva, but the software I downloaded still says Mandrake. For the purposes of this review, please consider the two names as being interchangeable.


Using Mandrake 10.2 Limited Edition 2005

I have two test machines. My desktop is an older Pentium III, with a 600 MHz processor, 368 megs of RAM, 20 gig HD, and 1 floppy drive, a CD drive and a CD/rw drive. My laptop is an HP model ze4547wm, with a 2.40 G Hz Celeron processor, 40 gig HD, and 700 megs of ram and a DVD player/CD burner.

I began testing with the desktop machine. The install went very quickly, and smoothly. I had left 7 gigs of empty space on the hard drive, and Mandrake formatted it without problems. I told the installer to put the boot loader on the root partition instead of the HD boot sector, so I could continue to multi boot win98 and PC Linux. It worked fine, I was able to easily add it into my XOSL boot loader menu.

There were some options for choosing groups of packages. I chose to install everything offered, except for server and developer packages. It was all very easy.

The windows partitions are configured for access automatically, and can be found in the "mnt" folder. I know how to make the windows partitions accessible if I need to, but many newbies don't, so it is a nice touch that it is already done for you.

The icons and stuff are your standard KDE fare, which is fine with me. Some folks complain about the Mandrake Galaxy theme, but if you MUST, you can change the splash screen under the system/configuration/KDE/LookNFeel menu, as well as a Window Dressing option and many others under LookNFeel. There is also a Theme Manager available, but I just chose some pics from my windows partition, and easily saved one as the background by right clicking the pic thumbnail, choosing "actions" from the drop down menu, then choosing "set as background". Easy.

Kaffeineplayed my videos fine. Kaffeine also is the default player for sound files, but you can select other players, like Audacity or Rhythmbox. You can easily change the default setting for file types.


Other programs like Xine and PySOL card games were not installed by default, but I could easily install them from the CDs by using the Rpmdrake package manager.

From RPM Hell to RPM Heck

When I used Mandrake years ago, I was frustrated by what many people called "RPM Hell"; the problem of library compatibilities when installing new programs via ".rpm" files. Back then, if you tried to install a new program, you had to know which libraries to download and install with it, and where to put them. Sometimes there would be conflicts with other library files and versions. It could get quite complicated to install new programs and get them to work properly.

Things have changed a lot from those days. Now there are programs like Mandrake's "Urpmi", which is Mandrake's tool for dealing with collections of rpm files. It is a wrapper program for "rpm" that makes installs easier for the user. See Urpmi FAQ:

http://www.speculation.org/garrick/urpmifaq.txt
also here: http://www.linux-talk.com/post-22.html.

I had to configure Urpmi with on-line repository sources, in order to be able to update, upgrade and add software from the internet. I was advised to type "Easy Urpmi" into Google, and use one of the Easy Urpmi web pages to configure the repository sources. It's a three step process on an Easy Urpmi web page. The final output is several lines of text that you paste into a console window, while logged in as "su" (super user/root). Paste the text in, press return, and if all goes well, it configures your sources for you.

I say "if all goes well..." because I had two different experiences. With my laptop computer, connected to a broadband connection, it worked like a charm. It took about half an hour to configure the sources, and around an hour and a half to do over 800 MB of updates.

At home it was a different story. There, I have an Internet connection that does not go above 26k. Even if I was willing to tie up my phone line for endless hours, it just could not do it.

I reported this on the Mandriva forum, and was informed of a method for dial-up. On the Easy Urpmi page, there was a little toggle box to check in step two. Activating the toggle would cause it to use a compressed version of the package list (500kb) rather than the full version (20MB or so). That made a huge difference, and I was able to configure all the sources, although I had some problems configuring two of them. I had to cut and past them out of the text that Easy Urpmi gave me, and run the lines again individually. It did eventually work. A bit of a fuss, hence "RPM Heck".


I was then able to update a few things, and download a few programs, which did tie up the phone for a couple of hours. Not an ideal situation, but it was at least possible. Huge downloads were still out of the question. The 800 + MB of updates were too much to do at home by dial up, but I was told on the forum that it would be possible to download the RPMs at work and burn them on a CD. I haven't tried it yet, but it's nice to know it's a possibility.

All things considered, Urpmi isn't as easy as a few mouse clicks, but it's not rocket science, either. You don't have to use Urpmi at the command line to update and download software, you can use Mandrake's GUI package management tools, but the repositories still have to be configured for them to work.

With the laptop install, nearly everything was easier. For some reason the windows partitions were not automatically accessible, but I was able to edit the fstab file to make them so. I was able to upgrade the entire install via broadband at work, and I then had a very smooth, stable system, and Urpmi performed flawlessly. I use the GAG boot loader on the laptop, and it worked well with Mandrake. I installed Mandrake's boot loader on the Mandrake root partition, where GAG could find it.

Multimedia Files and Programs

I have a test folder of various file formats, that I use to test how Linux distributions handle various file formats. The file extensions are: .mp3, .mp2, .wma, .wmv, .ram, .pdf, .avi, .wav, .mid, .mov, .qt, .mpeg, .asf, .asx, .jpg, .bmp and .gif. I had been very happy with Lycoris DLX, because it could handle all these file formats without any extra tweaking of the software or adding new programs.

Would Mandrake LE 2005 be able to measure up? The answer is mostly yes. There were programs already configured to use all of the file formats. The gif file was animated, and to see the animation in action, it had to be opened with Firefox, instead of the default program Kuickshow. The Konqueror web browser also lets you open and view .pdf files perfectly. The only real bump in the road was midi files. Mandrake tried to play them with the Kmid program, but a message came up that said "Could not open dev/sequencer. Probably there is another program using it." I have found that most Linux distros I've tried give me this message. Lycoris DLX would play it with Kmid, but no others.

On the laptop, Kmid would open and play midi files, but there was no sound for the Kmid program. I left messages on the Mandriva boards, and received lots of suggestions, but was not able to solve the problem. One suggestion was to try another program instead, called "TiMidity++". This program did work, on the desktop and laptop, so I settled for that. Through forum recommendations I discovered a great looking program called "Rosegarden", but unfortunately, it worked the same was as Kmid on both my test computers. Perhaps one day, when I have more time...


All things considered, file usage was nearly as good as it was on Lycoris DLX.
I like to edit videos. The program "Kino" is available for Mandrake. It's not as capable as the program I'm using in Windows XP, but it and other programs are evolving. This will be an area of further study for me.

Functionality and Options

Years ago, I left Mandrake because I found it to be slow, unstable, and cluttered with applications that were broken. Happily, all this has changed! It's now fast and stable, and nearly all the applications (the sole exception being Kmid) worked fine. Much better with hardware compatibility. If it was this good years ago, I never would have left!

I tried installing ManLE2005 using only the first CD (while I was still downloading the others). The result was a very bare-bones install, fast and lean, but with few programs other than open office. Using Urpmi, you can add the other disks as upgrade sources later (I inquired on the Mandriva forums, and received exact instructions for how to do it). I think most people would want the other CDs too. It's more downloading, but it's worth it. It's easiest to install with all three CDs at once, and if you have the space, there is even an option that lets you copy the CDs to your hard drive.

The Mandriva menu structure can run several layers deep, like the LookNFeel menu. There much software available, and many controls and features for doing different things; it may take a while for you to explore the menus thoroughly and discover all the programs and options available to you.

Hardware and Overall Usability

For many of the activities I do most often with my computer, Mandriva is a fully functional desktop. I can surf the web with Firefox, access my web based email (I don't use any other kind), do word processing with OpenOffice.org or make notes with the Kate editor. I can play music CDs, and burn CDs with the K3b program. I was able to easily add DVD codecs I downloaded off the Internet, and had my DVD on the laptop playing movies just fine.

I was able to connect with my local networks, at home and work. The Internet connection via the LAN was instant. Using Samba (Smb4k) I was able to access XP default shared folders for file swapping. I was able to see, but not use, the network printers. With time I may have succeeded, but the need was not pressing so I shall have to pursue that at a later date. I was able to use my HP psc 1110 usb printer by plugging it directly into my laptop. It worked beautifully.

My Sony 256 MB USB RAM chip is recognized, as is my Fuji E510 digital camera. My Canon CanoScan FB 630P flatbed scanner was recognized and easily configured via Mandriva's control panel, but the output was less than satisfactory; the pictures were too dark and purple, and I couldn't find a way to adjust the scanner. I tried using both Kooka and XSane. Kooka had a simpler interface, XSane had more complex features, but I couldn't use either to get a usable scan. I had to boot into windows XP to get decent scans completed.


One of the best surprises for me was my Belkin F5D7010 wireless card. It WORKS! I've never gotten it to work with any Linux distribution before.

I used the ndiswrapper feature, to use my windows XP driver. At first, I thought it didn't work, I was using the GUI in the control panel to install the windows driver with ndiswrapper, and when I went to choose the location of the driver, it didn't seem to find it on the desktop where I put it.

It was offering me "desktop/home" and "desktop/welcome" as locations, but I eventually browsed for and found it in "home/chas/desktop". It installed, I rebooted (it said to restart Xwindows), and the WiFi card came to life. Configuring it was easy, and I was soon on the net with broadband via wireless... a long held dream come true!

The Mandriva Forums

Lycoris had (and still has) a very helpful public forum where I not only learned a great deal about Lycoris DLX, but a lot about Linux in general. The forum archives were a treasure trove of information, with a great search utility that made it easy to find helpful posts. It was a wonderful, free education, and the best customer support I've had for any software. Now, whenever I consider using a Linux distribution, I always consider it's on-line community and forum(s). If it does not have a vibrant on-line forum, I won't consider using the distribution.

Happily, Mandriva has two main forums, it's official forum at: http://forum.mandrivaclub.com, and another forum that is operated independently from Mandriva, http://mandrivausers.org/. I found friendly people, and quick replies to my requests for help at both forums. Both are easy to navigate and use, and have useful search features. Both have an optional feature that notifies you via email when there is activity in a thread you are watching. The forums at Mandrivausers.org seem to have more traffic at any given time, but I have found both sites to be a great asset for Mandriva users.

Conclusion

There has been a lot of debate about whether Linux is ready for the desktop or not. I think the answer to that question depends entirely on what YOU need to do with it.

Mandrake LE 2005 is already perfect for some people's desktop needs. For them, it's already "there". Other people, like me, have needs that have still not been completely met. Yet I am still hopeful that it is evolving into a desktop that I can GROW INTO as it matures. It is already pretty good at most of the things I ordinarily do with a computer: web browsing (networked and wireless), email, word processing. Playing CDs or DVDs. Using multimedia files, PDF files, light desktop publishing. More advanced features, like using flatbed scanners or editing video files, are not yet on a par with windows. But I can wait for that.

I'm dual booting right now. I prefer to access the Internet via Linux, and I do much of the time. By the time Microsoft comes out with Longhorn, I hope to be able to avoid the need to migrate to it. I think many people are seeking an alternative, a less restrictive OS.

There are many parts of this review that I would have liked to have taken further, troubleshooting problems until all avenues were exhausted, but two things stopped me.

1.) Mandriva's next release. The 2nd beta is already out. If I wait much longer, this review will be obsolete by the time it's published!

2.) It's a question of TIME. I really am more of a computer USER than anything else. I'm self-employed, and I need to use my time with the computer to get things done. More than a reviewer, I'm really just a computer user looking for a migration path to a better deal, a better way. I need a flexible desktop OS that is mostly configured and working already, so that can spend my time working with the software to get things done, instead of working on the software to get it to work.

And speaking of a better deal. The 3 CD download version is FREE. Access to the help forums is FREE. The majority of Mandriva users don't pay anything. There are reasonably priced packaged versions that come with additional software, including commercial programs and drivers. Then optionally, there are various levels of the Mandriva Club, with yearly "Standard" membership fees starting at $66.00 per year, with an assortment of benefits that increase with each level of membership.


I've heard many people claim that Mandriva is too expensive to use, but I don't understand why, when they have quite a range of prices, starting with FREE. Even updates via download, including security updates, are FREE (Mandriva offers a service called Mandriva Online, which automates the update process. There is a fee for that service, but it is optional. You can check for updates manually yourself, free of charge).

Also, many commercial linuxes have a "per seat" charge, a license fee for every computer it's installed on. Mandriva has none. If you are installing it on several computers, that adds up to quite a bit of savings. And compared with the cost of WindowsXP on several computers... do the math. The difference is awesome.

I believe there is a market for windows users who are looking for an alternative. If Mandriva offers a polished commercial product with a comparable look & feel, functionality and ease of use, I believe they will find customers who will gladly pay them for it.

Of course, they will have competition. PClinux is very similar to Mandriva, but has already begun modifications to make it a more friendly distro for people leaving windows. They have a "My Computer" icon on the desktop. They use apt-get and Synaptic to update, upgrade and install software, which is easier than Urpmi. Their repositories are smaller than Mandriva's, but are growing steadily. They have a robust, helpful forum. It's still a beta release, yet it's catching up quickly... but that's another review.

As it is, Mandriva's Mandrake 10.2 LE 2005 is already a very capable, useful desktop environment. With Mandriva and Lycoris combining their resources, I am hopeful that an even more complete, easy to use and powerful Linux desktop will be appearing in future releases.

Chas Sprague is a small business owner in rural Oregon who has been experimenting with Linux since 1997.