I am familiar with Mandrake Linux and the GNU/Linux operating system, with an experience that goes back to May 2000, but I do not consider myself to be any kind of expert or advanced user by any means. (You can see more background in OfB.biz's Mandrake 9.0 review.)
I have been using Mandrake since the 8.2 version. I was a previous user of Red Hat (up to version 7.2), and Mandrake attracted me because it offered features such as the excellent font installer, the apt-get-like urpmi package manager, i586 optimization, a desktop focus with an excellent breadth and scope of packages, user friendliness without dumbing down the system, easy GUI administration tools but with the command-line in full force and readily available should one prefer it, and many other perceived advantages.
Thankfully, I was not mistaken. Mandrake 8.2, my first Mandrake installation, was my last GNU/Linux system installed on a dual boot basis with the laptop's previous Windows 98 Second Edition original setup; when I installed Mandrake 9.0, I finally decided to wipe out "the FAT" and get lean. This decision was based largely on my impression of Mandrake 8.2, which might be --even to this date-- the best out-of-the-box GNU/Linux distribution ever.
The next Mandrake release, Mandrake 9.0, promised substantial improvements but it was a flawed release with problems, some serious, some easy to fix, and almost all of them very annoying. (See the review for more details). The bulk of these problems could be attributed to poor quality assurance and a package selection that was inconsistent at its best.
Despite that, I hoped that this new release would be better than the previous. But the latest corporate troubles of MandrakeSoft SA and the drastic reduction of their workforce brought some doubts about the quality of Mandrake 9.1. Would Mandrake 9.1 be worse than 9.0?
The review was conducted on a Compaq Presario 1200 XL-118 laptop system equipped with the AMD K6-2 processor operating at 500 MHz, with 192 MB of system RAM, 6.0 GB of hard disk space, a motherboard using the VIA 8266 chipset (which includes the sound chip) and a Trident CyberBlade AGP video chip using 4MB of system RAM as video RAM. The display is an 800x600 passive matrix display panel. It is generally accepted that the hardware offered by this system is as of now obsolete and outdated; but its responsiveness and perceived speed is still very good, and it is well supported by the Linux kernel.
Mandrake Linux 9.1 comes in several offerings. The most basic one is the Download Edition, comprised of three downloadable CD images that are freely offered for download over the Internet (check the downloads and links page for pointers). It is also possible to buy boxed packages, which are named OEM Edition (1 CD), Standard Edition (2 CDs), Power Pack, and Pro Suite (several CDs and a DVD each). This review will focus on the Download Edition, which has been provided by OfB Labs for the purposes of this review. Part 1 of this series considered some of the features specific to Mandrake's ProSuite edition.
I will quote the previous Mandrake 9.0 review:
I honestly think that all those reviews of GNU/Linux distributions that focus on installation with the assumption that the installer should be really dumbed-down in order to make it "user friendly" or "as easy as Windows", are dead wrong. Windows is not easy to install! Have you tried to do it yourself, right from the partitioning of the hard disk with fdisk and up to the point in which you have a working system ready to do its job? If you did, then you'll know that Windows installation is anything but easy or user-friendly. Furthermore, the fact that in the Windows world the end user seldom installs his/her system should be borne in mind; the task is usually left to the system integrator (the computer manufacturer) for a new system, and to the "resident nerd" of the family/school/workplace in the case of an upgrade. Because of all that, I contend that it is unrealistic to expect a newbie GNU/Linux user to install his/her system on his own. It would be far more appropriate instead to expect that the GNU/Linux installation would be done by someone who would take over the role of system administrator during the install and configuration process; this would be usually a GNU/Linux user who has already gained some expertise in system usage and installation. Therefore, I did not expect installation to be dumbed-down; I wanted an install routine that was clear, easy and flexible, that is, something that would maximize control to the sysadmin while minimizing both failures and loss of time. However, this handholding by an expert would be limited to install and configuration only; further administrative tasks would be left to the end user.
Additionally, this review is not going to be just a quick summary of the installation procedures. The actual day-to-day performance of Mandrake 9.1 will receive a great amount of the reviewer's attention.
The Mandrake Linux 9.1 Download Edition comes in three CDs: two Installation CDs and a third CD labeled International CD. Both Installation CDs are bootable: the first CD is the regular boot CD, intended for most machines, while the second one is configured to boot from more exotic setups.
When the first installation CD is present on a boot-capable CD-ROM at boot time, the Mandrake install routine, DrakX, boots into the system and presents the user a LILO-based welcome screen (figure 1.). You can press Enter to proceed with a normal install or press F1 if you need to pass some parameters to the install programs.
The DrakX kernel then boots into the system and after some post-boot configuration, the install program proper starts. The install program is completely redesigned in both form and function and the changes are readily evident. Now, DrakX is written on GTK 2.0 instead of GTK 1.2 and as a consequence you have nice anti-aliased fonts. You also have all the widgets drawn using the Mandrake Galaxy theme instead of the (really ugly, in my opinion) Motif-like default theme of GTK 1.2. You can see the appearance of the new DrakX in Fig. 2.
However changes more far-reaching than the mere appearance were made: DrakX now separates installation from configuration, and the steps of the whole procedure were reduced from the previous 16 to 11, distributed as five install and six configuration steps. This is a serious and well-thought redesign that greatly simplifies the installation and stands out as a major improvement in the distribution.
The next screen (Fig. 2) shows you the license agreement of the Mandrake Linux distribution. The agreement says in reasonably clear language that the software in the distribution is covered under different licenses, and it's up to you to comply with them, disclaiming all liability. Next, you can choose whether you want an upgrade or a full install and, after setting up your mouse and keyboard, the install procedure asks you for the system's security level. You can choose from the categories of Standard, High, Higher and Paranoid.
Next comes the step that is usually considered as the most difficult part of a GNU/Linux install: disk partitioning. Partitioning is handled by DiskDrake, which proposes some solutions according to the contents of the hard disk: (1) use previous partitions (if you had a previous GNU/Linux installation), (2) erase the entire disk and have DiskDrake put there a preset partitioning scheme, (3) resize the Windows FAT partitions (if you have Windows installed), (4) wipe out Windows completely, or (5) use a custom partitioning scheme. Since I was upgrading from Mandrake 9.0, I was presented only with options 1, 2, and 5. I chose to do custom partitioning.
Custom partitioning is done by DiskDrake. Figure 3 is a snapshot of DiskDrake taken from DrakConf that it is essentially identical to the custom partitioning module of the installation. In the previous review I noted that I found some problems with the granularity of the partition size selector. I wanted a 16 MB /boot partition, a 400 MB one for swap, and the rest as a large root partition. Now, the usual size selector (Fig. 4) is again a sliding one, and with the same granularity problems. Thankfully, a lot of OfB.biz readers pointed out that you can get around the issue by using the left and right arrow keys instead of the mouse. Alternately, if you switch to the "Expert Mode" before pressing the "Create" or "Modify" buttons, you are presented with a dialog that lets you specify the partition size by hand, as it was done in setups previous to Mandrake 9.0 (Fig. 5). This caveat and its subsequent workaround are not documented by the Mandrake official documentation as far as I can tell.
After the disk setup you can choose the packages, which are distributed in roughly four groups: Workstation, Development, Graphical Environment and Server. Each of these groups have some categories of software package which you can choose; and if you want a more detailed selection, you can choose the individual packages, which gives you access to hierarchical tree of packages. You can choose the packages distributed in several categories of the package tree, and you can save the package list into a floppy disk for convenience.
In my previous Mandrake review, I also ran into problems here. I pointed out that there are too many repeated packages; for example, a package such as XFree86-100dpi-fonts is present in three different groups. If you want to choose packages from several groups, you can get tired very quickly of wading through several screens of repeated packages. Another problem that in my view was far more serious was the fact that there were packages that were "secretly installed", that is, that were not presented to the user but were nonetheless installed. For example, no matter how painstaking I was in deselecting any and all emacs packages, I always ended with 21MB worth of bloat in my disk, courtesy of an emacs package. Thankfully, many kind OfB.biz readers suggested to me a great workaround: If you select the "flat-list" view in the individual package selection screen, you are presented with only one instance of each package, and all packages are present, so you can get rid of all that "stealthy" bloat.
These issues were also present in Mandrake 9.1; you can see a screenshot of a flat-list package list showing packages that would otherwise be hidden from the user in figure 6. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell the issues and the workaround I mention above is not documented by the Mandrake official documentation in any way.
When you finish the package selection, the system installs all the requested packages (see Fig. 7) and then enters into the configuration phase of the installation. After entering a root password (or choosing not to have it), adding users, and choosing where your bootloader will be, DrakX presents you with the main config screen, named "Summary" (Fig. 8). Here you can customize nearly every aspect of the install configuration, with categories such as printer setup, display, boot config, network and services, among others. As usual, I found that DrakX correctly detected and configured all my hardware and peripherals, including a HP DeskJet 840C in both parallel and USB mode, and a Plextor 24/10/40U USB CD-Writer. Also, in a pleasant change from 9.0, the network setup worked correctly; my PCMCIA network card was correctly detected and configured, and the system was network aware in no time and without any manual configuration on my part.
On the not-so bright side, however, an Artec AM12E+ parallel scanner was predictably marked as "not supported by this version of Mandrake Linux", since it was listed as unsupported in the SANE database. (SANE stands for Scanner Access Now Easy, the standard way to get scanner support in a GNU/Linux distribution). Additionally, this laptop has a Lucent LT Winmodem; these winmodems have good GNU/Linux support but only in the form of non-free drivers, so I am still forced to use non-free software if I am to use the full features of the system hardware.
As usual in Mandrake, I was able to choose either LILO with graphical menu, LILO with text menu, or GRUB with text menu. I still wonder why this emphasis on LILO while everyone else is using GRUB with full-blown menus? I chose GRUB and, as usual, worked very well. But here lies an DrakX issue too: when I chose the bootloader, I had to specify the 800x600 framebuffer console in two different windows of the bootloader selection screen if I wanted the framebuffer console to be active. Otherwise, I would boot in the regular 80x25 console. The solution, of course, was to make sure that the framebuffer parameter was properly selected in both screens, so this is just an inconsistency and not a serious problem. However, booting into a regular 80x25 console gave me some problems that were gone at once when the framebuffer console was activated (see below).
All in all, the system was properly installed without a single show-stopping problem. There were, as I noted, two serious issues that were worked around. The workarounds were simple enough; but the issues remain serious because of their undocumented status. If a system administrator tries to install Mandrake 9.1, he or she will find these problems without any hint of its solution even after an extensive search of the documentation.
In the first boot after the installation, GRUB did not boot the kernel (kernel 220.127.116.11.13mdk in this case) in the nice, usual 100x37 framebuffer console. I found that instead of the 800x600 framebuffer I would boot into a regular 80x25 console and this got me into a problem. It seems that Mandrake wants you to use UTF-8 in your console fonts, and wants it really bad. At install time, I had chosen English (default) and Spanish (accessory) as my languages, and both are perfectly covered by the ISO 8859-1 encoding. But this fact was to no avail; Mandrake wanted me to use UTF-8, and this brought two different problems. One of them was tied to the fact that I was running the 80x25 standard console. Well, at some point in the SysV-style boot process, the screen turned extremely bright -it was a black background, but it looked as it was almost white- and the console font changed. The other problem was that this console font was not capable of rendering all the ncurses lines and widgets, so using programs such as mc was painful. (Ncurses is a system library that draws lines, boxes and widgets on a console screen.)
The solution was, first, to make sure GRUB would boot into the framebuffer console. This took care of the first problem. But where could I disable the ugly, overkill UTF-8 setup? Well, it turned out that my /etc/sysconfig/i18n file was full of UTF-8 settings such as, LANGUAGE=en_US.UTF-8:en_US:en. Removing all the UTF-8 references, i.e., having settings look like LANGUAGE=en_US:en and changing the console font (SYSFONT) to lat0-sun16 did the trick.
I chose, as usual, to boot into a text console, and I found that logging in takes about 15 seconds. I think this condition is caused by all the scripts placed at /etc/profile.d/ that must be executed at login time. Some have complained at this, but for me it is perfectly fine. The real problem I found in this area was apparent when my wife told me that she wanted to use the system. "Great," I thought, and set myself to prepare a nice X-based login using KDM, the KDE Display Manager in the initlevel 5 to make things "intuitive" for her. After appropriate configuration steps, I found out that the keyboard was not working as soon as the X server started, so I was unable to login. Trying to work around the issue, I did the unthinkable -- I enabled password-less logins, so we could log in with just a click of the mouse. And log in we could, but even in our user accounts the keyboard was AWOL. This problem was consistently present with every choice of display manager (GDM, KDM, XDM, MdkKDM) and boot managers. Additionally, in all instances of the X-based login the X Window system appeared extremely sluggish, with a performance that reminded me of my Red Hat days. A search for a hint or a solution was unsuccessful, and I was not able to find accounts of experiences similar to mine. End of story: My wife uses happily the system, but she logs in the text console and types startx at the first command prompt, as I always did. I suspect that this issue is hardware-related; but I don't have any clue of a solution.
[The bootsplash and mouse issues did not arise in tests performed on OfB Labs' two standard distribution test boxes. -Ed]
The command startx starts the X Window System using XFree86, which now is at version 4.3.0. The default desktop is, as usual in Mandrake, the K Desktop Environment (see Fig. 9). Mandrake 9.1 ships with a rather early version of KDE 3.1 with some bugfixes, which has been superseded by the standard bugfix releases 3.1.1, 3.1.2 and 3.1.3. Nevertheless, Mandrake backported the critical bugfixes to its KDE release in subsequent updates. If you choose to have the newer versions, however, these are available on the internet. I advise installing the latest KDE (3.1.3 as of now), which is available from several public sources and MandrakeClub.
The Mandrake implementation of KDE now comes with a new Mandrake theme, Mandrake Galaxy, which is depicted in figure 9. This is a GUI theme consistent across both KDE and Gnome, so any Qt or GTK+ app would have a consistent look and feel. The theme, however, doesn't feel as polished as one would expect, and I decided not to use it; if you don't want it you can configure KDE to your liking.
Here I must add some commentary. Even though Mandrake Galaxy still needs some improvement before it could be taken seriously, I contend that its approach to look and feel unification between desktops is the best way to achieve that goal. Some time ago a lot of noise was generated by Red Hat's Bluecurve theming of KDE and GNOME. A lot of people said that all the complaints were not valid since look and feel unification between the two major desktop was a good thing, but these people failed to see what the substance of the issues were. The issue at hand was not necessarily the "look and feel unification"; the serious modifications of the KDE libraries done under that excuse was. Red Hat hacked the KDE libraries in an extensive way (and there are detailed accounts of it posted on the Net; I won't delve on the changes since I am not a programmer) creating a de facto KDE fork. This is permissible, since KDE is free software; but the said modifications created a lot of new bugs that the KDE developers couldn't really answer for. This was the issue at hand, and a lousy way of achieving the "unification" goal by any measure.
You can also get Gnome 2.2.0, which is a great release. Although I prefer and use KDE, I could see that Gnome feels better, much faster and leaner than the previous 2.0.x series. As usual, thanks are due to the dedicated Gnome hackers for their hard effort. However, there is something I don't like: it is becoming increasingly harder to configure the Gnome desktop; that is, the configuration windows have fewer and fewer options. I think this is a mistake; the Gnome developers need to remember that "GUI user" is not equal to "not very bright, computer-illiterate user who needs a lot of hand-holding". There are also a number of other desktops and window managers if you want to use them. I chose to install XFce and IceWM, which serve as good lightweight replacements for KDE and Gnome. If there is a good window manager out there, chances are you can get good Mandrake packages for it.
I mentioned in my previous review of Mandrake 9.0 that if you chose to have a text-only login, there is absolutely no documented way of change your default desktop; it seems that Mandrake expects its users to stick with the graphical login or if they use the text login, to stick with the text console. After a lot of exploration, I learned that it was possible to choose one's desktop by placing a file named .desktop in the home directory, whose only contents will be DESKTOP=$DESKTOP, where $DESKTOP is the desktop you choose, and it could take values such as KDE, GNOME, IceWM or XFce. This value is case-sensitive, and the contents of this file would determine the desktop environment to be launched by the X Window System. As you might guess, this is not very user-friendly. However, kind readers pointed me to a small Mandrake script called Xtart. When you run Xtart from the text console, it will present you with a menu from which you can choose which window manager or desktop you would like to run. Despite Xtart, I consider this state of things not good for a desktop-oriented distro like Mandrake. The least important problem here is that while Xtart is OK for having quick and easy access to all your desktop and window managers, it cannot change your default WM/DE. If you want to change your default desktop from KDE to, say, Gnome, your only choice would be to create or edit the .desktop file in the way I mentioned before. And, the most important problem is that neither Xtart nor the .desktop file are documented in any way, anywhere. A system administrator evaluating a potential migration to Mandrake from a different desktop platform would be at a loss over this issue if they wished to used a text-based login, and there is no way to know the workarounds by reading the manuals. This is not good in any GNU/Linux distribution and even more so in a desktop-oriented distro. The minimum corrective action would be to document this issue in the Mandrake documentation.
Even though the Mandrake tools were completely redesigned in Mandrake 9.0, the Mandrake tools of 9.1 seem to have been the subject of a new revamp. This time the tools are written in GTK2, with a much nicer look using the MandrakeGalaxy theme. A nice improvement over the tools in Mandrake 9.0 is that now all the tools can fit in a 800x600 screen. This fixed a complaint of mine in my previous review.
As usual, the tools are grouped in the Mandrake Control Center, which now offers not only the tool title (such as drakfont) but also gives a short description of its function. This greatly enhances the usefulness of the Control Center. Another improvement is that in most cases, the output that used to be in console (that is, standard input and standard error) is shown in windows. A great example of this is Mandrake Update, which now uses gurpmi to install RPMs using a window instead of the console output. You can see screenshots of Mandrake Control Center in figures 10 and 11.
Not all is perfect, however. There is still some output directed to console, so I would advise to always start the Control Center by typing the drakconf command from a root shell window. The font installer, which now has become a Mandrake hallmark, makes the selection of directories unnecessarily difficult (you have to manually erase a window message that becomes input to do that). And the Mandrake Update still makes you download 2-4 MB worth of an update.cz file every time there is an upgrade, instead of resorting to a differential download. For many people 2-4 MB would seem trivial; but for dialup users, especially in countries that have phone access metered by the minute, this is a waste of resources.
The performance improvements of Mandrake 9.0 were repeated in Mandrake 9.1. The system feels snappy and responsive, even when using it with a heavy load (meant as using KDE with lots of windows on four virtual desktops, at least one window being OpenOffice.org, at least one window each for a graphical Web browser and email client, and a compilation going on). Below is the summary of some performance comparisons between Mandrake 8.2, 9.0 and 9.1. The measurements, obviously, are not scientific.
|Command||Mandrake 8.2||Mandrake 9.0||Mandrake 9.1|
(with KDE as desktop)
|1m 40s||1m 05s||58s|
|Package||Mandrake 8.2||Mandrake 9.0||Mandrake 9.1|
|krusader-1.11||1h 20m||40m||59m 33s|
These measurements show that, while there has been some decrease in compile time performance, the actual execution and startup of applications is noticeably faster. I guess the increased compile time is due to more optimizations being applied to GCC 3.x, the compiler used in the Mandrake 9.x series. This shows off the hard work of the distribution developers, who should be commended.
Before concluding, I would like to mention two problems that I found. These are major annoyances, and Mandrake would do well in addressing them.
MandrakeSoft's package inclusion policies have been the center of some controversy going back to at least Mandrake Linux 8.2, when some very useful packages were not included in the commercial packs but were included in the free download edition. The kdeartwork package's almost omission from 9.1 was a case of inconsistent policy, since artwork and screensavers for other desktops (including XScreenSaver) were included. It was only through intense lobbying and voting, on a Bugzilla bug about the issue, that the package finally was added. Perhaps more disconcerting was that, for a short time during the beta process, OpenOffice.org's help files were taken out, while many games and other non-essentials to the enterprise desktop remained. In the end, MandrakeSoft remedied the situation, however these various packaging controversies suggest to us that a standardized package inclusion policy, including defining the priority of core productivity packages over that of games, might be beneficial in the future.
-Timothy R. Butler
I would like to see a README in a Download Edition CD telling the users that this edition comes without the Mandrake documentation, which of course would be available under online or in a boxed set. Notice that I don't even ask for re-inclusion of the documentation; clarity in dealing with the users is all that I would like to ask Mandrake.
The Mandrake 9.1 Download Edition continues to be a 100% Free Software distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system, and a very good one at that. The fact that the Download Edition is totally Free Software (as in Freedom, not price) makes it, in some ways, even more attractive than the other Mandrake editions that contain proprietary software. Its emphasis on the desktop, without sacrificing its use as a server OS, places it at the center of the Free Software utopia: having a Free OS that is easy to use for newbies, yet powerful and customizable for the experts.
Mandrake shows its class with an excellent installation program; great GUI tools that make administrative tasks simple enough; matchless hardware recognition among the GNU/Linux distributions; and all this with excellent performance that makes it run very well even on legacy hardware.
The best part of this is that Mandrake really listens to its community. The development of the Cooker betas is public and very community centered, and many changes and improvements in Mandrake 9.1 were the result of user feedback. As a consequence, one could not avoid having sometimes the impression that Mandrake 9.1 is just a Mandrake 9.0 done right and with slightly more updated software. If this is true, then it's very good.
However, there are shortcomings, such as the omission of crucial packages in the Download Edition. There are also some issues with the post-install configuration that could frighten some users, but thankfully these could be sorted out by an enterprising sysadmin with a minimum of effort.
All in all, this reviewer thinks that Mandrake 9.1 is a winner, and with already two Cooker betas and a release candidate out of the oven paving the way for Mandrake 9.2, one could only hope that the next version will follow this trend. This reviewer feels confident in recommending it for wide desktop deployment provided that the system administrator can get around the issues raised in this review. With speed, stability, ease of use, tons of software, and especially freedom, Mandrake is right now the cream of the crop of current GNU/Linux distributions. Way to go, Mandrake.
Summary of Mandrake Linux 9.1 ProSuite and Download Edition
ALSO EVALUATE: Red Hat Linux 9, SuSE Linux 8.2.