It's official. By the time you read this, Mandrake Linux 9.2 will be available to Mandrake Club members around the world. Mandrake Linux 9.2 marks the first release from the “big 3” distributors in about six months. If you're wondering whether you should rush out and install it, read on for our first look at a distribution from the Fall 2003 distribution release cycle.
For the purposes of this brief preview of Mandrake Linux 9.2, we tested a copy of the new “Discovery Edition” provided to us by MandrakeSoft. The Discovery Edition replaced the “Standard Edition” offered in previous releases, but it isn't just a fancy new name - it's a desktop focused distribution intended especially for novices (although, we feel more advanced users may be pleased with the simplicity of the Discovery Edition as well).
First there is the installation. Now, if you've installed any of the major GNU/Linux distributions in recent times, you know that most are quite simple to install as is, and Mandrake Linux is no exception. Discovery Edition takes a page out of the LindowsOS and Windows XP installers, however, and makes the existing Mandrake installer even simpler by removing package selection. While many additional packages are included for installation later, should they be needed, Discovery Edition focuses on installing what the average user needs without making them sift through tons of unfamiliar programs.
Once booted, Discovery Edition includes another quickly apparent simplification - task based menus. While Mandrake usually includes task-based menus as an option in Menudrake, they wisely chose to make it the default in this edition, thus freeing the user to worry about what they want to do rather than how they want to do it. I found the menu layout very intuitive, making it a snap to find the programs I wanted for various tasks. The standard menus were also available as a submenu for those wanting a specific tool for the job.
Another key to making a distribution novice friendly is insuring that everything works out of the box, and Mandrake Linux 9.2 succeeds there. When the system was booted for the first time, we were surprised and delighted to find ATI's official FireGL driver for the Radeon 9700 video card was already installed. To the best of my knowledge the only other distribution presently including the Radeon drivers from ATI is Lindows.
Other hardware that has been problematic also was installed. Our Hewlett-Packard PSC 2210's photo card reader was automatically mounted and unmounted (with a convenient icon on the desktop) - making it as easy to access the compact flash card that we inserted as it was to access a CD. This puts Mandrake Linux further in the lead as far as Hewlett-Packard multifunction devices are concerned, since we are unaware of any other current distribution that even properly detects the PSC 2210, much less properly configures the photo card reader.
The only issue we had with the hardware was actually a non-issue - the master, speaker and PCM volume controls on the soundcard were muted. Admittedly I should have caught it, but I overlooked the PCM volume control in my haste. It would have been nice if the friendlier aumix had been preinstalled along with kmix (which gets absolutely obnoxiously large when used with a SoundBlaster Live), but if this is the worst we have to complain about, it isn't much.
Also included was the newly released OpenOffice.org 1.1, which just barely made the release cycle. With this release's much speedier startup times, using the suite is much more pleasant than before. OpenOffice's many new features perfectly complement the Discovery Edition's improvements in usability to make the distribution perfect for a Windows replacement on an office desktop with no fuss at all.
We were especially impressed with the Discovery Edition's enhancements, but all of the different editions benefit from many of these improvements, as well as some that are beyond the scope of this preview. Four release cycles after MandrakeSoft first seriously took aim at the corporate desktop, it is my opinion that they have overwhelmingly succeeded. Mandrake Linux 9.2 exhibits a level of refinement that we have not previously encountered with a GNU/Linux distribution from any developer.
While we only had a short time to try out the new distribution before going to press, we are already quite sure that this release could potentially be one of the best ever from the MandrakeSoft team. The Discovery Edition is a perfect complement to the PowerPack and ProSuite editions that focus on more advanced desktop usage, as well as servers. While experienced users may prefer the more versatile packs, this is truly an ideal desktop distribution and shows that MandrakeSoft is getting better and better at recognizing the needs of enterprise and SOHO desktop users.
The availability of Mandrake Linux 9.2 Download Edition is immediate for those who are members of the MandrakeClub service. According to the company, Silver or higher-level members of MandrakeClub will also get access to the first three CD images of the PowerPack Edition. The actual retail packages, including Discovery Edition should become available by the end of the month (Discovery Edition, $39, www.mandrakelinux.com).