Mandrake Cooks Up a Winner (or Two)

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 1:03 AM

The goal for most desktop-oriented Linux distributions in the
last few years has been to build a reliable desktop that works
out of the box. However, in OfB Labs experiences, most Linux
packages fall short of this goal - if only by a small bit. Please
notice that I say “most” and not “all” in the previous sentence.

A Distro is Born.

Mandrake Linux is a distribution with an interesting history. Its
first edition, based on RedHat Linux 5.1 and aptly named
“Linux-Mandrake 5.1,” provided essentially nothing more than
RedHat with additional packages such as KDE, which the elder
distribution had decided not to include. For quite awhile after
that, MandrakeSoft spent their time in RedHat's shadow, however
in recent years Mandrake Linux has moved on to be a very good
distribution in its own right.

It is quite clear that the designers of Mandrake Linux are
squarely aiming for desktop users with their distribution.
Wherever possible, they have put a friendly face on Linux - even
the screen before the installer boots is a nice graphical welcome

The Install Experience

The installer design itself is nothing spectacular, but all the
same it is very user friendly and gets the job done with minimal
effort. After the installer has auto-detected the mouse and
verified the language settings, you are presented with two
install paths - Recommended and Expert. On our systems we used
the expert installer, which provides more granular control of the
system settings, but is still a snap to use; anyone who could get
through a Windows 98 install should feel comfortable in the
expert mode.

Further along in the installer, the user is presented with a
software selection tool that conveniently lets you pick from
twelve groupings of packages or individual packages. Should you
choose the more detailed individual software package selection
option, Mandrake provides useful “ratings” to let you know how
useful the different packages are.

The rest of the installation process is pleasantly uneventful.
You are prompted for basic networking settings if you have a
network card, and then proceed to auto-detect other hardware such
as sound cards and printers. It is worth pointing out that
Mandrake uses the new CUPS printing system which we found
produced much better results on our Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 1120c
printer than the older LPR setup did.

The final stop in the installation probably brings to light one
of the nicest features of Mandrake Linux. Right before you
reboot, you are given the option to save either your package
selection or all of your settings choices onto a diskette. This
foreseeably could be a huge time saver if you plan to install a
similar configuration on multiple systems. The fact that this
function is included directly in the installer seems to show
Mandrake's concentration on making things intuitive.

Into the System

When the computer rebooted, we were impressed to see Mandrake not
only correctly added an entry for our Windows XP install in the
boot manager (LILO), but also detected and properly configured a
Windows 2000 install on the second hard disk. This is the first
and only Linux distribution we have found that automatically
setup Windows to boot from the second hard disk.

Once booting into the system, we were presented with the next
great idea from Mandrake - Aurora. No, we are not
referring to some photos of the Northern Lights, but a splash
screen that hides the messages from the booting Linux system.
Instead of showing a barrage of messages that might intimidate
new Linux users, Mandrake provides an iconic screen that displays
only what is going on at that moment (this can be configured
later to show more detail or even turned completely off for
veteran Linux users who prefer the gory details of the boot
process). Also, if anything goes wrong, you do not have to worry
about missing it - a large frowning “smiley” will appear to let
you know.

During this time, a great tool that Mandrake's RedHat heritage
provides springs into action. Behind the scenes during the boot
process, using a tool called “kudzu,” Mandrake probes for new
hardware so that you will not have to worry about manually
configuring hardware added after the initial install.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the system after
installation is that everything worked. Even the settings needed
to use the included CD-burning software were properly configured,
allowing us to burn CD-ROM's as soon as the system was finished
installing. I would venture to say that Mandrake Linux 8.1 is the
first distribution that is an ideal replacement for legacy
desktop systems out of the box. The recent analysis from Adam
Wiggins of TrustCommerce seems to agree with these findings.

Digging Deeper

Beyond the basics of the newly working system, Mandrake has two
very nice backend systems that generally seem to go
unappreciated. The first one, called urpmi provides a convenient
way to resolve dependencies on RPM package installations and keep
your system up-to-date. In the spirit of Debian GNU/Linux, urpmi
fetches the needed files from pre-specified repositories on the
internet, a network server, or the latest Mandrake CD set. While
the command line version provides perhaps a bit more power,
urpmi-based Software Manager (a.k.a. rpmdrake) provides an
excellent GUI interface for this tool. Using Software Manager you
can view which parts of the system have updates available,
automatically grab the latest security updates, and so forth.
Mandrake 8.2 should improve this further by dramatically reducing
the size of the information needed to find the latest updates.

Mandrake borrows another excellent concept from Debian by
including Debian's menu system in Mandrake 8.1. The system
(simply known as “menu”) keeps track of which programs are
installed and accordingly creates subgroups in the menus. In
addition, this system allows the user to choose between several
different styles of menu layouts (such as task-oriented menus) to
provide optimum efficiency. Another benefit of this system is
that more advanced users who may prefer a non-default desktop
such as Gnome or WindowMaker will also have similar menus, since
the menu system propagates changes to all registered window
managers and desktop environments.

It would be impossible to note all of the modifications and
arrangements Mandrake has made to provide an intuitive system. It
seems that the programmers at MandrakeSoft took a long look at
not only the newest “goodies” they could pack into the system,
but also how they could make the system more convenient. For
instance, former Windows users will be pleased to see that the
Log-out window in the default KDE Desktop has an option to
shutdown or reboot the system, which is a time saver over logging
out and then shutting down once the login screen comes back up.

Polish, Polish, Polish

While the current iteration of Mandrake Linux was excellent in
both functionality and polish, it seems the folks at MandrakeSoft
still were not satisfied. Based on our initial observations, we
found that while Mandrake Linux 8.2 does not offer any stunning
additions, it is receiving an enormous amount of attention to its
fit and finish. According to a MandrakeSoft developer I spoke
with, the goal for 8.2 was to make the system seem more
professional, and they clearly have made significant headway in
this area. Nothing has been left untouched, even the boot menu
has been redesigned to exhibit a more professional feel.

Probably the most significant superficial change in Mandrake 8.2
is the totally redesigned system control panel. Apparently the
developers, unsatisfied with Mandrake 8.1's control panel,
decided to come up with a drastically different layout. The new
system seems a bit more intuitive, and should look quite nice
once 8.2 is release, although our beta copy still had a few
glitches while showing off its new look. We could, however, see
the fact that several new configuration tools were ready to go
including a simple backup utility and a scanner setup tool.

Other notable new features include ready-to-go remote access to
the system using VNC (also included) and the integration of basic
file sharing settings into the Konqueror file manager (allowing
users, who are allowed to do so, to easy share files and
directories over a network). It also appears that they have the
full roster of updated software including Linux kernel 2.4.17 and
KDE 2.2.2. Finally, end-users should appreciate the return of
supermount, a tool that auto-mounts removable media when needed.

Cooking up the Latest

No review of Mandrake Linux would be complete without mentioning
Mandrake's “Cooker.” Cooker is the collection of software
packages that will eventually form the next Mandrake release.
This service presents two major useful functions - first, all of
development is done in the open, allowing users to anticipate
what major changes will be coming in the next release and let the
developers know if they like the direction of development. The
second useful application of Cooker is for keeping systems on the
cutting edge. While servers probably should not run off Cooker,
generally RPMs offered through it are stable enough for desktop
usage, providing a convenient way to keep a variety of
non-critical packages up-to-date.

Our Compliments to the Chef

In the end, we found our installations - which were done on two
desktops and a laptop - came out nothing short of well done. If
you are looking for a way to move even the most staunch Macintosh
or Windows users over to Linux, giving them a taste of Mandrake
certainly would be a good way to do so.


Overall: A+

Functionality: A+

User Interface: A

Availability of Updates: A+

Mandrake Linux sports a mature interface and no shortage of precompiled packages. With obvious care taken to ease-of-use
and excellent administration tools, it is an ideal choice for the Linux desktop. Free download or $30 Retail Box,

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.

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1 comments posted so far.

Re: Mandrake Cooks Up a Winner (or Two)

oh great cooker

Posted by gaming - Jul 02, 2009 | 7:02 AM