Updated: June 29, 2011
What if I told you there's a Linux distribution that might have as many as five times more users than Ubuntu? What if I told there might be a Linux out there, which is not as sexy or stylish or polished or popular as the leading names, however, it works, and it works well, and it just could be the next best thing since Marco Polo brought pasta back from China.
I'm talking about Red Flag Linux, a little known Linux distribution created in another sphere of interest and fun, far from the iPhonoid sub-culture of the Western world. Red Flag Linux is unto Linux world what Russia is unto Google and Facebook; the search giant and the failure generation portal may have given up on Russia as a harvesting ground and they may ignore it on their maps and statistics reports, but you can't deny its presence. Similarly, most English-speaking users probably do not care about a Chinese distro, but what if you wanted to test it? How good is it really?
When you look beyond your typical comfort zone, you discover things are not quite as simple as you thought. Just because everyone in USA likes Apple, it does not mean the entire world is crazy about shiny white product. The same applies to any fancy brand name you're indoctrinated to love and use. Baidu is as big as Google, but it's not interesting. In Russia, no one cares or uses Facebook, they have their own superior social network and Opera is the most popular browser there, but this tiny country of two hundred odd million people makes for boring news headers.
Red Flag Linux makes no pretense of being an international product, although it comes in several languages, suitable for most of the world. It's not advertised outside Asia, and as such it has never reached the eyes and ears of people who are otherwise legit in Linux lingo. This casual ignorance could potentially be a stumbling block to great technology.
And this leads me to the purpose of today's review. Is Red Flag Linux really good? Is it useful? Is it as secure, modern and relevant as, say openSUSE, Fedora or PCLinuxOS? Could you run this thing at home with the same comfort, ease and speed?
The official site states the last stable version was released last year, so there sure isn't any hectic release cycle like most other distributions, but we'll soon see whether this is a detriment or an advantage. It's called Red Flag Linux Desktop 6.0 SP1 and it weighs slightly less than 700MB.
I don't have any screenshots to offer, as the system has no live session, hence the installation is done before fancy tools are available. You'll have to trust my word and imagine all the good and bad things.
Red Flag Linux comes with a RedHat generation five style installer, maybe a bit uglier, with big, grainy fonts. You have some six or seven languages available, including Chinese, English, Spanish, and a few others. The setup is overall similar to what I've shown you in my CentOS review.
Notable exceptions include the following: No Wireless card was detected during the setup. This is not a problem, as the system installs fully without a network connection. There's no Ext4, only Ext3. There's a slideshow that introduces the system, but all of the actions happens in small popup windows above it. The installation was quite slow. A dual-boot configuration worked without any problems.
Time to see what this distribution can really do.
The most notable difference from common Linux is that you run as root. Security freaks will tell you this is the primal sin, and truth to be told, this is not elegant. But if you consider a corporate setup, for which Red Flag seems intended, this is not such a big deal, especially if you have non-local users authenticating against NIS and LDAP and your system administrators working as root anyway. But for most people, this is not really nice.
The desktop is simple and uncluttered, somewhat Windows XP like in design. The underlying environment is KDE 3.5. It's fairly spartan and somber.
Both these functions worked well. I was expecting Wireless not to work, after seeing only the Ethernet card identified during the setup, but in the installed system, there were no problems. I managed to configure my WPA2-encrypted network without any special trouble, except a few too many clicks, which is somewhat typical of KDE 3.5. Similarly, browsing Windows shares worked just fine.
Red Flag Linux has a somewhat outdated collection of programs. The most notable infraction is Firefox version 18.104.22.168, no less and definitely no more! This is no longer supported by Mozilla, so you ought to update the system and fast. However, it works just fine and opens all the major sites you can think of, including Flash-rich sites and whatnot.
Apart from Firefox, you get a fairly standard KDE 3.5 bunch of programs, like KMail, Kopete, K3b, KGhostView, and a few more. Not really exciting, but decent and functional.
Then, you also get Compiz Settings Manager.
This was another surprise - worked great. Even though Youtube complained about me using a browser they don't want to support anymore, the playback was just fine, including a recent Adobe Flash Player 10 version.
There were no issues with MP3 files, either. I tried both RealPlayer and Kaffeine. Kaffeine also offered cover arts for albums, which is quite neat. Again, the blend of old and new, which is unexpected and quite welcome.
Video worked fine, including fancy codecs:
If you're not happy with the default looks, you can try all kinds of old, lovely KDE 3.5 desktops, including Alta Badia and others. When it comes to customizing your system, Red Flag offers a revamped control panel, run through Konqueror, which is simpler and more easily navigated than regular KDE menus. The solution is not beautiful, but it's superior to defaults.
There were quite a few.
For some reason, the simple sentence of You're almost there! in the Firefox upgrade page title was rendered without the apostrophe. Must be encoding or something like that.
While the Compiz Settings Manager made my believe I was in for some bells and whistles, Red Flag did not cooperate with my hardware. The ATI card on the T60p machine was detected as VESA. Testing ati, flgxr or radeon video driver options did not work.
The installer made me believe Red Flag is based on RedHat. After trying the package manager, I was convinced it was so. Red Flag uses the KYum frontend. It's not the most beautiful manager, but it works fine. However, in this case, it did not work fine. For whatever reason, I received a 403 Forbidden error when trying to retrieve repository data, most likely because I was connecting from an IP address outside China. I can't say if this is the reason, but if so, it's obvious that Red Flag is not intended for international users.
And I guess, we make a full stop here.
Red Flag Linux is a curious blend of modern and ancient. It has what you don't expect it to have and lacks in what seems obvious. To name a few of the flaws, there's the user setup, graphics card drivers, an outdated application stack, and the package manager problems. But the single biggest problem is the relevance.
I don't presume to be able to understand the needs of the Chinese market, so my conclusion might be completely wrong or irrelevant itself. Perhaps the average Chinese users cares nothing about security or the age of his programs. For that matter, Windows XP is not a young or modern system either, but it's popular and it works well. The way I see it, Red Flag Linux could be a very useful and practical system.
What it needs is to bring up some of its core elements to a more modern standard. Not necessarily become the next Ubuntu, because there's already one and there's no need for another, more sort of tailor its unique nature to become more accessible. Now, it's entire possible that the distro developers do NOT want or care about foreign market segments, in which case all my arguments are pointless. But with some attention to details, Red Flag Linux could work well for the international user.
I hope this Linux continues to flourish. It's not the best in any category, in fact, it's fairly average overall, but it could achieve what no other Linux distro has done yet - reach a critical userbase. Even if as little as 1% of Chinese people embrace this platform, we're talking some fifteen million users. Do you understand the implications of this? I do.
To sum it up: Red Flag Linux, average, needs lots of polish, decent performance, programs need updating, has the potential to make Linux become what no other distro has achieved yet. Final grade: 6/10.