Updated: February 28, 2009
Mandriva is another friendly, popular distro that you should take into consideration when thinking about using or trying Linux. Like its counterparts, it aims to deliver a complete experience to the user, from being stable and fast via visually pleasing to fully packages with all the goodies, including lots of the Windows stuff that people need and use.
I've tried Mandriva about a year and a half ago and found it to be an adequate solution for desktop users. It has its ups and downs compared to the competition, but that's the whole beauty of it. Choice. And the freedom to choose.
Now that version 2009 is out, I decided to test it, sporting the polished KDE 4.1 desktop manager. It definitely feels and looks promising.
I will be trying out Mandriva on three machines: a virtual one running on an AMD Athlon 3800 dual-core with 512MB RAM and 8GB hard disk space, and two laptops, a T42 with 1.5GB RAM and an ATI graphic card and a T61 with 2GB RAM and an Nvidia graphic card.
The test will include the usual stuff: Wireless, Compiz, Web camera, multimedia codecs, NTFS support, installation, updates, the choice of applications, unique features, issues, and more.
So if you're interested, get Mandriva and follow me.
Live CD experience
I've made the test on two laptops, similarly to what I did with Linux Mint 6.0 Felicia. The results were quite encouraging, although there were a few glitches here and there.
Having a network connection is one of the first things you will want when powering up a laptop, notebook or any sort of mobile computer. Mandriva 2009 behaved nicely and detected the Wireless adapters on both T42 and T61.
Web camera support
My prediction comes true. The new distros are coming with better support for peripherals and gadgets, especially those oriented toward connectivity, including web cameras.
In my test, only 3 out of 9 distros had web camera support out of the box - and they were all new distros. Since, Linux Mint Felicia has come out - and it has web camera support for my T61. And now Mandriva 2009 follows suit.
Mandriva 2009 comes with a nice selection of codecs that will let you play files in proprietary formats without much fussing. The distro did not complain when I pressed it against an MP3 file or my Moron video.
Mandriva 2009 ships with the latest beta of Amarok 2, the new incarnation of the sexy and useful KDE media player. If you're asking me, I find the older version to be better looking, but that's just me.
Mandriva 2009 uses a sinister-named player called Dragon. I'm not sure what's special about it compared to KPlayer, xine or similar programs.
The Flash Player is also installed by default.
Another useful application is the Codeina Web Shop, which will look out for missing codecs or plugins whenever you encounter a file that your current set cannot play. I must admin I have not tried this service, so I cannot vouch for its quality (or price), but it might be useful to some.
I deliberately chose KDE to test Mandriva 2009, since the last time I reviewed the distro, I went with the Gnome desktop manager. Furthermore, Mandriva uses the new KDE 4, just like openSUSE, which makes for useful comparison.
Overall, things were looking quite good, save for the single plasma crash (see below). This is slightly worrying, since openSUSE had no problems with KDE 4.0, whereas Mandriva 2009 runs the improved KDE 4.1 version, which is supposed to solve some of the stability issues the first release had.
The desktop is interactive, allowing you to decorate it with applets of all sorts. For example, if your CPU supports it, you have Power Applet, which allows you to suspend the machine or scale the CPU frequency.
Just like the previous releases of Mandriva, it asks you a few basic questions when booting up into the live session, including the choice of the windows manager. You have the choice between no effect, Metisse and Compiz. Choosing Compiz on both laptops worked well.
Mandriva had no problems connecting to my Windows machines.
Some problems ...
There were a few (relatively small) issues during the live session ...
One, the Plasma Workspace (plasma) crashed. This happened only once, still ... I'm not sure if Mandriva or KDE 4.1 should be blamed, but these kinds of glitches are best avoided.
Two, during one of the live session on T42 (running with the ATI graphic card), I wanted to change a few Compiz settings. After the changes were introduced, I was asked to log out and log in back for the changes to take effect. The only problem was, after the login screen, the desktop diffused and turned white. Trying to restart the session with the traditional Ctrl + Alt + Backspace did not help and I was forced to cold reboot the machine.
Three, the sound quality on T42 was not stellar overall. This was not limited to any particular video or audio file, but in general, the volume was too low even at maximum settings. There must be a gain issue in one of the drivers.
Fourth, the file manager (Dolphin) is buried too deeply in the menus. It took some time finding it, which is a bit sisyphean, since it could have been easily placed in the bottom panel.
Then, notice the slight misalignment in the menus:
There's a 1-2px step between the two panes, which definitely stands out against the dark background of the Mandriva desktop. Maybe I'm anal, but this is not a pleasant visual effect.
Nevertheless, I was quite pleased with the live session experienced. Everything was working: Wireless, Compiz, web camera, multimedia. I definitely wanted to see what Mandriva offers during and after the installation.
Overall, the installation went well, but it was not the best part about the distro.
There were no partitions on the hard disk, so I chose Custom disk partitioning.
Although the partition wizard looks rather simple enough, it's not the most intuitive. You should also Toggle to Expert mode, because it allows you more control when creating the partitions layout.
It is not immediately apparent what you should do. Please click on a partition implies that there should be partitions, which is not the case. In fact, what you need to do is click on one of the colored buttons to create a partition with the intended filesystem. The question is what does Windows stand for? FAT32 or NTFS? And what is Empty?
Well, let's create the root partition, with Ext3.
If you are using the normal mode, you'll only have a rather annoying slider to tell you how big the partition should be. This way you have more control.
Then I wanted to create the Extended partition to place swap and home inside. The problem is, when you click on Preference, you have two types of Extended and Primary to select. First, I have no idea why two Extended types. Maybe one of them is Logical? And then, if you choose Extended, the Filesystem type field does not clear.
So, it's a bit of a puzzler.
If you ignore this and create swap, it will automatically be created as a logical partition. So this means that unless you specify Primary in the Preferences, the partitions will be created as logical.
Furthermore, the partitioner assigns rather arbitrary sizes to new partitions, probably dependent on the disk size, and does not max them out, by default. If you don't pay attention to this strange, you may end with a chunk of empty space and the end of your disk.
This is my final layout:
As you can see, the partitions are not formatted and you can format them. This is quite unnecessary, because once you're done with the partitioning, you'll be asked to format them anyway.
Notice the Cancel button. If you click on this one, it will cancel the entire installation process and not just the formatting. The best way to avoid formatting, if you don't desire it, is to untick the checkboxes to the left of listed partitions.
The next stage is to remove unused hardware packages to conserve the space. Quite a nice feature, actually, although you might have problems later on if you change certain hardware components.
This stage can take quite a bit of time. I thought the installer was stuck and almost canceled the entire thing when the installation suddenly began, after almost 10 minutes.
There was no confirmation for either the partitioning, formatting or the installation itself, anything to review the choices. Plus there is no text info on the installation progress save the blue bar. You don't really know what the Mandriva Live is doing, copying, installing, configuring ...
When the installation is done, you need to configure the bootloader. Like all modern distros, Mandriva uses GRUB. If you're unfamiliar with this stage, leave the defaults be. Again, not the most intuitive stage.
And now the installation is finally complete. For now ... Reboot.
After the installation ...
The installation is done, but the configuration is not fully complete yet. You will have to configure the country.
After this step, the distro will contact the Mandriva servers for a repository update. Not bad, except it was not asked for. Furthermore, this was taking quite a long time. Although I have chosen Germany for the country, the distro seemed to be talking to a server in Czech Republic and downloading at an incredibly slow pace. Eventually, it failed.
This could be because I was not a registered user and was running the free version of Mandriva - or the servers may simply be slow. Either way, this did not inspire confidence in the Mandriva repositories.
Next, you need to configure your users:
The configuration is almost finally done, but now the installer wants you to register, fill up a survey and submit a hardware support report. This seems like a hell of a lot of annoyances. Luckily, you can skip these steps rather quickly.
Finally the login screen:
What did we have so far?
Well, a very good live session experience, with lots of great stuff: multimedia codecs, Web camera, Wireless, Compiz, a few glitches now and then. A long and boring installation, non-intuitive menus, no Back button, and no confirmation during any of the stages. After that, we had a horribly slow and failed repository update and an annoying registration process.
The distro started quite phenomenally and went downhill. Fortunately, you need to install the system only once. Best if you could have it pre-installed, so you don't have to mess up with the installation.
Applications & system settings
It's time to see how well Mandriva fares once (finally) installed.
Mandriva 2009 features a powerful Control Center, which allows you to easily manage all aspects of your machine. Best of all, the Center is clean and uncluttered. Managing the system with Mandriva 2009 is a breeze.
Unfortunately, you won't get any better results from the repos even after the install. It took approx. half an hour to get the software sources synced. In comparison, Ubuntu takes approx. 1 minute and openSUSE takes 3 minutes to do the same - on the same connection.
Once you get this sorted out, the software management is quite simple:
Mandriva packs a solid bunch of applications. We've already seen Firefox in action, Ekiga phone, Amarok 2 and Dragon player boosted by Codeina. Mandriva 2009 also comes with GIMP, and there's OpenOffice 3, too:
You also have the KOrganizer ready and running in the "system" tray.
Or perhaps you may like Gwenview, a simple, useful image viewer:
Another interesting program is Sweeper, a sort of a system cleaner equivalent to many such programs in Windows, which clean temporary files, caches, menu lists etc.
Overall, the distro comes with a rich assortment of programs, and you'll be able to add new ones quite easy, the moment the slow repositories are sorted out.
Mandriva remembered the files (mostly screenshots) that I took in the live session and ported them into the home directory after the installation. Most commendable.
Mandriva 2009 is a good distro. Quite good. The live session was great, the post-install is very good, except for slow repositories. The installation process was long and tedious, however, it is only done once.
I have a feeling that the developers are trying to goad users toward buying the extended versions, which is actually counterproductive for the distro's success, as there are many free alternatives available. The corporate aspects of the distro should be toned down in the free version and only offered as options rather than pushed into the user's face. This is mostly evident in the license agreement at the very beginning of the live CD usage, the registration and the extremely slow repositories.
If you put aside the installation woes, some of which were bad human engineering and some the marketing tricks, Mandriva is a really good product.
On the other hand, in the live session, everything worked, including Wireless adapters and Compiz on two laptops, the Web camera on T61, the multimedia codecs. KDE 4.1 is elegant and runs well on the modest 512MB RAM, with some small visual glitches.
After the installation, the fun continues. Mandriva is quite fast and stable and works well.
Some work has to be done, mainly in delivering the right message to the Linux users, since most know and expect Linux to be free, in all aspects. The installer also has to be remastered, to make it friendlier. But overall, Mandriva 2009 looks and feel quite all right.