Updated: May 5, 2010
I find PCLinuxOS to be the big small distro. While it has a modest development team, the final product has always felt quite solid and polished, beyond the normal expectations of limited resources. What more, the distribution managed a fine balance between speed, usability, familiarity, and luring in new users, not an easy task.
Well, version 2010 has been released just recently. Has anything changed? Is PCLinuxOS still the distro hopper-stopper? Is there anything new, radical, simple in the latest build? The last-year release was quite impressive, including a superb Gnome edition, which means the stakes are ever higher for any new planned successor. But there were some problems here and there, which makes this review all the more interesting.
I took PCLinuxOS for a spin on my laptops, starting with the super-old and previously problematic T42 and branching up onto my last-year purchase, the LG RD510 machine with Nvidia 9600GS card and decent 4GB RAM. In this review, I'll show you how well PCLinuxOS 2010 behaved, covering topics with live session, Wireless, Bluetooth, Samba sharing, Flash, MP3 playback, 3D desktop effects, stability, performance, choice of application, visual style, and more. I chose the KDE edition this time.
Live session - Like the old, only with less fuss
First of all, the incompatibility issue with my T42 machine has been fixed and it booted this time without any problems. So, there's some good progress already. The boot wizard, next. PCLinuxOS, just like Mandriva, used to ask many questions before it let you boot into the live session. Some found this convenient, I found it useful but bothersome, especially if you want a smooth experience. In the modern age of instant gratification, PCLinuxOS asks a single question - it's your language. Once this is done, you will boot into the live desktop. Another notch on me belt, it is.
In the previous release, PCLinuxOS still clung to the goodie but oldie KDE 3.5. This spring's edition comes with KDE 4, with a simple and clean interface, in shades of blue. The art of blue is continuously improved in PCLinuxOS releases and is becoming more pleasing to look at each time. The vicious trap of KDE4 blurry clutter is avoided. Instead, you get a sensible and fresh desktop, somewhat similar to Mandriva 2010, only a little more conservative, more toned down.
In a nutshell, you get the classic look, but while it was a bit boring in PCLinuxOS 2009, it feels fresher and more classy today. While you may disagree with taste and overall theme, the attribute boring does not spring to mind. Far from it.
Furthermore, the fonts are fairly large, so you do not have to squint your way through. Elegance and simplicity are the key elements, with pomp hidden away as fortune cookies for later. Overall, it looks well and friendly and should work for Linux users and Windows converts alike.
There were no issues on any of the three laptops used for testing. PCLinuxOS 2010 had no problem connecting to my WPA2-encrypted routers.
Another strong point of this distribution is the fact it comes with multimedia codecs out of the box, so you can start enjoying your music, videos and Flash immediately.
BTW, I do not know what Vevo is, but it sounds stupid and looks annoying. Plus, the new Youtube styling is ugly. Oh, did I say this Vevo thing is annoying? Music and video worked fine, too:
No problems here, either.
Even if you do not want to use Compiz, you can still enjoy quite a bit of visual bling-bling easily, with shadows, transparency and windows border halo, adding to the experience. The basic theme is fairly unobtrusive and the small, simple touch is quite appreciated. We'll talk about Compiz later.
Visual style, a few words more
PCLinuxOS is a distribution that aims to lure unsuspecting Windows users into the warm fold of Linux. To this end, the KDE theme is somewhat tweaked to make them more comfortable and at home. You get a classic K-Menu and the taskbar is very Windows-like, with stacked and spaced icons for open applications. You may not like this, but the overall effect is more subtle and more tolerable than what you get on Windows 7.
And if you don't like the modern KDE4 theme, you can always use Plastik:
Well, there was nothing to dislike, so I decided to install the distro.
If there's one aspect of the distro that has not undergone any major change and still remains a bit clunky, it's the installer. It's a little confusing and the double-format issue is still present. If you click format while choosing and/or creating partitions, they will be formatted without a warning. And then, in the next window, you'll be asked to do that again. This is a bit dangerous and could lead to data loss, plus it remains the least intuitive or friendly part of the system.
The bootloader setup was simple. PCLinuxOS found installed Debian and added it to the menu, which is very nice and convenient.
After the first reboot, you will need to configure your root password and the username. But the repository configuration, timezone, date, keyboard, and additional settings are all skipped, making a much faster and simpler experience. I find the transition a good and smart step. The installer still requires a facelift, though.
The installation was quick and painless, overall. What more, you have an installation help file available, which is a sort of a quick install guide, with screenshots and most important functions reviewed. Again, a very neat trick.
Installed system - Having fun!
Well, time to play with PCLinuxOS. First, it's important to note that the wireless configuration and data stored in the live CD home folder were preserved, which makes using the installed system more seamless.
The distribution comes with a rich array of programs. You get Firefox, Thunderbird, SMPlayer, and Amarok. GIMP is there, too. GwenView, as well as K3B and digiKam. The instant messaging software of choice is the multi-protocol Pidgin. There's also Dropbox, a Web-based file backup and sync program that lets you store up to 2GB of your data on Dropbox servers and sync with your machines anywhere you go. Ktorrent and a handful of other K-apps are available, all neatly packaged into a single 700MB CD.
And here's one more screenshot of the Dropbox setup:
The only thing missing is OpenOffice, but you have a shortcut icon to an installation script that will complete the missing. So it's hardly a sin in that regard.
Stability & performance
PCLinuxOS was stable and fast. First, laptop modes (suspend & hibernate) worked flawlessly on all my laptop models. Second, despite the fact the machine is more than five years old, the distro ran well and fast, even with many applications open all at once, plus Compiz. It's a phenomenal achievement.
On RD510, I could not squeeze juice from all four GB of RAM, which is a shame, but things worked quite well. There were no hardware issues and everything worked as expected. However, as always, the emphasis is on the challenge of getting systems to work fast on old hardware, which PCLinuxOS manages quite well.
PCLinuxOS is fairly robust and secure by design. Still, it does ship with firewall disabled, although you have an icon on the desktop, which allows you to quickly setup and configure the firewall, including common services like SSH, Samba, BitTorrent, and others.
Ease of use
PCLinuxOS has a one-menu-to-do-it-all-style Control Center, which contains all the critical system functions in one place, laid out in a simple manner, much alike openSUSE YaST. The Control Center will appeal to less experienced users, as it allows quick access to everything you may need, using a graphical interface.
For example, configuring the graphic card and desktop effect, which we will soon turn on.
You get drivers for all sorts of cards, including older ones. It's all there. Your card should be selected from the start, so you only need to log out/in to have the graphic effects enabled.
Compiz, ah yes. Even on the old machine like T42, more than five years old and using an ATI card, the Compiz experience was smooth, surprisingly so. Like Mandriva, PCLinuxOS does not disappoint on antiquated hardware. On newer machines, the things worked even better, but that's not the point, is it?
There were no cardinal issues, I have to admit. In the live session, Amarok would not start, but after the installation, it worked great. The installer has the tricky format option, so you have to be careful there.
Another glitch I encountered is with dupeclean-gui program, which allows you to clean up your old or duplicate versions of installed software. The text in the message prompt says OK, but the buttons have only Yes and No. It's obvious what the choice is, but this is a bug nonetheless.
Other than that, it was a good, fun experience. Finally, there's no 64-bit version, only a 32-bit one, which is the biggest omission of this fine distribution.
By all standards and benchmarks, PCLinuxOS is a great success. It's a beautiful, polished, simple, easy to use distribution, with great performance and stability, especially on older machines, a well balanced array of programs, and no big problems at all. Subtle yet important improvements from previous versions are evident, with fewer wizard windows bugging you on your way into the live session or during the installation. Let's not forget old problems, which were solved in this release, a critical sign of progress.
The only downside is the lack of a 64-bit version. And if you really want to be picky, then you can point out the fact PCLinuxOS is very similar to Mandriva 2010, which leaves the user with a difficult dilemma. While PCLinuxOS wins by a narrow margin when it comes to usability and final polish, Mandriva has more support and there's a 64-bit edition, as well. Then again, PCLinuxOS uses Synaptic for package management. It's a tough, narrow call.
If you ask me, I'd say PCLinuxOS seems a smarter choice for 32-bit machines, while you should use a dedicated distribution matched to your architecture on 64-bit platforms. If you have older computers and must have KDE4, then again, PCLinuxOS is a very good candidate. The overall integration is great, without too much fuss.
To sum it up, PCLinuxOS 2010 will please you. Power it up on an old computer and watch the CPU rev up to new life. It's a complete solution, geared toward new users, offering everything you need from a classic desktop, and then some. At the very least, you should take it for a spin and discover the fun and pleasure, just like I did.