Editorial: Reviewing Linux Mandrake 8.x

I keep reading review after review after review of the current crop of linux distributions. And everytime I’m annoyed at the end. I’m not annoyed by the style, or the comments, but more at the way they always end far too soon? One of the latest reviews of Lycoris is a prime example. What is this a review of? It’s a review of the installation, and a quick insight into some of the packages found. To compare, it’s like reviewing the opening cinematic sequence of game. You need to review the way the game plays as well! And people need to start reviewing how the distributions function over a period of time greater than a day or two. So here’s my Mandrake 8.x experience.

Editorial notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

Getting up and running

First, my machine; a GeForce2, Celeron 700, SoundBlaster 64, a nice 19″ monitor, hardware modem, nothing fancy, everything linux-compatible. Then there’s me. I’m nobody special (yet!) in the world of computing, just somebody who finally had enough of Windows and enough interest in Linux to make the switch on his own.

I downloaded Mandrake 8.1 in eager anticipation. I had gotten rid of my horrible Microsoft infestation once and for all, and Mandrake was being hailed (by all these reviews) as one of the leading distributions in terms of ease of use.

So, I threw in my 8.1 CD, and the installation went well, quickly and smoothly. There were some bugs, a few of the back buttons just didn’t work right, but nothing that stopped me. It certainly wasn’t an installation that was for computer illiterates, with a number of slightly technical questions. But other than that it was fine.

On a side note, I installed Lilo first time around, then reinstalled Mandrake and selecting GRUB. (Because I wanted to!) This was fine, but when I tried to install a 3rd time, it wouldn’t let me install GRUB, throwing up a spurious error about a problem with my master boot sector. But Lilo was fine. Weird, but unimportant.

Anyway, enough of the installation. You can read about that in, well, every review I’ve ever read about a linux distribution. And you can read how ‘yes you can import .docs’ in all those two, I’m not going to touch on this since I had no .docs to import urgently anyway.

Loading up Lilo, the options are, well, plain wrong. It recognised my NTFS drive as a bootable windows partition even thought all I did was back up files onto it ie no Windows there. (I tried to boot it out of morbid curiousity and the error message was just boring.) Lilo had options like “Mandrake non-FB” which, well, mean nothing to me. KISS; names should be explicit. Obviously acronyms like FB are explicit if you know what they mean. But I, along with 99.95% of the worlds population, do not.

So I just go with the flow and it booted up fine, I logged in via KDM as the normal user account I’d set up. And the first time user dialogues sprung up. I set up my modem, my freeserve account, happy as pie was I. I fancied Gnome as my desktop. I didn’t set up any email, since I’m currently just on hotmail at the moment for my out-of-work time email. (Besides, does your Joe Average understand POP3? Probably not.) And my nice Mandrake desktop was displayed. Okay, that’s pretty good, I was getting excited about my brand spanking new linux distribution.

It took a while to boot, but that didn’t bother me. Windows was hardly lightening quick, but as long as it’s less than a minute I couldn’t really care too much. Besides, I don’t think Joe Average cares too much. He, like I, just hits the power button then saunters off to make a cup of tea or do something a little less mentionable.

The Internet

First things first, the modem. After a bit of messing around in the menus, I found out where I wanted to go. [ Networking -> Remote Access ] is hardly the most intuitive place to stick your modem dialers, even though it does makes sense once you find it. But explain that to Joe Average, my mum would never have found that. Anyway, I was in Gnome and I wanted to see the status of my connection, so I tried the Gnome applet dialler. But there was no account there like I’d just set up seconds ago? So I set up my freeserve account again. And I ran it, and the applet was broken; text was not being cleared but covered instead, so the applet quickly became a mess. (Why include broken software like that?)

Scrap that, I tried KPPP. I had to set up my freeserve connection again. This worked, but there was no display, and I wanted one that badly that I quit out of Gnome and logged into KDE. But I’d forgotten to disconnect, KPPP was hidden, it wouldn’t let me load a second instance of it, and I didn’t know how I could get hold of the current KPPP GUI. Fortunately, I’m not totally ignorant so I popped up a console and killed the offending process. (But Joe Average would probably have had to reboot.)

So, KPPP was now running with a display. Brilliant. First things first, let’s try browsing. Galeon had gotten rave reviews so I loaded it up, 1.0.3. It was good, I was happy. Instant messaging; my research indicated I should try Gaim first. It was relatively intuitive, and I was quickly chatting away and, zip, it died after a few lines of text in a conversation. And repeatedly. So, scrap that. I tried Licq for my ICQ needs. It was ugly, and it didn’t allow me to download my ICQ contact list as ICQ has for, say, the past year. So I tried everybuddy 0.2.7 which I had to download, but had MSN for me too. It worked, but was very basic. But not as ugly as Licq. But it crashed too. So I moved on to Gabber, which was stable although not very friendly. But it had to do.

By this time it’s worth mentioning that Galeon had crashed on me 3 or 4 times in the hour I’d been trying these various IM clients. So I quit Galeon and went into Mozilla. I forget which version but, although slower, was somewhat more stable.

XChat worked well for irc, and was suprisingly user friendly.

Going Downhill

That was about as good as my 8.1 experience got.

First I started looking through the packages. Mandrake, by default, installs too much. The package manager groups packages horribly into broad categories that generally overlap. There’s little or no distinction made between ‘console only’ and ‘gui’ packages – Joe Average obviously doesn’t want the former – and the list of packages is frequently populated by various language packs.

Grouping by interface, product would have been so much simpler. And categories just shouldn’t overlap. Another one for complete and utter unintuitiveness.

KDE mystifies me. Why is it so popular? Whoever made Klipboard should be shot, I hate it when programs grab hold of the interface when you’re trying to work which is another annoying feature that I can’t believe makes it into ‘hacker’ software. You’re typing in a window when ‘boosh’ another pops up and you haven’t been watching. (Some people have to look at the keyboard to type – although I was looking out the window.) You’ve just typed half a paragraph into the wrong window! Then copying and pasting is a nightmare, especially with Klipboard which was the first thing to get disabled.

Anyway, perusing the KDE menu just isn’t fun. There’s lots of badly named, unexplained programs. Again, it’s just messy. The great thing about the windows start menu is that all your major programs are listed under ‘programs’. Whilst I agree there’s a lot of programs for linux, there has to be a better to organise them than the current way. It’s just, again, unintuitive.

I noticed that Gabber had been significantly updated, so I downloaded the latest RPM. I tried to install it, but it wouldn’t let me, a number of source dependencies. This didn’t make sense since I was installing the binary but, if it won’t let me, it won’t let me. So I gave up the ghost and, since most of the programs were quite out-of-date, I loaded up the package manager.

My research indicated I should add a cooker server as a package source for the mandrake package manager. Oh, and since I didn’t have the 3rd CD I deleted that from the package sources first. So I go to add a cooker server – it doesn’t provide a list to select from. I got a server off the website, and hit ‘add’ and… a little bar moving side to side with ‘adding server’ pops up. There’s no indication of how long it will take? After 10 minutes of waiting I killed it, and ran the mandrake package manager from a console. (Again, Joe Average wouldn’t.) In the conole it gives an output indicated how many kilobytes have been downloaded of the cooker server rpm index. So at least I could see it was doing something. A movie and a cup of tea later I come up to see it’s been completed.

So I search for some programs. I forget which, but they weren’t there? But they were before. A quick discussion on irc in the #mandrake channel identifies they were on the 3rd CD. And removing that CD as a source meant for some reason that mandrake package manager also ignored all those packages from the cooker server. Brilliant, another home run for stupid unintuitive behaviour.

It presented me with the ridiculously badly organised list of packages again, but fortunately there is a ‘search’ function and I knew what I wanted. Anyway, I selected the packages and it started downloading overnight. It seemed to work fine, and I installed the latest version of Mozilla.

But now Mozilla wouldn’t display .png files? Brilliant. Perhaps that was Mozilla, but I was in no mood to submit a bug report so I left it for now and moved onto Konqueror.

After a few weeks of awkward use, I reinstalled and went through half the hassle again. I was again forced to install Lilo. Learning from my ‘mistakes’ things were slightly less frustrating. Anyway, time to update my packages, so I go to the mandrake package manager. But now when I try to add a cooker server it fails every time, and only at the end – after an hour or so waiting for it.

By now I’d gotten bored of my inability to update unless I resolved package dependencies myself. And 8.2 had come out, so I downloaded that. Surely it can only be better.

8.2, 0.1 better than 8.1

The 8.2 install was a bit prettier, and a bit less buggy, but generally the same. Still the same options of either installing a load of crap you don’t want or filtering through a badly organised package tree. I went with Lilo, because it’s the default and it is prettier than GRUB. Besides, the bootloader makes very little difference to the system.

An annoyance was that I didn’t want to ‘upgrade’ but rather have a clean install. But it wouldn’t let me keep my /home directory – the installer just threw errors at me when I tried to do that. So I had to lose everything I’d done in the last month. (Good job it was nothing.)

A few of the packages had been updated. But not much. Why they released 8.2 when they did is beyond me. Gnome 2 is almost out, KDE 3 had just been released, Mozilla 1 and Open Office one were also around the corner. Go figure, still, back to Gnome 1.4, KDE 2.2.2 and Mozilla 0.9.8. A few months may also have given them time to get most of the Mandrake features bug free. But that’s politics. Release early and often, fix later. Whilst this works with open source software, Mandrake is a distribution, not software. It should Just Work ™.

Galeon was still at 1.0.3 – mystifying given how long it’d been in the 1.2.x stage prior to the Mandrake 8.2 release. Before and after upgrading Galeon it crashed regularly. So I upgraded Mozilla to 1.0RC1, which worked well. (I have to say I am in love with Mozilla.)

But all the same problems are still there. The package manager is still horribly unintuitive.

Then, after a mere week in which I had rebooted only once and properly, on the second reboot my desktop icons have no disappeared. Since I think desktop icons are stupid (you have to minimise your applications to access them) it didn’t bother me that much until I had to kill an application for the first time.

Mandrake nicely puts a kill icon on your desktop. But it doesn’t put it anywhere else. Oh, and don’t kill your taskbar, you can’t retrieve it either without rebooting. That might sound stupid but ignorant users do seemingly stupid things. Power in the hands of ignorance usually ends in destruction. I wanted to kill something, so I popped up Konqueror and found my desktop icons through it (remember, they’re no longer on my desktop) and got my kill mouse cursor and… suddenly, the application I want to kill is behind Konqueror. How do I lose my kill cursor… wait… brainstorm, I may be able to kill it by killing the task in the taskbar. But, that just killed the taskbar, not the application.

Anyway, I wanted to do some more updates, so up comes the mandrake package manager. But the updates fail! The packages it grabs from the cooker turn out to be ‘corrupt’ and… wait a minute… all the cooker packages are now corrupt.

I’m back to manual downloading and dependency fixing. Brilliant.

Easy Installation (disclaimer: not everything is easy to install.)

Browsing through the available games was an eye opener as well. Hardware acceleration isn’t set up by default, so any 3d games won’t be running well. Since I have a mainstream card, an NVidia GeForce 2, I don’t accept that this shouldn’t be done automatically by something that claims to have an ‘easy install’.

The number of frequently crashing programs was pretty disgusting. I’m not asking for 100% stability but a program that works for more than 5 minutes without disappearing isn’t much to ask. I mean, I know these distributions want to be cutting edge but that’s just taking the preverbial biscuit. Then, quite astonishingly, half the packages are just out of date anyway? (Galeon being a prime example.)

I just downloaded Red Hat. It might not be for Newbies and have a wizard install, but I bet it Just Works ™. I bet it doesn’t come with badly broken software. And the install won’t give me the impression I have a fully functioning system so at least I’ll know where I stand.

Windows mostly does what it says, even if it doesn’t say what it does. Programs are named normally, and programs behave consistently. Oh, and it’s so easy to install programs.

Operating systems shouldn’t just be easy to install. An installation should only happen once anyway! It’s the other 99.99% of the time you use your computer that counts! Most linux distributions just aren’t close to being a for-Joe-Average operating system. It might be fine at work where your IT admin people (politcally correct, eh?) sort out everything for you, but at home? Ease-Of-Use != Ease-Of-Installation!!! And when will reviews reflect this?

About the Author:
Charles Goodwin is a 22 year old from the UK, an IT Manager (and hopeful developer), fresh out of University (Computer Science), with a (gorgeous) baby boy (2). He’s been using PCs since the times of DOS and after that, from Windows 95 thru to Windows 2000. He is living… at home with his mum in a rural area where broadband is unavailable. (Hence the modem fuss.) Outta the office he is kickboxing thrice weekly and soccer whenever his friends are up for a game, and curiously, he’s got a Canadian girlfriend who he met over ICQ. Contact Charles at goodwincharles@hotmail.com


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