Linux Mandrake 9.0-Dolphin: The Review

MandrakeSoft released Linux Mandrake 9.0 about three weeks ago. How does this version compares to the also recent SuSE and Red Hat releases? MandrakeSoft sent us the Download Edition over for a review and here is what we think about it.

NOTE: MandrakeSoft had access to this article before publication (something that I do not normally do, but this time was at least the… moral thing to do) and they have confirmed or reproduced several of the bugs I am mentioning here.


Installation is very similar to what it used to be, not much has changed since the last time I tried version 8.0 last year and 9.0-Cooker last summer. It is pretty easy to install Mandrake, but I encountered problems (I used the expert mode, as Mandrake is installed on a PC with 8 more operating systems and I needed flexibility). Except that the actual UI in some of the installation modules is not great (e.g. the terribly un-intuitive partitioning tool, dated layout and UI), I had three main problems.

Click for a larger version When the installation started it asked me what mouse I have, and it had automatically picked up the PS/2 model. But it did not pick up the wheel mouse option, because all my mice have a wheel. Clicking in the right option, it would make my mouse jumping like crazy all over the screen making the installation impossible to continue. I don’t see the point of providing such a mouse panel in the installation if Mandrake and Red Hat (yes, Red Hat has the same problem in their Gnome2 admin mouse panel, I tried 3 different mice, all have the same effect) and all the other distros are not able to fix the damned re-initialization code of the mice on the fly. I tried with three of my PS/2 mice I had around: 1 Logitech Cordless mouseman optical, a no-name optical and a normal Keytronic. Same effect.
(UPDATE: Please don’t send me emails that this can be tweaked afterwards. I very well know about how to allow wheel operations on my mice, back in the day I used to do it by directly editing my XF86Config file. This was not the point of my paragraph about the mice. The point is that the driver does something *unexpected* for the user, and from the usability point of view, is just not right.)

The second problem was that the installation wouldn’t tell me that the XFS option does not support booting. While I know that an XFS (root) / partition would require a /boot in ext2/3, most people don’t know this. MandrakeSoft replied that there should have been some warning messages, but I saw none. Even if they were there, the fact that they went completely unnoticed, should say something to their UI designer.
(UPDATE: Please note that I needed to put LILO on hdc4 and not on MBR, as I don’t want my BeOS bootman bootmanger to get overwritten by LILO. Apparently, XFS can boot a Linux only the bootmanager is installed on the MBR, some OSNews readers replied.)

But this is just a small detail, as I find the whole partitioning application terrible GUI-wise. I have talked about it here.

At the end of the installation, the Installer would ask me if I want to download some available patches. I said “yes” and it tried to contact some FTP site to download the updates. The update never took place because the operation timed out about 5 minutes later. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

The rest of the installation went well though, Mandrake successfully found and supported all my hardware (except later I found out that my 2-years old digital camera is not supported). One thing I like in the Mandrake installer is that you can configure your card to support 3D (as long there is DRI support for it).

The First Time Booting

Linux Mandrake 9 features a graphical LILO screen and it had successfully placed as default an SMP kernel for my dual Celeron 533 Mhz. Loading the OS takes a while, because Mandrake is loading by default a number of things (that I don’t necessarily need). You can always remove these startup entries from the Mandrake Control Center.

Something that I find annoying with this distribution is that authenticating is slow. Why the heck it takes a whole 3-4 seconds to authenticate my password in the command line (I don’t use any *DM), when loging in either as eugenia or as root? Mandrake Cooker also did the same. Mandrake 8.0 didn’t (on the same machine) and other distros I have here don’t do so either.

The Desktop

Click for a larger version Mandrake uses KDE 3.0.3 as its default Desktop Environment, running on top of XFree86 4.2.1. Mandrake is using pretty much the default themes and colors of KDE 3.0.3, which looks dated and ugly at best. Even the default Gnome2 looks better than the default KDE. MandrakeSoft should realize that their two main competitors have made strides in making their desktops more delightful and nicer to the eye and the usability (while RH and SuSE are not even trying to compete to the desktop as straightful as MandrakeSoft is), while Mandrake is still the same old, same old. I had to change a lot of things to my desktop to make it look something that can moderately please me. The fact that you can change a lot of KDE’s aspects with some downloads is not the answer. Mandrake should have worked on the looks and the UI. I wonder if they do employ a UI designer, and if they do, if their developers actually listen to him/her.

MandrakeSoft replied to me that their customer research showed that businesses favor their default grey-ish UI, while home users customize everything on their own. Personally, I find hard to believe that businesses would not favor a better UI, while the home users won’t have to tweak everything after installation.

GNOME 2.0.2 is also installed and works well, ICEwm, BlackBox, Enlightenment and WindowMaker are also available. Unfortunately, WindowMaker is broken. It can’t find the file that includes its context desktop menu. After fixing a missing symlink in the /etc/ directory fixed WindowMaker too..

A number of other applications are broken on Mandrake 9. I found that a few apps just wouldn’t load (i.e. Everybuddy would segfault). Except these few apps, the rest of the applications do seem to work fine. In fact, I was happy from the overall stability of X and KDE.

The only thing MandrakeSoft has pretty much done in the desktop area is to re-arrange the Kmenu and add some Mandrake-specific options like this arcane “-> What to do?” menu. The idea of the “What to do” menu is good (similar to SuSE’s “work” menu), but the execution is absolutely poor (the option is “drowning” among other KDE menus and at the end of the day it just duplicates a bunch of options that are easier to find via the KMenu rather than the “-> What to do”).

Also, Mandrake has under the root menu an option called “Terminals”, which is a submenu where you can select from… 7 different terminals. Choice is good, but this is hardly a desktop-oriented design decision to have so many different terminals waiting for you to a root submenu.

Another potential problem is that the default Mandrake’s Kicker does not fit on a 800×600 screen, which is what most Internet users still use these days. KDE has the same problem, I asked for this to be fixed months ago, but it has yet to be considered by the KDE Project.

The Mandrake Control Center

First of all, why all the Mandrake utilities are written in GTK+ 1.x when the company ships KDE as the default DE? All their utilities look ugly and out of place on the default KDE environment. This Control Center is what mostly differentiates Mandrake from its competition and it should have received more care. The control center just doesn’t “blend” to the rest of the default Qt-based environment.

The control center includes tools for the booting process, monitor and graphics, TVCard, keyboard, mouse, printer and scanner. Also, Mandrake comes with a feature named “supermount” and you can define mount points for WebDAV, Samba, NFS and other local media (removable or not). I haven’t used most of the networking mount points as I don’t have any such need or facilities here to test them.

Default Mandrake Kicker on 800x600 does not fit - Look at the Clock at the bottom right The “Network and Internet” center includes Networking setup wizard, proxy configuration and Internet Sharing. But the latter is as buggy and incomprehensible as most of the modules over there. Why the “Internet Sharing” utility never asked me to enter any CDs, but rather it said “installing – please wait” and it kept reading my empty DVD-drive? After killing the buggy module, I had to force umount on the DVD drive to free it from spinning itself to death.

The Security modules seem to work ok, and it is handy to find an easy to use Firewall application there.

MenuDrake seems to work without any easily visible bugs, and it allows you to edit the menus of KDE, Gnome, IceWM and Blackbox. However, updating the menu configuration (that is to delete or add a new item) can take up to 30-40 seconds. On Windows and BeOS this is instantenous. [MandrakeSoft says that it takes them only 4 seconds to do so, but it isn’t the case over here. And I got a fast IDE drive.]

Oh, wait, I take that back. I tried to add my /usr/bin/nano application to the KDE’s editors menu and I checked the “Open in a Terminal” option and nano just doesn’t load, neither any terminals are loading. The graphical apps I added worked fine, but this terminal-based one doesn’t.

I picked my timezone with the Mandrake’s tool, but KDE’s timezone doesn’t pick it up. Great integration. Not.

There is another option on the “System” panels called “Terminal”. I clicked it and it loads a full XTerm window. And then it removes the window manager from that xterm and 2 seconds later, it “embeds” it in the Control Center window. The way this is done, is just that: gross. An ugly hack, UI-wise and integration-wise.

The “Configure Users” module seems to work well.

My first attempt to use the Mandrake control Center ended in failure when the Font application tried to “leach” the fonts off my FAT32 partition. It obviously got confused because I have two Windows partitions, one FAT32 and one WinXP NTFS. Tried another approach (I used its “Advanced” button to specify from where to get the fonts exactly) and at last had my fonts installed on Mandrake. But the worst had yet to come.

Why, oh, why, does it take a full 1 to 2 minutes to load the following modules:
Graphics card detection, monitor, resolution, XServer configuration, RPMdrake (install/remove apps) and Mandrake Update. In fact, now that I am writing this, the Install Software module is also trying to read the empty DVD rom for available packages (never prompted me to put any CDs in the drive). It just feels that these modules are just frozen. They don’t even load a window to tell you that they are at least working on the background. The Software Sources Manager, is also whipping my poor empty DVD drive before it loads its small window after 3 minutes. The Installer for online updates also tried to read my empty DVD.

Two days later, after more than 20 emails back and forth with MandrakeSoft, we were able to find the problem about the CD-reading that resulted in many of the Drake utilities to take a long time to load. In fact, they found that this bug was submitted to their bug database by a number of other users. (Too bad that I was one of them, because I am among those who have to publish my experience online for people to read.)

After we fixed all these issues with the CD-reading, I was able to fully appreciate the Mandrake Control Center. It is not the best control center/panel in the world, but it does what most people will want it for. What I liked mostly is the fact that you can add sources to an app called “Sofrware Manager Sources” from other FTP, HTTP or internal network addresses and be able to download and automatically install additional software.

Other applications

Click for a larger version Mandrake comes with quite a number of recent applications, (modified to look prettier), KOffice 1.2, a number of games (Frozen Bubble is so addictive – I’ve finished it :), Mozilla (much uglier and much slower because MandrakeSoft has enabled AA by default (not through XFT2 unfortunately)), PostgreSQL, mySQL, PHP, Apache, Gnumeric, Sketch and lots more. The choice is pretty good and it should be satisfying for most users.

If there are two good things to say about Mandrake 9 that would be its speed and stability. The choice of GCC 3.2 helps the overall speed of the system. I found Mandrake 9 to be faster than my Gentoo Linux 1.2 (which was specifically compiled for -march=i686 but with GCC 2.95.x).

Mandrake comes with kernel 2.4.19 and stability has been exceptional for me, for the most part. I generally have problems with X and KDE, but for the 1.5 weeks I am running Mandrake 9, I haven’t seen any major stability problems at all.


Mandrake 9 seems to be a bit out of focus. The OS itself has no clear focus of what it wants to operate as. A Server? Desktop? Workstation? All? No one really knows what the actual market of Mandrake is. The fact that is loading a lot of (useless for me) server stuff by default and also the fact that it tries to pinch itself as a desktop system at the same time, just doesn’t go well together.

Update: MandrakeSoft sent me the following:
Our approach is very clear: although we know many “power” Linux users use Mandrake as a desktop machine (for replacing Windows), our target is clearly to provide a system that is a great choice to install Linux in enterprises.
For servers and desktops. Nowadays, when you install a server, you like it to be easy to configure graphically, you don’t want to learn all these configuration files. Mandrake is targeted to these people. Also, it’s very good to implement multiple desktop machines (workstations), with excellent networking capabilities. We want to provide the best Linux swiss-knife ever.

So, Mandrake is trying to compete mostly at Red Hat’s and SuSE’s playground. However, Mandrake is regarded by most people as a desktop distribution for the home user, “my first Linux” kind of thing. The fact that the distribution includes so many games (with automatic support for 3D rendering), edutainment and a large number of multimedia apps, it really does not make it as clear as MandrakeSoft claims to be that they are aiming for the enterprise. To me, it mostly looks like MandrakeSoft wants to sell to the enterprise, but at the same time they seem to want to keep the community (and resulted free marketing) of the home users.

Overall, Mandrake 9.0 is an interesting distribution. But it is not the best out there, neither trouble-free. While Mandrake includes some GUI tools to help you with configuration, as a whole, I was more satisfied by the fresh offer and looks of Red Hat 8 and SuSE 8.1 than those of Mandrake 9.0. This is mostly because of Mandrake’s dated UI, problematic (for me) Control Center, while at times it just feels amateurish (e.g. when the control center’s modules are loading and you momentarily put another window on top of your module’s window, they don’t refresh their windows).

I truly hope that Mandrake 9.1 has all these issues fixed and bring a new, stronger Mandrake to compete with SuSE and Red Hat’s offerings. Mandrake has a strong community and some great developers behind it. I used Mandrake for years, on and off on this very machine, but for me, this hasn’t been the best release ever. In fact, not a lot have changed to Mandrake except the Control Center (which is nothing more but a “placeholder” for the GTK+ modules to “mount” under a common window. Most of these GTK+ modules exist from previous versions of Mandrake).

Times are changing, and Mandrake hasn’t changed much. Having an installer than is better than Slackware’s doesn’t automatically make you the killer distribution anymore. Heck, having a Control Center doesn’t make you the best either these days. It is the overall experience you get when you put all the pieces together. And this is what Mandrake 9.0 lacks today.

Installation: 7/10
Hardware Support: 8/10
Ease of use: 8/10
Features: 7/10
Credibility: 6/10 (stability, bugs, security)
Speed: 8/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)

Overall: 7.3 / 10

Related Reading:
Red Hat 8.0 review.
SuSE 8.1 review.


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