The distribution itself comes on a single live CD which kicks off with a GRUB boot menu. The GRUB screen gives the user the ability to boot normally, into the live environment, into a console or via various safe modes, or to perform a media check. Additional menus along the bottom of the screen offer support for additional languages, screen resolutions and kernel options.
Booting into the live environment presents the user with a blue-themed KDE desktop. The root and guest account passwords are displayed at the top of the screen and the application menu is displayed in the classic KDE style. Icons on the desktop provide short-cuts to the command line, the user’s folders and the system’s installer. Along the taskbar are icons providing the user with links to various tools to configure the desktop and to configure the computer (more on the differences between those two shortly). There are also launchers to browse the user’s files and start the package manager.
The installer starts off by asking the user to partition their hard disk. The partition editor has an interesting approach to its job, where almost all the controls are either buttons or sliders. While this took a few moments for me to get used to, the layout will probably appeal to less experienced users. Once the disk has been divided up, the installer formats the drive and copies the necessary files over from the CD. This happened without any confirmation, taking me a bit by surprise as generally an installer will warn the user before wiping a partition. Once the copy process is complete, the installer asks the user to configure the boot loader. After configuring the boot loader, the installer locked up for a minute and, finally, showed me a screen asking me to “halt computer”.
The first time the computer boots into the new operating system, PCLinuxOS asks the user to set a password for the root account and then create a non-root user. The system then turns things over to a nicely themed login screen.
The distribution comes with a full application menu which includes an archiver, text editor, disc burner, and a full range of KDE games. Users are also treated to the GIMP, a document viewer, Firefox, Kmail, instant messengers, a torrent client, ImageMagick, personal organizer, a music player and video player. OpenOffice isn’t installed, but there is a tool included for retrieving and installing the office suite. It’s interesting to note that PCLinuxOS does not take the one application per task approach. For example, there are three image manipulation tools, three file browsers (if you include Konqueror) and multiple IM clients. While all of these apps work, some of them, such as the emelFM file manager, don’t have a modern, integrated look to them. PCLinuxOS is equipped to handle most audio and video codecs as well as Flash, giving users a full range of multimedia software without requiring additional downloads.
With all of the software PCLinuxOS comes with, besides KDE, it could be reasonably expected that the distribution would take up a large chuck of the computer’s resources. However, this isn’t the case. The distribution runs very well with 512MB of memory and continues to function smoothly with as little as 256MB of RAM. Additionally, PCLinuxOS takes up less than 3GB of disk space, making it suitable for a wide range of computers. During my experiment with PCLinuxOS, I used a generic desktop machine with a 2.5GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM and nVidia graphics card. I also used my HP laptop, which has a dual-core 2GHz CPU, 3GB of RAM and an Intel graphics card. To test how the distro would run with fewer resources, I installed it in a VirtualBox virtual environment. The distribution handled my hardware well. Everything worked as expected on my desktop machine. Hardware detection also worked very well on my laptop. The Intel wireless card was picked up, the touchpad was properly configured and video and sound both worked well. The only hiccup was with my Novatel mobile modem — the network manager was able to detect it, but required some tweaking to get the device working.
As mentioned previously, there are two prominent configuration tools: one labeled Configure Desktop and the other called Configure Computer. The Configure Desktop launcher opens the KDE System Settings application. From here, the user can configure all aspects of their desktop environment, tweaking the system to their preferences. Items range from desktop effects to the system time to network connections. The System Settings app also ties in some PCLinuxOS-specific settings, such as firewall configuration, package management, handling user accounts, sharing folders and auditing the system logs.
The other tool, labeled Configure Computer, is a link to the a re-branded Mandriva Control Center. From the Control Center the user can configure nearly every aspect of the system from managing user accounts, to installing packages, tweaking the firewall, sharing folders, managing disk partitions and setting up printers. As you can probably tell, there is a lot of over-lap between the two configuration tools and some of the System Settings modules connect directly to components from the Control Center. Both of these tools are very user-friendly and do a good job of guiding the user through categories to find the option they wish to change.
PCLinuxOS uses the Synaptic package manager to manage the project’s RPM files. While this may seem an unusual combination, it generally works well. The distro comes armed with just shy of 12,000 packages in its repositories, insuring a wide range of popular software for its end-users.
As far as security is concerned, PCLinuxOS does well. The system requires the user set a root password and create a non-administrator account. I found no network services running by default and nothing to raise my concerns. By default, users’ home directories are left open, but that is easy changed by the users who wish more privacy.
The PCLinuxOS distribution is a good, solid operating system and there’s very little to fault here. The only problem I ran into was when I tried to set up my firewall before checking for software updates. The firewall needed a package called “shorewall”, which wasn’t included in the default install. Nor was the configuration tool able to find the package since I hadn’t refreshed my package list from the repository yet. Once I ran Synaptic, I was able to get back to configuring the firewall without further problems.
Obviously, this is a minor detail which I mention just to point out how little I found to complain about when using the distribution. However, I think it is worth noting that PCLinuxOS was originally based on Mandriva, a linage which regularly shines through, and it’s that connection which took some of the shine out of the PCLinuxOS experience for me.
Taken by itself the distro is a fine product. But when placed next to its parent, I find Mandriva casts a large shadow. If one compares the two projects’ websites side by side, or the GUI front-end to their package managers, or the documentation, or the pre-installed software, I find Mandriva’s is typically more polished and has a more integrated feel. Where I found PCLinuxOS really stood out from its parent was in performance. The operating system used less memory and ran noticeably faster on my hardware than the recent Mandriva 2010 release. I think PCLinuxOS is an ideal distribution for a wide range of machines with a full-featured desktop.