World Exclusive: Mandrake Linux 9.1 Review

OSNews was privileged to an early access to the final version of Mandrake Linux 9.1 Standard Edition and we were able to test it for almost a week now. Here is our review. Update: Added four screenshots. Update 2: Mandrake Linux 9.1 is out, read the PR, get it from mirrors, buy it or join the Club, from links found here.

For even more screenshots, there are more than enough posted here and here.

Click for a larger view The installation has been completely revamped. It looks good and its interface is cleaner with fewer steps required by the user (however, the power is still there if you need it, hidden under some ‘advanced’ buttons on in the ‘Summary’ screen). I also liked the little 4-option menu asking you how to proceed with the installation regarding partitions, I found it intuitive, clean and better than the competition’s. The only things the user needs to do is pick the language, keyboard, mouse, hard drive/partition and the package family and fire away the package installation. After the packages are installed, the user is asked to add a new user and choose the root password. Before the rebooting there is a summary screen, very similar to the one found in SuSE’s installation where the user there can do some more advanced configuration (e.g. configure the ethernet card, printer, sound card and monitor) or leave it as-is (autodetect) and reboot the machine to enjoy Mandrake 9.1. I don’t have major complaints about the installation procedure, except maybe a single bug I encountered: the installation would pick the audigy() driver for my first generation SBLive! instead of the emu10k() driver, and it would not turn on ALSA on boot by default. I installed Mandrake 9.1 twice and both times the same problem happened, I had no sound at all, until I turned on ALSA and picked the emu10k() driver manually (older versions of Mandrake didn’t have problem with this card).

Using the System
Mandrake’s kind of slow to boot as it loads a large number of services by default, but that’s configurable via Mandrake’s control center. KDE 3.1.0 is the main desktop environment, as always. But this time, we get a Mandrake with a… twist. The default widget theme and window manager theme is now original and applies to both Gnome and KDE (in the same way Red Hat did with BlueCurve). The new theme set is called “Galaxy” and it is indeed very cute, especially its widget set. While I still personally like better the BlueCurve window manager theme for its clearly defined buttons (something that Galaxy lacks and can be a problem to users who need more accessibility), Mandrake’s widget-set theme is probably the best found today on any Linux. Detailed, clean, with soft on-mouse-over effects that don’t distract. Additionally, new icons made their appearance in this release. I do feel that MandrakeSoft has put a real effort in this release in both the usability and looks of their product.

Click for a larger view The “What to Do->” menu is not there anymore, but the annoying “Terminals” menu in the root Kmenu which lists 5-6 different… terminals is still there (that’s obsolete and geeky, in my humble opinion). KOffice, OpenOffice 1.02 and Gnumeric are also there, but there is no AbiWord (sometimes I get .doc files that one word processor can read, but the other can’t, so I need to have all three installed to check out which one does each time). Mozilla 1.3 and Gaim 0.59.8 come pre-installed along with a large number of other applications, including mySQL, PostgreSQL, Apache, Samba, a large number of 2D/3D games, XFree86 4.3, XMMS, Xine, Quanta, BlueFish 0.9 etc. In the third CD I found “closed” applications included, like Java, Opera, RealPlay 8, AcroRead and more. Java applets work perfectly on Mozilla, but they would load and then not run on the distro’s main browser, Konqueror (yes, Java was activated on Konq’s prefs). As for Opera 6.12, it would crash on every page that it had java in it.

It was a positive surprise to see Gnome ‘taken care of’ by MandrakeSoft, as now its default setup is not the Gnome default, but a panel that resembles KDE’s (and the other way around of course). The menus are the same as in KDE, and MandrakeSoft has included a utility to edit the menus of Gnome, KDE and WindowMaker. Enlightenment, IceWM and Blackbox also come with Mandrake Linux 9.1 (I would like to see a stable version of XFCE 4.x included in the next Mandrake as well).

Click for a larger view The Mandrake Control Center has seen an overhaul once again, and most of the tools now use GTK+ 2.x which enables them to at least look prettier. You will find tools for partitioning and NTFS/FAT32 resizing, ZeroConf (called ‘Rendezvous’ by Apple), printing, internationalization, networking, firewalling, internet connection sharing, monitor and gfx card configuration and a bunch more tools. All the tools I had the need to use all worked fine and as expected except the “Fonts” tool in the advanced mode, where it wouldn’t accept a directory as input (I had to select/load/select/load more than 30 fonts ‘by hand’ to make it install my fonts from a non-Windows Fat32 directory). In my review of Mandrake Linux 9.0 back in October I spoke of a problem where the CD-rom would spin forever when trying to load almost any of the Mandrake Control Center tools. I know that MandrakeSoft found and worked on the problem and tried to minimize its occurance on some machines (I received a number of emails from people who were experiencing the same behavior back then) and indeed, the problem is now minimized, but not completely fixed. Now, only three tools (ScannerDrake, XFDrake and Mandrake-Update) create that “spin empty CD-ROM forever” effect in this machine.

Click for a larger view 3D worked fine and I was able to run a number of 3D games with my 3Dfx Voodoo5 (I read that the new Red Hat Linux won’t support Glide3, so that’s a plus for MandrakeSoft and the 3Dfx users). Stability with Mandrake Linux is good; however, I was able to completely lock up the machine (SSH wouldn’t respond) by running the JESS visualization plugin of XMMS, in addition to 2-3 more 3D plugins at the screen at the same time with the Voodoo5.

Another positive surprise with MandrakeSoft is the speed. This installation just feels faster than its predecessor, with apps launching faster, window movement better, etc. The kernel used, 2.4.21-pre, includes special Mandrake patches applied for extra stability. The default filesystem that was suggested by Mandrake Linux via installation was ReiserFS. Developers will find a number of dev tools, IDEs, and languages installed.

With this release I see a very serious and very respectable effort from MandrakeSoft to create a better Mandrake Linux. It is just obvious that this is not ‘just another release’, it really feels that it had extra care. A lot of things remain unresolved in the desktop area though, like the inconsistency found in the main desktop environment (KDE); notably, the context menus on the desktop and Konqueror and the bugs encountered and detailed above. This is part of the Linux platform evolution of course, so future Mandrake Linux versions are destined to become better with time.

I would urge everyone to download Mandrake 9.1 and give it a go when it is released. It is a worthy distribution and especially this version is a sincere effort from MandrakeSoft to create something better and competitive. And if you decide to keep it, make sure you buy it in order to help MandrakeSoft to continue developing their product in the future.

Installation: 9.5/10
Hardware Support: 7.5/10
Ease of use: 7/10
Features: 7/10
Credibility: 7/10 (stability, bugs, security)
Speed: 8/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)

Overall: 7.66 / 10


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