Conectiva Linux, developed by Brazilian vendor Conectiva S.A., is the most popular distribution in South America, so it’s quite surprising that there aren’t more reviews of their products online. This is really quite surprising – while you may not have heard much about Conectiva Linux itself, you almost certainly know quite a lot about three of their most important contributions to the open source community – the Conectiva Crystal icon set, apt-rpm, and Synaptic.
Conectiva Linux 9 is the most recent release from Conectiva S.A., barring some technology previews and the first two betas of their upcoming version 10. It originally came on four CDs, but in the middle of last year Conectiva pulled a huge set of updates together and released Update 1 on another CD, taking the total to five. When patched from the Update 1 CD, the distribution includes a respectable set of core components, including kernel 2.4.21, Xfree86 4.3.0, KDE 3.1.2, Gnome 2.2.0, and OpenOffice 1.0.3; and, of course, apt and Synaptic. The hardware detection is provided by Red Hat’s kudzu, which is generally excellent. Three languages are available to choose from: Spanish, Portuguese and English.
The Conectiva installation utility, mi (for Modular Installer) is a little different to the other Linux installation programs I’ve seen over the years; although it bears some similarity in construction to Debian’s. Something that greatly impressed me about mi was the ability to slipstream the updates right into the main installation, instead of having to install the base distribution, followed by the updates. You just boot straight off the Update 1 CD instead of the original installation CD1 – the process is exactly the same, but the resulting system is pre-patched.
(As a side-note, you can also use the Update 1 CD to patch an existing installation of version 9.0; this is as easy as starting Synaptic, selecting Actions, Add CD-ROM and following the prompts, and then clicking the big Dist Upgrade button followed by Proceed – Synaptic does the rest. I was very impressed when I tried this.)
Once you get past the initial booting process, the entire process is graphical by default; a text-based installer is provided as a backup. You select a language, read the release notes, and then configure your mouse, keyboard and network. The mouse is usually automatically detected, and you just have to click the Next button, while the keyboard and network dialogs are also fairly self-explanatory. The partition table is then initialised, and you can select an installation profile. By default, you don’t get to select individual packages, which is a good thing for most users.
You are then prompted to create the necessary partitions to install Conectiva Linux 9. The first message you’ll get if you don’t have any unpartitioned free space is that automatic partitioning has failed, which is very unintuitive for new users. If you do have any free space, the partitioner will attempt to create a swap partition (if needed) and a single ext3 partition for files. Normally I would expect the swap partition to be created at the end of the drive or free space, not at the beginning, but there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the reverse approach. Other than this, the partitioner is fairly standard, if a bit dated; like Red Hat’s Anaconda, you aren’t able to resize existing partitions.
Following partitioning the installation of the base system begins, which takes about ten minutes. When the base system has been installed, the installer exits without warning, something that gave me a considerable jolt when I first saw it. The installer displays an ascii logo of Tux while it remounts the partitions in some way and then starts the graphical front-end again. Once restarted, the packages you chose earlier are installed.
Synaptic is actually used for this process, although the installation is still entirely automated. The installer prompts you for the various installation CDs as appropriate and then exits automatically when all the selected packages have been installed. However, if you selected the option to choose individual packages, the installation is not quite as seamless – Synaptic loads with the installation profile you chose pre-selected, but the rest is up to you. If you accidentally quit at the wrong time, you may need to start from scratch. If you’ve never used Synaptic before, the custom installation could be very confusing, and I suggest you avoid it unless you know what you are doing. You can always customize the package set later on.
Following the package installation, you are prompted to perform the usual tasks; configuring Xfree86, users and the boot loader, then creating a boot disk for emergencies. All up, installation takes about an hour on a modern computer system.
Overall, the installation process is similar in functionality and complexity to Anaconda. It could do with some addition work for the partitioning step: firstly, the ability to resize existing partitions; and secondly, a “just do it for me” option before entering the partitioning stage as with Mandrake’s DrakX. Synaptic could also do with some work to make manual package selection more intuitive.
On the Desktop
Conectiva has bundled a fairly standard KDE 3.1 with Conectiva Linux 9. The desktop is thankfully uncluttered, and the background is clearly designed to fit with the Conectiva Crystal icon set, which of course is the default icon set in most distributions’ incarnations of KDE nowadays.
Conectiva has created a great default menu system, which by default is task-oriented and gives access to a single program for any given task. The rest of the programs that are installed have been bundled into an “All Installed Programs” menu, which contains the default menus for KDE and Gnome. I rather like this approach, as it gives new users a simplified menu from which to work, but also allows power users to access the full range of available applications without having to look very hard.
The menus have been designed with admirable foresight; applications have reasonably sensible entries, descriptions are excellent and are only present where appropriate, and the applications are well sorted into appropriate categories – barring the “Applications” menu, which would have been better labelled as the “Accessories” menu. The one issue I found with the menu was the “Entertainment” menu, which was mislabelled in Portuguese, rather than English, and had no entry for KMPlayer, Conectiva’s default choice for playing DVDs and other video media.
KDE looks beautiful; fonts are crisp – even in OpenOffice and Synaptic – and the default theme, which combines the Keramik window decoration with a nice colour scheme called “Nine”, provides a great backdrop for the Conectiva Crystal icons, which are just about everywhere, as you would expect in a KDE system. The Crystal icon set was originally created by South American artist Everaldo Coelho especially for Conectiva, and the set was first included with Conectiva Linux back in the days when KDE’s icons were as boring as those found in Windows 3.1. While they are now the de facto standard for KDE in most modern Linux distributions, they still look fresh and enticing in Conectiva Linux, which is great for new and old users alike. Unfortunately OpenOffice is still a depressing grey, as with most other distributions – it would be great if Conectiva could integrate the KDE icons and colour scheme into OpenOffice, like SUSE have done for their upcoming release.
Conectiva is almost entirely KDE-centric by default – with the notable exceptions of OpenOffice and Synaptic. The default browser is Konqueror; the default mail client is KMail; the default MP3 player is Kaboodle, and so on. Excepting OpenOffice, this means that the level of integration and interaction between applications, for example being able to drag and drop from Konqueror into an application, is generally excellent.
Configuration is handled by either the standard KDE Control Center or a Windows XP-like Conectiva alternative, the Conectiva Control Center. The Conectiva Control Center sorts the various system administration tools into task-oriented categories, such as “Desktop” and “Regional & Accessibility”. It also gives access to certain non-KDE configuration tools such as a video configuration utility and Synaptic. The video configuration utility is none other than the venerable xf86cfg, which is not exactly what you could call user-friendly. Tools for configuring other hardware components, such as sound cards, and the network settings, are also missing, which makes it very hard for new users to change settings. It would be great to see Conectiva put some work into this area for their next release, because the lack of configuration tools is a major weakness for the distribution.
Apt and Synaptic
No review of Conectiva would be complete without a look at apt and Synaptic. Apt has historically been a tool exclusively for Debian users, but in early 2000 Conectiva ported the system to RPM, allowing non-Debian distributions to access the power of this excellent tool for the first time. Subsequently they created Synaptic, a graphical front-end to apt that makes it easier to utilise the power of the system.
Apt is a software installation system that allows users to install software programs without having to spend tedious amounts of time working through pre-install checklists. At its core, apt does two things. Firstly, the system keeps a catalogue of available software packages, and their locations, meaning that you don’t have to find them. Secondly, when the time comes to install a package, apt can resolve any dependencies that the package might have by using its pre-existing catalogue. Most Linux packages have dependencies; other software that has to be installed before the package will work properly. Before apt, you would have to resolve each dependency before you could install a package – plus you would have to resolve the dependencies of the packages you were installing to resolve that original dependency. Apt compiles the list of dependencies for you, and then automatically works out how to resolve them using the list of packages available in its catalogue. Since the advent of apt, installing a package is often as simple as typing apt-get install packagename – the system will find the package, resolve the dependencies, and install everything all by itself. All you have to do is sit back and change the CDs when prompted.
To make using apt even easier, Conectiva includes Synaptic, a graphical front-end for apt. Synaptic allows you to search the apt catalogue and find the packages you want to install, update or remove; you can also set filters to confine your searches to certain variables, such as the classification of a package, or whether it is already installed. Synaptic also lets you configure the source of the packages it controls – you can add locations such as CD-ROMs or Internet FTP sites with just a few clicks.
Conectiva includes a huge number of packages – over 5,500 when you count the ones included in Update 1. A clever decision on the part of the developers was to split up the large KDE packages, such as kdebase and kdemultimedia, into individual application packages, which allows users to maintain a fine-grained control over their systems that isn’t possible with some other distributions. Other packages such as Xfree86 have also been split up in a similar manner.
Synaptic isn’t perfect, however; its interface is fairly intimidating for new users at first glance, and it won’t let you search the apt catalogues using natural language queries. For example, searching for “word processor” returns no results; a more experienced user would know that they had to search for “OpenOffice” or “Abiword” to display the packages they were seeking. It would be great if Synaptic could search the package descriptions, as well as the title. Conectiva could then include user-friendly descriptions for each package, making it easier for new users to find the software they were looking for. It would also be good to see the packages sorted into more user-friendly categories, such as “Applications”, “Internet” and “Games”. Currently, packages are spread out through catalogue categories. KMail, for example, has been placed in the “Networking” category, while its documentation is in the “X11” category; and on the other hand, Ximian Evolution is in the “Mail” category!
Competing software delivery systems such as Ximian Red Carpet, Xandros Networks and Lindows’ Click-n-Run have already moved towards more user-friendly package management, although these services are more easily adapted to such a purpose as they are almost entirely web-based. It would be good for the developers to try and move Synaptic away from its current conceptualization as a mere package management tool, and instead reinvent it as a true software management system.
Problems with Conectiva
Working with Conectiva Linux 9 was fairly uneventful for me, although I’m glad I didn’t have to try to reconfigure either X or networking, because this would have been quite difficult without modern configuration tools. That said, however, the language issues were constant and annoying, and some other minor problems did present themselves.
The first thing that I noticed when Conectiva Linux 9 started for the first time was that KDM, the default login manager, had been configured to use Portuguese instead of the language I selected during the installation. While Portuguese speakers probably wouldn’t ever discover this oversight, as the language selection happens to coincide with the hard-coded default, those who speak Spanish or English definitely would notice. Fixing this small quirk is easy using the KDE Control Center, but it’s fairly disconcerting to have to puzzle your way through because you don’t know language. New Linux users who had never seen KDM before would almost certainly be lost if they didn’t happen to speak Portuguese.
Issues with the fact that I didn’t select Portuguese as my language during the installation process continued for quite some time. OpenOffice hadn’t had its English locale files installed during the initial installation, and refused to start until I’d done so myself using Synaptic, while KCLControl, the Conectiva Control Center, refused to display some of its text labels in any language other than Portuguese. In addition, I’m still trying to discover a way of installing all of the missing English help files for a large number of KDE applications without manually going through the package lists and selecting them one by one (which is probably what I will end up doing). At the other extreme, Synaptic, Conectiva’s own software administration tool, doesn’t seem to have been translated into any non-English language, even the Portuguese.
The default package selection was a problem as well, with the installer making some fairly silly choices by default. Not installing the appropriate help and locale files for the selected language is the most obvious oversight, but there are others as well. For example, Conectiva thoughtfully included Sun’s Java Runtime Environment, which is very useful when surfing the Internet, and is requested when you run OpenOffice for the first time; then they forgot to add it to the “Desktop Workstation” package list. They have also failed to take all the advantages they could have from splitting up the large KDE components – many applications with duplicate functionality and dubious value are installed by default. New users wouldn’t need them, and experienced users would know that a quick trip into Synaptic will allow them to install their program of choice with just a few clicks.
Conectiva Linux 9 is a modern, stable and user-friendly Linux distribution that achieves a good balance between power and simplicity, but is marred by some silly bugs and a lack of graphical configuration tools. That said, it is still worth evaluating, especially for Portuguese and Spanish users, for whom the distribution is really aimed at. New users will sometimes be confused or intimidated by the quirks left behind by the developers, as well as the lack of some graphical configuration tools, but overall Conectiva is still a reasonable choice to consider, especially considering its beautiful, well thought out default desktop. If only they would make Synaptic more like some of the other software delivery systems out there! For power users, the inclusion of apt and Synaptic raises Conectiva Linux 9 from mediocrity and makes it a distribution worth looking at.
Installation – 7.5/10 (partitioning, package selection, text-mode in the middle of the installation)
Hardware Support – 8/10 (supports a huge range of hardware, but older kernel)
Ease of Use – 7/10 (would be 9/10 with more graphical configuration tools)
Features – 8/10 (apt and Synaptic rock!)
Credibility – 5.5/10 (lots of silly errors and omissions)
Speed – 8/10 (fast boot, responsive KDE)
Overall – 7.5/10
About the author
Jason Prince is studying Computer Science at Australia’s Macquarie University. His areas of interest include Linux in small businesses and education, as well as Customer Relationship Management (CRM).
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