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Sofware in Review → Operating systems → Linux →

Mandriva Linux 2006 PowerPack Edition review

By Jem Matzan

It's not often that you see a desktop operating system aimed at power users. Usually an experienced user is expected to build the operating system from the command line ala FreeBSD, Gentoo, Debian, Slackware, or Linux From Scratch; or to spend hours customizing one of the totally GUI-controlled distros like SUSE or Xandros. Either of those options can take hours of research, config file hacking, and software downloading and installing. Mandriva Linux PowerPack Edition is quite a departure from both of those scenarios -- it allows the experienced user to easily make the OS into exactly what he wants without all the extra "new user" stuff.

Key features

For those new to Mandriva Linux PowerPack Edition (this is not the same as the other Mandriva editions, such as Discovery/LX, Move, and PowerPack+), this section is a brief explanation of what you can expect from PowerPack. Those already familiar with Mandriva or Mandrake PowerPack Edition may want to skip down to the next section.

Mandriva Linux (formerly known as Mandrake Linux) is a desktop operating system aimed primarily at experienced computer users and software developers. The default desktop is KDE, and a careful selection of default desktop software components have been selected: Firefox 1.06 (with the Java, Flash, and Adobe PDF plugins), Evolution 2.4, The GIMP 2.3, OpenOffice.org 2.0, AmaroK, and dozens of other programs. Above and beyond the defaults, you can choose from almost 4000 more programs in the Mandriva package database.

While it is pretty and has some nice configuration tools, Mandriva does not hold the user by the hand and point out every little thing. You're going to have to know your way around KDE and GNU/Linux in general in order to really be satisfied with Mandriva. You have to know what a firewall is and what services you want to let through it; you have to know what the terminal is and how to navigate and run programs in it; you're going to have to know what to do if the right driver for your video card isn't detected. In return, you get an operating system that doesn't meddle with things that you prefer to adjust by hand. If you're looking for powerful software that has just the right amount of graphical configurability without ignoring anything important, Mandriva PowerPack Edition is perfect for you.

In addition to desktop software, Mandriva PowerPack edition also includes the following server software: MySQL 5; Apache 2; Postfix and Exim; various DHCP servers; named; OpenLDAP; Samba; and hundreds of other Internet- Web- and intranet-based services, programs, and add-ons.

Mandriva Linux 2006 PowerPack Edition
Mandriva 2006: slowly changing, but for better or worse?

Click here for a screen shot of Mandriva Linux 2006 PowerPack Edition.

New in version 2006

There is little new to the 2006 edition of Mandriva PowerPack Edition. Most of the revolutionary changes were made not to PowerPack, but to Discovery/LX, which inherited much from Mandriva's acquisition of Lycoris. PowerPack was supposed to benefit from Mandriva's merger with Conectiva, but the only Conectiva remnant of significance that I could find was the Smart package manager. Smart is not installed by default -- it has to be added manually through Rpmdrake. Ironically, Smart doesn't really seem to offer anything above and beyond the tool that you need to install it, and in fact I found Rpmdrake to be a little easier to navigate than Smart.

The first thing that annoyed me about Smart was that it didn't install any menu entries in the K menu; I had to start it from the command line. There is also a Smart system tray notification tool that informs you of software updates, but it too had to be started from the command line. Then when I installed and updated a few programs through it, Smart messed things up to the point that it couldn't even start anymore because some GTK libraries had been improperly updated. If you're smart, you'll stay away from Smart for now.

The 2006 release of Mandriva PowerPack Edition also offers different default software configurations optimized for slower, older computers. I don't have any slow, old computers, so the standard installation was offered to me on all of my test systems. This feature supposedly offers less memory- CPU- and disk-intensive desktop software choices (IceWM instead of KDE, for instance) in place of the more advanced, resource-hungry defaults.

Xen virtualization support is included if you want to use it. I didn't test the Xen implementation in this release of Mandriva.

The 32-bit x86 and 64-bit AMD64/EM64T editions are now both included in the retail package. Previously you had to choose one or the other. CD sets are no longer provided in the retail edition; if you need CDs, you'll have to get the cheaper download edition and make them yourself.

Bugs and problems

On a system based on an Asus A8N-E motherboard and an Athlon 64 X2 processor, I couldn't install Mandriva because of a problem with the Nvidia SATA driver. And on a ThinkPad T40, the onboard ATI video card couldn't be configured with hardware acceleration.

The Smart package manager constantly failed to update or install new programs, citing a "public key not available" message for several packages. When it finally did go through, it screwed up the whole system and everything had to be reinstalled from scratch.

Ndiswrapper is included and integrated into DrakConf, but it didn't work on the Centrino IPW2100 chip in my ThinkPad T40. A Mandriva company representative told me that Mandriva is Centrino certified, and there are native drivers provided, but they did not work on the T40. The output of dmesg and lspci showed no IPW2100 devices, so I suspect there is a kernel-level problem, as the chip is recognized in all other distributions I've tried.

Many menu options were missing upon first (and second, and third) boot. Specifically I found that Mandrake Update and DrakConf (the configuration tool that controls all aspects of system administration) were there on the computer and could be started from the command line, but not present in the menus. This was magically resolved when I registered with Mandrake Online and downloaded an RPM that updated the Mandrake Online utility. I don't know which one of these things triggered the fix -- or maybe it was both? No matter what fixed the problem, the default absence of DrakConf and Mandriva Update is unacceptable.

Pricing and services

The PowerPack Edition costs U.S. $85 for the retail box edition, which includes two 300-page paper manuals, a DVD for both the x86 and AMD64 editions of Mandriva, 60 days of support, and 30 days of the Mandriva Online service.

Beyond your one month of Mandriva Online, you will have to pay an extra $22 per year. All Mandriva Online does is make updating the software easier by providing update notification and automatic update services. Nothing is stopping you from using the standard Mandriva Update program to download and install software updates, so essentially the Mandrake Online service is a matter of convenience.

A 30-day subscription to the Mandriva Club is also included. This offers access to community message forums and other Mandriva support resources. Again, this costs extra beyond your 30 days, and the pricing is tiered according to how much support you think you will need.

Summary

In terms of look and feel and operating system structure, Mandriva 2006 PowerPack Edition has changed very little in the past few years. The software is updated with newer features and tools, new packages are added, and the entire Mandriva experience improves with every release. But you're essentially getting the same distro that you could get with Mandrake 9.0. In other words, Mandriva fans will be more than pleased with Mandriva 2006 PowerPack Edition. If you haven't tried Mandriva in a while, the 2006 PowerPack Edition might be a good way to get back into it -- especially if you want a powerful GNU/Linux distribution but want to avoid doing a lot of manual system administration on your home desktop computer. Beyond the initial installation and setup, you've got a great operating environment without the hundreds of unnecessary programs and extras like SUSE and Fedora tend to install, and excellent support through the Mandriva community.

Despite that, I still believe that everything should work properly. The ATI video card in my laptop wasn't correctly configured, and the Nvidia SATA driver problem also prevented me from installing Mandriva 2006 on one of my test systems. It seems that bugs are also a Mandriva tradition that is carried on from release to release -- every time I install a new version of Mandriva Linux, I find a lot of bugs. There is always something that doesn't work quite right, as though a couple more weeks of testing could have produced a flawless distribution. And, as always, all of the problems (except for the driver issues) were fixed by applying updates.

Developer recommendations

Here are some improvements that I'd like to see in the next edition of Mandriva Linux:

  • Better testing. I hope to see no problems with hardware configuration, significant software bugs, or driver issues in the next release. I think Mandriva needs to be more careful in its release engineering.
  • A new theme. I'm all blued out; I'm tired of the default light blue themes of Windows, SUSE, Mandriva, Xandros, and Fedora Core. Is this Linux's blue period or something? If Mandriva has to be blue, can it at least go back to the theme used in Mandrake 10.1, which was sort of an indigo color? The abstract penguin drawings and the shades of light blue in Mandriva 2006 are annoying. I know it sounds silly, but I honestly think the uninspired default theme for Mandriva 2006 detracts from its overall worth. When you stare at that theme all day, it has to be good, and just for once I'd like to see a GNU/Linux distribution where I don't have to mess with the theme to make it more interesting and pretty.
  • DVD playback. Linspire can offer the ability to play commercial movie DVDs. Why can't Mandriva?
  • Better wireless support. If Ndiswrapper is present, it should work properly. Xandros Desktop has a spectacular implementation of Ndiswrapper; so should Mandriva.
  • The Mplayer plugin. Sure would be nice to watch video clips online. The Mplayer browser plugin would accomplish this nicely.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Mandriva
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License GNU General Public License, although some included packages are proprietary
Market Experienced GNU/Linux users, software developers
Price (retail) US $85 for the boxed edition, and $76 for the download edition
Previous version Mandriva Limited Edition 2005 PowerPack Edition
Product Web site Click here