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Mandriva Linux 2007.1 review

By Jem Matzan

After making a lot of progress with Mandriva Linux 2007, I thought perhaps Mandriva had turned over a new leaf, and was using that release as a starting point for an overall better quality operating environment. I was totally wrong. Both the PowerPack Edition and Discovery/LX have slid so far back with version 2007.1 that I have serious doubts as to the future of Mandriva's viability as a commercial desktop operating system. Though some small but noticeable bugs were fixed and all of the usual packages have been upgraded in this new release, so much important functionality has been removed from it -- and new, more serious bugs introduced -- that Mandriva Linux 2007.1 has no hope of competing with other recently-released desktop operating systems.

Mandriva Linux overview

This section is for people who aren't familiar with Mandriva Linux. If you just want to find out what's new in this version and how well it works, skip down to the next section.

Mandriva PowerPack Edition is unique among desktop GNU/Linux distributions in that it doesn't try to remove the technical complexity from the operating environment -- it isn't "dumbed down." The installation utility is easy to use and understand, but it doesn't skip over things like network administration, drive partitioning and formatting, and user accounts. It's more or less designed to be installed in two stages: the initial install where most of the basic desktop programs are chosen, and the post-install configuration, where you add expanded distribution sources and open up a wider selection of applications.

In the distant past, Mandriva (known then as Mandrake) was a frequent choice for people new to GNU/Linux because it had a wide array of configuration tools and generally worked well on desktop computers, whereas the most common alternatives -- Debian, Slackware, and Red Hat -- were much more difficult to install, configure and use. That tradition still holds true today (for Mandriva, anyway), but other distributions like Ubuntu, Linspire, and SUSE have taken over the title of being the preferred "starter distro" of the masses. Mandriva, meanwhile, has found its niche as the operating system of choice for experienced GNU/Linux and Windows users who want a highly configurable operating system that doesn't take a lot of work to install or maintain.

Mandriva's default interface is KDE, though GNOME now works very well too. Other window managers are also available, or you can freeball it and work entirely from the terminal. Thousands of software packages are available on both the installation media (which traditionally comes on three CDs, but a DVD is now available as well) for two architectures (x86 and AMD64/EM64T), encompassing every software program of significance in the GNU/Linux and BSD worlds. Packages are easy to add, remove, and update through the Mandriva "Drak" configuration tools.

Commercial editions of Mandriva are obtained either as one-time purchases of boxed or download editions, or as part of a yearly subscription to the Mandriva Club. Club members get the release ISOs before other customers, have access to special package repositories for proprietary software, get a discount at the Mandriva online store, and also have upgraded support options. Any releases that are made during your membership are made available to you to download.

In addition to PowerPack, there is also PowerPack+, which contains some extra server packages; Discovery Edition, which has fewer development and server packages and a more beginner-friendly menu structure; there is also the "free" edition of Mandriva, which is both free as in price and free as in rights, so it does not contain any proprietary software; Mandriva Flash, which runs entirely from a 4GB USB flash drive; and Mandriva Move, which is a Mandriva live CD that can write user data to a USB flash drive. This review primarily covers PowerPack Edition, though I did take a look at Discovery as well.

What's new in version 2007.1

As usual, the desktop environments and application software were upgraded to their latest releases (or release candidates, in some cases). The only major enhancements in 2007.1 are the updated Drak tools, and the Metisse desktop.

  • GNOME 2.18, including updated applications for the usual GNOME components and programs.
  • KDE 3.5.6., including updated applications for the usual KDE components and programs.
  • Xfce 4.4.
  • Linux kernel 2.6.17.13.
  • A new spring-oriented theme for desktop wallpaper and startup splash screens.
  • A new K Menu button graphic for KDE, and a slightly redesigned lower panel.
  • Metisse 3D desktop now included by default, as well as Compiz and Beryl. The Drak3D configuration tool has also been enhanced.
  • Mandriva Update and rpmdrake have been modified to be more user-friendly.
  • The Mandriva Online update notification applet actually works now.

Putting it to the test

The first bad omen I noticed was in Mandriva's own release files -- the errata list is several times larger than the list of enhancements. I strongly disagree with the concept of errata lists -- there should be no errata in a properly tested operating environment. Everything should work.

Unfortunately, everything did not work. The first problem I ran into was in trying to obtain the installation media. The Mandriva Club torrents were so slow that after an entire day of downloading the AMD64 DVD ISO, only 12% of the file was retrieved. As a member of the press I got special access to direct downloads, but even those took several retries over FTP due to an inconsistent connection that I'm relatively certain was not on my end of the network.

Mandriva Discovery/LX 2007.1 would not install on either of my test machines -- one a Core 2 Duo, the other an Athlon 64 X2. The live DVD would boot, go through the initial time zone configuration, and get me to a usable KDE desktop. When I double-clicked the Live Install icon, I was asked to select disk partition options, then dumped straight back to the desktop. Checking the hard drive, I found that it had been partitioned as directed, but not formatted. I ran the installer from the command line to see its error output and discovered that the crash was caused by the installer's inability to mount the hard drive. Apparently it thought the drive was "in use by the system" even though it was not mounted or otherwise obviously used, and quit back to the desktop. Though it may look lovely with its deep orange Ia Ora theme, Discovery/LX is a real dud when it comes to the most basic of operating system tasks -- installation.

Moving on to PowerPack Edition, I had no trouble doing a clean install of both the x86 and AMD64 editions on both test machines. Rather I should say that I had no trouble getting the software onto my computers; trying to run the update utility at the end of the installation process, or trying to add additional software repositories resulted in errors. After installation was over, I could add update and installation sources. Unfortunately, every mirror site I selected in the United States (about a dozen of them) would time out while downloading updates, or simply not register with the system at all. I eventually found some mirror sites in France that, while slow, would at least register properly and not drop my connection.

Mandriva PowerPack 2007.1
Mandriva PowerPack 2007.1: more bugs, less functionality

I tried two clean installs and two upgrades from Mandriva 2007.0. An upgrade on a dual Opteron system with the AMD64 version of Mandriva and the GNOME desktop environment went poorly. The installer crashed on the first upgrade attempt, and once the upgrade was complete, the Nvidia video driver did not properly load, so X.org could not start, which forced me to fix it from the command line by downloading the latest driver from the Nvidia site. The other upgrade was an x86 laptop running KDE, and the upgrade ended up corrupting my unchanged, standard desktop theme. I fixed that by deleting the ~/.kde/ directory and relogging. Three days after the Mandriva 2007.1 PowerPack Edition release, I had almost 300 software updates to apply to the Opteron upgrade system. The libgail-gnome package never did update properly, and is still in my list, keeping the Mandriva Online applet bright red.

On the AMD Athlon 64 X2 and ATI X700 video card test machine, the display was corrupted after installation -- the mouse was out of alignment somehow, and would actually put the pointer about two inches below where it was indicated. I tried enabling Metisse on this system; it caused the computer to slow to a crawl (mouse operations took about one minute to register) without any hard drive activity. Part of the problem could be that there was no ATI direct rendering by default, and I was unable to get it working. The proprietary ATI driver was installed, loaded, and the system claimed to be using it, but there was no hardware 3D acceleration.

I suspect that the new KDE panel was designed by someone who does not actually use KDE, or has a gigantic monitor that allows him ample space for minimized program icons. One of the reasons I use GNOME is because I can't fit all of my quicklaunch buttons, applets, and the window list comfortably into one panel. The "Mandriva" K Menu button is oversized, the horizontal desktop switcher (I never use multiple desktops) is too wide and shows too many desktops, and all the junk on the right near the clock takes up an unreasonable amount of space as well, leaving room for about 4 open programs to show comfortably in the window list, scrunched in the middle. This interface was not designed for highly productive people who have a lot of tasks going at once.

The upgrade blew away my Cedega menu entry. I figured that maybe I needed to upgrade to the latest Mandriva-hosted package, but wasn't able to find Cedega in the Club repository. Neither was LinDVD there, and on the clean install test systems I was not able to play DVDs. The inclusion of LinDVD in 2007.0 was a major step forward for Mandriva as a desktop operating system -- it solved a problem that virtually everyone had. But for some reason, both Cedega and LinDVD were removed from Mandriva 2007.1 PowerPack Edition. Since LinDVD is only available through OEMs, you can't buy and install it yourself. Your only alternatives are to install the Club packages from the previous release (they seem to work in 2007.1 as of this writing), or to go around it by installing libdvdcss from a third-party repository.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Overall I was extremely disappointed in Mandriva 2007.1. Mandriva has had many years and plenty of opportunities to create a great desktop operating system. In some ways -- such as with the installation utility and the Drak tools -- it succeeds. Taken out of the context of the entire desktop operating system market, Mandriva actually isn't all that bad, if you aren't a victim of one of the showstopping bugs. But when you take into account its competition and the excellent release that preceded it, Mandriva Linux PowerPack Edition 2007.1 is a real dog. 2007.0 was much better and if you're really in love with Mandriva, find a copy of it instead of 2007.1.

There really is no compelling reason to upgrade to 2007.1 from 2007.0, though you won't lose LinDVD or Cedega if you upgrade (though you may lose your Cedega menu entry). If you do a clean install, you'll lose both of these packages, but you might be able to install them from 2007.0 repositories if you're a Club member.

The time for wishfully thinking that things will improve is over. At this stage of the game, it's time to get serious about making a reliable, fully-featured, powerful (or easy to use, in Discovery/LX's case) operating environment -- or quit and go home. Mandriva cannot keep limping along like this and expect to remain competitive with Ubuntu, openSUSE, Freespire, and even Xandros. Not that these other distros don't have their own problems, but with the exception of Xandros, you don't have to pay for them. If you pay for software, it needs to work better than free-of-charge equivalents. With this release, Mandriva PowerPack and Discovery/LX offer no value to customers who can get the same or better functionality for free from another GNU/Linux operating environment.

Ignoring the smaller issues (like the terrible new KDE panel and the lack of a locate program in the base distribution), here's what has to be done to salvage Mandriva Linux:

  • Release testing. In every Mandriva review I've written over the past year or two, I list "better release testing" as the top issue that needs to be addressed. The sheer number of obvious and simple bugs in Mandriva Linux (such as including the wrong theme, or failing to fix broken menu entries, or shipping software that is known to be completely broken) have convinced me that there is no release testing to speak of, or perhaps the release engineers are indeed aware of all of the bugs but are unable or unwilling to fix them. Quality assurance is not something you do if you have extra time -- it is a requirement for any piece of commercial software. Relying entirely on end-users or "the community" to do your beta testing is not a valid solution, either -- at least not for a commercial product.
  • More Club advantages. If you're paying a yearly subscription to Mandriva ala the Mandriva Club, how come you have to use the same unreliable mirrors as the non-paying users? Why are there no pre-seeded torrents of the DVD ISOs so that members can get the new release in less than a day? Show your Club members that you value their membership.
  • Mirrors that work. Every Mandriva release it's the same situation: the package repository mirrors get overloaded, are improperly seeded, or are out of sync. Mandriva doesn't provide its own package repositories -- you have to rely on other servers around the world to get the software you paid for. I don't know if Mandriva pays for these mirrors or not; if so, then it needs to find other, more reliable service providers. If Mandriva is not paying for these mirrors, then what on earth is it doing with Club membership subscriptions and other sales income? What are Mandriva's customers paying for, if not reliable package mirrors?
  • Handheld device support. I can't connect my (modern, USB-equipped) PocketPC or Palm handheld devices to Mandriva. It's not a big problem for me because I use my Palm Z22 for task tracking and appointments, and my workstation for email and contacts. I should be able to synchronize the two devices without any trouble, though.
  • DVD playback support -- forever. Putting a commercial, "legal" DVD movie player into PowerPack 2007.0 and then taking it out in 2007.1 is dirty pool. As a reviewer writing about 2007.0, I told tens of thousands of people that Mandriva had a legal DVD player, and they will likely assume that future versions will also have this capability. The same goes for Cedega -- it was a great idea to include it. Why did Mandriva reneg on both packages?
  • Proper video card support. Everyone who installs Mandriva Discovery/LX, PowerPack, or PowerPack+ should have the latest and most capable video driver that the included X.org version will support, and it should provide 3D acceleration without any extra effort.
  • Forget about the fancy special effects. Concentrating on XGL, AIGLX, Beryl/Compiz, and Metisse is a large part of what is killing Mandriva. These technologies are not -- and may never be -- stable enough to rely on for everyday desktop computing, and serve no useful purpose. They ruin functionality with 3D games and screen savers, cause crashes and performance issues, require video drivers that may not work correctly, and in general do not make anyone's life easier. Time spent developing and trying to integrate these fluff technologies into Mandriva is time not spent on the core components of the operating system that are so much more important to a wider range of customers. Who cares if you have XGL and Metisse included by default if a large percentage of users can't even install the operating system because of major bugs?

If these issues are not addressed before the next release, I don't expect that Mandriva will still be producing consumer-grade desktop operating systems a year from now, OEM and corporate editions aside.

Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Mandriva
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but some parts are proprietary.
Market Experienced desktop computer users
Price (retail) U.S. $76 for PowerPack, U.S. $40 for Discovery/LX, or you can buy a Mandriva Club membership (several levels of membership are available) and get releases for free
Previous version Mandriva 2007.0 PowerPack Edition
Product Web site Click here