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Mandriva Linux 2007 PowerPack Edition review

By Jem Matzan

Though delayed for a while and later to market than most Mandriva fans would probably prefer, the new Mandriva Linux 2007 PowerPack Edition is finally here, nearly a year after the previous release. 2007 is typical Mandriva through and through: attractively themed in KDE, easy to install without skipping the technical details, a little bug-ridden here and there, and full of new and interesting software technologies. This release does have its own identity, though; not only has the standard theme been redesigned for the first time in several years, but this is the first Mandriva release to include a "legal" DVD movie player.

Mandriva PowerPack overview

This section is for people who aren't familiar with Mandriva PowerPack Edition. 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) world. Packages are easy to add, remove, and update through the Mandriva "drake" configuration tools.

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; and Mandriva One, which is a Mandriva live CD that can write user data to a USB flash drive.

What's new in version 2007

Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition has several updates and enhancements over the 2006 release:

  • A new theme. Galaxy has been replaced by Ia Ora, which is a little brighter and more attractive, and it comes in several colors instead of just blue. Background and splash images are also new and more colorful.
  • LinDVD. This is InterVideo's legally licensed (and proprietary) DVD player. Essentially it's the GNU/Linux version of the extremely popular WinDVD player. It allows you to play DVD movies without having to hack in the DeCSS code, which violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the U.S. and similar laws in other countries.
  • Cedega. TransGaming's Cedega Windows API emulator for games is now included. This allows you to play many Windows games on GNU/Linux much in the same way that CrossOver Office allows you to run some Windows desktop applications.
  • 3D desktop effects. Both the XGL and AIGLX desktop effects engines and the Compiz window manager are included with Mandriva 2007 PowerPack. The setup utility analyzes your video card and decides which technology is better suited to it, then asks you to set the Compiz window manager effects.
  • Newer desktop software. Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition comes with: Linux kernel 2.6.17, GCC 4.1, Firefox, 7.1, glibc 2.4, OpenOffice 2.0.3, KDE 3.5.4, GNOME 2.16, and Xen 3.0.
  • Improved software management tool. RPMDrake has been rewritten and redesigned with better usability in mind.
  • Option to copy the installation media to the hard drive. Though this greatly increases installation time, it eliminates the inconvenience of having to have your Mandriva installation CDs or DVD handy when you want to install more programs.
  • 64-bit Firefox can now use 32-bit plugins. This is a major achievement, and solves a lot of problems for a lot of desktop users since Flash, Acrobat, and RealPlayer only have 32-bit versions, and Firefox is usually 64-bit on 64-bit operating systems.

This is the most significant collection of important new features that I have ever seen in a Mandriva or Mandrake release. And for once, they all actually seem to work reasonably well.

Putting it to the test

Testing took a lot longer than usual because the first machine I installed Mandriva 2007 PowerPack on -- a Lenovo ThinkPad T60p -- did not work particularly well with it. Secondly, all of Mandriva's most obvious bugs were apparent during or immediately after installation, which did not leave me with a good initial first impression. Many previous releases have had multiple serious bugs that prevented Mandriva from working reasonably well on my test machines, so I was immediately discouraged. I ended up working on some other articles and reviews for a few days, then gave it a try on different computers. The next machine I tried it on didn't work too well either: a Core 2 Duo system based on an Asus P5B motherboard. In this case, the CD drive wasn't detected properly (even though the installer was already running from it) so I couldn't even install Mandriva, but in all fairness, very few other operating systems will work with that board as of this writing (and they all have the same problem).

Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition
Mandriva 2007 PowerPack: the best Mandriva release in years

I moved on to a more mature machine based on an Asus A8N-E and an Athlon 64 X2 3800+, with an Nvidia GeForce 7300GS video card. Though it's more than a year old, it is still representative of newer AMD-centric machines in terms of motherboard and video card technology. Mandriva 2007 worked well with this machine, but I found the following Mandriva bugs in testing:

  • It takes several retries to add server addresses for software updates and extra packages. Even after you find a working update server, downloading the updates can still fail in a variety of ways.
  • A superfluous error message pops up when you select "Install or Update Software" in the Configuration portion of the K or Applications menu.
  • LinDVD stops playing movies after 10 minutes.
  • The post-install online update service configuration fails to complete, forcing you to restart the computer (or the X server, though the package database will be locked, so you may as well restart the computer) to log in.
  • The update notification applet in GNOME and KDE does not work, though you can still manually update the software through RPMDrake.
  • An AOpen CDRW/DVD-ROM on the Asus A8N-E's Nvidia drive controller could not properly read data or video DVDs after installation (I tried to file a bug on this issue, but a bug in Mandriva's Bugzilla prevented me).
  • The Atheros and Intel Centrino wireless drivers were not able to work during installation, but there was no trouble setting up wireless connectivity after installation.
  • Even on a wired network, retrieving and installing updates during installation fails in various ways.
  • The default partition scheme makes the root partition too small to accommodate a default install plus the installation media.
  • The release notes for 2007 have the Mandriva 10.2 notes at the bottom of the file.
  • At the end of installation on an AMD64 machine, you're asked to remove the boot media and press Enter, but the disc won't eject.
  • Enabling and configuring Desktop 3D Effects during installation is ignored later; in effect, you must re-do this configuration after installation for it to take effect.

A long list, to be sure. However, many of these issues had already been mentioned in the release notes (and there were a few more errata in the release notes that I did not encounter during testing), and most of them are "one time" bugs that you only have to deal with during or immediately after installation; in other words, they aren't showstoppers. A few more -- like the LinDVD bug, the superfluous error message, and the server address problems -- have documented fixes available, or are remote problems that are in the process of being fixed. So when you look at it in the proper context, if these are the worst problems I found in Mandriva, it's actually doing pretty well.

On a more positive note, I really like the way the theme has been redesigned. From the initial boot splash to the KDE and GNOME styles, everything looks more luminous and attractive. GNOME support used to be an afterthought, but in this release GNOME is fully customized and properly integrated with Mandriva's tools -- you can hardly tell that this was originally meant to be a KDE-centric distribution.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed about Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition is the inclusion of TransGaming's Cedega product with a three-month update subscription. This lets you play a respectable array of Windows games on GNU/Linux. The top reason I encounter for why people won't switch to GNU/Linux is not hardware compatibility (anymore) or the selection of native software programs; it's the lack of support for popular Windows games. Cedega erodes this excuse significantly. The only downside to using Cedega (and playing native 3D games) is that you must turn off the 3D desktop effects in order to use it to its full potential.

LinDVD (once the aforementioned bugfix is applied) works perfectly and with no extra configuration required. It's a relief to be able to play movie DVDs without having to hack in libdvdcss and then install an alternative video player that doesn't have the DVD module disabled. It's also totally legal in the U.S. -- in fact it's the only totally legal way to play DVD movies on your GNU/Linux computer in countries affected by the DMCA and its sister digital restriction management (DRM) circumvention laws. It's terrible that government regulation prevents people from watching movies, but that's the way life should be according to the people we voted for.

The Mandriva PowerPack software selection is a little light during installation, but once you add the official distribution source addresses to RPMDrake, your software selection explodes in all directions. The only packages that weren't in the database that I regularly use are the Opera Web browser and the LimeWire file sharing client, but those can easily be downloaded with Firefox and installed through RPMDrake -- no command line work necessary. I was also able to install Unreal Tournament 2004 from the retail game disc without trouble; I remember struggling with this a few years ago with an older version of Mandriva.

The system is supposed to look at your video card and determine if you can run AIGLX. If you can't, it'll check to see if you can use XGL, which most 3D video cards will work with. AIGLX is supposed to be the preferred option, but I tried Mandriva 2007 with three video cards: an ATI Radeon X700, ATI FireGL V5200, Nvidia GeForce 7300GS, and an Nvidia Quadro FX 3000. None of them qualified for AIGLX according to Drakconf. The ATI cards couldn't even use XGL, let alone AIGLX. Since that is as diverse a range of quasi-modern ATI and Nvidia cards as you can get, I have to wonder exactly what conditions must be met to run AIGLX. Enabling XGL disables direct rendering, and that makes the Cedega video test fail (among other OpenGL-related problems with games). So remind me again what the point of this 3D Desktop Effects crap is? When you use the Compiz window manager, your window decoration changes from the Ia Ora default to a more plain blue. I guess that wouldn't matter to people who are gung-ho about wobbly windows and the cube desktop effect, but I really like Ia Ora just the way it is.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

There are three kinds of bugs in desktop operating systems: temporary (one-time errors or problems that relate to Internet resources); fixable (run a couple of commands or apply existing updates to take care of it); and serious (makes the operating system unusable, may never be properly addressed in the current release). Previous Mandriva releases have had at least one "serious" bug each, with many "fixable" (though you might have had to wait for a long time to get the patch to fix some things) and few "temporary" bugs. Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition is the inverse: mostly "temporary" bugs, with a few "fixables" and no "serious" bugs to speak of (unless you count the generally rotten time I had with the ThinkPad's video card and network).

Mandriva PowerPack Edition fits a unique niche: it makes your operating environment easy to use and configure without treating you like you're a moron. So I switched. After three years of Gentoo Linux for AMD64 (and FreeBSD before that), I have switched to Mandriva Linux 2007 PowerPack Edition for AMD64 on my primary workstation. The exact reasons have more to do with Gentoo than they do with Mandriva (and Gentoo will still power my server for the forseeable future), but of all the operating systems I've tested, the one I think I can most enjoyably use for graphical desktop work (and play) is Mandriva Linux 2007 PowerPack Edition. Do I recommend it? Obviously! But I will say that newer users may find Mandriva Discovery Edition a little easier to use, and people who are totally technology-ignorant would undeniably be happier with Linspire, Freespire, or Xandros.

So it's good enough for me to use every day, but there's always room for improvement. Here's what I'd like to see in the next release:

  • A 6-month release cycle. Desktop software is still advancing at breakneck speed, and 9 or 10 months from now, Mandriva 2007 users will be chomping at the bit for the next versions of GNOME, KDE, and especially Firefox (mostly because many Firefox plugins and themes only work with the newest stable release). With Firefox 2.0 due out in a matter of days or weeks as of this writing, it's going to be a long wait if Mandriva's traditional release cycle holds, and it'll be tough to compete with SUSE and Ubuntu, both of which release every 6 months. Now that there is a good release to work from, Mandriva should concentrate on less dramatic changes in 6-month cycles so that customers aren't left behind.
  • Better release testing. I say this every Mandriva release, though Mandriva 2007 has substantially fewer critical bugs than previous editions, so I suppose there has been some improvement. This time around, it was less critical things, but they were still "stupid mistakes" that Mandriva employees knew about before the release. Why was the company so unprepared? I think there must be poor leadership in the release engineering department.
  • Keep Ia Ora. Ia Ora is a real winner. I liked Galaxy a lot, but Ia Ora is definitely an improvement, so don't give up on it. Even better than the default color scheme is the fact that you can choose from a few others. Perhaps more diverse color choices should be added in the future, but I would really like Mandriva PowerPack Edition to stay much like it is now into the forseeable future.
  • PocketPC interactivity. Now that Mandriva has conquered DVD playback, I think the next area of concentration should be synchronization with PocketPC (Windows Mobile) devices. Personally I prefer Palm, but PocketPC machines have taken the market by storm. While PDAs may be dying out, "smart" phones have inherited Windows Mobile's legacy. One particularly weak area of desktop GNU/Linux computing is communication with PocketPCs, though there are a few established projects out there that are trying to improve things.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Mandriva Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but some parts are proprietary, and the product as a whole is under a proprietary, restrictive license.
Market Experienced desktop computer users
Price (retail) U.S. $76, or you can buy a Mandriva Club membership and get releases for free
Previous version Mandriva 2006 PowerPack Edition
Product Web site Click here