Sofware in Review
Tech news
at TheJemReport.com
Software reviews
at SoftwareinReview.com
Hardware reviews
at HardwareinReview.com
Discuss technology
at TJRForum.com
Sofware in Review → Operating systems → Linux →

Mandriva Linux PowerPack 2008.0 review

By Jem Matzan

Mandriva Linux has a history of inconsistency; one release will be superb, and the next one will be so bug-ridden and feature-weak that it's unusable. The only commonality among all releases are the excellent system configuration tools, which have continued to evolve over the years to match an increasing level of complexity in the desktop software stack. True to form, Mandriva 2008.0 is an excellent release, following the terrible 2007.1, and the just as excellent 2007.0. Some of the important things that were dropped from the previous release (Cedega, LinDVD) are back, and some of the problems (huge K menu button, cluttered menus) have been mitigated.

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 Linux distributions in that it doesn't try to remove the technical complexity from the operating environment -- it isn't "dumbed down." It's the perfect balance between automation and control; this is especially welcome in a desktop Linux realm where distributors are increasingly focusing on eliminating control in favor of automation in an attempt to appeal to low-knowledge users. 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 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 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 has traditionally been KDE, and that's still where the company's focus is, though GNOME is available and 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 came on three CDs, but a single DVD has become the preferred media) for two architectures (x86 and AMD64/EM64T), encompassing every software program of significance in the 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, which offers two releases. Previously this service was known as the Mandriva Club, and members got the release ISOs before other customers, had access to special package repositories for proprietary software, got a discount at the Mandriva online store, and also had upgraded support options. As of the 2008.0 release, the Club is no more; community support services are now free to all Mandriva users, no early ISO releases are available, and there are no longer separate Club repositories.

There have been many different Mandriva editions over the years: Discovery, Free, Flash, One, Move, PowerPack, and PowerPack+. The only ones still being released are PowerPack, Free, One, and Flash. PowerPack is the standard desktop edition, with many proprietary extras; Free is the same thing without the extras, and it's available at no charge; One is a single live CD that can be installed to your hard drive if you choose; Flash is designed to run entirely from a USB flash drive. There are also Corporate Desktop and Corporate Server products, but they are entirely separate from the consumer distros.

What's new in version 2008.0

As usual, the desktop environments and application software were upgraded to their latest releases (or release candidates, in some cases) -- GNOME 2.20, KDE 3.5.7 (with an option to install a KDE4 preview), Xfce 4.4.1, and the Linux kernel 2.6.22. The only major enhancements in 2008.0 are:

  • LinDVD, the only "legal" DVD video player for Linux
  • Cedega, a framework for playing Windows games in Linux
  • Fluendo, a collection of proprietary multimedia codecs
  • The Mandriva Club has been replaced with a straight 2-release annual subscription, and other Club benefits have been folded into normal Mandriva community services
  • Discovery/LX and PowerPack+ are discontinued; there is now only Mandriva PowerPack, One, and Flash
  • The Liberation font package from Red Hat

If reading the above list seems like deja vu, then you're familiar with the recent release history of Mandriva Linux. Version 2007.0 included LinDVD and Cedega, but both were removed from 2007.1. Though I do not have official confirmation from Mandriva, I suspect that these things were removed due to license fee issues. The act of eliminating the Mandriva Club in favor of a straight subscription service may be related to this issue -- because it used a package repository to distribute this software, Mandriva probably caught hell from TransGaming and Corel for not being able to track exactly how many Cedega and LinDVD copies were distributed to individual users. This means that Mandriva could not accurately gauge license fee payments to these companies, and that's probably why they both pulled out of the subsequent 2007.1 release. Taking out the proprietary Club-only repository and including Cedega and LinDVD packages with every PowerPack sale makes license royalty tracking much more manageable, so here we have TransGaming and Corel back on board for 2008.0, with Fluendo completing the Windows content compatibility trifecta.

Update: According to Mandriva representative Adam Williamson, the above theory is not correct: "In actual fact, the commercial repository will still be available for Powerpack subscribers. The change was purely to make it more clear that Mandriva is an open distro with an open community. The whole 'Club' concept was perpetuating the old 'Mandriva is closed,' 'you have to pay for Mandriva' etc. ideas. The change is simply to emphasize that all of the community aspects of Mandriva are open and free, and the Powerpack download service is simply that. I wasn't involved in negotiations with the Cedega and LinDVD folks, but AFAIK the issues for 2007.1 were just boring business (i.e. we wanted a lower price, they wanted a higher one :>) and technical issues."

Putting it to the test

Since I use Mandriva PowerPack on my primary workstation, the first thing I tested was upgradability. This has always been fairly smooth with Mandriva, especially compared to nearly any other operating system, including the proprietary commercial ones. The only trouble I ran into was with ACPI, which was offered as a default boot option in the installer. Foolishly I assumed that Linux kernel development had advanced sufficiently to support ACPI on my 3-year-old Sun Java w2100z AMD64 workstation. Enabling ACPI caused horrific performance problems that took a while to track down and fix. So while the base system and desktop software packages upgraded cleanly in about 45 minutes, I was left to resolve some issues on my own.

One of the post-upgrade performance issues was related to a facet of desktop computing that I hate with a vicious passion: search. For some reason, a huge part of the desktop software industry is obsessed with the concept of "desktop search." Apparently there are millions of people out there who are constantly misplacing important files on their computers. I am not one of them, and the Beagle search daemon is nothing to me but a resource hog. While it was running, system resource usage shot up to above 1 in the top output, and showed no sign of diminishing, even after 45 minutes of idle usage. I tried disabling Beagle through DrakConf, but that didn't stop it, even after a restart. The only thing I could do was remove the Beagle packages from Rpmdrake and kill the current beagled process. After this, and disabling ACPI in the GRUB configuration, I was finally back to an acceptable level of desktop performance.

Obtaining installation media for PowerPack edition is just as frustrating as it's always been. Even people who have subscriptions can't get a speedy download. BitTorrent, even on the day of the release, took more than 24 hours to download the x86 DVD, and another half a day to get the AMD64 edition. Just finding the address for the torrent is a challenge; it's hidden behind another link, so the default action could be to try to download the torrent with your Web browser, depending on how you have it configured. I'd much rather have a straight torrent link so that I can copy it, then paste it into my preferred BitTorrent client.

Mandriva PowerPack 2008.0
Mandriva PowerPack 2008.0: at the top of the release quality curve

The upgrade process is much like it's always been, but the installation procedure is quite different if you are performing a new install. I would consider the changes to the installer an overall improvement, though I think the process of adding extra software repositories should be either automatic (since virtually everyone will want to add them), or be a little more intuitive so that users know what's going on and why adding more repos is necessary.

The post-install configuration screen that used to set up Club repositories is even less useful now than ever before. I went through some of its steps, only to find that it spontaneously switched from English to French, forcing me to cancel it most of the way through the process.

The K menu has been reduced in size, now saying "Menu" instead of "Mandriva," which opens up a little more space in the menu bar. It's still not enough, though -- the desktop switcher needs to go down to two (or none -- do people really use multiple desktops all that frequently?) from four, and the session and logout buttons should be removed entirely. The panel hide handle could also be removed -- I don't think a lot of people hide the KDE panel on a regular basis -- to open up some space for running programs. It's difficult to task-switch when your menu bar doesn't have enough space to show the names and icons of the programs you're running.

GNOME is, thankfully, mostly untouched -- it's primarily the default GNOME layout with an attractive Mandriva theme. Both KDE and GNOME have had their menu systems worked over, but I'm not sure that the new menu layout is entirely sensible. Not that the old one was all that great, but the new layout has problems of its own. The categories are more appropriate, but there are more icons in each category now -- so many that most of them need to use a "more" submenu to show the rest of the selections. Of all of the default programs installed in a standard KDE or GNOME environment in Mandriva, I use perhaps 20% of them at all, ever, and about 10% of them on a regular basis. Nearly all of the programs I use regularly have quicklaunch icons on my top panel in GNOME, so the only time I need to use the menu is when I have to run one of the seldom-used 10%. There must be a better way to arrange this, and beyond that, I bet a good percentage of the default installed programs are rarely or never used by a majority of Mandriva users.

One unusual addition to both the GNOME and KDE menus is a direct link to Rpmdrake named "Install & Remove Software." When I first saw this, I was terrified that Mandriva might be trying to dumb itself down to the level of Ubuntu. As it turns out, it's just another way to get to Rpmdrake, and makes it easier for people new to Mandriva to figure out how to add new programs.

The Mandriva Club is no more. A lot of people had difficulty understanding what the Club was all about, and fully taking advantage of all it had to offer. The new subscription model is easier to understand and serves a more straightforward purpose, but it still does not offer the kind of services that subscribers deserve. Namely, it does not have premium download servers, nor does it have optimally reliable (private) package repository mirrors. Whether you download the Free edition or pay for PowerPack, you are at the mercy of free mirrors with limited bandwidth, and BitTorrent with too few high-speed seeds.

Desktop effects -- Metisse and Compiz Fusion -- are just as horrible in Mandriva 2008.0 as they were in previous releases and in all other Linux distros that they rear their ugly heads in. Use either of these desktop effects systems if you wish to ensure unpredictable operation, corruption of the GNOME panels, system lockups, crashing of the window manager, and/or failure to start the desktop environment. They do not and never have worked properly, and I'm glad to see that users must go to Drakconf to enable them, as opposed to enabling them by default. These resource hogging, 3D game killing, system stability destroying monstrosities should never be in the default install of any operating system.

Avoid the KDE4 preview -- it's so bug-ridden and non-functional that I have to wonder how the Mandriva developers could have possibly thought that it would make a good optional package for 2008.0.

Cedega 6.0.2 is available through the Mandriva package repositories, but is not installed by default. If you want to be able to update Cedega with the latest game engine, you need to email Mandriva through the support system to obtain a product key. This seems unnecessarily inconvenient to me -- I don't understand why Mandriva can't email a product key to customers and subscribers automatically.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Like I usually say when Mandriva is at the apex of its release cycle, this is desktop Linux as it should be. It's as advanced and complex as you need it to be, and as automatic as most people would like it to be. Unlike nearly every other desktop-oriented OS, with Mandriva I never run into incidents where the automatic parts of the system interfere with my intentions for desktop operation. Nothing is hidden from view; the developers aren't worried that I might stupidly screw up my system by making important configuration changes, and so they provide tools that are powerful enough to control nearly any facet of the system, and don't attempt to override manual command line customizations.

The reincorporation of LinDVD and Cedega, and the new addition of the Fluendo multimedia codecs is a huge step forward for Mandriva as a desktop operating system. For the first time ever, the default install is ready and able to play virtually any audio or video file on any medium, with the sole exception of DRM-encumbered files that cannot play without a special proprietary playback application or a separate license file. This is a huge advantage over other operating systems, which require users to download browser plugins, (sometimes illegal) codec packages, and unencumbered multimedia players, all of which generally require the establishment of unsanctioned proprietary software repositories in their package managers. In its default condition, Mandriva PowerPack 2008.0 is able to work with more multimedia content than OS X 10.4 and Windows Vista. It's what Linux users and disgruntled Apple and Microsoft users have been secretly requesting for years.

So 2008.0, despite its little flaws here and there (and ignoring KDE4, Compiz Fusion, and Metisse), is an excellent release, but it does not prove Mandriva's consistency. For as good as 2008.0 is, 2007.1 was a real stinker. And for as good as 2007.0 was, 2006 was a dud. You cannot confidently upgrade Mandriva Linux from one version to the next, knowing that you will get all of the same services, features, extras, and release quality that you are accustomed to. Each new release is a gamble. This, among other things, has to change if Mandriva expects to see a wider userbase in the future. Here's exactly what I'd like to see in 2008.1:

  • Better 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. In this case, the stupid bugs that should have been found and corrected are the French switchover in the post-install configuration utility, ACPI problems for upgraders, and the tendency of Beagle to usurp system resources without warning (or any way to reasonably disable it in GNOME). This is only what I found after a few days of testing on two machines. What would I have found if I'd had more hardware and time to test with? The same things that the release engineers should have found and fixed during beta testing -- that's what.
  • Premium download options for subscribers and paying customers. Whether you buy a single copy or pay for a year's subscription, you should be entitled to fast ISO downloads. openSUSE and Ubuntu are free of charge, and they offer insanely fast download links. Why can't Mandriva, with people paying money for PowerPack edition, offer the same?
  • Mirrors that work. Mandriva's package repository mirrors get overloaded, are improperly seeded, or are out of sync after every new release. 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 subscription and sales income? What are Mandriva's customers paying for, if not reliable package mirrors? Granted, this is not as bad as it was with 2007.1, but it's still not as good as it should be. Again I'll point to the general reliability of openSUSE's repository mirrors. PowerPack users deserve dedicated, fast, up-to-date, flawless package repositories. Leave the crappy third-party mirrors for the Free edition users.
  • 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. I'd like to see a standard, operational program for this task -- not a handful of potentially available applications that either don't work or work unpredictably.
  • Forget about the fancy special effects. XGL, AIGLX, Compiz Fusion, and Metisse are a total waste of time for developers and users alike. 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. Get rid of them until they're proven to be as reliable as Kwin and Metacity and other standard parts of the graphical environment.

If these issues are at least partially addressed without removing any necessary desktop features (as was done in 2007.1) or taking any risks on including unstable software, then Mandriva can begin to build a reputation for consistency of release quality, which it has never enjoyed in the past.

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. $90 for a retail box edition of PowerPack, or $50 for a one-year (two release) download subscription
Previous version Mandriva 2007.1 PowerPack Edition
Product Web site Click here