Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Distro Hoppin`: Mandriva 2010.1

Mandrake... the 5 CD Linux distro that came with that latest edition of a computer magazine... oh how it stood there in that kiosk's display, how it lured me into wanting even more to expand the possibilities of my beloved PC. I could hesitate no more! I had to get it! And I did. Once it was in my hands, I called another geek-friend of mine, went back to the apartment, pulled up an extra chair and unfolded the giant instructions leaflet. A lot of hours and cigarettes (I quit them, by the way, and you should do too!) later, immensely proud of our achievement, we watched as Mandrake booted into the graphical desktop. My friend had to go home and so I was left alone on this vast, unexplored territory that is Linux. As at that time I couldn't grasp the true value of it, I was quickly brought down by all the little annoyances: IRC wasn't working, the fonts looked horrible, my favorite games couldn't be played, etc, etc. 

Now, a million years later, I am writing this article on a fresh install of Mandriva KDE 2010.1 – or the Spring Edition -, enjoying a modern-looking desktop, boasting amazing visual effects right out of the box, communicating with multi-network friends, watching YouTube, checking the weather forecast through a widget and so on.

Mandriva 2010.1 comes in two editions: “One”, which fits on a single Live CD and includes proprietary drivers/codecs and the “Free” edition that is filled with open source-only software, requiring a DVD to fit onto. As I am not what you can call a free software purist, I grabbed the “One” ISO using the torrent option and off I went. Booting the Live environment did take a bit longer than expected, but one should take into consideration the fact that the video drivers are being brought up right from the beginning.

One of the coolest features of Mandriva's Live CD is that, if you decide to install the system, all the files you have created and all the settings you've tweaked during the Live session will be remembered and you will find them right there where you left them. Very, very helpful.

Mandriva's Installer is very friendly and has the option to use existing Linux partitions, an especially useful feature for those who hop a lot. Of course, you can still shrink your Windows partition and place Mandriva in the newly created space. The installation doesn't take too long, somewhere around 20-25 minutes, an acceptable time. The user creation process is actually done after the install is complete and the machine is rebooted. Choosing the timezone you live in is still a scroll-through-the-huge-list deal and I really think it needs an upgrade. Maybe an automatic detection like Ubuntu has? Would be nice... 

There is, though, a really bad downside of using Mandriva's Live CD: you cannot access other partitions in the system. Even after the OS is installed, one still needs to jump through some hoops in order to get to them. Maybe the developers thought this would improve security, but really, when you're running two operating systems, you need access to all of your files. And if Windows doesn't provide that capability, then take pride with what Linux can do. But let me tell you what is the easiest way to enable read/write support for those partitions: pop up the Install&Remove Software application in the Main Menu, search for ntfs, install the “ntfs-config” package, then go to Tools → System Tools → NTFS Configuration Tool, type in the root password and tick both checkboxes. 

Boot times for Mandriva 2010.1 aren't all that flattering, scoring a hefty 45-second lap time from GRUB to a fully loaded desktop. But hey, it's KDE and that shaves off a bit of the blame.

A regular KDE layout and a familiar looking stylish blue wallpaper tell us that we shouldn't expect any radical changes in the overall look&feel of Mandriva. The Main Menu orb has a bit of a metallic finish to it for an extra drop of elegance.

If you will grow tired of the default wallpaper (bound to happen in the first few days), I am happy to tell you that there is an awesome selection of images to lighten up your work day. From that same window, you can grab even more from the Internet.

I was mentioning, in the beginning of the article, the cool desktop effects that welcome you from the very first boot. You won't see any wobbly windows or too much bling, but the transparencies and animations are a pleasure for the eye. You also get windows previews when hovering over the application switcher tabs, but, by default, they look horrible. If you have a recent computer, just head to Configure your desktop → Desktop → Advanced and select the Trilinear texture filter; it makes a world of difference. 

As you can see from the screenshots, I have the weather widget on my desktop, showing the forecast for Piatra Neamt. What's so special about this? Well, finally, someone decided to add the AccuWeather service in all weather widgets, allowing for a whole lot more locations to be used, including my hometown.

Another cool thing that you can do with KDE is a feature that was “borrowed” from Windows 7 (apparently it was pretty much the other way around - mea culpa everybody): move a window to the right or left edge and it will resize in oder to cover exactly half of the screen. Take another window to the opposite edge and it will occupy the other half, thus allowing for improved multi-tasking, especially if you have a widescreen-resolution display.

Move the cursor in the top-left corner of the screen and a scale-like addon will act, revealing and resizing all of your open apps' windows making for a fancy, yet useful, alternative to ALT+TAB.

The Main Menu keeps the classic view active, but adds an interesting section: “Recently Used Applications” which sits right at the top and displays the last 5 programs that you used. Of course, the “Favorites” menu is still available and adding programs to it is as easy as right click + Add to Favorites.

One of the more interesting new additions to this latest release of Mandriva is an original approach to how the user manages their data and sorts through it. The context menu now has an extra entry for each individual file or folder: Annotate. You can rate every file (1 to 5 stars), add tags, assign them to a project, etc. I would love to say more about this, but it didn't appear to work as it should have. My ratings and project assignments were not kept and after about 1 minute of trying to connect to the nepomuk resource, it would give up and return to the original state. Maybe an update will fix this? Or it could be that I'm doing something wrong. If so, please leave a comment down below. 

Playing an MP3 file straight from the file manager

Mandriva 2010.1 comes packed with the usual applications for a perfectly usable desktop straight after installation. OpenOffice, Firefox 3.6.6 (flash included), Kopete IM, The GIMP, Akregator RSS reader and loads of other useful “K” apps. I did not find a disc burning tool, but that was easily added to the system through the fast and easy to use Software Manager. I also installed two games: Hacked Heretic and Open Arena, but sadly, none of them worked. Open Arena got to the initial logo show but couldn't load the menu and Hacked Heretic did not even bother to get that far. And finally, Phatch completes the list of applications that didn't work (jump on the watermark-free images :D)  *Sob*

The HP Deskjet 3940 printer was not automatically detected and activated so I had to do that myself in the HP Device Manager. An easy thing to do, really, but many distributions nowadays do this on their own. The Internet connection was auto-configured and when I plugged the WAN cable straight into the computer I could easily set up the pppoe interface needed for a direct connection. The Samson C03u USB microphone also works perfectly. The Micro SD card in my Alcatel OT-800 phone was browsable in a few seconds after plugging it in, but, weirdly enough, the Canon A550 digital camera was not recognized. 

Mandriva enjoys the support of many mirrors for their repositories and the closest one to my location helped me achieve awesome speeds, beyond 10 MB/s. Sadly, there were quite a lot of times when that mirror didn't work at all. As a simple workaround, you can always change the mirror to a more reliable one from Software Manager → Options → Media Manager → File → Add a specific media mirror.


One could never argue the overall quality and effort put into this operating system. And while Mandriva undoubtedly remains among the distro giants, there are some quirks that shouldn't have slipped into this release. Other than that, it is a great choice for newbies and experienced users alike. I hope that by the time Mandriva 2011 is released, most of the problems will be ironed out and, who knows, maybe we'll get a fresh new look as a bonus. :D

Download Mandriva 2010.1 right here