Review of the Review

There was an interesting review of the new Mandriva 2008 release of Linux in Software in Review. The review was, specifically, of the Mandriva Powerpack version, which is currently their premier release, and is not free, but supplies proprietary drivers and some other goodies not otherwise available in the ‘free’ editions. Jem Matzan generally praises the release, and with a few caveats, gives it ‘thumbs up’.

From Matzan’s list of positives: he likes the way Mandriva balances the complexities of advanced installation and initial configuration with the ease of making it as automatic as most people would like.

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.

He also praises Mandriva’s reincorporation of LinDVD and Cedega (which had been in the 2006 release, but not included in the 2007 releases) and a new addition, Fluendo. These three are meant specifically to “allow” Linux users to use non-free and proprietary software available to Windows users (LinDVD for DVD decryption, Fluendo for multimedia codecs, and Cedega for games). In the Powerpack edition of Mandriva, these install cleanly (and by default), making Mandriva much more accessible to Windows denizens than many other Linux distributions.

He also chides the popular Ubuntu (and SuSE) distros for being too simplistic, being aimed too much to the newbie convert (I paraphrase, but I believe that’s the honest intent of his words. He may believe, as I do, that that’s their niche, and they are welcome to it).

Bear in mind that I have never tried a powerpack release, but have only installed the Free and Live editions.

When Matzan writes “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.”, I go “huh???”

I thought 2007.1 (Spring) was a fabulous release. Perhaps it was because Spring was my first experience with a Live release, but I found it’s installation to be flawless (ymmv – that’s a very hardware dependent statement). The repositories were kept up to date, so all the software was readily available, and no unwanted desktop search apps were introduced by default. It was easy enough to use the available drive to go on-line, and from there proceed to get all the rest of the goodies. But by not including the kernel source code headers in the Free distribution, 2007 made me go through, not one, but two extra steps to do that. Perhaps all this was was included in the powerpack – it should have been. If that’s the case, then I too would call 2007 a “fabulous” release.

The 2007 Free edition though, still left me to go through the process of finishing the installation without a working WiFi card and an inadequate, default video driver. Not Mandriva’s fault, btw – NVidia released a very good driver shortly after 2007 that was indeed incorporated into the 2007.1 release. That’s one of the reasons I liked it so much.

I agree that 2006 was a bit of a dud, but even then, the problems I saw with the initial release (a nearly invisible cursor, and a damnable “Cat” desktop search tool) were corrected easily and early. That left a pretty good distribution.

As you can see above, Matzan praises the re-inclusion of LinDVD and Cedega. Again, I go “huh???” LinDVD is almost universally derided in the community as a capitulation to the movie (and recording) industry. Cedega is a utility that lets games play popular windows games on a Linux distribution, but it (barely) works with a limited number of games. I understand it’s getting better all the time, but I, for one, am not a gamer (give me a Suduko puzzle and I am happy). There will always be games Cedega cannot handle. More, rather than fewer. At least, until the WinTel monopoly is broken…

On the new windowing software, Matzan writes:

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.

To that I say, “Please don’t hold back, sir. Tell us how you really feel.”

Yes, Compiz-Fusion is new, and it’s clearly not bug free. I’ve been using it for a week, and am disgruntled to find that it has twice crashed the windowing manager, and has at least one big non-functioning aspect. It does not have multiple desktops implemented correctly (or worse, is completely opaque in configuration), and I hate losing functionality when I upgrade.

That said, I’m sort of hooked. Multiple desktops become far less important when you have essentially a 3-D surface(s) to deal with (why would you need many of those?). And the rotation paradigm is much nicer to deal with than the switching, mostly. Contra to what Matzen says, things like the cube reflection eye-candy, though useless, are a very nice experience (and if Microsoft has done one thing correctly, it’s shown us that a Rich User Experience counts for much). The ability to use even one desktop (indeed, one flat surface) in the way Compiz-Fusion presents it (with the 3-D switcher and the Ring switcher), is more than welcome. When I come to work and am forced to use XP I really, really miss it. The zoom feature, now that I’m getting older, will be very useful to me personally (um… wrong tense. It is already).

I’m not completely happy with Compiz-Fusion, mind you. It is not bug-free (not by a long shot) and yes, it is a resource hog. It’s biggest sin, for my money, is the complete lack of information. Even on-line, all the tutorials are awful and basically non-informative. The users groups are full of questions, but not of answers. A HOWTO guide is desperately needed. I could not get the earlier version to work well and play together with Google-Earth (I have not had the opportunity to test if this version is compatible). Have I mentioned that I hate losing functionality?

Yet, for all it’s flaws, I may just keep it on because I find it useful and yes, pretty. That’s how good it is. My opinion is that it will only get better in the future.

Outside of the Compiz-Fusion windowing manager, Matzen chides Mandriva for cluttering up the toolbar.

— the desktop switcher needs to go down to two (or none — do people really use multiple desktops all that frequently?) from four, and the sessin 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.

Um… he’s just wrong here. Yes, people do switch desktops frequently. I’m one of them. When you go from a two-headed monitor (at work, perhaps, like I did) to a single screen, yes you do. Alot. And, unless he’s using Compiz-Fusion (and I thought he decided against that…) you can 1) hide icons on other desktops from appearing on the one you’re looking at, 2) use a double width taskbar like windows users with 3) half size icons in the task bar and 4) remove unnecessary apps from the quick launch part. Ta-da, room with a view.

He also notes that Mandriva does not seem to offer a premium download server for it’s packaged (paid for) releases (and didn’t for dues paying club members either, when the club existed). He has a point, and Mandriva has been criticized often for it’s lack of incentives.

But the mirrors they do offer are simply not as bad as he’s claiming, unless you happen to try to download a full version on the first day of a new release, when they’re busiest. My own experience was that the 1-CD free version took me under twenty minutes to download, from a server in France, no less. The 4-CD (and 1 DVD) Free version came via bit-torrent (peer-to-peer), and 95% of it was downloaded in just over 3 hours. At that point, the download rate dropped from about four hundred kbs to a trickle of about 10, and my suspicion is that this drop came not from Mandriva’s use of bit-torrent, but from the ISP capping downloads. It finished in something like 15 hours, which seems to be about what other people are claiming.

I agree that a club with real benefits that generates income for this distribution would be great. But just what is it that they would offer? They’re already giving the software away for free, update it every six months and keep up on security fixes, bug fixes and independent contributions from Linux lovers. Would Matzan have Mandriva take part of that away from those who aren’t club members?

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