||Mandrake Linux 9.1, a GNU/Linux distribution in the making, is currently under intensive development. This review is an attempt to compare its first beta to Mandrake Linux 9.0, which I have been using for several months. What are the main improvements? The major difference as I can see between the two releases is that MandrakeSoft has updated practically all the packages in 9.0. In the process they have solved a number of small but annoying bugs that plagued 9.0, while keeping the qualities that users have come to appreciate in their various releases: ease of installation, speed and usability.
About a week ago the first Beta of Mandrake 9.1 was made available on mirrors worldwide, in the form of a single ISO CD image, which I promptly downloaded. I am an experienced Linux user and have been using Mandrake distributions for years now. I periodically compare Mandrake to various other distributions but still have not found a compelling reason to switch. I use Mandrake version 9.0 on a daily basis.|
My main workstation is an Athlon XP 1600 with 256MB of Ram and an ATI Radeon 7000 video card with two side-by-side 1024x768 monitors. I also use Mandrake 8.2 on various servers but this review focuses on what Microsoft would call "the desktop experience". I prepared a 2.5GB partition on my hard disk, burned the Beta 1 iso image on a CD and proceeded to install Mandrake 9.1.
Screenshot 1: KDE 3.1 looks just great! Guaranteed eye-candy.
Mandrake has changed the fonts of the installation screens, apparently they are using larger, anti-aliased fonts now. It does look better, not much but it's an improvement. All the same, there are few differences between 9.0 and 9.1 Beta 1 in terms of installation. The steps are similar: the user is offered a choice of languages, and the keyboard and mouse are configured (my USB mouse was automatically detected in 9.1). Partitioning takes just a few seconds, and the installation continues with the choice of packages. On my machine, installation of 1GB of software took just over 8 minutes.
This is a first Beta and it still has a few bugs in the installation procedure that need ironing out:
• The only bootloader available is lilo and I prefer grub. I manually added an entry for Mandrake 9.1 in my old grub configuration files.
• Trying to change the USB mouse from "Generic" to "Wheel" froze the screen and keyboard - I had to reset. Again I later made the changes manually.
• I had to manually copy my XFree86 configuration file from 9.0 to 9.1 - it worked without changes - as XFdrake (the Mandrake XFree86 configuration tool) refused to generate a correct configuration file, despite my repeated attempts.
• Trying to choose individual packages hung up the installation procedure.
Network detection, sound card configuration and also the configuration of my CD-RW drive were entirely automatic and correctly done. My CUPS print server was also detected and correctly configured.
Comparing installation procedures, what has obviously changed is that 9.0 came on three CDs even during Beta testing, whereas this first Beta of 9.1 comes on a single CD: a lot of stuff is still missing. Mandrake has taken the initiative of having their Mandrake Club members vote for the packages that they want to have on the CDs of this new release. Probably the final version of 9.1 will come on three or four CDs, just as 9.0 did. Right now, 9.1 Beta 1 looks slightly "stripped-down" compared to 9.0.
All in all, I had to restart four times to get 9.1 installed the way I wanted, and then configure a number of options manually. Again, this is quite acceptable on a first Beta version of a sophisticated GNU/Linux distribution.
Once properly installed, Mandrake 9.1 runs very, very smoothly. The appearance of the KDM login screen has changed slightly; I preferred the previous one in 9.0, but this is an easy option to customize.
Once I got to the KDE desktop, however, I was truly impressed by how much looks have improved: Keramik is a beautiful, modern GUI style, and font handling has clearly improved. The few annoying quirks I had with my Xinerama (dual-screen) setup are gone.
Unfortunately Mandrake has not yet adopted a complete new set of icons: I found the mixture of new and old icons aesthetically unpleasant. This, too, is easy to fix with a quick visit to KDE-Look.org.
This is what Konqueror looks like in KDE 3.1, it makes KDE 3.0 look old in comparison. Notice the outdated "Home" icon on the top left - I hope Mandrake updates that one - and the new "Trash" icon.
Screenshot 2: Konqueror in KDE 3.1.
But then I have to remind myself of the amount of customization I have already put in my Mandrake 9.0 installation. Like most Mandrake "power" users, I have extensively customized my desktop. And that's exactly one of the things I like about Mandrake distributions and Free (as in freedom, not just free as in beer) software in general: they allow a high degree of customization to my personal needs and tastes.
I tried a few applications, the most important ones first. Konqueror runs fine, and so does KMail. Both have improved looks and features. I have been using both Konqueror and KMail as my main web browser and mail client since 9.0, so no surprises here; but I am satisfied they are both improved in KDE 3.1. Mozilla 1.3 is there too, and looks quite nice. It still takes a lot longer to load compared to Konqueror, but I guess I am spoiled here...
I also tried Gimp, and I am happy to say that compared to my previous experience with Gimp in 9.0, MandrakeSoft seems to have fixed quite a few bugs and quirks in this GTK application. Gimp installed in seconds, felt faster to use, and presented not a single hiccup.
The KDE Control Panel also worked much better than in 9.0, specially with my Xinerama (dual screen) setup. KDE 3.1 now allows for extra color, style and window behavior customizations when compared to KDE 3.0. Kudos to the KDE team!
Also important I think is the new kernel: 9.0 uses a custom 2.4.19 kernel, whereas 9.1 uses a custom 2.4.21-pre2 kernel with improved driver support and quite a few bugs fixed. Similarly, XFree86 and GCC, as well as a number of base libraries have been updated. These add up to a more solid foundation for this new Mandrake 9.1 release.
MandrakeSoft decided to not include a few essential KDE packages in this first Beta. The kdegraphics package was not included, and so I had to resort to xwd (an outdated X utility) to generate the screenshots, instead of KSnapshot that I am used to. The lmsensors-related packages are also missing, so I have lost my mainboard monitoring functions.
Finally, what will really prevent me from switching to 9.1 at this early stage is the lack of any office applications. Mandrake 9.0 came with not one, but two different office packages: KOffice and OpenOffice. And I use both! Even KCalc (the KDE calculator) is missing at this stage in 9.1.
My KDE 3.0 environment in Mandrake 9.0 is actually quite usable. Shown here is KDevelop 2.1.3 under KDE 3.0.3, KWrite in C++ mode and the ubiquitous XMMS.
Screenshot 3: KDevelop in KDE 3.0 - not bad.
I am not really in the mood to download and individually compile the numerous missing packages that I can find in 9.0 (I would be using Gentoo otherwise), so I really hope MandrakeSoft will come up with a more complete distribution for the next Beta. I can see a lot of work has gone already into updating the packages that make up the Beta 1 release, so this is a good sign for the forthcoming betas. But for now, I'll go on using Mandrake 9.0.
Mandrake 9.1 looks extremely promising - probably the best Mandrake distribution ever, now in the making. It has improved looks and stability compared to 9.0, and is just as snappy.
But this Beta 1 is not for beginners, and its usability is somewhat compromised by the forced reduction in the number of included packages. The 9.0 development cycle was quite long (I tried quite a few Betas and Release Candidates at the time), and yet the final release was still plagued by a few annoying quirks, incompatibilities and small bugs. MandrakeSoft has probably learned a few lessons though, and I doubt they will make the same mistakes.
I am quite optimistic in relation to MandrakeSoft, despite their recent financial troubles. I hope they can release 9.1 soon and continue their trend of complete, "swiss-knife" distributions with up-to-date packages. Everything that I have come to appreciate in the various Mandrake distributions can be found in this first Beta. Now I want more of it - as soon as possible!
PS: A nice way of keeping track of Mandrake development cycles is this site's Mandrake page, with its package version reporting system.
|9.1 Beta 1 compared to 9.0 - pros and cons|
• KDE 3.1
• Font handling
• Updated packages
• No consistent style - yet (MandrakeSoft has indicated that the desktop will look quite different in the final 9.1 release)
• A few bugs in the installation routine, so this Beta is definitely not for first-time users
• Essential packages are missing
|Copyright (C) 2003 Andrew D. Balsa|
Verbatim copying and distribution of this article is permitted in any medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.
|17 January 2003|
|Andrew D. Balsa|
|About the Author|
|Andrew D. Balsa is a Linux software developer and I.T. consultant based in Hong Kong. He is also the author of the Linux Benchmarking HOWTO.|
|AMD Athlon 1600|
|ATI Radeon 7000 with dual VGA output|
|DDR 333 256MB single stick Samsung|
|IBM 40GB DTLA-305040|
|ASUS IDE 32X CD-ROM|
Ricoh IDE MP7200A CD-RW
|2x Sony 15" Trinitron, obsolete|
|Generic CMedia 8738 PCI|
|9.1 Beta 1|
|10 January 2003|
• i586 processor|
• 64MB RAM recommended, 32MB RAM for text install
• 800MB recommended, minimum 500MB hard disk space
• CD-ROM or floppy drive
|Pentium and compatible processors, AMD processorss|
• Mandrake Control Center|
• 100% Free Software
• Apache 1.3.27|
• GCC 3.2.1
• Gimp 1.2.3
• glibc 2.3.1
• GNOME 2.2beta
• GTK+ 2.2.0
• KDE 3.1rc6
• Mozilla 1.3alpha
• Perl 5.8.0
• Python 2.2.1
• Samba 2.2.7a
• XFree86 22.214.171.124
• Xmms 1.2.7