||Mandrake Linux 9.1 RC1 was released without fanfare on Tuesday 18 February afternoon in Paris, and as the ISO images percolated through the various mirrors worldwide, I prepared my hardware for another review of the latest pre-release of MandrakeSoft's "swiss-knife" Linux distribution. My previous articles have dealt exclusively with Mandrake's use on the desktop. This time around, I tested Mandrake 9.1 RC1 on three different platforms: a home use mid-range desktop workstation, my trusty old-and-battered Dell laptop, and last but not least a dual Celeron homebuilt SMP box nowadays used as a file server and test rig. On to the reports...
See also the previous installments:
Part 1 •
Part 2 •
Part 3 •
Part 4 •
Part 5 (PPC).
|A note of caution and a few backup tips|
Having lost countless hours trying to recover data lost in crashes, virus attacks, hardware failures and other mishaps, I feel it's my duty to remind the reader once again that the first step in testing a new distribution (whether Beta, Release Candidate or even final release) consists of backing up all the data at risk of being lost. For this particular article I had to backup three systems, totaling a few gigabytes of data.
||Disk to Disk (IDE)
|Ease of backup
Table 1 - Comparison of various backup methods.
I used three different backup procedures, each most adequate to the system at hand: disk to disk copy for the desktop workstation, NFS copy for the notebook and CD-ROM backup for the server.
- Disk to disk copying involves the least amount of work and is probably the fastest, safest disk backup procedure. It means connecting two separate hard disks to two IDE channels (or a single channel and the drives configured as master and slave). After mounting source and target partitions, a simple copy command (use man cp to check the options for the UNIX cp copy command) can be used, or the files can be archived using the tar command and the resulting tarball stored directly on the target disk.
- The next method, NFS, is slightly more complicated in the sense that it involves making sure that your network connection is reliable and trusted, and that enough space is available in the target machine to backup all the data. Setting up NFS is relatively easy on Linux systems. In my case I exported the filesystem on my laptop (use man exports) and mounted it on another machine on the network. NFS then provided a transparent interface to the same cp and tar commands used above.
- Finally, backing up your data on CD-ROMs is probably the slowest method, but it has two essential advantages: first, it is absolutely reliable, and second, it provides an archived copy of your data. CD-Rs and CD-RW drives are nowadays so inexpensive that one has to consider these as a serious alternative to traditional backup media like tape. The shift to DVD rewritable media will probably accelerate this trend.
- The data I had on the desktop workstation (about 2 GB) was saved on a second hard disk in a matter of minutes.
- I copied all the relevant files from my notebook to my NFS server in about one hour.
- I backed up all the server files on three CD-Rs. I wasted some time trying to spread the files evenly on three 700MB CD-Rs so it took longer than I thought (one afternoon), but the result is a neat archive on CD media.
Without further ado let's find out how Mandrake 9.1 RC1 fit this heterogeneous set of systems.
||Celeron 800 MHz
||Pentium II Mobile 300MHz
||2 x Celeron 300A overclocked to 450 MHz
||Abit BE-6 BX mainboard
||Tekram P6B40D-A5 dual Slot 1
||nVidia TNT64 Video card with 16MB SDRAM
||ATI 3D Rage IIC AGP
||256MB PC-100 SDRAM
||192MB PC-66 SDRAM
||128MB ECC PC-100 SDRAM
||IBM 10GB DTTA-371010 (5GB used by NTFS filesystem)
||IBM 4.8GB TravelStar
||WDC AC32500H 2.5GB
||5x DVD-ROM drive Panasonic SR-8583A
||Teac 24x CD-ROM
||Asus IDE 32x CD-ROM
||CardBus Realtek 8139
||2 x Digital 21143, 1 x NE2000 ISA
||KDS 21" CRT monitor 1280 x 1024 @ 75Hz
||14.1" LCD Panel 1024 x 768
||Generic CMedia 8738 PCI
||ad1848 compatible (NOT the nm256), setup in BIOS
||Creative SB16 PnP
||33.6K ISA Fax Modem (hardware), BT848 PCI TV Card, Acer Prisa 310U USB scanner, generic USB graphics tablet, Microsoft PS/2 IntelliMouse Web
||56K internal modem (software)
||HP LaserJet 5L printer
Table 2 - Three systems and completely different hardware.
|A typical desktop workstation|
As a long time GNU/Linux user, I tend to forget that not everybody is familiar and comfortable with Linux and its quirks, many of which are inherited from UNIX. And also I recognize the fact that there is still a lot of hardware out there that is not supported under Linux. So I wondered how Mandrake Linux 9.1 RC1 would fare on a typical 3-year old home PC, from the point of view of an "average" user. My wife kindly consented to being the test subject for this particular test.
Screenshot 1: The GNOME 2.2 desktop.
DrakX and the Mandrake Control Center have visibly improved since the first 9.1 Betas. DrakX now presents the user with a clean interface in navy blue and light grey with easy-to-read anti-aliased fonts and the same logical sequence of steps that previous users of Mandrake Linux have grown used to. No surprises here: DrakX works well, and the few small remaining bugs do not detract from its appeal and usability. DrakX has clearly reached the RC1 phase.
Screenshot 2: Only root can open the Mandrake Control Center.
Screenshot 3: The now gorgeous Mandrake Control Center 9.1.
Since I had made a backup on a second hard disk, I decided to attempt the installation also from a hard disk. This is traditionally done by creating a boot floppy from a custom image file. Also it is necessary to have the rpm packages in a separate Mandrake directory. It took me little more than one hour to install Mandrake 9.1 RC1 from a secondary hard disk.
Desktop customization is still one of the points that need some serious work in this Mandrake 9.1 RC1. Presently it would take too much work for an inexperienced user to configure, customize and fix the remaining bugs on the desktop. For example, the removable media icon in KDE 3.1 opens with an annoying error message (already fixed as I write this). Another not-so-nice-looking feature is the mandrakegalaxy splash screen window that is open by default on startup. On the other hand, the Galaxy theme under GNOME (which I used for all the screenshots in this article) is very elegant.
Screenshot 4: Galaxy competes with Crux as my favorite theme under GNOME.
The desktop experience on this machine is quite similar to the one I have already described with my Athlon workstation. The comparatively slower CPU and display card are still powerful enough to provide an adequate level of responsiveness for the GUI. The large monitor is also a pleasure to use, and since icon and font sizes can be extensively customized under KDE 3.1, the desktop can be optimized even for those with a weak eyesight (which both my wife and myself suffer from). GNOME 2.2 is also a pleasure to use, even though I did not have the time to customize it to my taste for this article.
Screenshot 5: GNOME 2.2 with Nautilus and Mozilla.
I had some problems this time to import the Microsoft TrueType fonts from the NTFS partition using the Mandrake Control Center, and had to finish the job manually. Installing the TV card was surprisingly easy - except for the fact that the Hong Kong PAL-I system had to be configured manually in the XawTV configuration file (the .xawtv file in my home directory). And since this particular Acer Prisa 310U USB scanner is supported by the SANE package, I was able to complete its configuration during this review (but it still required more expertise to install than could be expected from a normal user).
Screenshot 6: XawTV provides excellent display quality.
I am happy to report that my wife is using Mandrake 9.1 RC1 and enjoying it. She quickly picked up the basics of KDE and is learning to use Konqueror, Gimp, KWrite and playing a lot of Frozen Bubble (latest version 1.0) games. She was also quite impressed by the ease of installation of the TV card under Linux and the excellent display provided by XawTV! Unfortunately she needs the USB graphics tablet (for Chinese input), which is not installed yet, so she has no choice but to dual-boot from time to time.
When asked about her general impression of Mandrake Linux, this is what she replied: "Very good. At least I can do many things at the same time and it won't lock up!"
Screenshot 6: WARNING! Playing Frozen-Bubble up to level 100 may melt your brain!
|Old Faithful: my Dell Inspiron 3500|
This is the classical Dell laptop: heavy, black and built like a tank (in Taiwan). This notebook has traveled around the world a few times. It was dropped on the hard pavement in the middle of a busy Hong Kong street once. I routinely carry it around in a backpack, where I sometimes throw in an apple, some papers, and whatever paperback I will be reading at the time. It's dusty (but no coffee spills). And it just keeps on going...
Screenshot 7: Heavy, black, and built like a tank: a typical Dell laptop.
I have previously installed Mandrake Linux 7.0, 7.1, 8.0, 8.1, 8.2 and 9.0 on it (not counting the various Betas and RCs), so you could count on me installing 9.1 RC1.
I installed from the CD-Rs which I had previously burned from the downloaded 9.1 RC1 iso images. One trick with installing on this particular notebook is to specify the proper 1024x768 xga framebuffer mode, otherwise the installation defaults to the emulated 800x600 mode which looks really awful on the LCD screen. This is done by pressing the F1 key on the initial splash screen and typing linux vga=791 at the boot prompt. From then on, installation proceeded uneventfully, although it was comparatively slow.
Screenshot 8: No problems with this CardBus 100BaseTx Ethernet interface.
PCMCIA seems to have become a non-issue with 9.1 RC1. The support for my CardBus (PCMCIA) Realtek 8139 based Fast Ethernet card was nothing short of perfect. Luckily, the internal v.90 LT Winmodem is supported by a proprietary driver which works perfectly well when I need it.
A corollary of Murphy's Law states that every single notebook seems to have at least one problem with any Linux distribution / kernel version. With this Dell Inspiron 3500 it is the sound interface, but there is a workaround for it. The best source of information in this kind of situation is the highly recommended Linux Laptop website.
The main points of customizing the Mandrake desktop on a laptop are that:
- There is a limited amount of display real estate; 1024 x 768 is not much nowadays.
- The LCD imposes severe limitations on colors, contrast levels, and fonts.
- The generally slower hardware (and in this case much slower) precludes the use of some eye-candy and special effects that are available on KDE 3.1.
The most visible issue is the "Xmas tree" effect caused by an interaction between anti-aliasing in FreeType and the LCD display technology; the visible effect is a coloring of the edges of certain characters against certain backgrounds. Fortunately FreeType and [KDE 3.1 | GNOME 2.2] provide together a remedy that in large part attenuates the problem: sub-pixel hinting. Just experiment with a Konsole window with white text against a black background, and with the KDE or GNOME Fonts control panel option, try the various sub-pixel hinting options. Choose the one that shows the best results on your particular hardware.
There is an inevitable compromise that must be made when dealing with LCD screens in notebooks. For example, here is a part of a GNOME terminal:
Screenshot 9: This terminal displays quite clearly on the Dell LCD panel.
And here is another example, now with a bold bright white font in Midnight Commander. Notice the welded u and m letters:
Screenshot 10: It is not a simple task to setup an LCD display with perfect font rendering.
In general I am quite satisfied with 9.1 RC1 on my Dell laptop. It retains all the qualities of 9.0, fixes a number of bugs, adds KDE 3.1 and GNOME 2.2 and does not feel any slower than 9.0 (which already felt significantly faster than 8.1 and 8.2), despite the additional eye-candy.
There are some remaining issues however:
- Mandrake should make use of the new, improved cursor API in XFree86 4.3 with a high-contrast, high visibility notebook cursor theme. The red theme available in 9.1 Beta 2 would be a good start.
- For some mysterious reason the hard disk LED now stays on most of the time, indicating that the notebook is draining its battery continuously through constant hard disk accesses. This didn't happen under 9.0, so I assume there is some kernel-related change that is causing this problem. I have not had the time to investigate this issue further.
- I am practically giving up on Mozilla and OpenOffice in this notebook. BTW this is not a Mandrake issue. Quite simply, OpenOffice Writer takes at least 30 seconds to get started...
Screenshot 11: Not good: Open Office 1.0.2 is not using anti-aliased fonts in its menus.
|The dual Celeron SMP server|
There was a time when a dual Celeron (300A overclocked to 450MHz) SMP Linux box was the ideal overclocker machine: it provided 900MHz of computing power on a minimal budget. Although at times the hardware was not 100% stable, I managed to put together a large number of systems based on this configuration (and even setup a 9-node Beowulf cluster, but that's for another article). To cut a long story short, I have an SMP server which has been running Mandrake Linux 8.2 for quite some time now. Uptime is as long as I let it run without rebooting, sometimes 90 days, sometimes a few hours. What else could I say? I am happy to forget about it, and when I need it, it does the job.
Screenshot 12: The SMP kernel is not installed by default.
Installation proceeded just as with the desktop machines, except for the fact that I didn't have a mouse connected; even in the graphical installation mode, DrakX allows for the use of the space, arrows and tab keys to navigate its menus. Unselecting both KDE and GNOME reduced the amount of disk space to just over 1 GB, which DrakX installed in around 45 minutes. The SMP kernel was not installed by default. After the first reboot, I used urpmi to install the kernel-smp package, and later configured the Grub bootloader with an extra entry for the SMP kernel using drakboot. This is actually quite easy, but again not for the absolute beginner.
All the hardware was correctly detected and configured, just as was the case in Mandrake 9.0.
A small criticism of DrakX is that even though I disabled both KDE and GNOME, it still forced the installation of Mozilla-1.3b and various other graphical packages, wasting a few megabytes of disk space. On the other hand, it failed to install the DHCP server package, which I later installed manually, again using urpmi.
MandrakeSoft cannot be faulted for the lack of choice of server applications: just about every server package one could imagine is included by default on the three CDs that make up 9.1 RC1, and they are mostly the very latest versions.
Screenshot 13: The Apache 2.0.44 default web page in Mandrake 9.1 RC1.
For example, Mandrake 9.1 RC1 includes Apache 2.0.44 and a number of modules and add-ons like PHP 4.3.0 and the Apache-ASP package. Rebuilding Apache is a difficult task for most users and integrating Apache and various extensions can prove almost impossible, even for the seasoned Linux user. I found it very practical that MandrakeSoft would include all these servers and all the tools necessary for development and testing of Web applications. For those more adventurous the Apache 2.0.44 source is also included.
Screenshot 14: Webmin is a complete remote administration package with a pleasant HTML interface.
Another Web administration tool included in 9.1 RC1 is Webmin, which I found incredibly easy to use. Samba 2.2.7a is also included and so is SWAT, the Samba Web Administration Tool, and I even found the netatalk 1.6.0 package for those users with Macs on their intranet. Both Windows and Mac users are covered with Mandrake 9.1 RC1. Finally, I should mention that Mandrake 9.1 RC1 includes the very new "zeroconf" network framework, which is supposed to allow users to automatically configure a network by simply connecting new Linux workstations and servers. I didn't test this feature, but the idea of zero configuration networking is very appealing.
|Bits & pieces|
It's great that MandrakeSoft has decided to include the kernel source in CD3. I can now very easily compile custom kernels for all my machines. The server in this review had 128MB of RAM, the notebook 192 MB, and the desktop machine 256MB. Swap was seldom if at all used in each case. Whereas the core Mandrake packages have clearly reached the RC1 level, I felt some packages would have deserved to go through a Beta4 debug / integration cycle. Most issues are easy to fix - for Linux users with 10 years of experience; the truth is that first-time Linux users would be absolutely lost.
My main criticism for this RC1 is that each machine still took me at least one day of post-installation tweaking to reach a comfortable level of usability. This is not a Mandrake-specific problem, but it is still an issue that MandrakeSoft and all the other Linux distribution vendors should be concerned about. The priority should be to reduce the complexity of installation and use of GNU/Linux. In the particular case of Mandrake Linux 9.1, I would be happy to see a DrakX option that would allow me to choose between the three types of machines, would automatically select the most appropriate packages list, allow some custom options and provide additional hints once the system is installed.
There is one area that I have not touched and probably won't in this series of articles: Linux for the Enterprise. MandrakeSoft has a different product that addresses this market: their Mandrake Linux Corporate Server 2.1 distribution.
Mandrake Linux 9.1 will continue the tradition of "swiss-knife" Mandrake distributions by being equally usable on notebooks, small/medium servers and desktop machines (and even Macs - check my other article). But this RC1 is not ready yet for the majority of new Mandrake Linux users: it has too many small bugs and rough edges.
I have just received news that there would be only one more RC2 before the official release of Mandrake Linux 9.1. Like many long-time Mandrake users, I am concerned that the release of Mandrake Linux 9.1 would repeat the fiasco of the release of Mandrake Linux 9.0, which was premature by approximately two weeks: the time it took for Mandrake Cooker to catch up with most of the serious bugs in 9.0 final, after its release.
Free Software developers usually adopt the following policy: a program will be ready for release, when it's ready for release. On the other hand, a company like MandrakeSoft has to meet deadlines if it is to survive, and the developers can only work so many long hours on fixing bugs and updating packages. To address this issue, MandrakeSoft has corageously put in place an open development policy and also consults its MandrakeClub members for the software that they would like to see in the next distribution.
So, do you want to help? Track down a bug, report it with a clear, detailed description on the Mandrake bugzilla system, and follow through in the Mandrake Cooker mailing list. You will quickly notice that if you, as a user, adopt a responsible attitude with regards to a particular bug, the MandrakeSoft developers will solve it in a very short time.
|Wishlist for 9.1 RC2|
Hopefully 9.1 RC2 will improve upon RC1 just as much as Beta 2 improved on Beta 1. Here is my wishlist:
Links of interest
- XFree86 4.3 should have come out as I write these lines, and the Linux kernel has just been upgraded by one notch - it's now 2.4.21pre5. And of course Freetype 2.1.4 RC2 is available. I would really like those packages to make it into 9.1 RC2, as well as KGamma 1.0.1, KSensors 0.7.2 and a few more of my favorite packages.
- Make kdm the default login display manager again, not mdkkdm. Why not just customize kdm with an elaborate Mandrake theme for now?
- Similarly for the desktop, make Keramik/Geramik the default theme, and provide some custom Mandrake GUI elements. Like mdkkdm, Galaxy is not production quality yet - and this can wait for 9.2.
- Now that DrakX has reached a new level of stability, improve it. It still has some rough edges when it comes to choosing packages. This would be a real plus for 9.1 final.
- Lmsensors and support packages that were in 9.0 are still missing in 9.1 RC1. How do I monitor my server hardware?
- Nowadays Cooker spills over to a 4th CD. So why not release 9.1 RC2 on 4 CDs, and include some extra goodies, even if they are unsupported? I for one, would not complain.
|Copyright (C) 2003 Andrew D. Balsa|
Verbatim copying and distribution of this article is permitted in any medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.
|Please visit this forum on OSNews if you wish to discuss the review.||
|2 March 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.|
|Test Configuration (Desktop)|
|Celeron 800 MHz|
|Abit BE-6 BX mainboard|
|nVidia TNT64 Video card with 16MB SDRAM|
|256MB PC-100 SDRAM|
|IBM 10GB DTTA-371010 (5GB used by NTFS filesystem)|
|5x DVD-ROM drive Panasonic SR-8583A|
|KDS 21" CRT monitor 1280 x 1024 @ 75Hz|
|Generic CMedia 8738 PCI|
|33.6K ISA Fax Modem (hardware), BT848 PCI TV Card, Acer Prisa 310U USB scanner, generic USB graphics tablet, Microsoft PS/2 IntelliMouse Web|
|Test Configuration (Notebook)|
|Pentium II Mobile 300MHz|
|192MB PC-66 SDRAM|
|IBM 4.8GB TravelStar|
|Teac 24x CD-ROM|
|CardBus Realtek 8139|
|14.1" LCD Panel 1024 x 768|
|ad1848 compatible (NOT the nm256), setup in BIOS|
|56K internal modem (software)|
|Test Configuration (Server)|
| 2 x Celeron 300A overclocked to 450 MHz|
|Tekram P6B40D-A5 dual Slot 1|
|ATI 3D Rage IIC AGP|
|128MB ECC PC-100 SDRAM|
|WDC AC32500H 2.5GB|
|Asus IDE 32x CD-ROM|
|2 x Digital 21143, 1 x NE2000 ISA|
|Creative SB16 PnP|
|HP LaserJet 5L printer|
|5 February 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|
• NTFS partition resizer
• 100% Free Software
• Apache 2.0.44|
• GCC 3.2.2
• Gimp 1.2.3
• glibc 2.3.1
• GNOME 2.2
• GTK+ 2.2.2
• KDE 3.1
• Mozilla 1.3beta
• Perl 5.8.0
• Python 2.2.2
• Samba 2.2.7a
• XFree86 4.3.0cvs
• Xmms 1.2.7