Price: $69 US (plus $20 for shipping)
Reviewer: Choong Ng
Linux Mandrake 8.0 is the latest release from MandrakeSoft. Released on-line on April 19, 2001, Mandrake 8.0 adds kernel 2.4.3, XFree86 4.0.3, KDE 2.1.1, GCC 2.96 and miscellaneous other upgrades to 7.2 (the previous release). Mandrake is advertised primarily as a workstation and desktop-oriented distribution, so I will be evaluating it with these applications in mind. Supremely important in a desktop distribution are ease of setup, ease of configuration, ease of operation, quality of the software bundle and ease of installing new software; I will focus primarily on these criteria. My test machine for this review is a PIII 560 with 384MB of RAM, a 6GB hard disk and a Matrox G400.
Mandrake 8.0 comes on two (download edition) or four (retail version) CD-ROMs; the first two of which will be necessary for most installations. As with nearly all modern distributions, loading the first CD and rebooting is all that is necessary to start the installation. Mandrake 8.0's graphical installer closely resembles the installer used in the 7.x releases and is really about as user-friendly as an OS installer should be. Once the installer loads, it prompts the user for information such as how the computer will be used and what broad categories of packages to install. Many of the decisions that users new to computers or new to Linux (e.g., converting from Windows, more about this below) won't necessarily know how to answer, such as sizing and placement of partitions, are handled by the installer's defaults. As with the 7.x releases, you can go back to any previous part of the install by clicking on the button next to the appropriate step on the left side of the screen. Even X configuration—the area where I most often run into trouble—went without a hitch. This appears to be at least in part due to the move to XFree86 4.0.3, a significant improvement despite lacking solid support for certain graphics chipsets (notably several by Chips and Technologies common in older notebooks). One option to pay special attention to is the option to log on a user at boot automatically. Once you have answered all of the configuration questions, the installer will install and configure the requested packages, meanwhile displaying annoying “hints” à la the Windows 98 installer. The install took a little less than 15 minutes from the first reboot (to start from the installation CD) to a KDE user desktop.
If you get the retail version of Mandrake 8.0 (this is discussed later), the startup process is completely graphical. The boot-loader menu is a text list with an abstract design in the background, and the Linux startup process with its status icons resembles a Mac OS boot more than anything else. While most Linux Journal readers likely will disable this feature in favor of actually seeing what's going on during the boot process, I can see it being highly beneficial to users who wouldn't know UNIX from eunuchs and think bash is a verb. When the desktop finally loads (startup could take a minute or two on slower hardware) the user is presented with a very Windows-esque interface. Good or bad, that's what it is (see the next section). At first examination this represents a fairly well set up desktop, with icons for documentation, connection to the Internet, etc., right on the desktop and the most useful applications and utilities already in the KDE menu.
Mandrake 8.0 is definitely a step forward in terms of desktop usability. Between the KDE 2 desktop and the pre-installed productivity applications, MandrakeSoft has managed to put together a very usable desktop environment suitable for many users' needs. The default install by no means caters to the advanced user or the server market; unlike the 7.x series of releases, Mandrake 8.0 doesn't include any alternative window managers nor does it install (by default) many popular services such as SSH and NFS. This is clearly a very desktop-oriented distro. While Mandrake doesn't really add much to the functionality of user applications—KDE 2 and bundled applications take care of most of that—it does bring a marked improvement to system configuration. The graphical configuration utilities included (Mandrake Control Center, User Manager, etc.) are a distinct improvement over the utilities included with most other distros including previous releases of Mandrake. Where users once had to guess at cryptic names not obvious without documentation, now there are obvious names and easy-to-operate utilities like Mandrake Control Center to ease the process. This is definitely a step forward.
That said, there are still significant problems. First and foremost for desktop users is the presence of GNOME and other non-KDE applications in a (by default) KDE environment. While this isn't a problem on its own, the fact that the GTK toolkit produces a significantly different look and a new set of widgets makes for a less consistent interface. For new users this shouldn't present much of a problem (you can just train them on both) nor should it present much of a problem for many Windows users (many Windows applications have bizarre nonstandard interfaces), but it may be an issue if you are a migrating Mac OS user who is used to software written by highly interface-conscious developers sporting carefully designed interfaces and consistent UI elements throughout. This too can be worked through, nonetheless it is something to be planned for if migrating users from one of these platforms.
Subjective performance is very good. I attribute this largely to the move from the XFree86 3.x series of releases to 4.0.3. The move to KDE 2.1.1 may also contribute—most of the review is conducted under KDE except where noted. Performance on SMP systems should also be markedly improved due to improved SMP support in kernel 2.4. One issue that anyone intending to install Mandrake 8.0 should be aware of is that the default configuration (XFree86 4 and KDE 2) needs quite a bit of RAM. I would strongly recommend 128 or 256MB of RAM. I would also recommend installing a graphics card with good 2-D acceleration under Linux, such as a Matrox G200 or ATI RAGE PRO (note: these are two inexpensive cards I have personally found to work well, but there are many others out there), as this will improve the subjective performance of X applications greatly. Between the video card and RAM you should be able to get Mandrake running acceptably without much trouble.
Mandrake 8.0 has a few technology updates and niceties that made my life significantly easier. One is fairly good support for USB. While it still doesn't allow transparent hot-plugging of USB devices, Kudzu did detect my USB mouse at boot without problems, and even the scroll wheel—extremely useful to those of us who are on the Web a lot—worked without any user configuration. While hot-plugging still isn't supported (as noted above) and USB and PS/2 mice sporadically cannot operate simultaneously, support is good enough for a desktop system. I looked specifically at support for the 2.4 series of kernels, especially with respect to issues with building and installing modules. I had no issues save one involving the menu entry for the correct USB controller not appearing in menuconfig, and I believe that this is fixed in kernel 2.4.5. Overall, the move to 2.4 appears to be a good thing.
I also appreciated the inclusion of Galeon—one of the better browsers available for Linux—along with the usual Konqueror, Netscape Communicator and Mozilla. Overall Mandrake is becoming a complete system suitable for everyday desktop use.
There are, however, a few gotchas associated with the version upgrades. Be sure that your graphics card is well supported under XFree86 4 because this is potentially the cause of all manner of apparent application instability and general glitching. At one point I had problems getting my graphics card to switch to 1024 × 768, but manually editing my X config took care of this. I expect the X configuration issue to be fixed in an update to Mandrake Control Center. Another thing to be aware of is that the downloadable version of Mandrake 8.0 is not exactly the same as the retail version. There is the obvious difference that the download edition comes with two CDs rather than the four that the retail version includes (it omits the commercial packages), but I noticed that the download version did not have the graphical overlay to the kernel boot process enabled. While I didn't notice any other concerns, it is possible that there are more hidden differences lurking in the details of some package's configuration. Overall, though, I found no problems that make Mandrake 8.0 any less usable than the previous release.
Mandrake 8.0 is certainly worth consideration for workstation and desktop use, especially when deploying to users who are not already trained in using Linux systems. It may be a highly useful tool for migrating users to Linux from other popular platforms; version 8.0 appears geared toward minimizing retraining costs for migrating users. The real downside to Mandrake 8.0 is its resource usage; if you are already running a number of Linux workstations on low-end hardware—perhaps 233MHz machines with 64MB of RAM, a likely configuration for an older network—you will probably need hardware upgrades to get reasonable performance out of your machine. To put it shortly, Mandrake 8.0 is best as a desktop environment and is definitely a top candidate when a user-friendly interface is high on your list of priorities.