Originally Published: Wednesday, 24 October 2001 Author: Jason Guidry
Published to: learn_articles_firststep/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux.com Installfest: Mandrake 8.1 Review

Take an early look at the final released version of Linux-Mandrake 8.1, not perfect but still a fine step down the intended path.

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Mandrake 8.1 Review

The Linux-Mandrake distribution prides itself in its ease of installation, setup, and use. Its loyal community of users has come to appreciate the power, reliability, and security of Linux without sacrificing ease of use. Hardware detection, software and security updates, and overall "playing nice" with Microsoft Windows and other operating systems are all effortless tasks, thanks to the tools available in Mandrake.

Mandrake 8.1 is by far the most ambitious offering to date. Mandakesoft has gone to great lengths to insure that first time users find themselves using their new operating system rather than installing, configuring and learning it. However, since 8.1 is their first major release since their IPO in August, Mandrakesoft finds itself in the spotlight as a publicly traded software company for the first time. With the following, we'll discover if the Mandrake crew has risen to the challenge.

Installing Mandrake 8.1

The calling card for the Linux-Mandrake distribution has always been ease of installation and use, and 8.1 delivers the goods in this department. First time users will find many of the pains of installation are handled automatically by the installation program. Experienced Linux users will appreciate a multitude of installation modes and options.

Among some of the new installation options is the choice of several new file systems during disk partitioning. ReiserFS, ext3 and JFS are all easily implemented during installation. These new file systems provide incredible stability and security with almost no data fragmentation. Users are also given the option to install several different languages in addition to his or her primary language.

However, the new feature that starts an Internet connection automatically on boot needs some attention. If the modem receives a busy signal, or the user enters the wrong dialup information, the boot sequence will hang until the computer successfully connects. The only work around seems to be to enter interactive startup and cancel pppd, but this solution is not likely to occur to the newbie.

The systems used for this review included a home built Duron-based workstation with DDR memory and a generic AMD K6-2 notebook. Nearly all hardware was detected during installation and drivers are installed automatically, asking the user only to confirm monitor type, mouse and keyboard layout in expert mode. This is a huge advantage over the most simple Windows installation, which will usually require manual installation of drivers. On the Mandrake system. modems, sound and video cards, and CDRW/DVD drives are all configured automatically.

Mandrake installed on the Duron workstation in expert mode with absolutely no glitches. Installation was quick, and about 2 GB worth of packages installed in around 20 minutes. Installation on the notebook was more problematic, even with 96 MB of memory. The installer crashed twice, once during package installation and once while loading the program into memory.

And of course, there's the software. Mandrake has included many great packages in 8.1. Let's take a look...

The software...

First, let's examine Mandrake's package handler from the install. Browsing packages by category leaves out many, many packages. For instance, selecting all games in the games folder leaves out several games provided with the CD that can only be found by browsing the alphabetical list of packages and can take hours. Users have been howling for months about this problem.

Many feel that, in addition to having all of the packages sorted, the installer should provide some simple package bundles. For example, if my mom was installing Mandrake for the first time, she should be able to select a button labeled "standard basic" installation. This would install KDE, KOffice, KMail, Netscape, one all-purpose multimedia player, an instant messaging client, lots of games, and a terminal: Just the basics. "Bundling" software packages like this will not only make the dreaded Linux "learning curve" a little less steep by providing only essential and familiar applications, but will save more experienced users the time it takes to read 400 or more package descriptions.


Perhaps the most heralded 8.1 feature is the new user wizard called MandrakeFirstTime. The idea is to give users a one-stop application to configure their desktop, internet, and email. Unfortunately, the feature seems to have a few flaws. The wizard seems to have an endless loop after the configuration of ones internet and email, which is strange in itself, as the installer allows for configuring an internet connection, but makes use of the tool almost impossible. Your best bet, for now, is to cancel out of the wizard and configure the desktop manually.

The Software Manager

Mandrake has made improvements in other areas. The Software Manager, a front-end for urpmi, was broken in version 8.0. Since this program takes care of package dependencies, fixing this problem proved quite frustrating for many users. But the Software Manager that has shipped with Mandrake 8.1 is a pleasure to use, and indispensable for upgrades and security updates.

Third Party Serving

Mandrakesoft has also made some interesting choices with third party software, most notably an added focus on servers. In addition to a server and network configuration wizard, several different firewall packages aided by Bastille, and several different kernels to choose from, Mandrake includes volumes of the standard hacker, er, network administration tools. The ProSuite package even comes with a CD full of server packages and two discs worth of sources. This gives the growing number of end users running a home network power to setup, scan and protect their network quickly and easily.

8.1 also boasts the latest software available, including a much improved new Galeon web browser, a great library of multimedia software including Broadcast 2000 and Denemo, and personal finance management software like GnuCash and Emma. MS Office veterans will feel right at home using the newest AbiWord and Gnumeric, and Bluefish is everything one could want in an HTML editor.

The Final Analysis

In conclusion, the latest Linux-Mandrake distribution has plenty of room for improvement. My testing showed some new installation features to be simply incomplete. But this release neverthless maintains Mandrake's position as the easiest -- and one of the most complete -- Linux distributions available. Mandrakesoft has targeted new Linux users of all kinds, from network administrators switching their LAN or webserver, to developers, to home users disenchanted with Microsoft. All of these people will find switching over to Linux a little less painful thanks to Mandrake.

One could easily speculate that this latest offering was rushed for reasons relating to Mandrakesoft's recent IPO. Perhaps the problems in new features included in 8.1 were not resolved in order to meet deadlines and appease investors. But anyone who works for Mandrakesoft, or for any software company for that matter, will likely explain that all software releases are rushed, and there is always work that they feel they've left undone. The promise of 8.1 is that the exciting new features will be fixed and improved as they're added: the inevitable course of all development.


Mandrake is available to pre-order from the Mandrake Store now. Those who purchase selected boxed sets can receive the download version of 8.1 for free while they wait for the retail boxes, which should ship at the end of the October 2001. All retail box purchases come with free tech support. The truly impatient can download Mandrake 8.1 from the many mirror sites, or from Linuxiso. Download Edition CDs can also be purchased from CheapBytes or LinuxEmporium.

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