Mandrake has long been heralded as the best Distribution for new users. From its reputation of an easy to use installer, excellent hardware support, good package management and a familiar user interface. Mandrake's latest offering continues this tradition, and adds a few new twists.
Please note this is not a HOW-TO but a review. So other then quirks we ran into we will not be making suggestions on how you should install Mandrake. There is just to many variables and possible combinations to try and attempt that here.
First a look at the computer used for this review
CPU: True Intel Mendocino Celeron 533MHz
RAM: 192MB PC100 SDRAM
Storage: 10.2 Gig Maxtor IDE drive ata66, standard 1.44mb Floppy disk Multimedia: AC 97 Compatible soundchip, Intel I810 chipset on-board AGP video chip
Peripherals: HP Deskjet 612c Injet printer, Dexxa PS/2 Optical wheel mouse, Default HP pavilion 105 key keyboard NEC MultiSync 75 Monitor, 2-USB ports (not-used)
The Mandrake 8.1 Install
Those of you who have used Mandrake before will be pleased to know that the installers front-end remains a familiar one, from even back in 7.0. One thing I have always liked about the installer is how easy it is to go back. The left hand side of the installer has a menu listing all that can be done. The advantage of this is that at anytime you can go back to, say "portioning" and you are taken back to that section of the install, and can choose again. While this is not unique to Mandrake, the ease with how you can make these reversals is. Oh! Unlike some other distros we have tested this feature actually worked right the first time.
While speaking of partitioning, I did the install two ways. Once with the Harddrive being all FAT32, and once without Microsoft Windows on the drive at all. Mandrakes portioning tool managed to shrink the Windows partition without a hitch. Installation time has taken a turn for the better. We where up and running and surfing the net within an hour.
While Mandrake has always had excellent hardware support, some quirks still exist. Mouse detection is lacking. I could not get Mandrake to get my mouse correct even in advanced mode. Choosing even Generic PS/2 wheel-mouse caused the computer and installer to freeze up solid, and nothing short of hitting the power button would recover it. This has been a problem with Mandrake on this machine for at least back to Mandrake 7.2, so your milage may vary.
Another fault I did find with the installer is no options to set your Location or time zone. While hardly the end of the world, these options really should be present at the pre-install. Even when you have installed all of Mandrake, setting up the time zone is going to confuse some users. Don't go looking for things like Canada-Mountain Time, you won't find it. Everything is grouped as "America/city" While it was fine that I noticed America/Vancouver this is not a logical setup.
Users of 8.1 are going to love the File system options, although ResierFS was also in 8.0. You can choose to use EXT2, EXT3, ResierFS, IBM's implementations of JFS, as well as creating FAT partitions. Portioning is done via the GUI and is point-'n-click, and as with previous releases, it went perfectly. Even when we shrank the Windows partition to accommodate Linux on one install. The portion software in Mandrake's installer shrunk it perfectly, without error. Though some user knowledge is required, such as how much free space they actually have. So be careful when shrinking your FAT partition, as Mandrake has no idea how much space you are actually using on that drive. This is true of any Linux distribution, so get used to trying do some pre-install searching of your hardware, and drives etc.
Default Package Choices
I highly suggest users pay attention to this part of the install. For whatever reason Mandrake still does not select install Dev packages by default, or even most of the documentation. This is true even if a user chooses "recommended" and not "Expert" as their install setting, a major
mistake in my opinion. Without choosing the dev stuff, you cannot compile programs properly. Also, for those tight on Drive space, DO choose to go through the packages individually. If you don't do this, even if you don't have a PALM-PILOT, packages for Palm synchronization will be installed. While this is handy for users, it is also a waste of space if a Palm was not detected. However, a plus is the fact that individual selection is the default. In addition you can't install a package if you earlier deselected a package needed for it to function. The installer checks for dependencies, a big plus for many users. In closing I will say the package manager choices are clear, easy to follow, and install the packages extremely quickly compared to previous releases of Mandrake
Post Install Configuration
Mandrake the company has put work into their install time, it's fast. Once your install is done Mandrake will present you with a summary of your hardware. Here we find what I think has to be a bug. As with all releases of Mandrake this summary indicates "No printer" even though there is one. Clicking the entry "no printer" opens a new screen asking "do you want to add one", and if it is local or remote. Now, as this printer is local it should have been detected from the outset. When we choose Local it installs quite a few packages, and boom there it is: the installer detected the printer and model this second time around. While not a big problem, a first time user could get the impression their printer will not work with Mandrake. Other then that, detection of the hardware was fine, and the printer did a test page when asked. While on the subject of printers, Mandrake is the only distribution I have ever got a Xerox DocuPrint M750 USB printer to do color with by default. In case you'r wondering, the test page in Linux looks better then the Windows test-page :) even though it is only using 600x600 dpi.
Networking install also went like a charm. I was using the @home service with an external Terayon modem, and DEC chipset ethernet card. The card was detected without a hitch, and when I choose "use DHCP" the needed packages where installed. One thing that may confuses a user is that in this scenario " LAN/Ethernet" was chosen for me though there is a selection higher up that says "CABLE". I can only assume this is for users with Internal cable modems. ISDN, and ADSL support has also greatly improved when it comes to detection. One thing that at this time Mandrake has that I have not seen in any other release of Linux is USB modem support. Alcatel speedtouch USB modems are fully supported. While Alcatel did release kernel-side drivers for their modems, their as no easy way to configure them. Mandrakes coders have written their own interface in either console, or in a GUI to configure these modems. The base CD's contain the drivers and config tools, but if you purchase the Powerpack Mandrake includes the microcode for these modems too. Mandrake is the only distro at this time I know that does this, and has worked hard on getting these popular modems to run correctly with Linux.
The setup for Xfree86 is much unchanged, from 8.0 to now. Those who have not used Mandrake since 7.* will notice a few changes. Most notable is that XFdrake can now handle configuring multiple Video cards in the same machine. Also Mandrake 8.1, like 8.0, has support for cards that can run Xfree86 4.1.0 with or without 3D hardware support as well as 3.3.6 version of Xfree. Of special note to users who tried Mandrake 8.0 is that the apparent bug that caused havoc with Intel I810 and I815e chipsets has been fixed. This includes the bug that prevented these same chipset boards from having sound in KDE. This may have been a Bug in KDE, or the kernel that shipped with Mandrake 8.0 and subsequent Beta releases. Mandrake 8.1 uses kernel 2.4.8-24mdk, a welcome plus from some of the earlier kernels shipped. On the downside, when choosing your resolutions, it no longer asks if you wish to test if this setting will work. Now I am not sure it is because Mandrake just knew my chip could or if this is an omission. Either way, I would still prefer the old option of testing first.
Before the Re-Boot
Once all this has been set, the rest of it is pretty straight-forward, with one exception. For some reason like in all previous releases of Mandrake. Unless you choose a Expert install, while the list on the left side says "Make Bootdisk" it flys right past it, and never offers you the actual option to make one. This only seems to happen if you choose recommended install. I think has to be fixed, a new OS without a bootdisk can be a nightmare, and should not
be an option. Also, when it shows you the services that will be started by default, there is still to many in this reviewers opinion. Though hardly a Mandrake only thing, why portmapper, APMD to name just a few should be enabled by default is beyond me. Especially as this machine is a Desktop, not a laptop. So having apmd enabled makes no sense to me at all. Also, by default, both Linuxconf, and HardDrake are enabled. Both do somewhat the same thing, and can always be invoked from the command line by ROOT.
This is where seasoned Mandrake users are going to be in for some surprises. Don't expect your normal boot into KDE or Gnome. You are going to be greeted by a First-Time Wizard screen. Here is where you will decide what Window manager or Desktop manager to use. Now that is fine in itself, however it also asks for personal Information. Like your name, where you live, your email address, and phone number. Now you can leave all that information out, and Mandrake will carry on. The fact that it is asked for at all I find rather diss-concerting. While it does have a few benefits, like offering to create a username for you on the Mandrake Forums and such this reviewer found it very intrusive to even be asked these things for whatever commercial reason.
On a more positive note lest jump back to the choosing your desktop a big new plus is you can select the Theme for the Window/Desktop manager. It also will offer to create a profile for your mail client though at present only Netscape messenger, or Kmail are supported. Which is rather a shame as Mandrake 8.1 is one of the First Distributions to install Sylpheed mail client. Hopefully in 8.2 this MTA will be added as an option for users to also configure, and set up a profile for. Now a big, big KUDOS to Mandrake and their setup: when you log in as root, gone are all the clutter on the desktop of icons, also the screen DEFAULTS to a Bright RED. A splash screen still tells you your root status. I know some seasoned veterans of Linux will say "Man RED, that's annoying" and yes it is. But I think a good move on their part, so you think before you do anything. Run out of Cola one night trying to finish something and you log in as root and don't know it. You will thank them in the long run.
I highly suggest logging in as root, then as a user and then reboot the machine after each. While not needed at all, the first time you boot a lot of configuration files are tweaked and written to disk. It will seem your boot time is very slow. Boot time on the second boot into either account I found to be far quicker then the first one. This is true of most distributions so is not unique to Mandrake. The software manager has been re-done while maintaining the same interface. The bugs in previous releases are now gone. Installing new RPM'S from almost any source you can imagine works flawlessly.
On the Plus Side
Mandrake continues to push the limits of hardware auto-detection. It probably has no equal when it comes to this. It boasts one of the finest Hardware and driver databases available during the install of any Linux Distribution. Familiarity on install is a huge bonus and Mandrake continue to use familiar interfaces to their installs. By incorporating programs like Sylpheed into their distro, they are expanding the applications in their distribution. This not only helps new users to explore the possibilities, they also are pushing the Open-Source movement by doing so. Perhaps giving new authors a much appreciated push. Mandrake customer support is on par with anyone whether you use the forums, their website, or channels on IRC. Ease of installation, and using plain English will be a big plus for the desktop user new to Linux. While I did not cover all of the CD's in the Professional or Power pack release I can say that you may never download another thing (other than security updates). The incorporation of the 2.4 kernel and the latest Kde 2.2.1 and Xfree86 updates is a good thing. Even the ATI radeon cards are somewhat supported also a plus. Mandrake constantly makes use easier, while tools that some distros include even old users call cursed. Mandrake 8.1 makes the transition for a Windows user to Linux almost painless.
On the Downside
The fact default and even expert installs don't auto-select the development and documentation is a minus. Without these it is very hard for a normal user to accomplish what they will need to accomplish running Linux. I find that not being able to choose Hardware or UTC, timezone, region and so on also a minus. Also the fact that most of North and south America is all grouped as one very long pick list in menu options is also a minus. Likewise a lot of unneeded services being enabled by default is also a minus, much like installing Palm-pilot apps when not even asked if you have one.
On a scale of one to ten I have to give Mandrake's latest offering a 8.0. While the ease of install is excellent, the fact that some very basic things are omitted or over looked entirely till far later is a drawback. All in all though Mandrake is still the best Distribution of choice for a first time user, and especially for desktop users or windows converts. The ease of install will be a welcome thing to them, but some major omissions in what should be a default install may cause them nightmares.
Reviewers note: The lack of support for some cards especially video and DSL modems and such should not be construed and is not intended to imply a fault of Mandrake's or any other distribution's releases. The fact is a lot of card manufacturers are closing their source to developers, so there is no way Mandrake or any distro could make a driver for them.
Main Mandrake website
Screenshots of Mandrake 8.1
Links to Online Documentation
Online support forum for all releases of Mandrake