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Mandriva: The Choice of a New(bie) Generation?

Mandriva is a long surviving Linux distribution, often touted as the best for new users. Is this really so? With an ever changing game, will Mandriva's methods last long term?

It’s been said around the Internet many times that Mandriva is the best choice for new Linux users. In many ways, it’s easy to see why.

Recently the distribution released their latest version, Mandriva 2010. The system comes in a few different flavors, which is certainly worth exploring.

The recommended download is called “One”, a 32bit only Live CD available in many languages with either the KDE or GNOME desktop environment. This edition includes closed source software such as proprietary kernel drivers and Adobe Flash.

Taking this version one step further is the “PowerPack”, which is not available free of charge. This edition includes even more proprietary software, as well as providing commercial support. The website lists the following software:

Flash
Fluendo DVD Reader
Fluendo Codecs
Acrobat Reader
Skype
Opera
Arkeia
VMWare

A similar live USB flash version is also available for a set price.

Finally, we have the “Free” edition, which only comes with Free software. Nothing proprietary, just good old free libre software. Oh, and this version is available in 64bit.

Newbie Central

Essentially, the reason why Mandriva is “easy for new users” is because all the proprietary software that they might need to access their data (and hardware) is installed by default. Closed source non-GPL Linux kernel drivers are built right into the system and loaded on boot. Support for some of those nasty proprietary data formats is also included and Flash works out of the box. It also comes with Codeina, an application which tracks required codecs, prompting users to purchase and install them.

What’s not to like? A single install of Mandriva not only sets a user up with a modern desktop (with a few caveats) but gets all those nasty things working without any hassle. Or does it?

While the “One” version certainly has support for MP3s built in, the system cannot play video files such as WMV out of the box. Opening such a video in the default player, Dragon, results in the program sitting there with a black screen trying to play the file. There’s no prompt to install a codec, no error message, no warning of any kind. That’s not particularly user friendly.

The Mandriva website shows that the PowerPack is the version of choice for those wanting a more complete experience. So does this mean the other versions are crippled by comparison?

Pieces of the Puzzle

It might be presented as a newbie friendly distro, but where does Mandriva actually sit in the Free software ecosystem? Most Linux distributions have their little niches which makes them popular and useful.

Ubuntu for example, is currently the most popular because (among other things) it is very desktop oriented. It makes the difficult things like installing closed source drivers easier. It doesn’t include them out of the box like Mandriva, but it does have a manager which makes it as simple as ticking a box and rebooting. Ubuntu is not shy of including closed source software and drivers if it makes the end user’s experience easier.

Fedora on the other hand, sticks to only free and non-patent encumbered software, building the best completely free operating system they can. Fedora is also sponsored by Red Hat, the number one contributor to the Linux kernel and numerous other projects. As a result, it has a strong developer community and is often more bleeding edge.

Then there’s the Novell backed openSUSE which has always been famous for their graphical configuration tool, YaST. Debian is a rock solid, reliable community distribution which runs on anything. Gentoo is the number one source based distro, while Damn Small Linux is famous for being, well, small. So what’s Mandriva’s playing card to attract more users? Does it have a niche?

Perhaps it does. Mandriva’s focus appears to be on support for proprietary software. While the free version does not include any of this by default, the One edition does.

So perhaps the benefit in using Mandriva, and therefore its niche, is a system which will work with all those proprietary data formats out of the box. Users can finally legally play their own DVDs, for example. It also provides users with those applications they might be used to under a Windows environment, such as Skype.

Defining Itself

Mandriva suffered much bad publicity a number of years back when it tried to make money via its Mandriva Club product. It did this by holding back the release of new versions from the general public, making them available only to those to paid up front. It completely backfired.

Having lost a huge number of previously faithful users, the distro is still struggling to define itself. With this new release, it is trying to be hip and cool, fancy and bleeding edge. Indeed on its website it proudly proclaims the 2010 release to be:

“The awesome Linux desktop.. In our opinion, the best Linux OS out there. Simple, open & innovative.”

Marketing hogwash aside, those are still some bold statements.

The new release is certainly a major achievement, there’s no denying that. The list of features is quite impressive.

Perhaps the most interesting one is the “Mandriva smart desktop” about which they say:

“Your desktop is even smarter and helps you in your every day activities. You have many documents, mails, data, pictures, videos. You can now organize them according to your projects. Add notes, comments, tags in few mouse clicks.”

Smart desktop you say? Now that’s starting to get interesting.

The Smart desktop is in actual fact, the implementation of Nepomuk within KDE. Unfortunately Nepomuk does not work in the One edition, due to a missing Soprano database backend.

Mandriva has big plans for Nepomuk, so it will be interesting to see where this technology goes.

The System

While the Mandriva Live release includes closed source drivers for hardware such as video and wireless cards, the Free edition does not. Unfortunately for those wanting both closed source drivers and a 64 bit operating system, the Live only comes in 32bits.

A 64bit system is only available via the Free DVD or by purchasing the PowerPack. Users taking the Free 64bit route will be on their own when it comes to configuring their proprietary drivers, as Mandriva does not appear to include any helpful user application to handle this complex task for the user.
Update: Users of the Free edition can configure the system to use proprietary drivers via the Control Center’s Hardware tool. Upon configuring their video card, for example, the tool will advise the user of the availability of a proprietary driver, and ask if they want to use it. If answered yes, this will cause the package manager to pull down the twenty odd packages required, install and configure the system for its use.

The system itself has many great components and works quite well. Installation is a snap and by default, Mandriva creates multiple partitions on the drive so that users have a separate /boot, /home and / mount points. That’s good to see.

After installation from the One Live CD, it also removes packages for unneeded drivers on the system, leaving only those which my system required. This is also quite neat.

Mandriva also comes with a control center which lets the user graphically configure various aspects of their machine. This is much more than distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora provide, but is not as complete as YaST from openSUSE. Still, it’s a handy tool which does make life easier for new users.

Updating We Will Go

The DVD installer offers the option of installing updates before booting into the initial system, which is good to see. This avoids running a potentially insecure operating system while updates take their time to install at a later date.

Strangely, after performing some updates the manager helpfully informs the user that a “new version of Mandriva Linux distribution had been released” and recommends that the user upgrade to the “Spring 2009” edition. Something is not quite right there!

Mandriva 2010 Update Manager
Mandriva 2010 Update Manager

Quite frankly, the package management system seems rather clunky with multiple windows popping up all over the place while the system updates, downloads, updates lists, downloads information for an update, confirms requests, and downloads more again. This causes lots of flickering windows as they close and then re-open in a slightly different location on the screen.

After the updates are complete, the system doesn’t actually mention that it was successful, but rather the updater displays the message:

“The list of updates is empty. This means that either there is no available update for the packages installed on your computer, or you already installed all of them.”

You’re the system, shouldn’t you know? This once again is not particularly helpful for the end user.

All these little things add up and overall it doesn’t really have the feel of a solid, reliable, easy to use updating system. Having said all that, it does get the job done and the updating process seemed to work correctly.

Long-term

It’s hard to see what an installation of the Free Mandriva version has to offer over any other major Linux distribution. In many areas, such as codec support, it falls far behind. Most distributions these days will automatically search for and prompt the user to install a required codec. Perhaps the behaviour is due to the system used in the PowerPack edition, which doesn’t translate across to the Free editions.

These days Ubuntu has most users sewn up, and is gaining in popularity all the time. Mandriva’s goal is to make money by selling their products and services. However, if a user can install Ubuntu and have proprietary drivers and codecs installed automatically, what is the benefit of a system like Mandriva over it?

Mandriva might well be shooting themselves in the foot with their “Free” offerings. In reality, these are like cripple-ware, designed to entice the end user to upgrade to the non-free version in order to gain full functionality. By doing so however, they might just be pushing more users away.

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