Mandriva 2006 started to look obsolete after Fedora Core 5, Ubuntu 6.06 and Suse 10.1 had been released. With Fedora Core 6, Ubuntu 6.10 and Suse 10.2 planned before the end of the year, and with only one release a year, Mandriva 2007 had to get it right! If Mandriva ever wanted to get their popularity back, this was the one and only opportunity.
By the past, the French company proved that they had the talent to make things right. I couldn't wait for Mandriva 2007 to become publicly available. I was ready either to be impressed or to forget about this distribution.
Things didn't start well. First, the announced release schedule wasn't respected and no dates were announced after it had obviously been postponed. Then, the fact that two people from Mandriva had written something like "Linux is not ready for the desktop” on their personal blogs created a huge controversy.
Slackware 11 was released in the meantime and caught a lot of people's attention. And a few hours later came Mandriva 2007. The announcement was full of promises and innovations and I went straight to the download section of their official website.
I realized that I didn't have to be a member of the Mandriva Club to download the newly released Mandriva 2007. By the past, Mandriva nearly always left a gap of a month or so between their releases, which were made available to their members, and the general availability of the ISO files. This was a nice surprise and I really appreciated it. It's a pity they didn't communicate on that because we don't really know if they'll go on like that or if they'll go back to their old strategy.
A lot of good and hopefully popular decisions have been made by Mandriva for this release. First, they made the download public and not restricted to members of their club like they did in the past. Second, they chose to provide torrent files instead of ISO, which is quite a popular technology and a smart way to save bandwidth and resources. Third, they gave the user a lot of choice. Let me explain.
Mandriva 2007 can be bought or downloaded. If you buy it you have the choice between three different bundles (Discovery, PowerPack and PowerPack+) which come with official support, and goodies like Cedega, LinDVD, Kaspersky antivirus...etc. If you prefer to get it for free, you can download it, and again you have the choice between two options:
- a single CD called "Mandriva One” which acts as a live distribution and features a graphical installer.
- a 4 CDs set called "Mandriva Free” which is similar to what Fedora or Suse do (a traditional install by booting on the first CD and inserting the 3 other ones depending on which packages the installer needs).
"Mandriva Free” is free of cost, and free as in "freedom”. In other words it doesn't include any proprietary software or drivers.
"Mandriva One” on the other hand is whatever you want it to be. And this is a really good thing because it gives you more choice. For instance, you decide if you'd rather have a free and open system or one that includes non-free drivers. You can download a "purely free” or a "non-free” version of Mandriva One. And for each version, you have the choice between a KDE download and a Gnome one.
I wanted to see what Mandriva was capable of so I decided to download the "non-free” version. This way I could try it and see if it supported things like MP3 decoding, or if it recognized all my hardware. As Mandriva had traditionally been a KDE distribution in the past, I suspected it to be better under this desktop environment so, I downloaded the "KDE/non-free” version of Mandriva One.
The Live CD and the installer
Although this is my favorite way of trying and installing a distribution, I usually don't pay too much attention to the live system. In most cases it's pretty much the same as the system which is going to be installed on your hard drive, but with poorer performances.
I booted on the Mandriva One CD, noticed nice boot splash sequences, answered one too many questions about my favorite language, keyboard layout, home country, time zone, favorite time synchronization method, I signed a user license agreement and told Mandriva One I didn't want to activate the 3D effects (I didn't, because I wanted to keep that as a surprise for when it would be running from the hard-drive).
Once on the desktop, I clicked on "Live Install” and the installer came up.
The Mandriva installer is pretty basic. It lets you partition your disk and starts copying the system on it. Once finished it asks about how to configure the bootloader... and that's it. It's not a great installer to be honest. Instead of asking you everything when you decide to install Mandriva on your hard drive, it asks you things before booting the Live system, then before the installation, and then after the reboot before starting Mandriva for the first time. It's also a bit slow and non-responsive and it doesn't show much information about what is being copied on the disk.
After reboot, a wizard helps you configure your network interfaces. Although it would have been better to do all of that during the installation process, I have to admit: the network configuration wizard is really good. It recognized my IPW2200 wifi card, which a majority of distributions don't, and guided me through all the steps involved in setting it up (addressing, routing, user permissions on the interface, etc...).
I had to choose a root password and create a user account, and after I skipped a wizard asking me if I was interested in creating a Mandriva account, I was ready to log in.
Inside Mandriva 2007
The first thing you see when you start Mandriva is their new artwork. It's called "Ia Ora”, it's orange and it's quite visible. It features a nice set of widgets and it comes with 4 color schemes: Orange (which is the default choice in Mandriva One), Gray, Blue and Free (which is some kind of turquoise and the default choice in Mandriva Free). The theme's window decorations are quite dull and its icon set is very common. In Mandriva One, the orange is predominant and a bit too aggressive. Compared to the nice brown-orange theme from Ubuntu 6.06, it definitely doesn't look as nice. The mouse cursor has a blue animation around it when the system gets busy, and it looks similar to the one used by Fedora Core 5. Of course, it's a nice animation, but although it looked right in the blue Fedora desktop, it looks a bit weird in the middle of that orange theme.
The Mandriva One 2007 Desktop
Overall, the efforts made by Mandriva to improve their artwork are noticeable. Mandriva 2007 looks much better than its predecessor, but it's still not as refined as in Fedora, Suse or even Ubuntu.
The Mandriva 2007 desktop is nice to use but it has major flaws. For instance, although OpenOffice Writer is installed by default, it is not visible as such in the menus. And .odt files are not assigned to it within Konqueror. This is obviously something that hasn't been tested. Attention to detail is important.
On the desk, there is a "Devices” icon. It shows the partitions that you have on your drive and represents a handy way to access your data. Although, this is a good idea it doesn't go far enough. A lot of distributions have some kind of a "my computer” icon which shows not only the devices, the root filesystem, the network, the printers and a lot of other places.
The Home folder
The Home folder is preloaded with directories such as "Documents”, "Pictures”, "Music”, "Download”, each with a different icon and color code. I thought this was a great idea, and it definitely helps novice users to organize their data within their home folder.
Although XGL and Compiz have been here for a while now and a lot of people have successfully used them, the fact that they are installed and preconfigured by default within a distribution is quite new. In Mandriva 2007, setting up the 3D effects was made extremely easy.
The 3D Effects configuration tool
A "3D Effects” tool was added to the Mandriva Control Center, which allows you to choose between 3 options:
- No 3D effects
- 3D effects through the use of AIGLX
- 3D effects through the use of GLX
Depending on your graphic card, some of theses choices could be unavailable. I'm not too sure about this but I think nVidia cards work with GLX, Intel cards work with AIGLX and ATI cards work with both.
Once you've turned the 3D effects on, you can adjust a lot of options by running Compiz.
In my case, I used AIGLX and I was extremely impressed by it. I simply chose to "use AIGLX” in the Mandriva Control Center, I restarted X, and here I was, seeing wobbly windows when I moved them, fade-in and fade-out effects everywhere, windows transparency, and a lot of other really cool effects. The cube and layout effects are also really handy and they can greatly improve the way you work with your computer if you're used to open a lot of windows.
The 3D Cube
I've only used those 3D effects for a week now and I simply got addicted to them!
I was very pleased with the hardware recognition in Mandriva 2007. My IPW2200 Wifi card was found automatically. Although the default resolution was 1024x768, I noticed that the 915resolution package was already installed, and I didn't have to type anything to change the display and get widescreen resolution on my i855 graphic card. Through the Mandriva Control Center, I just tried to change the resolution, it asked me if I wanted to load i915resolution, I said yes, rebooted (because I wanted to check that it also loaded i915resolution at startup) and worked out of the box.
I only had one problem. Some function keys on my laptop didn't work. They were always detected on other distributions so I found it a bit strange. It's not a big thing though.
Default set of applications
Mandriva 2007 comes with the popular KDE 3.5, Amarok 1. 4, Firefox 126.96.36.199 and OpenOffice 2.0.3. It preferred Kmail over Thunderbird as its default email reader. Konversation is not included, but Kopete is and it provides IRC support. Man pages are not there by default. I know this will be unacceptable for some people, after all it's one of these things like "man”, "bash” or "vi”, you just expect them to be there, on any distribution. Well, it is not the case here. I suppose they needed to make some place for Mandriva One to fit on a single CD. It's not a big deal and you can install them from the package manager, but it does create a shock the first time you type "man” and get a "command not found”.
Kmplayer is installed by default and it comes with a big collection of bookmarks in which you can find online radio streams sorted by countries. I don't know if we owe that to Kmplayer or to Mandriva, but it is good enough to be mentioned.
I couldn't read encrypted DVDs, but MP3 files were decoded fine. I'm not sure which package you have to install for encrypted DVDs to be supported (libdvdread?) or for which legal or moral reason it had to be left out, but it's very easy to add it through the use of the package manager.
I had mixed feelings about the networking in Mandriva 2007. The configuration wizard had found my wifi and Ethernet cards, configured them correctly and guided me through all the required steps. On the desktop, a little applet was present in the system tray to show the quality of the wifi link and to easily switch between networks.
The Network applet
The problem was the desktop. Although everything is simple to configure the desktop doesn't make it easy to "browse” the network. For instance, I had to manually open Konqueror and type "smb:/” in the address bar to browse the Windows Shares on my network... and even then, it didn't work.
Another problem was the lack of support for Bluetooth devices.
Package Management and Configuration tools
Mandriva has always been famous for its Control Center, an application which allows you to configure many aspects of your system. I was very impressed by its quality. Every time I needed to configure something, I found it both easy and efficient.
The Mandriva Control Center - Package Manager
Part of it is the software manager itself. Again, it is very easy to use. It's split into 4 sections. The first one let's you define your repositories. It already knows where to find the list of its mirrors and configuring them is trivial. The three others are there for installing, removing and upgrading packages. They're all very intuitive and easy to use.
Mandriva uses RPM packages so one can easily compare their package manager with those used in Fedora and Suse. To be honest, they're all intuitive, pleasant and easy to use. Mandriva's package manager is integrated within its control center though, and this is an advantage over the others. It's also much faster. I remember blaming Fedora Core 5 and Suse 10.1 for having a slow package manager. It is definitely not the case here. Mandriva's urpmi is as fast as APT, maybe even faster.
I wasn't too impressed by the packages themselves though. A huge majority of them didn't have descriptions, and dependencies were sometimes very grossly defined. For instance, I couldn't install Kwrite and Kspread without installing nearly the whole Koffice suite. I am used to Kubuntu which uses the Ubuntu packages and I didn't have that dependency issue in that distribution. Also, I thought the package manager could show a little bit more information about the packages, such as the download size for instance.
The Mandriva Updates applet
The day of the release the PLF website was down so I couldn't add their repositories. It is back online now and I believe they're ready for 2007. The Mandriva Updates applet which sits in your system tray and is supposed to tell you if updates are available never worked for me. I'm sure it will be fixed, but again Mandriva could have paid a little bit more attention to details.
I found Mandriva 2007 to be quite fast. The graphical interfaces and the desktop were always responsive. On my Sony Vaio T2XP laptop, the system takes 1m15s to boot.
My graphic card is an Intel 855 and as such, the 3D effects were available through the use of AIGLX. Whether the 3D effects were turned on or off, the speed seemed to be the same and I didn't see anything slow down. I ran glxgears both under a normal X session and under AIGLX, and I got around 785 FPS for both.
If Mandriva could have improved their packages, their artwork and fix a few little things here and there they could have made this release the best on the market. They got really close though, and although I can find things to criticize I am still very impressed by some of the innovations and the overall quality. Mandrake was a wonderful distribution by the past, and I believe this release is a real sign that they're back as one of the major Linux distributions. Of course, no matter how good Mandriva 2007 is, it will probably be forgotten as soon as Fedora Core 6, Ubuntu 6.10 and Suse 10.2 get released. I was pleasantly surprised by the strategic decisions made by Mandriva and impressed by their latest release. Without a doubt this will make their popularity grow again. The only thing they need now, is a faster release cycle.