PCLinuxOS also differs from the now called Mandriva in the fact that it's totally free and doesn't restrict access to new releases to club members. Gradually, Mandriva became less and less popular and a lot of people moved to PCLinuxOS. The distribution also attracts a lot of new Linux users as it is one of the easiest to use among Linux distributions. Behind the most popular distributions, such as Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE and Debian, PCLinuxOS progressively started to become more famous, and it continuously gained new users and a lot of good comments.
As PCLinuxOS 0.93a was released, I decided it was time to have a look at it.
The Live system and the installer
PCLinuxOS 0.93a Junior comes as single CD which is available here. It's quick to download (only 484Mo) and it acts as a Live CD which contains a graphical installer. This way you can download and burn the ISO file, boot on it and try the distribution on your machine without installing anything. If you're happy with it and you want to proceed with the installation, a graphical installer is just one click away on the desktop.
Among other nice features, the CD boot menu offers the possibility to test your memory and to check the quality of the CD you burnt the ISO on. And because Junior is small, you can even choose an option from the boot menu which fully loads the system into RAM. This is a feature I first saw in Damn Small Linux. Basically, the system will take more time to boot, as the whole content of the CD will be copied into your memory, but once booted the Live CD runs directly from RAM. This way you can get a good live experience and see how fast the distribution can be without installing it. It's a great idea. However it didn't work for me. PCLinuxOS simply didn't manage to load into memory... if that was due to the fact that I only have 512Mo RAM, maybe it's time for me to invest in a new computer :)
Once you boot into the Live CD, you're greeted with a KDM screen which asks you to log in. Thankfully the logins and passwords which you can use are written in the background (this is not always the case; I remember testing some distributions which assumed you knew some default root password). However, I thought it was odd and unnecessary. Other Linux Live CDs log you in automatically with a default account.
After you've logged in, you arrive in KDE. On the desktop are two icons which came immediately to my attention: "Install Help" and "Install PCLinuxOS". The first one can be misinterpreted; it doesn't install any help documents. In fact, it is the help itself which guides you through the installation process. In case you have a problem while installing PCLinuxOS, you can refer to that to find some answers.
The installer itself is quite simple. It asks a few questions about your partitions, your bootloader configuration, and your default user and root password, and it installs PCLinuxOS on your machine in about 10 to 15 minutes.
Inside PCLinuxOS 0.93a Junior
The speed is acceptable. The desktop is responsive and the boot time on my machine (Sony T2XP) was 1 min 42.
I have mixed feelings about the artwork in PCLinuxOS. Efforts were obviously made to make this distribution look good and attention to details is also very good. The boot and shutdown processes have nice splash screens. I remember a logo contest was organized but it must have too been to late for 0.93 to include it.
On the desktop, a lot of choices and graphical customizations were made. Consequently PCLinuxOS doesn't look like other Linux distributions. The window borders, although they resemble the ones from Windows Vista look really nice. The window frames are pseudo-transparent and let you see the wallpaper through them. The default mouse cursor was also customized and the KDE panel made transparent. The icon set is quite good looking as well. However the final result doesn't look that good and it lacks some unity and consistency. I guess this has to be subjective, and people will obviously have different opinions about this. I really like the direction taken by PCLinuxOS and the fact that they try alternative icon sets, borders and themes, but I don't think it looks finished and it definitely doesn't look as nice as the polished themes found in Ubuntu 6.06 or SUSE 10.1.
Also, the wallpaper looks very common.
The PCLinuxOS desktop is nice to use although a few things could have been made better. At the bottom of the screen, the KDE panel includes buttons for the Terminal, the Control Center and the Package Manager (Synaptic). This is, in my opinion, a very good thing, as these three applications are among the ones that people use the most.
On the desktop itself, I thought there were too many icons. It's understandable why the "Donate" icon was put here but it clearly doesn't make the desktop more usable. If people want to donate they'll probably do it through the website, not through an icon which is meant to be removed. The "Home" icon is a bit useless as well; the panel already contains a button that opens the home folder in Konqueror, and unlike the desktop icon, the panel button is always accessible. The desktop also features a "Trash" icon. Again, this would be better if placed in the panel.
The "New User Guide" acts as a link to this website. The quality of the documentation is good and the Wiki guide is quite useful. I like the fact that this icon points new users directly to the official information source. It's a pity it's a link though... making the documentation unavailable when the system is not connected to the Internet. PDF versions of the guide are available online and I thought PCLinuxOS could have put a copy of it in their distribution. They could even package it in an RPM and ensure it gets updated through the use of APT.
The "My Computer" icon opens a place in Konqueror which contains a lot of things already directly accessible from the desktop: A link to the "Home Folder" (again...), a link to /home called "User Folders" (not very useful unless you're using Linux at work or within your university), and a link to "Trash" (again...). "My Computer" also contains some useful things. For instance, there is a place in it called "Storage Media" which mounts and points to all your partitions and removable media, and a place called "Remote Places" from which you can browse the network shares, the local network, and which allows you to create shortcuts to external samba shares, FTP servers or other "remote places" :).
"My Computer" also contains the content of the applications menu, so if you're allergic to the K menu you'll be glad to know that you can launch your applications through Konqueror :).
Talking about the K menu, I thought it was a bit messy and cluttered by too many applications. It features however a handy "quick browser" which allows you to quickly access parts of your filesystem, and a "most used applications" which makes it easy to launch things you usually launch.
On my Sony Vaio T2XP, which is a Centrino laptop, my ipw2200 wireless card was automatically detected. My i855 graphic card worked in 1024x768 but did not give me full resolution. I found out that 855resolution and 915resolution were present in the official repository but not installed by default. After I installed 915resolution, I had to tweak the system through an init script to make it support 1280x768.
By default, PCLinuxOS doesn't support ALPS touchpads. Synclient is installed but X doesn't have SHMConfig set by default. This is a minor problem however.
Everything else worked fine.
Default set of Applications
PCLinuxOS 0.93 is one of the most KDE-oriented distributions. It comes with the latest KDE 3.5.3 and tends not to include an application if there's a KDE equivalent to it. For instance, OpenOffice is not installed by default, instead you have Koffice 1.5.2. The popular Thunderbird and Firefox are not installed either, instead you're encouraged to use Kmail and Konqueror. This can seem as an odd choice for a distribution, but KDE applications have improved a lot and I can understand why applications like Koffice or even Konqueror (as a Web browser) were preferred over the popular OpenOffice and Firefox.
As Mandrake did before it, PCLinuxOS comes with an exhaustive list of pre-installed applications. All basic needs and functionalities are covered. Of course, you'll find the best of KDE with DigiKam and the new Amarok 1.4.1, but the distribution also includes a lot of extra applications. For instance, in the "Networking" menu you'll find a graphical FTP client, a download manager, a BitTorrent client, a messenger, an IRC client, a news client...etc. In brief, you'll find a lot of things pre-installed in PCLinuxOS. If you're used to the minimal Gnome desktops found in some popular distributions this can be quite a shock :)
Personally, I was quite happy to see an FTP and an IRC client. These two are usually left out in a lot of distributions. However, and I thought that about Mandriva as well, the menus are a bit messy and they could be organized in a much better way.
I also noticed that PCLinuxOS came with XChat. Considering the quality of "Konversation", I couldn't understand that choice.
PCLinuxOS supports many multimedia formats. In fact, it will play your WMA, MP3, RM, MOV and AVI files out of the box and without any configuration. Konqueror also comes with the Flash plugin installed. Many distributions choose not to support these formats for legal or licensing reasons. I recently reviewed Freespire 1.0 which also chose to support restricted technologies to make the Linux experience easier and more comfortable to its users. I noticed though that Freespire made an OSS version of its distribution available where it didn't include non-free nor restricted/patented/dirty things :)
I think the best is to let people choose. Most distributions decided not to include support for these formats, others decided to do so, and very few of them actually offered the user a real choice. PCLinuxOS could take example on Freespire and make an OSS version of their system to give users that choice.
Libdvdcss, which is needed to play encrypted DVD movies is not installed by default, but it is present in the default official repository, and consequently it is very easy to install.
PCLinuxOS is full of networking applications. For instance, thanks to smb4k (which is installed by default) you can browse the samba shares on your network without having to configure anything, you can bookmark them for future use and you can even mount them locally and synchronize data between them and your computer.
Bluetooth support is nowhere to be seen though and was totally left out of the distribution. I also noticed that the "Local Network" and "Network Services" present in "My Computer"-->"Remote Places" did not work by default.
Although the package format in PCLinuxOS is RPM, the distribution chose APT as its package manager, which in my opinion is the best of all package managers. I'm really glad to see that. Urpmi was quite good in Mandrake as well, but my preference goes to APT. The PCLinuxOS distribution maintains its own repository and provides a fully valid upgrade path (i.e. an installed version of PCLinuxOS can be continuously updated to the latest versions of packages. If you're familiar with Debian Testing you might appreciate that).
Synaptic is installed by default and makes it very easy to upgrade and install applications. If you prefer to use the command line, you can use apt-get. Aptitude is not installed by default.
Unlike other distributions, PCLinuxOS tried to put as many applications as possible in its official repositories. For instance, if you're looking for Opera 9, Skype or some other non-free software you don't have to setup APT with extra non-official repositories. It's all there and you can install these software very easily.
I never liked the name "PCLinuxOS", I never thought it was sexy. Combined with some similarities to Microsoft Windows (the 4-colors logo, the window borders, etc...) I was pretty sure I was going to hate that distribution. I ignored it first, even though it was in the Distrowatch Top10 by number of hits. But then I heard more and more people saying good things about it, and eventually I had a look at it myself. I have to be honest; it's a really good distribution. Although it doesn't look as polished as SUSE, Ubuntu or even Fedora, I can understand why so many people love it. It's full of gadgets and applications, it's easy to use and it works out of the box with most multimedia formats. It is definitely one of the best options for new Linux users and it fully deserves to be cited among the most important Linux distributions.