Mandrake 8.2 first look

Hint: stick with 8.1

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I've had only about 72 hours to play with Mandrake 8.2-Pro. My initial impressions, as I expected, were largely positive; but in using it I've run into a number of quite irritating bugs.

The installation is about as easy as it's humanly possible to make it. DrakX's hardware detection was flawless (though you're warned in the manual to deselect 'plug-and-play OS' in the BIOS settings first. Your mileage may vary if you choose to ignore that bit of advice. I followed it, and Mandrake virtually installed itself.)

I used the DVD which contains all the packages on a single disk, available in the Pro edition only, so I was able to leave the machine and read while most of it was going on, thankfully.

For my file system I chose XFS, but when I formatted my partitions I got a little popup message telling me I needed to re-boot. That seemed very odd, but the installer rather insisted -- checking OK forces the re-boot so you really don't have a choice. When I got back to where I'd left off, the partitions weren't formatted, or at least weren't known to be formatted. So I went through it again, and sure enough, I was told I'd have to re-boot. Another of those famous Linux Catch-22's. This could have gone on for eternity.

On the third attempt, after choosing the fs and partition sizes and mount points, instead of going to 'format' I activated the 'wizard', which managed to grasp what I had done and what I wanted done next. No re-booting was necessary, naturally.

So from there it was a matter of choosing packages. Here I was slightly let down to learn that several admittedly minor items I happen to like such as Nmap, TCPDump and hdparm had disappeared since version 8.1. But since everything one might want is available on the Web, we're merely talking personal taste and convenience.

What's new is StarOffice 6.0, widely touted as a potential MS Office killer. I tried opening a couple of MS Word docs and a couple of MS Excel docs, and on each occasion StarOffice crashed fatally. I made a cursory attempt to tweak it by toggling VBA Properties and MS Office Options, but that had no effect and I soon got bored. I then installed it from scratch, and it worked normally. So DrakX managed to stuff that one up. But even so, the fonts were disgusting, and my effort to install new ones with spadmin met with failure. I had installed ttf fonts with FreeType, and carefully enabled the bytecode_interpreter option. The fonts looked great on the desktop and in native KDE apps, but in StarOffice they never even appeared in the list.

To test this further I downloaded OpenOffice 1.0 and went through the same routine. The native fonts were equally disgusting, but in that case spadmin allowed me to install the ttf's with good results. So that eliminated my FreeType setup as a potential problem. StarOffice 6.0 just didn't cut it font-wise.

You also get the Crossover Office plugin, which gives you a Word, PowerPoint and Excel viewer, Windows Media player and a number of MS-ish plugins for your browser. Very nice, actually; and no problems setting it up.

I like Mozilla, and use it as my primary browser (even on those rare occasions when I boot Windows). The version supplied here is the grotesquely broken 0.9.8. I'd foolishly 'upgraded' to it on an earlier Linux image, and within minutes reverted to what I'd had before (0.9.4). Font rendering is utterly devastated, and features like the JavaScript behavior limiter are a cruel, dysfunctional hoax. Mozilla 0.9.7-8 should be jettisoned from the known universe, IMHO. Why any Linux distributor would choose to inflict it on their loyal customers I can't imagine.

With Mandrake we have excellent hardware detection, as I said. I'm using an nVidia graphics adapter, and that means an ongoing battle with XF86. The stock Mandrake 8.2 installation cripples the GLX drivers, and it's necessary to download the kernel and GLX files from nVidia and install them manually to get anything like decent performance. But this is hardly unusual. I'm waiting for the magic Linux distro that can cope with an nVidia card automatically.

You don't get all of KDE. For me this sucks because I admire it very much and wish Gnome would just go away. Maintaining Gnome serves no purpose beyond diverting resources from KDE's development, IMHO. So if you recognize KDE's inherent superiority, and you've bought Mandrake 8.2, you'll have to go to the bother of downloading and installing the whole deal. Which kinda makes you wonder why you're buying a packaged distro in the first place.

The Mandrake personal firewall (Bastille) is a serious hassle. Previously, there was a simple dialog under Mandrake Control Center for enabling it. Now there's merely a 'security settings' dialog, which may or may not enable it, though one fervently hopes it does. I found the documentation confusing on that point. It seems to imply that by activating the security dialog Bastille is invoked, but it doesn't say so explicitly. When I ran the Bastille configuration script, it told me I don't have ipchains installed. Well, I do, actually. So I have no idea if the firewall is active or not, though the Mandrake packaging says something about an 'integrated firewall'. Do I have one or not? I don't know, but I do feel kinda nekked on the Net.

I ran Xconfig from the /usr/src/linux2.4.18-6mdk directory and discovered that the precompiled kernel didn't match my processor. I checked the .config file in /boot and it was the same as the one in the source directory. So I corrected the processor support and rebuilt the kernel, and of course compiled xfs support into it. What a disaster. The config file had almost no relationship to the previously installed system. I couldn't even recover in single-user mode, but had to re-install from the DVD. So let me just say to all you Linux distributors out there, if you insist on using these damned RPMs and precompiled kernels and unique installers, for Christ's sake ensure that when all is said and done the .config file reflects whatever the hell you've stuck us with, and further ensure that the whole bloody system doesn't depend on installing from RPM packages. Make it possible for users to tweak their kernel configs and recompile in the traditional manner. If we have to go to the trouble of downloading a kernel and all the apps we need, then just what the hell are we paying you for?

So to sum up, just in case my characteristic subtlety and mildness of expression went over your head, Mandrake 8.2 was for me a fucking disaster. But that's OK, because I'll be fdisking this image tomorrow. It's absolutely not making me happy the way Mandrake 8.1 did.

In the mean time I've had a great deal of mail regarding this article, and it appears that those who downloaded 8.2 have experienced few or no problems, while those who used the boxed set report a number of similar issues. One reader insisted that Nmap and TCPDump are in fact included on the DVD, but I looked twice and couldn't find them, wherever they were buried. A search using the Software Manager did turn them up, but out of context with the menu so I have to conclude that the packages menu is not comprehensive. This may explain why I was missing a few KDE packages as well.

In any event I'm left to wonder if the boxed and download versions differ. ®

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