Mandrake 9.0 Review

Mandrake Linux

I have tried for the last three weeks to generate a review of Mandrake 9.0 without much success. Not that I have ever been accused of being at a loss for words, but this particular release has left me speechless. I can't think of much to say about this release that hasn't already been said about several other Linux distributions. Perhaps that's the problem. As I have been working with this release, I have had this reoccurring thought - "This looks like YALR (Yet Another Linux Release)".

There is little to distinguish this product from the other distributions that I've installed in the last three years. They all have the same interface options, Gnome or KDE, and they all have similar functionality aimed at their own niche markets. There is nothing in particular that 'grabs me' and convinces me to make a change in distros. What convinced me to switch from Slackware to Red Hat?

That's easy. It was the easy to use package management system (compared to Slackware in 1996). The short version of the story: I was trying to install Postgres by hand (i.e., from sources) and couldn't get the post office to initialize. I installed Red Hat 5.2 and voila! It worked. I've used Red Hat as my primary distro ever since. It had something I needed, I adapted to it without too much effort, and I have only occasionally strayed away. In fact, I have occasionally flirted with SuSE, which I do like tremendously. It has several strong features, the most impressive of which are their printed manuals.

Nothing I've used since DOS 3.3 has had such a complete set of documentation IN THE BOXED SET. They're nice, they're useful, and they have convinced me to install their product on my file server. Well, that and the fact that they were the only (modern) game in town on a Sparc. But again, the SuSE distro has satisfied a need - good documentation.

Okay, so what does this trek down memory lane have to do with Mandrake? Well, Mandrake has always been problematic for me. I bought a copy of version 6.0 at my local outlet of a 'warehouse' store several years ago. You know the place; they sell 20-liter pails of mayonnaise as well as cheap tennis shoes. But if you want to mass market your software product, as Mandrake has always attempted to do, it was a natural choice. I took the package home (for approximately $30USD) and tried to install it on my dual Pentium 233MHz. Mind you, this machine had been through several installs and re-installs of Red Hat since the day I started using RH5.2.

Suddenly, I started getting signal 11 errors during the Mandrake installation. After nearly two days of on-again, off-again attempts to get the software to load, I gave up and put RH6.1 back on the machine and it ran like a champ. It was time to move on and give Mandrake 6.0 a needed rest. Despite this initial failure, I kept watching the development of Mandrake, and the groundswell of loyal users that had formed around their products. Obviously, they were doing something right. Their target audience, it appeared, was crossover Windows users and new computer users. By evaluating their latest Mandrake offering in light of this target market, 9.0 is much more appealing.

What Will You See?

If I were looking for a Linux distro that would meet the demands of the newest Linux customer, then Mandrake would probably be my first choice. All of the icons representing the applications are straightforward at to their function. The layout is incredibly simple (Hello! Hey, Red Hat! Are you listening?), the groupings are logically divided, and the desktop has a nice default pattern and style. The applications are rather plain in the download version, but some do have unique features.

The font manager imported all of my Windows fronts, my Freetype fonts, and organized them simply for my perusal. If I had some of my old Adobe fonts from my WFW3.11 days, I would have installed them as well. This is one application that all Linux desktops could benefit from. The features that new computer users demand from a general use computer system are at the top of the application selector. Push the KDE icon and you can launch the control panel, a camera interface, a web builder, or a CDROM burner. The only things missing from this initial set of applications are a web browser, music player, and chat app. Fortunately you don't have to dig too deep to find these features.

The downside of Mandrake 9.0 is more cosmetic and parochial - I'll admit to having a slight bias. With respect to cosmetic considerations, the desktop seems to suffer from excessive commercial pitches. I can't fault Mandrake too much for this, however, since that seems to be the trend for all software houses in general. Maybe they are just honest enough to actually attempt to get your business directly. We are, after all, witnessing the progression of Linux-as-a-hobby to Linux-as-a-business.

My strongest criticism is leveled at the fact that Mandrake 9.0 boots up to the user interface without an authentication challenge. Call me a security snob, but I get concerned when a machine can be booted to the desktop without once entering a password. Presenting a beginner with a login screen shouldn't be an impediment to using a modern OS. Users should get used to security from the start, not years later when their system has been compromised. Because I have yet to find two distros that store files in the same place, it didn't surprise me that the file system on Mandrake 9.0 was laid out differently from Red Hat 7.3 (or SuSE 8.1, or Slackware 8.1, or Debian Woody, etc.).

The system works well, so I guess it shouldn't matter where files are located. Finding key files (such as networking scripts), however, takes *some* time to get used to and there is a learning curve to surmount. This fact would probably keep someone who has Linux experience on another distro from migrating to Mandrake.

So Why Am I Picking On Mandrake?

I hope that the sentiment of this review doesn't come across in that way. I am looking at this distro as an experienced Linux user. New users and Mandrake evangelists will probably disagree with my assessments. The power of the marketplace will eventually decide Mandrake's fate, not my review. And this is where the greatest strength of this distro lies - marketing. Mandrake was the first commercial Linux distro I purchased as a software package, not as a disk in the back of a book.

They have successfully sold their operating system to large retail chains and have taken on Microsoft in the marketplace that was on its way to monopoly control a decade ago - the entry-level user. They have teamed up with Transgaming to produce a game-centric version of Linux in an attempt to capture that group of computer users. They have a solid foundation of dedicated users who look forward to each major release. I can't help but believe that Mandrake will continue to move aggressively in the retail sector, eventually establishing them as the Linux brand that most new users have heard about. Success for Mandrake will probably result from sheer determination and a robust operating system. I personally don't think they fear my criticisms one bit.


The Good - Pros
  • Entry-level ease of use
  • Font manager

The Bad - Cons
  • Boots into user mode without passwords

The Ugly - Issues
  • N/A

The Verdict - Opinion

Valuable beginner system.

Ease Of Use: