Hands-on: New PCLinuxOS installation images

Good news: there are new PCLinuxOS installation images available! I'm going to see how they work, and what else might be new, different, and interesting about them.

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PCLinuxOS 2017.02 KDE Desktop

Image: J.A. Watson

One of my oldest 'friends' in the world of Linux distributions is PCLinuxOS. I have watched it change over the years from a group of add-on packages for Mandake Linux to its own distribution, and seen it become one of the most solid, stable, and best community-supported distributions available today.

I have seen the founder and primary moving force behind PCLOS (TexStar) come and go, and return and go again, and finally return again in a lower profile (but not less critical) role.

PCLinuxOS is an independent distribution, it is not derived from or dependent upon any other current distribution. It is a rolling-release distribution, so it gets a steady flow of updates rather than having periodic point-releases. There was a time when the intention was to update the PCLinuxOS distribution images quarterly, but it seems that turned out to be too much work for too little return.

The distribution images are now only infrequently updated, as far as I can tell based on the size of the step necessary to get a freshly installed image completely up to date, and the amount of time that the developers have to generate new images.

The latest ISO images showed up on the Get PCLinuxOS pages without much fanfare at the end of last week. There are two 'official' versions, with the KDE and MATE desktops. Those who are familiar with PCLOS will notice right away that something is missing there... there is no Full Monty version any more. Sigh.

'Alas, poor Monty! I knew him, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy...'

That is a pretty accurate statement, because the Full Monty desktop was great fun, and a wonderful thing to show to people who might be interested in Linux, but it was overblown and in a lot of ways too unwieldy to actually use on an everyday basis.

The Full Monty distribution will be missed, but perhaps more in spirit than in actual use.

The PCLinuxOS ISO image format has once again been improved with this release. UEFI firmware support has come to PCLinuxOS slowly, and in stages. First there was none (and no gpt partition table support either); then you could install in Legacy Boot mode and manually add grub-efi; then it had UEFI support in the ISO images, but you still had to run the image through a boot converter in order to boot the Live image. Now, finally, all you have to do is copy the image to a USB stick using dd, in the same way as almost all other current Linux distributions:

dd if=pclinuxos-kde5-2017.02.iso bs=4M of=/dev/sdX iflag=fullblock oflag=direct

Of course you can always just burn the image to a DVD and boot that.

When you boot the Live image, as it comes up it asks for the keyboard layout that you want to use. That is a bit different from other Live Installer distributions, which usually ask for the keyboard layout during the installation process. There is at least one advantage of doing it this way, though, because the keyboard layout will be properly defined for general use of the Live desktop even before running the installer.

Once the keyboard layout has been selected, the boot continues and you get a desktop which looks like the one shown above, with one additional desktop icon for 'Install PCLinuxOS'. Click that to start the installation process. PCLinuxOS still uses a much-updated version of the draklive-install utility.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, because there are obviously people in the PCLOS development team who know this installer inside out, backwards and forwards. But the installation process is very different from the way 'modern' installers work. My biggest complaint about it is that it still has the bad old habit of asking one or two questions, then going off and doing part of the installation, then coming back and asking another question or two, then going away and doing some more work, and so on.

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When you start the installer, the first thing you get is the familiar Installation Wizard window. There is nothing useful to do here other than click Next, or I suppose Cancel if you were having muscle spasms in your arm and started the installer by mistake. The installer then dives straight into the most serious part of the process: disk partitioning.

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The usual disk layout options are offered: install to free space or existing partitions on the current layout, wipe the disk and then use the entire disk for PCLinuxOS, or Custom (Expert) disk paritioning.

The one thing that is very unusual about this process is that the installer does not ask where to install the bootloader at this point. Don't worry, that will come later -- and don't lose a lot of time scratching your head and looking for the boot options.

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As soon as you have completed the disk layout, the installer goes charging off and starts copying the distribution image to the hard drive.

This doesn't take long (not more than 5 minutes), and it will have some more questions for you when that is complete.

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When the copying has finished, the installer asks about the bootloader location. For UEFI installations this is a bit of a no-op because you can't actually specify the EFI Boot partition to be used, even if you already have more than one on the disk.

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The bootloader installation and configuration will take some time, so you need to be patient. When it is finished you will be prompted to reboot the system.

Experienced users will probably notice that there are still some important questions for system configuration yet to come.

Those come during the first boot of the installed system, PCLinuxOS will ask for the timezone, root password, and user account information. The initial boot will then complete, and a Login window will come up.

So far I have installed this release of PCLinuxOS on one UEFI firmware system (ASUS X540S), with the KDE desktop, and one MBR system (Samsung N150 Plus), with the MATE desktop. Both installations completed without problem.

The installer did not have any problem with the relatively low resolution of the N150 display (1024x600).

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Image: J.A. Watson

The default desktop of the installed system is identical to the Live desktop during installation. Those who are nostalgic, and would still like to have the old standard PCLinuxOS wallpaper, can find it in the Configure Desktop control, accessible by right-clicking anywhere on the desktop background.

I've noticed a couple of minor but mildly irritating problems in the brief time I have been using this new release. The most significant so far is that the Network Manager Applet in the KDE bottom panel is displayed inconsistently. After booting it initially shows a red slash there, which is supposed to mean there is no network connection -- but the WiFi connection has in fact come up and is working. After a little while the slash symbol will disappear, but then nothing at all is displayed there, rather than some kind of signal strength symbol.

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Also, because PCLinuxOS still uses the Network Center control, hovering the mouse on the Network Applet doesn't display any useful information about connected or available networks, it just says 'net_applet'. You have to actually open the applet to see what networks are available and connected.

As I said, this is a minor irritant because the network connection is actually working so as long as everything is working it's a non-issue. But when you need more information, or connections are not working as you expect, it is a bit more tedious to figure it all out.

The Network Applet seems to work considerably better on the MATE distribution, but it is still not entirely right.

Another point in the minor irritant list: the PCLinuxOS installer still insists on creating an xorg.conf file. As far as I know, this has not been necessary since quite a few Xorg releases ago. Although it doesn't cause any problems as long as everything works properly, it can still get confused about the display resolution and produce an xorg.conf file with the wrong value. When this happens the console display becomes difficult or impossible to use. The immediate solution to this problem is to just delete the file /etc/X11/xorg.conf. The permanent solution to this problem is for the installer to stop trying to generate this unnecessary file.

Honestly, with all the different systems I have used and tested, I have not seen a single system which actually needed an xorg.conf file in at least 5 years, and probably much longer than that. I have, however, seen systems on which PCLOS got this wrong and the console didn't work properly within the past year. Most importantly of all, on every one of the systems where it was wrong, deleting the xorg.conf file solved the problem - which means that they too would have worked perfectly out of the box without this configuration file.

Enough preaching, back to work. The screen shots I have included so far have all been from the ASUS X540S system with PCLinuxOS KDE installed. The default desktop looks very similar on the MATE version, but of course with a MATE panel at the bottom of the screen.

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PCLinuxOS 2017.02 MATE Desktop

Image: J.A. Watson

Here you can see that the Network Applet is displaying a correct icon when connected. When the mouse hovers on that icon, it pops up a window with information about the connection. This is the way it is supposed to work.

The Gnome-2-style menus and icons can be seen here as well. The bottom panel has a default height of 32 pixels. When working with such a small screen, it is actually better to reduce that height -- not only does it save screen space, it also makes the panel and icons look better.

The Fn-keys on both laptops worked, at least within the bounds of what was possible. Audio volume up/down/mute, display brighness up/down/blank and Suspend (Sleep) all worked. Both systems Resumed normally after the Fn-Suspend, and when the laptop lid was closed. The Touchpad disable key worked on the N150, but not on the ASUS - this is a known issue, though, because Linux is not recognizing the ASUS touchpad properly.

In addition to these two 'official' desktop releases, there are a number of PCLinuxOS Community Releases available. There are Xfce, LXDE and LXQt desktop versions, as well as the lightweight "minime" and the KDE 3 holdover Trinity Desktop Environment.

Here is a quick run-down of some of the major software versions included in these releases:

  • Linux kernel 4.9.8
  • Xorg 1.18.4
  • KDE Plasma 5.8.5 / MATE 1.16
  • Firefox 51.0.1 / Thunderbird 45.7.1
  • LibreOffice 5.3.0
  • VLC Media Player 2.2.4

Finally, remember that PCLinuxOS is a rolling-release distribution. If you already have it installed and have kept it up to date, you don't necessarily have to install this new release. There is at least one case where you might want to consider it, though. I mentioned above that there is no longer a PCLinuxOS Full Monty release...

I have the Full Monty edition installed on my desktop Acer All-In-One system, so I started wondering what the status of that is going to be. After a bit of poking around I found that the Full Monty Release Announcement in the PCLinuxOS Forums has been updated with this statement:

'KDE5 has replaced KDE4. Since FullMonty is based on KDE4 this project is now discontinued. While you can continue using your KDE4 or FullMonty installation you may consider moving to the current KDE5 version at some point in the future.'

So that pretty well clears it up. The Full Monty version will not be updated to KDE 5, but you can continue using it as it is with KDE 4, and at least for the time being everything else should update normally. So I am going to be keeping it at least on my All-In-One, but I will have the KDE5 and/or MATE versions installed on my other systems.

I will close this with one more mention of the quality of the PCLinuxOS Forums -- they are truly excellent. I have followed several threads started by people with PCLinuxOS problems, and the depth of knowledge and patience of the people helping in the forums is really mind-boggling. I would put the quality of the forums near the top of my list of reasons to consider using PCLinuxOS.

Read more about Linux by J.A. Watson

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