As I've been poking around with Mandriva Linux for the last week or so (preparing to install it on a Classmate and researching prior to my interview with François Bancilhon), I've been impressed with it's apparent ease of use, quick installs, and out-of-the-box feature set. When a student came to me at the beginning of the week with an unlicensed, expiring Vista installation and asked me what to do, I tossed him an Ubuntu CD and sent him on his way. Unfortunately, Ubuntu didn't pick up his Atheros wireless chipset and his eyes glazed over when I started talking about NDISwrapper. Since he had nothing to lose except a bit of classtime with me, I burned him a copy of Mandriva 2008. Half an hour later, he was up and running, the wireless functional without any intervention.
Intrigued, I tossed it on one of my kid's computer so that he could play with the eye candy of Compiz Fusion, also functional out of the box. He preferred it to the Fedora 7 installation he had been using and has been tinkering with Compiz plugins happily. Sweet.
Another student needed a computer at home, so I tossed it onto an old PIII I had in my office, disabled Compiz, and sent her home half an hour later with a fully-functional PC.
I think you see the pattern here. Obviously, Linix isn't for everybody, but Mandriva has put together a nice package that installs quickly on a variety of hardware and looks and feels "Windowy" enough to allow for a very easy migration. One snag, though, occurred when I decided to install it on my own laptop (too much experimenting over the last month has left my SUSE install a bit shaky, so I decided it was time for a change): the live CD install never opened into a GUI or even a command line. It just hung at a black screen. I'm sure some extra fiddling could have gotten me on track, but this is all about out-of-the-box usability, right? So I installed Ubuntu 7.10 and lived happily ever after.
The moral of the story is that whether you are using Mandriva, *buntu, SUSE, Fedora, or any of the other mainstream distributions, the level of usability when you first boot the system is far better than the state of the art even 6 months ago. Keep Mandriva in mind, though, for students who need an easy-to-use, snappy machine, regardless of hardware challenges.