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Caption by: Alan Stevens
Linux distros are a bit like buses (bear with me on this) — miss one and another is bound to come along sooner or later. In the case of Mandriva Linux, it's the 2008 Spring edition that benefits from the usual long list of component updates together with full support for the Asus Eee PC, improved synchronisation with mobile devices, PulseAudio sound infrastructure and a handful of other enhancements.
Let’s start by getting the updates out of the way: the 2008 Spring edition is built around a 2.6.24 Linux kernel with X.org 7.3 and both 3.5.9 and 4.0 implementations of the standard KDE desktop. An alternative download with a GNOME 2.22 desktop is also available for those that prefer it, while on the application front there's the OpenOffice.org 2.4 suite, the Firefox 18.104.22.168 browser, plus a variety of other useful desktop programs and utilities. Note, however, that Mandriva doesn’t offer a dedicated server implementation — at least not for this distro.
Mandriva 2008 Spring uses the KDE desktop by default, and includes the OpenOffice.org 2.4 productivity suite.
As with the previous version, the software is available as a free download in a number of formats, including the Mandriva Linux One implementation that we tested, which ships as a single bootable Live CD. The Linux One version also comes with proprietary drivers for use with a range of third-party devices, while for purists there's a totally open-source implementation (Mandriva Free) without them. Finally there's a PowerPack version (the only one you have to pay for, starting at €49 — about £39 — if downloaded), which is effectively Mandriva Linux One plus additional commercial codecs and applications.
Installation proved, in our case at least, to be something of a curate's egg. Having downloaded and burnt the desktop software onto a CD, the idea is to boot from the disk and then run everything from this rather than having to install straight to hard disk. Later, when you're happy it's all working, all you have to so is double-click the desktop Live Install icon to start the full installation procedure.
The Live CD boot worked a treat, but we couldn't get the full install to work on the first PC we tried, which was fitted with a RAID storage controller. Or the second, a fairly ancient machine. We also had problems with the wireless interface on a notebook we tried and, as with most of the latest Linux distros, it seems that the newer your equipment the better. You'll also need a fairly recent graphics controller to get the fancy 3D effects available in this release — the accompanying notes cites the need for an NVIDIA GeForce, ATI Radeon 7000, Intel i810 or later.
On the plus side, there's support for both 32-bit and 64-bit platforms and we had no problems installing Mandriva Linux onto more recent hardware or a VMware virtual machine. Neither did we encounter many issues using the software, which looks and behaves much like any other Linux distro with a KDE desktop.
We particularly liked the Mandriva Control Center, which provides one-stop access to most of the utilities needed to get started, including a tool to migrate Windows documents and settings when switching platforms. Basic network connectivity is also available from the start and it didn't take us long to work out how to connect to our Windows network, browse shares and open documents using the OpenOffice.org suite.
The Mandriva Linux Control Center provides one-stop access to management utilities and tools, but extra software may have to be downloaded and installed for some options.
That said, newcomers are likely to have to spend some time familiarising themselves with both the interfaces involved and the tools needed to setup and make use of the OS. It's not particularly difficult, just not as intuitive as some — Ubuntu or SUSE, for example. Moreover, a lot of the options need extra software to be downloaded and installed before they can be put to work: for example, we had to install Samba separately before we could share folders and files on the Mandriva PC. We also had trouble connecting to a network printer.
Fortunately, most of the install processes are automated, and we did get our printer working in the end. However, we found it all time consuming and far from simple. This impression remained, despite lots of supporting documentation — which, in the main, assumes a fair amount of Linux knowledge.
In its favour, Mandriva Linux is popular with developers and enthusiasts, and there’s a thriving community ready and able to help with problems. Automatic notification and installation of updates also comes as standard, while access to the Mandriva users club, which used to cost extra, is now free.
Overall we liked what we saw. Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring may not be the best distro for the newcomer moving over from Windows, but if you're used to the way Linux works and want to try something different, give it a try.
Caption by: Alan Stevens