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DistributionWatch Review: Linux-Mandrake 7.2

Discrepencies between boxed and ISO versions

November 1, 2000

There was a time in the not too distant past when I was searching for a Linux distribution to call my very own. I had just written several books about Red Hat, one about Corel Linux, and even contributed to a Slackware book. None of these really struck my fancy, because there always seemed to be something missing for me. As good as these distros were, there was always a rough feeling to them, as if all of the components were sort of jammed together to make a pretty package, but inside the package I could still hear gears that were not quite aligned grinding together.

When I got SuSE 7.0 on my doorstop, I found out that Linux distros could be chock-full of apps and utilities and still be hugely user-friendly. This week, I discovered that Linux-Mandrake 7.2 can just about join this elite category--provided you install it correctly.

But other problems may plague this boxed set release of Linux-Mandrake 7.2, because while owners of the download version are getting the latest version of software for free, retail purchasers will have to pay to get a version of Linux-Mandrake that is already slightly obsolete.

Too Smart For my Own Good: Installation

The download version of Linux-Mandrake 7.2 became available to the general public on October 28, and immediately the FTP mirror sites got deluged with file requests. Getting in that first day was a bit of a challenge. I already had the CDs that will go out in the boxed set in mid-November, so I installed those instead. This decision would later prove to be enlightening.

The version I tested was 7.2's PowerPack Deluxe, a seven-CD set that will retail for $69.95. On first look, this is a pretty good deal, considering that there are, all told, over 2300 apps ready to download on these discs alone. (Besides the ubiquitous StarOffice 5.2, Linux-Mandrake even tosses in IBM's ViaVoice voice recognition application.) The other retail version is the Complete version, with fewer commercial applications but retaining the same base functionality. This version retails at $29.95.

What MandrakeSoft failed to send me was the actual box, with the corresponding documentation. Attempts to get a handle on the included documentation were unsuccessful by the time this review was posted.

Installation of this distribution was done on a 5 Gb open partition of a 12 Gb drive. The machine has an AMD K6 processor and 96 Mb of RAM, well within the minimum requirements of this release.

According to the stats from MandrakeSoft, Linux-Mandrake needs at least a Pentium level processor, 32 Mb of RAM (64 for running X), and a minimum of 1.5 Gb hard drive to install--big for a minimum installation.

There are three installation paths you can choose in Linux-Mandrake installation program, DrakX: Recommended, Customized, and Expert. The Expert path, should you choose to take it, does warn you about the complexity of the installation using shadow passwords as an example of the technical level of this path. If you know about shadow passwords, the implication was, then you should be fine. I soon found out that this was not necessarily the case.

Users who are new to Linux-Mandrake, no matter how familiar with Linux in general, should think about taking the Recommended path. This is because there are a lot of proprietary features for Linux-Mandrake that are not turned on by default in the Expert path package selector. A big missing app was DrakConf, Mandrake's uberconfiguration tool. It, along with many of its component configuration utilities, was not installed by default during the Expert path; since I was new to Linux-Mandrake, I did not know I needed to select it.

Veteran Linux-Mandrake users should not have a problem with this because they are aware of the proprietary tools previous versions of Linux-Mandrake have used. But to take advantage of these tools you should either have a list of them handy and go hunting for them in the package list, or just install via the Recommended path and ratchet up your box later.

There is a drawback to this latter approach, too. Many of the configurations you can do manually during the Expert path are handled automatically during the Recommended paths. My network interface, an AMD PCI card, was recognized by the auto installation, but a glitch in the program made it refuse to load the module. I tried to back up and do it manually, as I'd done in the Expert path, to little avail. Fortunately, upon reboot, Kudzu kicked in and saw my network card and loaded the right module, as well as my sound card, which made me feel better. This was not the end of the hassles with the network card, but it helped.

The Recommended path also completely skipped the LILO configuration, which meant doing it later in the Mandrake boot configuration utility.

These were minor hiccups in the overall scheme of things, and I was pretty pleased with the Recommended and Customized paths' selection of packages, because it filled in some serious gaps I'd missed after the Expert path was completed.