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Midnight at the OSes (Review of Mandrake Linux 8.0)

Midnight at the OSes - Part 1

After my last story about Passport, with a nice link from Doc (Happy birthday!),I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and get WindowsXP, RC1. I haven't had much time to play with it yet, but it clean-installed with no problems. I also decided to try Mandrake Linux 8.0 for free, and then decide if I would buy it or not. This is my report on Mandrake. A side note - mandrake is a plant or herb with supposedly mystical properties.

I should mention that I've tried Linux before, having successfully run RedHat versions 6 and up on a spare machine I had at Microsoft. (They do allow Linux there - and they'll even give you a fixed IP address if you ask nicely.) I tried RedHat 7.0 at home, but had some problems that kept me from using it for any length of time. It was this experience that had me telling friends, Ok, I've tried it, and it's not ready for prime-time. If a "technical user" like me (probably debatable in the Linux community but hey, in the MS world I'm technical, and I'm your audience) can't install something on his home machine, it's not destined for major market sales anytime soon.

Oh, ho, ho, It's Magic

I installed Mandrake on my main machine at home, which has three hard disks, each with multiple partitions. Each of the drives also has some empty, non-partitioned space.

Mandrake booted up via the CDs I created from the ISO images I downloaded. This was a pretty easy process with Adaptec/Roxio Easy CD Creator.

One thing I immediately noticed was that Mandrake's kernal boot screen (the text-based screen that loads up before the installer) recognized my Promise ATA/100 card and the large hard disk attached to it. RedHat 7.0 did not recognize this card or drive and I had to jump through all sorts of hoops trying to make it work. I finally gave up. I am not a good programmer, and if I can't get modules to compile, I have little recourse. Again, a hard core Linux user may scoff at this, but frankly, I like the package-based RPM model and predict that until upgrades and updates are very easy, there will be little adoption of Linux at the desktop level.

Step by Step

Mandrake's install program, DrakX is a graphical guide that walks you step by step through installing. It also has a pretty neat option called "Recommended Mode" that does an almost-unattended install. I tried this option first, though I have re-installed since and changed some of the pre-sets. The install found free space existing on my hard drives and used the space without moving or affecting any of my Windows partitions. (Well, that's not exactly true according to Partition Magic - it told me that my drives had error 120 - one reason I reinstalled. But I lost no data)

DrakX was nice enough to tell me that my Aureal-based Turtle Beach Montego II card didn't have drivers on the Mandrake disks but I should check for drivers. I wrote this down for further reference. After configuring my preferred packages (yes, I'll take office and games!) installation commenced. Mandrake found my two Ethernet cards (though it had an IRQ conflict and I never got the 2nd card, a 3c905, working properly). RedHad did not work with my cards. I created passwords, and finally set my X-windows display. This was the only really "hard" step. In saying that, it was the only step I believe that my mom couln't easily do. I use the mom-test extensively. If it is easy enough for my cable-modem using, small busines running on Access, Palm-toting mom to use, it's easy. Otherwise it's not. Configuring the X-windows server is not hard for a tech user that knows they have a Riva TNT card with 16 megs of ram. But DrakX guessed wrong on this. It auto-sensed the wrong monitor. It also tried to set my monitor to a very high resolution that wasn't readable. I manually configured X-windows and all was well.

Stop, in the name of...

The final step related to installing Lilo boot manager. LILO comes up before your machine starts the operating system and offers the list of OS choices (Linux, Windows, etc.) I tried to set up a floppy disk as my method of booting Linux *without* installing Lilo on my drive. However, I chose the wrong options and ended up with LILO as my boot manager. This was another small complaint I had - that screen was confusing. It's not that I don't like Lilo, but the machine is shared with my wife and daughter, and they don't need a screen full of options to deal with *before* a screen full of options from the *Windows* boot manager. (I managed to remove LILO by using a dos-startup disk and running fdisk /mbr. Be careful with this- your milage may vary).

Smooth Operator

Bottom line - I got a nice, runing operating system, with a very good looking KDE interface (and Gnome too, though trying Gnome with Nautilus was painfully slow, even on a PIII500 with 128mb of RAM). The sound drivers were not available at the location listed, because Aureal has gone bankrupt. However, a project at is creating drivers. I downloaded and complied these drivers, which played the 8-bit sample sound, but didn't really seem to work on MP3s or CDs. The Mandrake Control panel let me configure a simple firewall and let me increase the security settings of my machine without my having to know a lot about Linux security. This was a big plus. The excellent port scanner tool at DSL Reports told me that my machine was a hard target - no obvious ports were open. I don't believe for a second that I'm secure to a determined attack, but if it keeps the idiots away maybe they'll find somewhere else to play.

Tell it like it is

All-in-all, I'd give the experience a 7.5 out of 10.
The Good
I got a Linux build to experiment with, and the majority of things worked pretty easily. I also feel more secure with my Linux box than I have previously - the firewall software took a lot of complexity out of putting this box on the net.

The Bad
The experience loses points for the difficulty with the Ethernet card (windows can figure out the IRQ conflict), lack of SoundCard drivers (also built into Windows), X-windows configuration issues (win had no problems) and finally the Lilo issue.
The ugly
My 2nd ethernet card (for communicating with my other home machine - I couldn't be using it for Internet Connection Sharing because my cable modem provider would be unhappy) should be fixable, but I have to do some posting on boards and get some suggestions.

Paying the Cost to be the bOSs

So, I debate with my Microsoft friends, and others, often, whether Linux on the Desktop is a viable alternative to Windows. Windows still has a much tighter consumer focus. It is still much easier to install. Windows and Mac still have better graphical looks. But Linux is gaining. It has not been under development nearly as long as the other OSes, and pieces of it are created by committee and remotely. Mandrake 8.0 is the closest I've come to something I could recommend for a home user. For the record, I purchased Mandrake Linux basic edition for $29.95 at CompUSA. It worked, and I wanted to own my own copy. Why pay for something that worked via a free download? To support the folks that put it together. That's the right thing to do.

Coming Soon - XP - the review.

(c)2001 by Howard Greenstein

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Last update: 8/23/2002; 9:21:00 PM.