Mandriva One 2008: brain dead

In the last few weeks there has been the usual flurry of new Linux distribution releases. Ubuntu’s new one, Gutsy Gibbon, came out in October; SUSE released version 10.3, Mandriva have just put out their 2008 release (the second this year; the last was 2007.1, and the 2007 version itself came out this time last year), and Fedora, which was originally Red Hat Linux until the company realised it wasn’t making money out of that product, have just put out version 8. I tend to have two versions of Linux sitting on my computer, one on each of two 40-gigabyte hard drives, and right now I’ve got Fedora 8 on one and SUSE (or rather openSUSE) 10.3 on the other. Until recently I had the previous version of Ubuntu on the drive on which Fedora now sits, but I found Gutsy less responsive and with more bugs than the old version. I installed the third Release Candidate of Fedora 8 earlier this week, but yesterday I found aspects of it annoying and got the notion to move on.

My first thought was to install the testing version of Debian. The stable version came out at the beginning of 2007, and stable versions of Debian remain fresh for about two weeks. If you want a really stable server or perhaps a corporate desktop, it might suit; for a personal desktop machine for a relatively experienced user who is also a developer who wants to keep up to date with a particular piece of software, it doesn’t. I thought the testing version might, but having downloaded the install CD, it wouldn’t install because the disc lacked kernel modules (bits of software which allow the system to interact with your hardware). Really, they know about this problem, so why do they offer the CDs for download without a warning? I know it’s free software and there is no warranty, but that is pathetic.

I then decided to give the new version of Mandriva a go, although, despite the relatively good reviews it’s got, I wasn’t holding out much hope as Mandriva (formerly Mandrake Linux) has a reputation as one of the shoddiest, most unreliable Linux distributions around. There have been one or two relatively decent ones - Mandrake v10 was the last I remember - but normally there has been some bug or other which has made using it a total drag. Version 9.2 was hideous - some people reported that it fried their CD-ROM drives, but it crashing my system with neverending swaps (swapping is moving bits of memory out to disk when they are not being used in order to free up memory, and I’m not sure if this was happening, but there was unending disk activity, I couldn’t do anything with the system and I had to just turn it off, without shutting down). With the last release, I found that the boot loader configuration program (the boot loader loads the operating system and gives you the choice of operating systems if you need one, which I do) did not work, not allowing me to add an entry for the other operating system to the menu. So it had to go.

This time, I downloaded “Mandriva One”, the installable live CD version of Mandriva 2008. Things went wrong as soon as the desktop appeared. It correctly guessed that I had an NVIDIA graphics card. Trouble is, it picked the wrong one, using the driver for the newer NVIDIA cards rather than the legacy driver my card needs. The upshot is that everything displayed in shades of bright yellow. To get round this, I had to peer at the screen while I negotiated my way through the config tools to pick the correct one, log out and back in again. This time, when I logged into KDE, it did not start the window manager (which controls the borders, with the resize and close functions), and when I opened up any window, I could not type anything in. I had to log out and back in, and this time it did work. No idea why this was, although perhaps originally it had loaded the window manager which did the special effects you can get with the new NVIDIA cards, rather than the ordinary one.

However, that done, I started the live installer. I’m used to fairly high standards when it comes to installers, having began my career with SUSE which has a very well-explained walk-through installation. For example, it doesn’t format anything, or change anything on your hard drive, until you get to the very end and have chosen what you want to install and give it the all-clear. Not here; there are various buttons down the side of the partitioning window and when you click the one that says “format”, it asks you whether you want to format it, right there and then. The others say things like “Mount point”, which is a post-install option - if you install, you can use a folder to access that disk or partition. Confusing an inconsistent. And when I decided to cancel one operation or other, instead of just cancelling, it put up a window which said simply “Wizcancel” and invited me to close that. At that point, I gave up and decided to stick with Fedora for a while.

This shoddiness is, as I’ve already said, typical of Mandriva. I should add that they became Mandriva after Mandrake took over a Brazilian Linux company called Conectiva, which had its own Linux distribution which had a good reputation. Whatever that was like, Mandriva seems to have all of Mandrake’s failings and has not appeared to gain much. It looks like Mandrake (or, to give it a more accurate name, Mandreck) simply found something which threatened its position and destroyed it. I do not think I will bother trying this wretched distribution again.

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