Review: PCLinuxOS 2011.6 KDE

Main Screen
The last time I tried out PCLinuxOS was at version 2010.07, and I tried the KDE version then too. I didn't particularly it then because I felt it dropped a lot of useful applications from the 2009.2 release (which I tried out before I started this blog), and because it was pretty slow on my computer. Then again, my perspectives and desires have changed a little bit since then, so don't read too much into that. Anyway, version 2011.6 has been released, and I'm reviewing it.

So what is PCLinuxOS? A long time ago in a galaxy that we are all in, PCLinuxOS was a Mandriva derivative with a custom theme, some changed default applications, and a few customization scripts. Since then, it has grown and diverged into basically its own distribution; really, the only thing it has in common with Mandriva is its package file type, and that is a particular form of RPM used in Mandriva. Other than that, it's basically entirely different, so there's no point in continuing to mention Mandriva after this. Anyway, it primarily uses KDE, though there are GNOME, Xfce, LXDE, and Enlightenment editions available as well. Its selling points include ease of use even for total newbies to Linux, stability, and a rolling-release model. Through it all, it has essentially remained a one-man project, and that man is Bill Reynolds, also known as "Texstar". How can stability be reconciled with a rolling-release model? Well, although packages are sent to the repositories when ready, "when ready" is only after a lot of time and testing. PCLinuxOS is known for its rather conservative stance on upgrading to newer pieces of software; for example, KDE 4 wasn't available for users at large until last year with the release of the PCLinuxOS 2010 series. This is a similar tack Debian-based Linux Mint will be taking by thoroughly testing all incoming Debian Testing packages and only releasing them when ready in monthly packages.

I tested the live session on a live USB made with MultiSystem. I tested the installation in VirtualBox within that live USB session with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After getting past the boot menu, I saw the boot splash. It seemed a little elongated for my laptop's screen, which told me immediately that PCLinuxOS was having trouble with either my laptop's screen or its graphics card by not displaying the boot splash at the native resolution of 1366 by 768. The splash itself has the PCLinuxOS bull logo and the PCLinuxOS text logo all in gray with a progress bar below. After that, it got hung up, so I pressed CTRL+ALT+F1 to switch to a terminal. After logging in, I tried to start X/11, but it failed. I tried installing the CLI browser Lynx and searching the forums for answers, but I couldn't find anything. For a while, I gave up and didn't do anything about it, but then I had an idea.

I tried again, but this time I added the line "xdriver=vesa" to GRUB in the boot menu. After that, I saw the same elongated boot splash, and after that, I was finally taken to the keyboard selection screen, and then the desktop.

Mozilla Firefox 5.0 + KWrite
The desktop is pretty typical for PCLinuxOS KDE but departs slightly from KDE defaults. Aside from the dark gray Plasma theme to match the new wallpaper which eschews the bull logo, the themes are all the KDE defaults (and once again, I will express my disapproval at the new KDE folder icons, but that's not a problem with PCLinuxOS). The desktop layout uses a traditional Folder View, which is similar to how icons are in other DEs and OSs but different from the KDE 4 default Desktop View layout. The panel is not full-width, which doesn't make much sense to me considering that it doesn't autohide either like a traditional dock; the result is that there's wasted space on the left and right sides of the panel when windows are maximized. Instead of a traditional task switcher, the panel has something like what is present in Microsoft Windows 7. Unfortunately, it lacks the ability to pin applications to the panel, so it isn't quite as functional. Other than that, the desktop works well and looks a lot more professional than last time, if you ask me. (And for the record, the resolution was 1024 by 768.)

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser present at version 5.0, which makes sense considering how recently PCLinuxOS was released. It seems to have most multimedia codecs included, considering I was able to watch YouTube and Hulu fine, after fiddling with the KMix volume mixer a bit. I was also able to confirm that my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts worked out-of-the-box as well. In addition, Mozilla Firefox didn't look like a KDE application because it didn't have the right icon theme, though it didn't look ugly per se.

Synaptic Package Manager + Desktop Cube
There is no productivity suite like LibreOffice included, but there is a KDE main menu button to install LibreOffice. There's a whole lot of configuration and driver software included, which I guess is good for ensuring a smooth live session and for creating a good impression. Otherwise, aside from the presence of Pidgin, GIMP, and Mozilla Thunderbird, the applications included are pretty standard fare for KDE.
Dolphin is the default file manager, though Konqueror is included too for power users. Unfortunately, starting Dolphin kept putting me back to the console login, which was weird.

At this point, I tried to install some new applications. I went to Synaptic Package Manager (yes, PCLinuxOS uses APT programs for package management despite using RPM packages) and installed Skype. That went well. I also found Synaptic Package Manager to be way faster in installing packages in PCLinuxOS than in, say, Linux Mint, which is interesting considering that it was originally designed for Debian and its derivatives. Anyway, after that, I tried starting Skype, but it crashed, and that led to an endless loop in KDM which I could only get out of by forcing a hard shutdown.

That would have ended my time with PCLinuxOS, but then I tried one last thing. After rebooting, I magically (this will be explained in a few posts) found and tried adding the command "nonfree=no xdriver=yes" to the GRUB boot stanza, and proceeded past the boot menu. This time, the boot splash was a simple blue 3-bar affair reminiscent of Fedora on my old computer, but strangely, after a few seconds, the verbose and 3-bar splashes kept interfering with each other. Thankfully, the troubles essentially ended there, because after that, I was taken to the keyboard selection screen, where I could see that the correct resolution 1366 by 768 had been detected and selected.

Dolphin + Wobbly Windows
I won't go over what didn't change, but I will say what did. Unfortunately, trying to add Mozilla Firefox to the panel led to an unexpected KDE Plasma crash. I say "unexpected" because here KDE is at version 4.6, and this must be either the first or second time I'm seeing a KDE Plasma crash in version 4.6.  Anyway, after doing everything over again, Dolphin and Skype both worked, as Skype recognized my webcam and mic perfectly. I also installed the Google Talk with voice and video plugin, and that seemed to work well based on the settings indicators, though I couldn't actually initiate a call because none of my contacts online had that plugin installed.
Desktop effects worked well. This was also the first time I saw the Wobbly Windows effect in KDE/KWin; before this, I had only seen it in Compiz.

At this point, I started the installation process in VirtualBox. The installer, along with the Control Center, is one of the few things still shared with Mandriva. Furthermore, it appears to not have changed in years, based on screenshots. The partition manager looks rather odd, with garish color codes representing the partitions; it could be made a little more clean, intuitive, and informative. In short, it could certainly use an update. I chose to erase the information on the virtual disk and install PCLinuxOS over the entire disk. Unfortunately, the VM aborted and closed at this time. I tried again, and the same thing happened. I guess it's really an issue with VirtualBox in these live sessions. In any case, that's where my time ended.

So what's the deal? I really liked the applications, and other applications installed and worked well. After much struggle with getting PCLinuxOS to start X/11 properly, my laptop's hardware was detected fine. Another strong point is PCLinuxOS's reputation as being stable, yet having access to the latest software through its rolling-release nature. Finally, it's configuration tools are still really good and really handy. But as with SimplyMEPIS 11.0, because I had to type GRUB commands to get it to work correctly in the live session, I can't recommend this to total newbies to Linux, at least based on my own experiences. Plus, even the positive part of the experience was marred by that lone KDE Plasma crash, which I am not used to seeing much anymore. I would recommend this more to slightly more experienced Linux users who aren't afraid to tinker and troubleshoot.