Review: Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen"

Before I begin, I'd like to say that the reason why there was no "Featured Comments" post this week was because there were no comments on last week's posts. That's probably because I didn't write a lot last week as I was spending time with friends and family. Anyway, let's get on with the review.

Main Screen
I don't think Mandriva particularly needs an introduction. Suffice it to say that it was among the original premiere easy-to-use Linux distributions, along with MEPIS, even before Ubuntu existed. It came up with the all-in-one Mandrake Control Center (now, of course, the Mandriva Control Center) and made graphical installations easier to do. It has continued with a dedicated following, but in recent months it almost collapsed, even prompting the introduction of Mageia, a fork dedicated to advancing Mandriva while staying true to its core values (more on that shortly). Its financial woes have continued, but while the last few releases made a few changes to the implementation of KDE 4 but overall nothing too drastic, this release aims to bring back some of the old luster by completely rethinking the way KDE 4 is supposed to work. Let's see how true that is in a bit.

I tested Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen" on a live USB, first made with MultiSystem and then made with UnetBootin. I was surprised that Mandriva booted after having the live USB made with UnetBootin, because for the last few years Mandriva ISO files have failed to work right with UnetBootin. I guess that application has gotten better at properly writing these ISO files to USB sticks. I tested the installation procedure in a VirtualBox VM in a Pinguy OS 11.04 Mini UnetBootin-created live USB host with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS; I initially tried to do the VM thing within the Mandriva live USB system, but that failed (more on that later), and anyway, using Pinguy OS ensured better consistency.

I don't think I've ever written about testing a system with both MultiSystem and UnetBootin. So why have I done so this time? Well, this was originally supposed to be a comparison test with Mageia 1 included. However, Mageia was not recognized by MultiSystem, and the UnetBootin-created Mageia live USB failed to boot properly. That was odd, considering that there were reports of older alpha and beta releases of Mageia that booted fine when the live USB was created with UnetBootin. I think I'll hold off trying out Mageia until it is supported by MultiSystem, at which point I'll review it separately but through the lens of a comparison test, sort of like how I approached Scientific Linux 6 and CentOS 6. In any case, I'm too impatient to hold off testing Mandriva for the sake of Mageia. Also note that while I made all the following observations about Mandriva in MultiSystem, I was able to replicate all of them in UnetBootin, as I have seen with other distributions as well.
With all this in mind, follow the jump to see what Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen" is like.

After the boot menu, I was greeted by a fairly fast boot time, and I was able to see a nice spinning wheel on a baby-blue Mandriva-branded background for the boot splash. It all looked OK, which told me that unlike Mandriva 2010.X, Mandriva 2011 recognized my laptop's graphics card and native resolution properly out-of-the-box. After that, I was taken to a series of dialog boxes asking for language, locale, and keyboard settings. That led into a customized KDE splash screen with the same color background as before with 5 icons appearing in succession, followed by the desktop.

It really is true. KDE in Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen" is unlike anything you have ever seen before. Wow! There's a lot of stuff going on here, so I'll try to get through all the changes, which have all been designed with the help of the Russian ROSA Labs.
There is one panel at the bottom, but it isn't a standard KDE Plasma Panel; it's a RocketBar by ROSA. From left to right, it contains a menu icon, a task switcher that works a lot more like the one in Microsoft Windows 7 than the Smooth Tasks Plasmoid does (and thus seems a lot more professionally-done), "Stacks" showing pop-up preview boxes of the Documents and Downloads folders, and the system tray.
URPMI + Dolphin
The main menu is not a standard Kickoff menu or a KDE 3-style accordion menu. It is the ROSA-designed almost-full-screen SimpleWelcome menu. It is divided into three tabs; the first shows recently used applications and documents. The second shows all applications, divided into categories (though an unusually large number of applications got dumped into the "Tools" category). The third shows TimeFrame, which is the ROSA-designed file searcher which uses Nepomuk to search for and show files solely by creation date; this is the first truly useful use (I know that wording sounds weird, but you know what I mean) of Nepomuk I have seen so far, but because Nepomuk is disabled to make the desktop faster and snappier (which it is), TimeFrame is also disabled by default. All three tabs can be searched via a search box at the top. Some may complain that it seems too inspired by Apple's iOS, but I do like it a lot, and it does work better than the Kickoff menu.
The icon, KWin, and Plasma themes are all designed by ROSA uniquely for Mandriva, though the icon theme seems to be a combination of Elementary and something else, while the KWin theme reminds me a little too much of the Microsoft Windows Vista Basic Aero theme.
The one small problem I had was that I couldn't add a second instance of RocketBar; it looks like there was only meant to be one such instance at a time. Otherwise, the desktop works really, really well, and is truly a feast for the eyes.

Mozilla Firefox 5 is the default browser, but no multimedia codecs are included, which is strange for a 1.6 GB Mandriva ISO file and is really just strange for Mandriva in general. I had to get them from URPMI, the Mandriva Control package installer, but first, I needed to enable repositories, which took a really long time. After that, I was able to install Adobe Flash and other codecs, and I was able to watch YouTube and Hulu fine; at the same time, both my laptop's sound card and its volume keyboard shortcuts were recognized out-of-the-box.

Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer +
SimpleWelcome + Desktop Cube
Other installed applications include LibreOffice, Clementine, K3B, some KDE games, Shotwell, PiTiVi, and others. I'm surprised Shotwell and PiTiVi were included instead of the KDE equivalents digiKam and Kdenlive, but I guess the developers really wanted to go for ease of use at the small expense of KDE integration (though they look identically-themed to the other KDE applications anyway) instead of the other way around, so bravo to them for that decision. Also included are specific tools to configure Lexmark and Epson printers alongside the generic printer configuration tools; I know firsthand that Lexmark printers don't play well with Linux, but I was always under the impression that Epson printers play as well with Linux as do HP printers. Finally, though it is no surprise that Dolphin is the default file manager, it is configured to have a simpler interface, as many extraneous buttons have been hidden and the menubar has been compacted into a button. That last change has become the default in KDE 4.7, but as Mandriva 2011 "Hydrogen" uses KDE 4.6, I guess that setting must have been the doing of ROSA Labs, which shows how much they go above and beyond normal configuration.
At some point around here, as I was playing around with the desktop, Mandriva crashed, necessitating a cold reboot. Uh-oh.
Skype worked by downloading and extracting the dynamic package and running the executable, while the Google Talk voice/video plugin worked by downloading and installing the RPM package as recommended by Mozilla Firefox. Both recognized my webcam and mic perfectly.

Aside from a few isolated instances, Mandriva generally felt quite snappy and fast. It used 400 MB of RAM at idle, which I think is about average for KDE 4.
KWin desktop effects worked well after I enabled them. The only issue I had was that there was no keyboard shortcut to directly change the virtual workspace; I had to zoom out to see the whole desktop cube to change workspaces, which is a little more cumbersome and time-consuming. What I mean is there's no shortcut like CTRL+ALT+LEFT to switch to the workspace immediately to the left. For some reason I also couldn't find any way to set such shortcuts to my liking.

At this point, I moved onto the installation. As this was originally supposed to be a comparison, I had meant to run VirtualBox VMs within each respective live USB system, so even as I wrote Mageia out of this article, I thought that I would still install and run VirtualBox in this Mandriva live USB. Unfortunately, trying to run the VM made the system crash and freeze yet again, necessitating another cold reboot; while I have seen other live USB systems crash when trying to run VirtualBox, this is still not confidence-inspiring.
At this point, I went into a Pinguy OS 11.04 Mini live USB system made with UnetBootin and did the same things with VirtualBox, and it worked! I was able to start the installation from the live system OK. One interesting thing is that the default resolution of the VM was higher than I've ever seen in a VM, which is a very good thing if you ask me.
(Please note that I really meant to include pictures of the installer, but it completely slipped my mind somehow. Sorry! Anyway, you can probably find tons of such pictures on other sites.)
Because Mandriva asks for language, localization, and keyboard layout prior to logging in, the installation skipped those steps and went straight into partitioning. This makes sense because it ensures better live and installed experiences. Based on some other reviews I have read, partitioning continues to be the weak point. It's hampered by garish colors and the fact that users need to look at a legend of partition colors to figure out which partition is which; furthermore, the graphic doesn't show OS labels like some other installer partitioning graphics do. For an installer that was the pioneer of easy partitioning, it's a shame that it seems to have progressed so little in the last few years. One good thing now that apparently wasn't there before is that there is a warning screen telling the user that the disk will be formatted and data will be lost, giving the option of aborting the installation before such changes are made permanent. After that comes the main installation, replete with a nice slideshow showing the great features of Mandriva in simplified blue artwork. The main installation took about 15 minutes, which is slightly worse than average but still not too long. After that came bootloader configuration; the nice thing here is that if GRUB is used (and it almost always is), the installer shows the boot menu before the installation of GRUB. This means that users will be notified beforehand if any preexisting OSs are not recognized, meaning the problem can be fixed before it is even encountered, which is great! This was followed by a prompt to reboot.

After rebooting, GRUB looked a lot nicer. After the boot menu came dialog boxes asking for the user's country, the root password, and then the new user name and password. The only issue here was while the user can have an icon, the icon can only be selected by scrolling through a list in a certain order, instead of easily picking from a grid or something like that. After that came the login manager KDM, which is easily the most professional-looking login manager I have seen in any Linux distribution. It's even better than the one in Microsoft Windows, and that's one thing Microsoft gets right, if you ask me. After that came the installed session, which worked identically to the live session, so that's where my time with Mandriva ended.

The issues I had with the RocketBar and VirtualBox crashes probably won't affect most users, but they did annoy me a little. The other random crash I experienced slightly hampered an otherwise amazing experience, but other users' experiences may vary depending on the hardware and whether a live DVD or live USB is used. And while newbies may need a little help with the installer, I can give this 95% of a full recommendation. Mandriva has truly reinvented itself, and the end result is beautiful in almost every way.
You can get it here, though be warned that the servers may be slow due to high demand, as it was just released 2 days ago.