A first look at Mandrake 8.1

The newest Mandrake installation does some things well, & some things not.

(LinuxWorld) -- I switch distributions every now and then so that I can get a feel for what they have to offer and how they differ. For the past few months, I've run SuSE 7.2 and KDE. It was time for a change, so I took advantage of an offer of a review copy of Mandrake Linux (PowerPack Edition) 8.1. For the past few days I experimented with the installation, the platform, and configuration issues specific to my machine.

My desktop machine has a 1-gigahertz Athlon processor with 512 megabytes of RAM. In addition to two Western Digital IDE hard drives, I have an HP 9100B cd-writer, and a floppy drive. I'm using an Nvidia GeForce2 DDR video card with 64 megabytes of memory, and a 19-inch ViewSonic PF790 monitor. I also have an HP 5200C scanner and a Lexmark Z52 ink jet printer attached. I connect to the Internet via an RTL 8129 PCI Ethernet card, which is plugged into a cable modem.

I used the second hard drive to backup my /home partition before starting the installation. A backup before an installation or upgrade is always a good idea. In this particular case, it was a blessing. I strongly encourage you to do the same. Back up data you don't want to lose before playing distribution bingo.

The Mandrake 8.1 install is slick, and when it works it literally turns the process into a no-brainer. Installing on my Sony Vaio laptop, for example, took about 30 minutes and was flawless. On my desktop machine, however, it was a different story.

Problem No. 1

The first problem arose when I tried to keep the SuSE-created partitions on the first hard drive. Both were created as Reiser filesystems. Mandrake had no problem identifying the filesystems, or in being told to format the / partition but to leave /home alone. However, when I got a little further into the installation and the system was being written to the disk, things got weird. The light indicating I/O on the CD drive flickered almost continuously, but the light indicating I/O on the hard drive didn't come on at all. After a good 15 minutes with the progress monitor stuck at 12 minutes remaining and seeing no sign of anything being written to the hard drive, I powered it down and tried it again.

The same thing happened the second time. On try No. 3, I decided to let Mandrake format the drive. I could do this because of the backup I mentioned earlier. Without it, I would have been up the creek without a paddle. Mandrake wanted to divide the disk a little bit differently than SuSE had done. It also wanted to use Reiser on the root partition and use ext2 for /home. That was fine with me. It was also fine with the installation process, as it sailed right past the point where it had hung up the first two times.

Problem No. 2

I got through the rest of the installation with no obvious problems, but was bit by a second problem as soon as I tried to run X Window System for the first time. I had selected "Recommended" instead of "Expert" for most of the install process. I did have to toggle to Expert mode to create a mount point for the partition on the second hard drive, but returned to normal mode as soon as that was done. In the Recommended mode, the installation does pretty much what it wants with the X configuration.

I went through the installation process again in Expert mode. While configuring X, I was offered the choice of XFree86 4.1 or 3.whatever. I was also offered the choice of whether to use the 3D hardware acceleration available on the Nvidia card. It was clearly the 3D selection that caused X to crash, because when I chose not to use 3D, X started and ran without a problem.

After registering the product online, I went to Mandrake Expert online to see what I could learn about my 3D problem. Lo and behold, I found an item on the Mandrake Forum that indicated that if I ran depmod -a as root after selecting 3D acceleration, all would be well. I did, it was. I installed Loki's Soldier of Fortune to verify it really worked. No problem at all. SOF worked fine.

Problem No. 3

Mandrake 8.1 correctly identified and configured my Ensoniq sound card, but for some reason my Lexmark printer was invisible. No problem, since I was going to be using the Lexmark-provided driver in any case. However, when I attempted to install the print driver, it failed to because lpr had not been installed.

I double-clicked the Mandrake Control Center icon on the desktop, then selected Hardware, then printer. This allowed me to configure my local printer. Unfortunately, I chose CUPS instead of lpr as the print spooler. When I reinstalled the Lexmark driver on top of CUPS, the result was a hard crash that could be escaped only by powering down. Worse, the incident terrified my poor 2.4.8 kernel. When I turned the power back on, I could get no further than a Kernel panic caused by not being able to find init.

The cure was a complete reinstall of Mandrake, again without any printer being installed. After repeating depmod -a to heal the X configuration, I went online to the Mandrake Forum to see what I could learn about 8.1 and Lexmark. I found references to problems with CUPS, but others using the lpr spooling system reported no problems using the Lexmark driver. I went back into Mandrake Control Center and set the printer up using lpr, reinstalled the Lexmark proprietary driver, and gave it a try. Everything worked beautifully.

Success No. 1

One of the things I had been most curious about with Mandrake 8.1 was its configuration of my HP cd-writer. Under previous installs of Red Hat and SuSE, I had followed the HOWTOs to set up the device and burn CDs. I heard Mandrake 8.1 did this time-consuming chore automagically.

After inserting the Loki Soldier of Fortune CD in the drive, I manually mounted the device by entering mount /mnt/cdrom at the console. Up jumped Nautilus with a graphic depiction of everything it saw on the CD. I installed SOF again just to satisfy myself that the drive functioned properly as a simple CD-ROM. I noticed Mandrake configured the IDE ATAPI device as a SCSI device. When I typed mount all by itself, the cd-writer showed up as /dev/scd0.

I right-clicked the CD icon on the desktop and selected "Remove the volume." That unmounted the device and ejected the tray so that I could remove the SOF CD and replace it with a blank, writable CD. Now came the critical test. Could I burn a CD?

I typed cdrecord -scanbus to see if the burner were recognized. It was seen as 0,0,0 on the SCSI bus. I used mkisofs to create an image of a directory containing digital images and then used cdrecord to burn it to the CD. Everything worked perfectly. I put the newly burned CD in the laptop and viewed the images just to be sure.

Even nicer, I could immediately use the device as a normal CD once again. The manual process I used to configure the cd-writer in previous installations made it unavailable as a simple CD-ROM after using it as a burner without an intervening reboot. This is goodness and surely, the way things should be. Later I stumbled across three GUI CD burning applications (GCombust, Gnome-Toaster, and X-CD-Roast), which Mandrake 8.1 had thoughtfully installed for me under Archiving Applications. I had looked for some-such earlier, but I had looked under Multimedia, not Archiving.

Success No. 2

Finally, I turned my attention to the scanner. I checked Hardware in the Mandrake Control Center once again and found that the scanner had been identified and listed as a USB device. I tried running XSane, but it reported no device found. I checked the /etc/sane.d directory for hp.conf, and sure enough, the scanner was there in its default config as a SCSI device. After checking to see how the scanner had been identified in /dev, I modified the hp.conf file to say /dev/usb/scanner option connect-device. When I tried XSane again, it worked. I was completely back in business with all devices in service.

The most serious problem I ran into was the CUPS/Lexmark collision. I doubt that this is a Mandrake problem. I'll test it on other distributions in the future to see. Mandrake's CD writer and scanner configurations are the best of any distribution I've seen. It's a pity that Mandrake and Ximian don't work together more closely, because I would rather have the Ximian GNOME desktop than naked GNOME, but it's not available yet for Mandrake 8.1.

Stay tuned for more about Mandrake 8.1 in future columns as I gain experience with it in real-world use.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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