Mageia: the return of the Girl Next Door

Like many acolytes in the Temple of the Mighty Penguin, I had my first successful Linux experience with Ubuntu. (It was 7.04. I still have the disk.) I was generally satisfied with Ubuntu, but had some trouble with WiFi, looked for alternatives, enjoyed the exploratory nature of distrohopping, and sometime in 2009 I made my way over to Arch Linux. I liked Arch Linux. I liked commencing a hardworking, creative day with startx. I liked trying to keep up with the new stuff that populated the repos daily, almost hourly. But one day, I ran the pacman -Syu command, which is something like the conary updateall command I waxed hysterical about in a previous post. After that, my Work Computer didn’t work.

It was a strange confluence of events, and I never quite figured it out. As best as I was able to deduce later on, Arch fed me a kernel with a regression in which support for some aging Intel video cards went lacking. This wasn’t something you could fix with a modprobe, either—well, maybe you could, because you’re smart, but I couldn’t, because the screen was totally blank, and I’m not that smart. (I did manage to use the MS-DOS copy command to get a bunch of files from an AT&T 6300—the one with an 8086 processor—onto 5-¼” floppy discs when the video card died, but that’s different from running a modprobe.) Complicating matters was the fact that X.org had just moved on to its 1.7 series, and at first I was inclined to blame the X server.

Anyway, that computer with the primitive Intel video card (it was made by Advanced Digital Logic) was important to my existence. My wife is disabled with a complicated form of nerve damage, and she is extremely sensitive to the noises that moving parts in computers make. The ADL computer didn’t have any moving parts; it was fanless and absolutely silent, and therefore I could camp out in the living room and work (I had a work-from-home job for an academic publisher, but my full-time job was and is looking after my wife). It was also low-powered, with a 1.4 GHz Pentium M chip and a whopping 512 MB of memory. In other words, it was an excellent Linux box.

I could have reinstalled Arch and figured out how to lock pacman into not updating the X server. But, really, I no longer trusted Arch. That might not have been rational, or fair to Arch, but it was the way I felt. (Arch’s documentation is second to none, but the Arch community doesn’t remind me of friendly puppies and teddy bears.) Yeah, I’m a hobbyist and a Linux adventurer, but I have responsibilities, too, capisce? I wasn’t going back to Arch, and I sure wasn’t going to reinstall Windows™, so I got a bunch of distros on CD and tried them, one after the next; some gave me an unacceptably low-resolution display, and more didn’t work at all.

Then, as I was running out of hope, I tried Mandriva. Mandriva 2010 was fairly new at the time (all this happened in November 2009, or maybe December), but it still had X.org 1.6. It also probably had some nice patches in the kernel, or a more proven kernel, or something; as I was to learn, Mandriva’s hardware support was remarkable. But at the time I understood less about Linux than I do now, especially things like kernel mods (which I’m still not exactly well-versed in) and I couldn’t make sense out of all the various information that was coming my way. Anyway, Mandriva worked perfectly on the Work Computer, and basically kept me in business.

Mandriva wasn’t my first choice. And it never had been. I had looked at it from time to time, but I thought of it as the Girl Next Door of distros: always there, but not especially interesting. But to my delight, I discovered that the Gnome version was not only not an afterthought, but it was the best Gnome desktop I’d ever seen. (A good thing. Even in its best days, the Work Computer had its hands full running KDE 4.) Mandriva soon became the #1 distro on my Play Computer and the laptop as well. Later, I discovered the unofficial Xfce version and ran it on the Work Computer for a few months before certain struggles with Xfce 4.6 drove me back to Gnome. (I wrote about it on this Bruno’s All Things Linux thread; if you really can’t get enough of my prose, you can read all about it there.)

So, Mandriva was like a very special Girl Next Door.

But in Linux as in life, the road is long, with many a winding turn. One day I ran a system update on the Work Computer, and something went wrong. (Did I learn my lesson from Arch Linux? No, I’m a sloooowwwwww learner!) It wasn’t the debacle that the Arch system update was, but it was disconcerting. I never quite figured this one out, either; but it seems that Mandriva 2010 was approaching the end of its cycle, and I might have hit the FTP server as some eager beaver at Columbia University was dismantling the 2010 FTP server. I used a bunch of urpmi commands to point the update mechanism at a server in Wisconsin (Mandriva had accurately decided Columbia was the most proximate to my humble abode). That helped for a while, kinda, but Mandriva on the Work Computer never really was the same again. Or maybe it was my trust level. I will say that, for all of Mandriva’s considerable virtues, I never spent much time at their Web site. I’m not sure why, but certainly the parent company’s well-documented troubles didn’t imbue me with well-being, and those troubles sometimes bled down into the community and the forums. There might have been an official end-of-life announcement that I missed, but if there was, I wasn’t the only one who missed it.

I retired the Work Computer (I’m in the process of rehabilitating it now, which will give me something to write about in a few weeks), set up the laptop in the living room (it’s noisier than the Work Computer, but I’m there somewhat less these days, and my wife can live with it) with a variety of partitions, and went on my way. I looked forward to Mageia, but as time went on, I looked forward to it less and less.

I tried a beta of the Gnome version, and…while it wasn’t quite as lovely as the Mandriva desktop (the fonts were a little off), it was recognizable, classical Gnome 2. And I knew that soon it would be as abandoned as DOS. I know this isn’t being fair to Mageia, but installing a new Gnome desktop was like drinking of the cup of bitterness. Simultaneously, I installed the DVD version on another computer, and made the mistake of installing the Xfce desktop on top of the KDE one. I booted into the Xfce desktop, and it melted. (Later, I was to find an unauthorized cure, and I’ll try to write about it shortly.) I booted into the KDE desktop and booted right out again. I had never managed to warm to KDE 4, and I did not think now was the time. There may be ways of having the KDE and Xfce desktops reside comfortably together, but I haven’t found it; you end up with a lot of duplication of services, cluttered menus, and paradigms struggling angrily against their confinement. But that, too, is a topic for another post.

I put Mageia away for a while, and for some reason, a couple of weeks back I decided to give it another try. This time I installed the KDE version.

Wow.

Installation
Like Mandriva, Mageia comes in an installable live-CD format (either Gnome or KDE) as well as on a big honkin’ install-only DVD. And I mean honkin’; the .iso was over 4 GB. (Mandriva is dropping official support for Gnome in its forthcoming 2011 release, so there is a divergence right away.) If you have ever installed Mandriva, and I suppose most Penguinistas have, the Mageia installation process will look very familiar. It is a bland but generally straightforward process; it doesn’t take much time, and it asks the right questions. Or…I should mention one “trick”. If you install from the live CD, eventually a screen will pop up asking you where you want to install Grub (Mageia is one of the last Grub 0.97 holdouts).

If you install from the DVD, you won’t get that screen, and you have to change it after you think you have already installed Grub, at a screen that looks a lot like this:

That screenshot is from 2006!! But the Mandriva installer, which as I mentioned has made its way into Mageia more or less wholesale, hasn’t changed a lot through the years. Anyway, it doesn’t show up on this screenshot, but if you scroll down you’ll see an entry called “Bootloader”, and you click the “Configure” button to change where Grub is installed. The first time I installed Mandriva from a DVD, it was version 2010.1, and I thought it was a regression in the installer. It wasn’t; it’s always been like that, I guess, or at least it has been like that since electricity was invented, but I had always installed from CDs before (I was late getting a DVD burner) and never noticed the discrepancy.

During both installation procedures, I noted certain pauses, as if the installer had a momentary change of heart: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. It worked fine; I just thought I’d mention it, even though it’s nothing to worry about.

Initial Impressions
I never had much experience with Mandriva’s KDE version, so I can’t make any comparisions, and I’m in some danger of being all wet from time to time. I hope you don’t mind.

Mageia inherits the legendary Mandriva Control Center and can even still call it MCC. People coming over from another KDE distribution and/or who aren’t familiar with Mandriva may be confused by this; most of the stuff in MCC used to be in the KDE System Settings module, and the division of labor may not be quite intuitive. Crudely summarized, MCC includes the stuff you need to do as root: networking, security, software installation and updating, boot management, and hardware—which includes printers and sound, but is also (and I personally find this less logical) where you turn on Compiz and Metisse. I love MCC and think it is the finest control panel interface in the whole wide world. If you wish to claim that MCC is more appropriate for the Gnome or Xfce desktop environments, though, I wouldn’t argue.

The good news is that Compiz and Metisse are not turned on by default. The bad news is that, like every other KDE 4 distro I’ve ever tried, Mageia comes with that stupid bouncing cursor. The real good news is that if you turn the bouncing cursor off, it almost always stays off. The KDE developers seem to think that everybody needs this kind of effect; I’ve never gotten System Settings | Application and System Notifications | Launch Feedback | Busy Cursor | No Busy Cursor (whew!) to stay set at No Busy Cursor. This is a fairly important issue to me. I really don’t like repetitive motion. I can’t drive in a snowstorm for more than a few minutes without getting hypnotized, for instance. And, being a bit ornery, I feel like if I go to the trouble of turning off the bouncies, my wishes should be respected. Anyway, Mageia does a comparatively crackerjack job at neutralizing this highly abrasive effect.

MCC and System Settings are side-by-side in the Task Manager (which is what normal people might call a taskbar), and System Settings can’t easily be found in the menu, which isn’t necessarily that bad of a thing, because KDE by nature has a System entry in the menu and a Settings entry in the menu, and who can remember which one has System Settings? That’s harder than remembering what’s in MCC and what’s in System Settings. I get a headache just thinking about it! (If you really wanna know, it’s Menu | Tools | System Tools | System Settings, which is kind of like a Fibonacci progression in words, except different.)

Out of the Box Experiences
Mageia is a new distribution, and its repositories are still being populated. I didn’t run into any insurmountable problems, but it may take a while before everything you could possibly want is available.

Office chores are handled by LibreOffice. “Of course they are,” I’m tempted to say. Does any KDE distribution provide the Calligra Suite (formerly KOffice) by default these days? (Actually, a couple of Calligra apps—Calligra Charts, and Calligra Words (I wonder where they came up with that name?)—found their way onto the Fun Computer, on which I used the DVD. I used the live CD to install onto the laptop, and yes, we have no Calligras.) I need Gnumeric for some of my work, so I installed it (and, along with it, as many dependencies as there are horseflies in the hot dog stands at the boardwalk at Misquamicut Beach).

On to multimedia. I couldn’t find Guayadeque, and I’m sorry, but I can’t make heads nor tails out of Amarok (how complicated can you make saving the URL of a radio stream?), so I installed Rhythmbox, which I find to be a bit dull but which is certainly more than competent. Rhythmbox didn’t require as many dependencies as Gnumeric, maybe because Gnumeric took care of some of them, though I don’t know for sure; Banshee would have been a download of close to 100 MB, which I thought was a bit much. Banshee requires a lot of Mono.

Live365 didn’t work out of the box. I installed Flash from Adobe’s site, but when I tried to run Live365 again, I still got an error message. The cure was to uninstall Flash and run Malabi’s shell script. Apparently the installation from Adobe will sometimes fail quietly.

My WiFi didn’t work straight away, either. This appears to be a bug, or maybe I should say an ambiguity, in the Mageia installation procedure. If you happen to have a Broadcom b43 WiFi chip (the Notorious B.4.3.), the instructions given by DShelbyD in the Mageia forums (scroll down most of the way until you peep a couple of white code boxes) worked like a German Shepherd search-and-rescue dog for me.

If you install Mageia from the Live CD, the Kickoff and Lancelot Menus are not even options; you get the plain-chocolate “Classic Menu”, and that’s it. This is no problem for me, as I prefer plain things, and I hope it isn’t for you, dear reader. On the Fun Computer, I get the “Application Launcher” option (aka Kickoff), but not Lancelot, which is in my opinion pretty good, though I understand it isn’t all that popular amongst KDEficionados. (Later: I found Lancelot! It’s available as a widget. I don’t claim to understand why it’s a widget instead of a menu option, and I haven’t tried it out in that form, being quite content with the Classic Menu, but there it is.)

Right-clicking on the menu button brings up a veritable treasure chest of delights. Application Launcher Menu Settings lets you add “recent documents” to the menu, and it works with the Classic Menu, not just the Application Launcher Style menu. Yay! For some reason, and I did find this a very mild annoyance, “recent documents” doesn’t display filename extensions; this document that you are reading, which is “mageia.txt”, displays just as “mageia”, which could be just about anything.

From that right-click, you can also Edit Applications. Edit Applications is really cool. Another annoyance is that the KDE menu tended to put my installed applications (such as Gnumeric) into “More” categories a level below the pre-installed ones. In Edit Applications, you can just drag them around in a way that will be familiar to anybody who ever edited a Windows™ menu. Also, you can go Edit Applications, navigate in the tree to an application to which you want to assign a keystroke, select “advanced” in the right panel, click on where it says “None” next to “Current shortcut key”, and press the shortcut key(s) you want to have launch that application. I use [Ctrl-Shift-F4] for Konsole, the KDE terminal, and [Ctrl-Shift-F5] for Dolphin, the very capable KDE file manager, which is otherwise buried way down in Tools | System Tools in the menu. You can do [Alt-F1] to bring up the menu, but Tools is one of the few entries—that, Games, and a few of the Recent Documents—that doesn’t have a mnemonic, so you have to arrow up to Tools, then arrow left, then hit S for System Tools and D for Dolphin to open it up unmousefully, which seems like a lot of work. Either Mandriva has made keyboard shortcuts very easy to configure, or KDE 4.6.x is a lot easier than previous versions. (The other possibility is that I’m getting smarter, but I think that’s about as likely as the Turtles All the Way Down Theory.) In fact, it is KDE; I’ve also been auditioning Kubuntu 11.04, and the keyboard shortcuts work the same way. I’ve always struggled with KDE 4; I’m not struggling with Mageia’s KDE 4.6.3. In fact, I’m really digging it.

Looking back, I see that in KDE 4.4, you could add keyboard shortcuts in the same way, but they wouldn’t last from one session to the next unless you first went somewhere into System Settings and activated KMenuEdit, and nobody really knew you were supposed to do that. I suspect that this is one of innumerable things have been refined in the 3½ years (!) since KDE 4.0 came out: taking gnarly, complicated interface decisions and turning them into fun interface decisions.

Special Considerations
I had no trouble setting up my Mageia Fun Computer installation as a Samba server. The firewall, Shorewall, is enabled by default, and wouldn’t let me in from the laptop or the Play Computer until I went in and disabled things until it worked. I’m not complaining—in fact, I think it was nice of them to enable Shorewall, and I can always use the exercise that comes from going up and down the stairs (see? Linux is good for you!)—but most distros don’t enable firewalls during the installation, and I wasn’t expecting it (even though Mandriva always did).

Speaking of Samba, KDE handles this a bit differently from what I’m used to. From the laptop, I can grab, say, “mageia.txt” from the Fun Computer, and it’ll open it, but under a funky name like bchwd45789.mageia.txt. When I’m done editing, I’ll save the file, but what KDE does is save the file with the funky name in my /tmp folder, and then ask me, “Upload mageia.txt?” It’s not as transparent for dealing with remote files as Gnome or Xfce are, but that’s not a criticism; it’s just different, that’s all, and if you’re coming over from a different desktop it might take you by surprise. (It has been a while, but in the past the messages were a little less clear and confused me as to their import.) I find working with my home network overall as easy in KDE as in Gnome 2.x, and in Gnome 2.x it’s like a dream.

(For years, we had a server in the basement, running Windows 2000 and Citrix, and then when that server broke down, we got a new one with Windows Server 2003, and we had “thin clients” (the polite term for “dumb terminals”) by Neoware here and there around the house. All this was connected by Ethernet cables, because for some reason wireless has never done well in this house. The Neoware terminals were as quiet as quiet can be, which made them great for my wife, at least for her writing and managing the household and Quicken, but they didn’t have sound, so she could never enjoy multimedia or YouTube or anything like that. I could do some of the Windows™ maintenance myself, but for the big jobs I had to call Manny Theadore in Westerly, who knows a lot more about Windows™ than I ever did, and is a nice guy as well. I can kinda do the Linux stuff myself, though I’ve never done well with NFS and stick with Samba, which people tell me is overall a lot more complicated. I’m really pretty weak in hardware, partly from being a klutz of sorts, so having a more peer-to-peerish type of network works better, since whenever the Windows™ server fried a memory stick I was pretty much out to sea and had to call Manny. The Fun Computer acts as my server, but if it ever has an existential crisis, I could use the Play Computer for the same purpose, unlike the Windows™ server, which controlled everything and didn’t allow the Neoware boxes a mind of their own, which was good because they didn’t have minds. I learned a couple of rsync flags to back up to flash drives, and so I’m usually current with backups within a few hours, and could turn the Play Computer or the laptop into a file server pretty quickly if I had to.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that KDE provides a very welcoming environment for non-KDE applications. I mentioned Rhythmbox (a core Gnome application) and Gnumeric (part of the soi-disant Gnome Office, but more often found in Xfce and “lightweight” distros these days) above, and I’m also very dependent on Opera and, especially, Emacs. They all work fine in KDE, and (except for Emacs, which in all honesty looks sepulchral in every setting) they all look fine, and they look like they belong. The days of “KDE and everything else” are over.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that KDE 4.6 is a spectacular desktop environment. I never thought I’d say that KDE 4.anything would be this good, but once in a while I’m proven wrong, and this time I’m glad. My biggest worry right now is that someday they’ll release KDE 5.0. What does it take to get out of going through all these things twice?

So what about Mageia?
I realize that this self-styled review of Mageia has been more of a meditation on KDE. What about the distro itself? Well, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using it almost exclusively on the Fun Computer, and it’s getting about a third of my laptop time. (Foresight Linux Xfce gets a lot of the work there, and I audition other distros as well.) It has been rock-solid stable in both places.

I mentioned before that the repos weren’t quite as full as they might, and someday will, be. The same may be said for updates. If you install Mageia, which I hope you will, you’ll probably wish to do the updates right away, and there won’t be as many as you will probably expect.

If you wish to install Mageia on a partition and use a pre-existing Grub, be forewarned that running update-grub on your main distribution will insert an entry for Mageia in your Grub menu, but the entry won’t work. You can add one of the following scripts to your /etc/grub.d/40_custom file:

menuentry "Mageia" {
insmod ext2
set root=(hd0,12)
linux (hd0,12)/boot/vmlinuz
initrd (hd0,12)/boot/initrd.img
}

or:

menuentry "Mageia chainloaded" {
root=(hd0,12)
chainloader +1
}

Change (hd0,12) appropriately. After you edit 40_custom, don’t forget to run update-grub. PCLinuxOS requires the same treatment. I personally launch Mageia from the first of those two scripts, and I launch Foresight Linux from a chainload. Mageia, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and Foresight Linux are the four distros I’m familiar with that don’t play well with Grub 2.

In a weird way, I wish I could find something negative to say about Mageia. Okay, the installation was a bit slow in a couple of places, and I’m not nuts about the splash screen. There! I’ve done my job as a perceptive critic, and have inoculated myself against charges of fanboihood. Now I can get on with my life and just say that Mageia is wonderful: one of the very best distributions I have ever used.

Wow.

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10 Responses to Mageia: the return of the Girl Next Door

  1. mechatotoro says:

    I’ve been using Mandriva since 2009 (when I migrated to Linux) and I have found my way around some minor splinters. Even so, I also installed Mageia 1 and, after solving a Wifi kernel-related situation, I was very impressed by this distro. Not only was I pleased by its performace, but also because of their attention to bugs. When I reported a problem with the activation of SCIM and Japanese IME (vital for me, a Japanese instructor), the developers took their time to listen and fixed the issue right away.

  2. jaycee says:

    Thank you for a most enjoyable and thorough review of Mageia 1! It’s great you’ve come to like Mageia 1 and KDE 4 so much! With respect to KDE 5.0, I think we’ll find it’ll be a fantastic release – http://aseigo.blogspot.com/2011/05/relax.html. Enjoy your continued use of Mageia 1! :)

  3. Pingback: Links 21/7/2011: Linux is Gradually Beating Apple in Europe | Techrights

  4. darkduck says:

    Funny and lengthy… with lots of side-words… Enjoyable!

    Here are my reviews of Mageia if anyone is interested…
    http://linuxblog.darkduck.com/2011/06/mageia-is-it-kind-of-magic.html
    http://linuxblog.darkduck.com/2011/06/mageia-cal-win-over-humanity.html

    BTW… I found another way to get b43 flying. It’s inside.

  5. shamil says:

    I like mandriva for what kind of operating system it is. It is purely awesome. So is pclos. Forked mandriva base linuxes aren’t that common. but pclos doesn’t update enough, and has only 32 bit flavors. mandriva just sucks from the technical perspective that urpmi tries to be a lot like apt. just that urpmi isn’t anywhere near as reliable as apt. sticking with debian, although my adventure with mandriva is fun, i’m sure mageia is too.

  6. Iseabal says:

    NW. the girl next door :) … That awkward moment when your watchin the girl next door with your mom O_o lol.

  7. Pingback: Mageia, three months (or so) on | Linux is my life

  8. Rohan says:

    Great review and comments. I tried Mageia before release of Mageia 1 and it was OK but not that fast. However after GNOME 2 troubles with a very steady distribution I decided to try Mageia 1 KDE 32 bit. Fantastic particularly as I am looking for a stable reliable distro for family to use. Your comments on how to kill that bouncing ball cursor are deeply appreciated. On Mageia 1 the only difficulty I have is managing the source repository. I know it is a pretty GUI for doing it but it is very confusing. I am used to fixing up source.list files in Debian based distros no problems. I am sure I will get it right eventually. A great distro and this version of KDE works fine. Thanks for your reviews.

  9. S:R says:

    Just one thing. Please try CrunchBang! Stable, stable, wonderful and awesome. NO PROBLEMS at all !!!! S. Sweden

  10. Jonny B. says:

    I know this is a bit of an old review now, but total deja vu for me lately:

    I started with Mandriva KDE, but when Mandy disintegrated I tried Kubuntu and then Chakra (I suppose I would be a KDE fanboi to be honest, but I keep it to myself.)

    Chakra was great for me, and everything I thought a distro would be if I made it myself! But then, lo and behold:

    pacman -Syu

    And the video driver was “updated” to something that wouldn’t work! Luckily the screen didn’t blank, but anytime certain things happened, the video driver would konk out and kick me back to the login screen, losing whatever hadn’t been saved.

    And then I tried Mageia (v2) and haven’t been so satisfied in a long time!

    Total deja vu…

    My sole hope for Mageia is that they put some effort into keeping Calligra up to date actually. I vastly prefer its UI, document mixability, and its focus on frames and styles to the dated MSO knockoffs of LO and OOo. If I send a document to an MSO user in ODF and they can’t open it, I figure they can call MS’ helpdesk. If I’m feeling kind I tell them to install LO themselves.

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