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Linux Shootout: 7 Desktop Distros Compared

We tested openSUSE, Ubuntu 8.04, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva Linux One, Fedora, SimplyMEPIS, and CentOS 5.1. All performed well, and each had at least one truly outstanding feature.

Mandriva Linux One 2008

The source for MEPIS and PCLinuOX, Mandriva has a long history of development behind it.
(click for image gallery)

Mandriva was formerly known as Mandrake and has become the inspiration for a number of other distributions (such as PCLinuxOS, also reviewed here). Like MEPIS, a big bonus in Mandriva is the presence of a slew of system-configuration tools that pull together a good many disparate functions under a couple of common roofs. I should point out that there are two basic versions of the core Mandriva distribution -- Linux One, which has non-free/proprietary components, but is more complete (the one I looked at), and Linux Free, which contains nothing proprietary, but might not work with all hardware.

Mandriva's setup process is much the same as in its derivative distros, and requires a little care: you need to know something about disk partitioning, etc., or you're likely to find the prompts confusing. Once you're into the actual installation process, though, you're treated to a nice bonus: a soothing nature slideshow that unfolds as files are copied. Sadly, there's no migration assistance from a Windows installation, but you can resize a Windows partition and dual-boot if you have only one partition available.

After the first stage of installation, Mandriva runs you through a network-configuration wizard and lets you set up the root password and add user accounts. Once you get a desktop you'll probably want to dive into Mandriva's Linux Control Center, available directly from the bottom launch panel, which kicks you into a tabbed interface where you can select from a lot of common configuration functions. From there I got wireless networking running (which was a snap) and ran the package updater.

With the VAIO, I had trouble getting X to detect the proper display size until I used the generic VESA driver (after which it worked perfectly). Another letdown on the VAIO was that the SD card slot didn't seem to work out of the box, although its suspend/resume functions did work. The Thinkpad's graphics worked fine, but it would only hibernate and not suspend to RAM. Sadly, the Dell refused to even boot the Mandriva installation CD properly, no matter what kernel parameters I passed. On the plus side, Mandriva ran with native mouse/display integration in VirtualBox -- something that no other distribution seemed to have.

Fedora 8

Apart from Ubuntu, Fedora is one of the most polished distributions out there. I'd be somewhat shocked if it wasn't: this is, after all, a distribution derived from the venerable and world-class Red Hat Linux, so it had better show some class. It does, although it also exhibits a few quirks that you need to be mindful of.

After an initial text-mode setup phase (mostly for the sake of testing the media), you're kicked into Fedora's Anaconda graphical installer. The install options are pretty succinct, and you can also elect to add packages in three basic categories during the install: general productivity, software development, and Web serving. You get a running catalog of all the packages as they're installed, and you can even inspect the release notes while the install continues in the background. If you install from the live CD rather than the DVD, the package list is a good deal smaller, but you can still install the full complement of software from Fedora's repositories after the fact.

You'll get a slightly different set of default productivity applications, depending on which media you use to do the install. Use the live CD and you'll have AbiWord; use the DVD and you'll get Since both are in the repositories, you can always change them after the fact. One major addition present in both CD and DVD installs is the SELinux policy-enforcement tool, which is going to be mainly of interest to gurus, but is still a nice value-add. In both cases, though, some things you might expect to be installed by default aren't, such as the keyring manager -- something you'll probably need to install if you have wireless networks.

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