Not magnifique

I used Mandrake Linux for years before switching to Fedora Core and then to Ubuntu Linux last spring - around the same time Mandrake, which is based in France, bought a Brazilian Linux distributor called Conectiva and renamed itself Mandriva.

Mandriva Linux 2006, the latest release, feels very much like a natural evolution of earlier Mandrake releases - in both good and bad ways. As I tested the PowerPack edition of Mandriva 2006, I was disappointed to find many of the same rough edges that drove me away from Mandrake still present in this new incarnation.

Mandriva Linux 2006 PowerPack will set you back $US79.90 (around $125). The software comes on DVD and is bundled with two manuals; alternatively, you can download seven CD image files. I haven't seen the manuals; Mandriva provided software only for this review.

Also worth noting is the three-CD Free Edition, a cost-free download from the Community section of the Mandriva Web site (http://frontal2.mandriva.com/en). If you opt for that version, you'll be on your own to acquire and install non-free niceties such as a Flash player, Java, closed-source 3D video drivers, and so forth - all of which come with the paid version.

Not so scary

Mandriva 2006's installer won't ask you any scary questions about your hardware. Gnome 2.10 and KDE 3.4 are both offered, and the default desktop configuration for each is clutter-free and attractive. Plug in a digital camera, and the system asks whether you want to import your photos. Pop in a USB memory stick, and an icon for the device appears on your desktop. And so on.

It's a sign of how far desktop Linux has come that I'm no longer pleasantly surprised when I encounter this sort of friendly functionality - these days, I expect it. So in most ways, Mandriva 2006 is very similar to the other desktop Linux distributions I've played with over the past year or so. Even with its faults, this product delivers a much better desktop experience than what any Linux vendor provided two short years ago.

But as to those faults: They begin with the installer, and they're old problems. When I used Mandrake, I frequently had issues with the installer locking up, or sometimes completing its work but leaving me with a broken installation. My first Mandriva 2006 installation attempt failed, complaining that several files were unreadable on disc. When I booted to the desktop, no applications were available.

The second installation attempt from the same set of discs did eventually work; towards the end of the routine, though, the program seemed to hang. The installer told me that only 10 seconds remained in the process, then sat there for more than four minutes, doing I know not what, seemingly frozen. It finally told me that I was through and could press "Return" to reboot into Mandriva Linux. (Return? Every PC keyboard I've ever seen has an Enter key, not a Return key. Even the French ones are labelled "Entree".)

Attention to detail has never been a Mandrake/Mandriva strong suit. For example, at one point the installer prompted me with the message "When sure, press Ok" - and the only buttons visible on screen were labelled "Previous" and "Next." You should also prepare yourself for some rough translations from Mandriva's native French, like "How to maintain your system up-to-date?"

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