Linux: The Best New User Distribution is not Necessarily Ubuntu

Update October 2011: I have left Mandriva due to problems with its change in ownership and direction in late 2010. The Mageia Linux distribution, a Mandriva fork, has all the things I liked about Mandriva, but none of the management problems that are affecting Mandriva’s quality. The points I make in this article in regard to Mandriva also apply to Mageia. My company now promotes Mageia Linux as our primary desktop Linux solution. We have offered Linux pre-loaded computers for several years now with choice of any of the “Top 20” at DistroWatch. Mageia is added to those choices.

For some time now I have watched Canonical grab headlines touting its ‘buntu releases, such as Ubuntu and Kubuntu, as “newbie” friendly. Much of the IT press goes along with this marketing scheme. Quite frankly, I am happy to see Canonical get attention for Linux in general. Getting more positive exposure for Linux is always good. Even “unfriendly” or “negative” exposure is good for Linux if one looks at it as simply more exposure. The people spreading Fear and Uncertainty through Disinformation (FUD) about Linux are simply helping to spread awareness of Linux. Good for them! Let us all pray they keep doing that. Not everyone hearing or reading FUD is going to take it at face value. Those that do not take anti-Linux FUD at face value are more than likely to become Linux users in the long run. The fact that almost everyone in the IT press and in the IT industry is aware of Linux or talking about Linux is excellent. Much of this exposure is due to Canonical and Ubuntu.

But, all that said, is Ubuntu truly the “best” new user distribution? Well, no, not really. (Wait! Before you tar and feather me, read the rest of this article.)

What one can objectively say is that the ‘buntu lines are new user friendly. However, the word “best” is highly subjective when applied to any man made creation. I submit that there are several, equally good, new user Linux distributions. The other new user distributions I would personally recommend in my order of preference are:

  1. Mandriva Linux (RPM based Package Management, independent development not based on any other distribution.)
  2. PCLinuxOS (RPM based Package Management, derivative of Mandriva Linux.)
  3. Linux Mint (DEB based package management, derivative of ‘buntu and Debian GNU/Linux.)
  4. MEPIS Linux (DEB based package management, derivative of Debian GNU/Linux.)

I am sure many will have other new user distributions to recommend and may argue against my choices. Debate over distributions is one thing that is not in short supply in the Linux community. However, I am going out on a limb to state that Mandriva Linux is easily at the top of the list of new user distributions. I am confident that this assertion will hold up under scrutiny once I make my case.

The Mandriva team has put a great deal of effort into making Mandriva easy to install and easy to manage from a new user perspective. For a small walk-through of a Mandriva 2010 installation using VirtualBox see this article at ghacks.net. One may take my word for it that Mandriva 2010 is easy to install, or one may get a Mandriva Linux One 2010 Live CD ISO or a full Mandriva Linux Free 2010 DVD ISO and try it out for oneself.

Caveat: all Linux distributions are likely to have problems with some proprietary WiFi chips on some laptop and notebook PC systems. I strongly suggest you Do Your Research before trying to install on your own laptop or notebook PC.

One excellent feature of Mandriva Linux is the Mandriva Linux Control Center (a.k.a. MCC) which has an X GUI version for the true novice and a text mode command line version for the not so much a novice or the true novice that needs to fix a broken X. A novice Linux user may manage Mandriva fairly well just using the MCC GUI. Here are screen shots of the GUI version of MCC in Mandriva Linux 2010 (clickable for full size versions).

MCC Software Management Page

The software management page makes it extremely easy for the new Linux user to manage the software on his desktop PC. Yes, there is some learning involved in using this software management system. For one thing, the first thing I do and recommend on a new install of Mandriva is to remove the default package sources and add preferred sources from http://easyurpmi.zarb.org/old/ on the first reboot following installation. While this is not necessary in most cases, it does help when one learns which sources are updated faster than others and are more reliable.

The need to learn new things is true of any new operating system. I would include learning Microsoft Windows 7 in that list for those that are migrating from Microsoft Windows XP. If one is going to have to learn a new system anyway by a jump from XP to W7, maybe it is time to give Mandriva Linux a try.

MCC Hardware Management Page

The Hardware Management Page makes adding printers and scanners a snap for the new user.

MCC Network and Internet Management Page

Connecting to a LAN or to the internet is made fairly simple with the Network & Internet Management Page.

MCC System Management Page

I think the options on the System Management Page are self explanatory. If in doubt, install Mandriva Linux 2010 and look it over for yourself.

MCC Network Sharing Management Page

Need to share files in some of your directories? Need to connect to some shared directories elsewhere on your LAN? The Network Sharing Management Page is the easy choice for the new user.

MCC Local Disks Management Page

Disk management under Linux made easy. If you just installed a second hard drive that you want to use for data storage (Think of all those digital pictures you take.) then this page is where a new user can go to set up that new drive. The “Manage disk partitions” section is where the magic happens for that.

MCC Security Management Page

Want an easy way to manage the firewall on your Linux PC? Look no further than the “Setup your personal firewall” section of the MCC Security Management Page.

MCC Boot Management Page

While the MCC Boot Management Page is not likely to be needed often by new Linux users it makes managing the boot settings of a Mandriva Linux system extremely easy. Yes, one should know a bit more about boot setup before diving into this but this page still makes managing Grub or LILO a fairly easy task.

Here is a screen shot of the text mode version of MCC one can run from the command line:

MCC Text Mode Main Page

Mandriva requires that MCC be run as the root (administrator) user. Thus one must know the root password to access these controls. This means that the Mandriva distribution may also be easily deployed in a locked down state for business use where the end-user has no knowledge of the root password. A novice Linux user that installs on her own PC or purchases a PC with Mandriva pre-installed would need to learn to keep the roles of user and administrator separate with separate accounts, as the Unix gods intended.

Okay, I can already hear some of you Linux cognoscenti stuttering, “BUT… BUT … BUT this just teaches a new user how to use Linux the Mandriva way! They need to know The Linux Way!” I agree, to a point. Many a new Linux user needs a way to get started in Linux without needing to learn everything from the start. These graphical tools provided by Mandriva are one answer to this problem. Not all new Linux users are going to need to, or want to, learn the guts of Linux and how to do everything The Linux Way. These folks will learn the Mandriva tools and probably stick with Mandriva. The ‘buntu users will learn the ‘buntu tools and probably stick with ‘buntu. This is okay with me. It should be okay with you too. After all, we tout “choice” as one reason to use Linux. Therefore we should honor the choice of these users to do things as easily as possible, for them.

In any case, the Mandriva distribution provides an easy to use graphical interface for the novice Linux user to manage her Mandriva Linux PC. I know, I know, I know, other Linux distributions have similar systems. In my subjective opinion, the Mandriva Control Center is the most well done of those I have seen personally. This places Mandriva at the top of my list for new user Linux distributions. If you are a long time Linux user and disagree then please feel free to post a polite comment with your reasoning. After all, you deserve to be heard as much as I do on this matter. 🙂

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GNU/Linux Software I Use Regularly

I recently received an e-mail from a friend that has started using Ubuntu. He is rather new when it comes to running a GNU/Linux desktop and has asked me several questions. One of the questions was basically what software do I use and recommend. This is a serious question that a lot of new users will probably want to know.

Those of us who have been GNU/Linux desktop users for a long time take for granted the packages we install and use. As we have paid our dues to learn the ropes, one way we can help new users is to tell them what we use and make recommendations. It helps to have a base of software from which to start because there are so many choices under GNU/Linux a new user can easily become overwhelmed.

So, for my friend, and for all of you other new users out there, here is the software I use regularly.

My distribution of choice is Mandriva. Mandriva is a RPM based distribution and has several very well written tools to help one manage one’s desktop system. Since RPM is a requirement for Linux Standards Base (LSB) I prefer to stick with RPM based distributions. Mandriva was one of the first, if not the first, RPM based distribution to solve the “RPM dependency Hell” that so many encountered in the early days of RPM distributions.

My “desktop” runs a light window manager named fluxbox. I am not fond of Gnome nor KDE as they are too bloated to start with. Sure one can strip them down, but I would prefer to start light and add only what I want or need. Plus some of my friends I know that run Gnome and KDE do occasionally have broken desktops from trying to update them with the latest and greatest. Due to the complexity of the Desktop Environments (DE) like Gnome and KDE they can be a bear to try to upgrade. Especially for my friends that have jumped from an older primary version to a newer primary version like from KDE3 to KDE4. Just search the web and one can find story after story of upgrade PAIN going from KDE3 to KDE4. Due to upgrade problems under KDE one of my friends now says she has a new swear word, “KDE4”. With fluxbox I have never had such a problem and do not expect to ever have a broken “desktop” because of a fluxbox upgrade.

I monitor my system temperatures and fans with lm_sensors and the sensors krell in Gkrellm. Gkrellm also lets me see at a glance how much space is left on certain partitions I want to monitor. As well as showing me free RAM and other niceties like uptime and process usage.

I always have several xterm windows open to a bash command line. From these I can use dictd and the dict client to look up words and phrases from dictionaries I installed. Here is a little script I run from ‘root’ to install the dictionaries I want when I do a fresh install on new hardware:

#!/bin/bash
urpmi dictd-server dictd-utils dictd-client dictd-dicts-devils dictd-dicts-easton dictd-dicts-eng-fra dictd-dicts-foldoc dictd-dicts-fra-eng dictd-dicts-gazetteer dictd-dicts-gcide dictd-dicts-jargon dictd-dicts-vera dictd-dicts-web1913 dictd-dicts-wn dictd-dicts-world95

The urpmi command is one of those nice tools written for Mandriva that I mention. There are several urpm* commands one may use to manage software from the command line. Mandriva also has a nice GUI called ‘rpmdrake’ that one may run instead of command line versions. Both package systems allow one to search for packages. However, the command line urpm* tools do have a more robust search which can be combined with other command line tools to parse the output.

I use aiksaurus from the command line in one of the xterm windows for my Thesaurus. Here is some example output from aiksaurus:

aiksaurus newcomer
=== immigrant ================
arrival, arriviste, comer, emigrant, entrant, fledgling, greenhorn, immigrant, intruder, newcomer, outsider, parvenu, recruit, rookie, settler, squatter, tenderfoot, upstart, visitor

I believe there are GUI front ends available for both dictd and aiksaurus. But as I have never used them I will let others share about those in the comments.

I always have GNU Midnight Commander, mc, file manager running in one of the xterm windows. I prefer mc for most of my file management duties. It is lightweight and can run from a command line when one’s GUI has taken a nose dive. It is installed by default with Mandriva.

My web browsers, yes I use two regularly, are Firefox and Opera. I use Firefox primarily with Opera as my backup for rendering some broken sites that do not play well with Firefox. With Firefox I have NoScript as well as several other add-ons to block certain web annoyances that do annoy me. For example, I want to see Flash content only when I choose to see it. One of the Firefox add-ons is Flashblock. Flashblock will block Flash content but gives one a button to click to allow the content to run. This along with NoScript can really speed up access to certain sites that are rife with advertising screaming for one’s attention.

I use Kontact, yes it is a KDE application, which is a personal information manager that combines Kmail (e-mail), Knode (USENET news reader), calendar, contact manager, notes widget, ToDo list, Journal, and Akregator (RSS feed reader).

For instant messaging I use Kopete. Another KDE application. It allows me to contact friends, family and acquaintances on several instant messaging services including AIM, Jabber and Windows Live Messenger.

Xchat 2 is my IRC application of choice. I use it to connect to Freenode and a couple of other IRC networks to keep in touch with official project channels and support. Such as the #mandriva channel on Freenode for the times I need to ask a silly question instead of searching the web for the answer on my own.

My office suite is OpenOffice.org. I was pleasantly surprised recently to discover that OpenOffice.org Writer will now open WordPerfect 12 documents. With the contributions from IBM (I presume) it also will open my old Lotus WordPro documents. Naturally OpenOffice.org will open and edit Microsoft Word and Excel format files. When using Microsoft proprietary files I recommend saving them as Open Document Format (ODF) files whenever possible.

My financial management software is GNUcash. GNUcash does what I need to keep up with my personal finances and my small business finances. GNUcash does not have a “payroll” feature, yet. Since I do not need a payroll feature for my small business the ability to track accounts payable, accounts receivable and print professional looking invoices is enough for me.

I occasionally need to crop a picture or tweak a graphic for my web sites. My choice for that is The GNU Image Manipulation Program, a.k.a. The GIMP. I could not care less if The GIMP does not work like Adobe Photoshop. The GIMP does what I need it to do. All the graphics professionals that whine about needing Photoshop on GNU/Linux or they cannot use GNU/Linux miss the point of FOSS. They should get involved with The GIMP project and help add the features desired. If they cannot program they can at least test and provide feedback. In the end everyone wins with better The GIMP for all.

Those are the software packages I use most to Get Things Done. What about play time? I do have a few games I like when I need a break from reality. The games I play regularly are Wolfenstein Enemy Territory (3D FPS), Unreal Tournament 2004 (3D FPS), and Quake IV (3D FPS). These are three dimensional (3D) first person shooter (FPS), shoot ’em and blow ’em up games. I bought Unreal Tournament and Quake, but Wolfenstein Enemy Territory is “free”. When I feel less aggrieved with life I play around with Flight Gear (3D flight simulator) and TORCS (a 3D car racing game). All of these games run natively on GNU/Linux. I will only run games that run natively on GNU/Linux. I will even buy games that run natively on GNU/Linux. If a game does not run natively on GNU/Linux and requires WINE I won’t buy it nor will I “pirate” it to run it.

That is the list of software I use the most on my GNU/Linux PC. Feel free to share your own list of software in a comment.

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Edit Fri Sep 11 11:16:54 CDT 2009: Clarify the line about FPS.

Compiz Fusion, Mandriva 2008.1 on AMD Phenom Quad-core PC with Demo

We have a client that needs a new server for their primary Point of Sale site (SCO OpenServer 5.0.5 + Advantage accounting. I know “SCO! hiss! boo!” but this is what they have used “forever”, meaning about 20 years. We tried to move them to LedgerSMB on Mandriva Linux but it does not fill their needs at this time. While migration from older Unix Point of Sale might be problematic we still recommend Linux + LedgerSMB for sites needing a startup Point of Sale solution.). The old server hardware is getting flaky after running every day since the year 2000. I think the new server is rather “sexy” (I would like one myself):

  • THERMALTAKE Wing RS 100 VG1000BNS Mid Tower Case (x1)
  • Enermax EG565P-VE FMA 535W Power Supply (x1)
  • MSI K9A2 Platinum AMD 790FX Phenom Socket AM2+ ATX Motherboard (x1)
  • AMD Phenom X4 9750 Quad Core Socket AM2 2.4GHZ 4MB Cache 125W Processor (x1)
  • KINGSTON KVR800D2N5K2/4G 4GB PC2-6400 (DDR2-800) SDRAM Memory (x1)
  • ADAPTEC RAID 3405 SGL/128 w/o Cables 2251900-R SAS/RAID Controller Card (x1)
  • WD1500ADFD 150GB Serial ATA 10,000RPM Hard Drive w/16MB Buffer (x3)
  • SAMSUNG SH-S203B/BEBN 20X DVD?RW Black (x1)
  • 1.44MB 3.5in Floppy Disk Drive (x1)
  • ACER AL1716FB 17in 800:1 5ms LCD Monitor Black (x1)
  • Keyboard and Mouse Combo (x1)
  • ATI Radeon X1650 Pro 512MB PCI Express x16 Video Card (x1)

This is going to be running as a three drive SATA RAID system using the Adaptec controller. There will be an 8-port multi-port serial board moved from the old system to this one to run the WYSE 60 Point of Sale terminals and one serial printer. We are waiting for the “special” cable to come in for the RAID controller (I forgot to order the darn thing) and for the new SCO OpenServer 6 license and media to arrive.

While waiting I decided to install Mandriva 2008.1 Linux on the system this weekend as my “test suite” software to test the hardware. I hooked the WD Raptor drives up to the on-board SATA connectors for this. The Mandriva install was uneventful except for a problem with the graphics display not installing properly for the ATI based card. I eventually got it working with a VESA mode and then installed the dkms-fglrx module from Mandriva after the first reboot (this module gives 3D video capability using the ATI based video controllers). After doing this I decided I would install and play with Compiz Fusion (a 3D desktop enhancement for Linux) to give the video hardware a workout. The Compiz Fusion install went well but when I logged out to reset the GUI subsystem I lost all video output on all console screens (F1 through F7)! This was disconcerting but I was able to reboot the system with the three fingered salute (Ctrl + Alt + Del). When the system came back up Compiz Fusion was running and I logged into a KDE desktop session to play with it. Logging out still loses the video output if running in runlevel 5 so at this point I boot to runlevel 3, login to my user account from a console prompt and run startx. This seems to work better than using the ‘*dm’ program in runlevel 5. Regardless of these minor annoyances (which may just be related to the specific graphics adapter used here) Compiz Fusion is quite fun, I recommend trying it.

I have seen several demo videos of Linux 3D desktops and have always considered doing one myself. After playing with Compiz Fusion for a while I decided to do one myself. I tried several different packages and none of them gave me a smooth video. I ended up using Istanbul to create the video in OGG Theora format then used ffmpeg to convert it to MPEG4. I wanted to show people the 3D desktop but I also wanted folks to see how easy one can do things from the GUI on a Mandriva 2008.1 system now. Mainly installing software and updates is as simple as it gets. See the demo to see what I mean: Mandriva 2008.1 Session Demo (MPEG4) 34,656,275 bytes

Here is the same demo compressed into a .zip file for those of you who would prefer to download it and view it offline: Mandriva 2008.1 Session Demo (zipped MPEG4) 25,080,970 bytes

This demo runs at 1024×768 and is a bit “jerky” even though I was recording on a Quad-core system with 4GB of RAM and a decent graphics adapter. If anyone has a clue for me on getting a smooth X desktop video demo I would love to see it. Please post a comment or contact me using our contact form.

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Managing Mandriva’s /etc/resolv.conf from the CLI

There appears to be confusion in the Mandriva community about how to manage a PC using a static IP address (no DHCP client) with static nameserver entries in /etc/resolv.conf from the Linux command line interface (CLI). With newer versions of Mandriva the /etc/resolv.conf file is managed by the /sbin/resolvconf executable. There is a comment in /etc/resolv.conf to not edit the file directly as it will be overwritten.

The proper files to edit under Mandriva for /etc/resolv.conf at this point are in /var/run/resolvconf/interface/ and/or /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/. If one wants the individual interfaces, say on a laptop, to use different nameservers then edit the files in /var/run/resolvconf/interface/. Most folks use a laptop with DHCP only and thus the nameserver entries are managed automatically. There are situations where that may not be practical so this information is provided for those situations. However, for a desktop or tower PC with a static IP address one will most likely be using a single interface. Therefore one will edit the /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/base file to include up to three nameserver entries. Note that the base file is only parsed if it has only lines starting with nameserver in it. Here is an example /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/base file:

nameserver 10.0.0.1
nameserver 10.0.1.2
nameserver 10.1.2.3

The /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/base, /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/head and /etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/tail files are explained in the resolvconf man page:

/etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/base

     File  containing  basic resolver information.
     The lines in this file are included in the
     resolver configuration file  even  when no
     interfaces are configured.

/etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/head

     File  to be prepended to the dynamically
     generated resolver configuration file.
     Normally this is just a comment line.

/etc/resolvconf/resolv.conf.d/tail

     File to be appended to the dynamically
     generated  resolver  configuration file.
     To append nothing, make this an empty
     file.

If one discovers that resolvconf is being used based on the comment in the /etc/resolv.conf file then reading the man page for resolvconf can be enlightening,