Going back to my roots: testing Mageia 4 beta

Many years ago I used to be a Mandriva user and contributor, mostly active in packaging software. I stopped my contributions because I had the feeling the distribution was having more and more trouble keeping up with all new evolutions in the GNU Linux free software world and was loosing ground to other, more innovative distributions. Finally I settled for Debian myself. Even though it is not always the most innovative distribution itself, I liked its open, independent community-based nature.

Now after all this time, I was curious to see how my former favourite distribution had evolved. Mandriva was forked by former Mandriva employees and contributors, and so Mageia was born. Mageia is currently developing version 4 of its distribution and released beta 2 two weeks ago, on 13 December 2013. I decided to try out this version.

The installation

I used the 64 bit installation DVD of beta 2 to install Mageia with KDE in a KVM virtual machine. On a second system, I set up a KVM virtual machine where I did a network installation of the development version Cauldron at the end of December 2013 with GNOME.

The installation has not changed significantly since the Mandriva times years ago. While the installer worked fine, I had the feeling that it could actually be simplified a bit for the user and several steps could be completely removed. On my KVM virtual machine with QXL graphics, I was asked to select my monitor from a list, where “Plug ‘n Play” monitor was selected by default. This default option worked fine, but why is the user asked to select one if it is just plug ‘n play? Mageia still creates a file /etc/X11/xorg.conf, which is not needed any more for years except if you use proprietary NVidia or AMD drivers or have some very unusual configuration.

Also the selection of repositories and installation of updates did not feel very efficient. After the disk partitioning, the user is informed that the Core and non-free software repositories will be used during the installation and is asked whether he wants to add any additional CD, HTTP, FTP or NFS media. In the next step, the user is asked whether he wants to use non-free, and finally the user is asked whether to install KDE, GNOME or custom desktop (it’s unspecified what this means exactly). At the end of the installation, the user can install all available updates. This step does not appear to be properly integrated in the installer and just appears to be the desktop updater running during the installation: after choosing to install the updates in the installer, the user needs to confirm a second time all packages which will be updated and after the updates are installed, the user is recommended to reboot the system because a new kernel was installed. This does not make much sense, as the user needs to reboot anyway after the OS installation finishes.

I think all these repository, package selection and update steps could easily be reduced to one single screen where the user selects his preferred desktop and there are 3 additional checkboxes: one to enable network repositories (with a standard HTTP mirror selected by default, and a Custom button in case the user wants to do something special like adding a mirror on the local intranet), a second checkbox to enable non-free media and a third one to enable tainted software. In case the user selects the latter 2 boxes, software like the Adobe Flash plug-in and the tainted audio and video codecs should be installed by default. Also the step at the end to install all updates could then be removed, as they would already be installed.

In my beta 2 KDE set up, it looked like I had to manually check the box to install an NTP client to automatically synchronise the time via network, however on my Cauldron installation it was set up by default. This might have been a bug which was fixed after beta 2.

All in all, the installation works, but it appears to be more complicated than distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora.

KDE

After the installation the system was rebooted and I could log in to KDE. Booting appeared to be very quick in my virtual machine, KDE log in is a bit slower. The KDM session menu seems cluttered though: there is not only a KDE 4 session. Additional choices are IceWM, Failsafe, Custom and drak3d. When I select KDE in the installer, I only expect KDE: I think there is no need to set up any more sessions.

The user is greeted with a welcome screen. It looks a bit cluttered with too much text, but it has one great feature: in the Applications tab, some very popular software packages are proposed for installation. So even though the Flash plug-in and tainted multimedia codecs were not installed by default on my test system, it was very easy to install them from this screen. This is a very nice improvement which makes the first set up easier for both newcomers and advanced users.

Mageia does not use the Kickoff menu used by most other KDE based distributions but it uses a more classic applications menu. This classic menu makes browsing around the menu much quicker quicker in my opinion, but it does not allow you to search applications by typing their name or description. The applications are just identified by their name with a description hidden in a tooltip which appears when you hover over the name for a second. Maybe for new Linux users it would be easier to have these descriptions shown by default, like Kickoff does. The menu style can be changed by right clicking on the menu button on the panel.

Speaking of the applications menu, I think it is too much cluttered in a default installation. This is partly because too many applications are installed by default and partly because too much menu items are created for items which do not need to be in the applications menu at all.

For example, Mageia installs two instant messaging applications by default: KDE Telepathy and Kopete and a separate IRC client (Konversation). There are three different video players installed: KDE’s own Dragon Player, GNOME’s Totem and Xine. FileZilla is still installed by default, even though only few people today need a dedicated FTP client and also the default installation of Konqueror is debatable: as a browser it is completely outdated/unmaintained (and thus probably insecure) and as a file browser Dolphin is a fine replacement for most people. KDE Telepathy IM adds two menu items in the Internet menu, one for the contact list, one for the log viewer, as does KMail, which adds a separate KMail Header Theme editor (is there anyone using this?). And how many people know and use applications like ChBG, AMZ Downloader, Chainsaw and Logfactor5?

It is clear that the KDE applications menu really needs a serious diet in Mageia. In other KDE based distributions like Kubuntu, the menus look much less cluttered and more professional.

In recent versions of KDE, there is now a “Recently installed” menu folder. This is a nice feature which makes it easier to find applications which you have just installed. On the other hand, I think I would rather prefer new applications to be shown with a coloured background in the menu, like in the Windows 7 Start menu. This way, people learn the normal location of the newly installed application. This is important because applications will not remain in the Recently installed menu forever I guess.

In my limited testing, KDE as installed by Mageia was very stable. Mageia now uses the KDE Oxygen theme and enables some unintrusive graphical desktop effects by default. Also GTK+ applications and LibreOffice use the Oxygen theme and Firefox uses KDE file dialogs, so everything looks nicely integrated.

GNOME

Just like in a default KDE installation, the login manager is also cluttered with a collection of different sessions: there is twice a session called “GNOME”, there is “GNOME Classic” and “GNOMEClassic”, IceWM and drak3d.

After logging in, users of the GNOME desktop are also greeted with the Mageia Welcome screen and can easily install applications from there. Here in GNOME, the application is just identified as “mageiawelcome.py” without any proper icon in the GNOME Shell top bar.

The default GNOME installation is less cluttered than the default KDE installation, even though again Logfactor5 and Chainsaw are present in the list of applications which can be started. I am also not convinced that a default GNOME installation should include things like Blender, Planner, FileZilla, Dia, Inkscape and Audacity as these are rather specialized applications. Also two music players were installed: GNOME Music and Rhythmbox. GNOME Music is considered as an unfinished preview application in GNOME 3.10, so I do not think it should be installed by default yet in Mageia.

On the other hand, I was surprised to find that the OpenSSH client was not installed, while it was installed in a default KDE installation. Because the ssh command was missing, the sftp:// protocol in the Nautilus file manager was not working.

The default web browser proposed in GNOME is Epiphany (a.k.a. Web). I think Firefox would be a much better choice as default web browser as it has likely better compatibility with more websites because Firefox is much more known than Epiphany. In any case: a movie clip from the Apple Trailers website worked fine in Firefox, but did not play at all in Web and when trying to play a movie on the BBC News web site in Web, not only Web, but also the whole X session crashed. Also webkitgtk+, the engine used by Web does not appear to receive security updates, so also from a security point of view, I recommend Firefox or Chromium.

The default GTK+ theme when using GNOME, is also the Oxygen theme. It feels a bit strange to use a typical KDE theme in a GNOME session and not the default Adwaita theme, although it is more a matter of choice I guess. Some applications, especially Mageia’s own configuration tools, do not have a high resolution icon, which makes them look blurry in the GNOME Shell applications overview. I also did not like the default settings of the fonts on my system: I had to change the hinting from medium to slight in GNOME Tweak Tool to have crisp fonts.

What is annoying in the GNOME Shell is that long application names are not wrapped over two lines but are “ellipsized”. This way it is hard for users to recognise for example the different LibreOffice applications. This is not a Mageia specific problem though but an upstream decision.

If you do not like the GNOME Shell, you can start up the GNOME Classic session in the login manager. This desktop has a more traditional GNOME 2 like look with an applications menu at the top and the window list at the bottom. Unfortunately it does not seem finished because it is impossible to set a background wallpaper since Nautilus has dropped support of rendering the background, so users are left with an ugly grey background. Also when moving the mouse cursor to the left top corner, the complete GNOME Shell Activities screen is shown, including its wallpaper, which looks very strange.

Other applications

A bit to my surprising, Mageia chose to use the ESR version of Firefox, which is currently version 24. I could not find the latest “normal” Firefox release, currently version 26, in the repositories. This is unfortunate, as Firefox 26 has significantly improved page load times and memory usage because it no longer immediately decodes images which are currently not visible on the screen. I think most users do not really have any benefit from the ESR release and would rather be pleased with the latest release.

The latest Chromium browser is available in the repositories. However on my GNOME KVM virtual machine it crashed immediately at startup with an “Illega instruction” error. On my KVM virtual machine where I had set up KDE on another host, it was working though. Both were not emulating the same CPU, so it appears like Chromium is confused by some strange virtual CPU.

LibreOffice is at version 4.1.3 and it seemed to work perfectly. Maybe they will still include bugfix release 4.1.4 before the final version of Mageia comes out.

Mageia configuration

Maybe the biggest change in Mageia since the Mandriva times, is the fact that they switched to systemd as their init system. Also rsyslog has been dropped in favour of systemd’s journal. The rsyslog package is still available for those who prefer the traditional log files in /var/log though. Mageia’s initial ram disk is now created by dracut instead of mkinitrd. My guess is that these changes all contribute to Mageia’s fast booting.

Mageia 3 still uses Grub 1 by default. Grub 2 is available though and I could easily switch to Grub 2 by using “Set up the boot system” in Mageia’s Control Center. Unfortunately, Mageia does not really support UEFI booting (and hence no UEFI secure boot) and does not use GPT by default when partitioning the disk. It will be a painful experience to set up a dual boot with Windows 8 and Mageia on new hardware using secure boot by default because of that. Here Mageia is really behind distributions like Fedora, Debian and Ubuntu.

I was suprised to see that drak3d is still installed in Mageia, both in the KDE as in the GNOME default installation. Drak3d was used in the past to enable the compositing window manager Compiz, so that users could enjoy graphical 3D effects in their desktop. Now that both GNOME and KDE include native compositing support and desktop effects, I see no reason of using Compiz anymore. These days, Compiz is developed by Canonical in function of Ubuntu’s Unity desktop shell, so I have my doubts it is still working well in KDE and GNOME Shell. I could not test it because starting up drak3d in the login manager immediately caused a reboot of my KVM virtual machine.

Another old utility still making its appearance in Mageia is msec. It is a security tool which enforces certain security settings and predefined permissions on directories and files. While it sounds like a good idea, I have always had the feeling that it is way too intrusive on a desktop system and should not be needed by default. It regularly launches a complete analysis of the file system, which is very noticeable on rotating disks and causes slow downs. And then non-expert users will not really know how to interpret msec’s results.

For back-ups, Mageia proposes draksnapshot in the Control Center. This application looks very confusing to me. There is very little information in the application itself, so it was not clear to me whether this is launches a a manual back-up or whether it schedules an automatic back-up. Also the application does not really make it clear to the user that he should use an external USB disk by preference, nor is it very clear how exactly single files or all backed up data can be restored. I think a user-friendly, graphical application like Back In Time could be a much easier to use alternative.

In GNOME Network Manager was installed and the network connection was indeed managed by Network Manager. In KDE however, Network Manager was not installed and the network is being managed by the Mageia’s network init scripts. In both desktops, Mageia’s own net_applet was also active. So in GNOME the Network Manager applet and Mageia’s net_applet were running at the same time. I am not sure how this is going to work when using wifi, and whether these two are not going to clash. It is a pitty that Mageia still has not switched to Network Manager by default in both KDE and GNOME and dropped net_applet. Network Manager uses much less resources (memory) and its GUI is much nicer than net_applet’s.

All in all Mageia’s Control Center did not look very different to what I was used to in the Mandriva times. It contains useful things, like the firewall utility and the possibility to activate parental control, but also contains things which I doubt many people will use. The utility to set up your DVD drive seems completely useless: in the past it set up a line in /etc/fstab for your DVD drive, but currently this is not done and not needed anymore because udisks handles mounting of removable media without any set up in fstab.

Conclusion

Mageia 4 will likely be a very stable and very complete distribution. The number of packages available for the distribution is very extensive, and you will probably find all software you ever need in the online repositories. Mageia contains lots of different desktop options, ranging from KDE and GNOME to Cinnamon, Mate, XFCE, LXDE and others. But the fact that the default GTK+ theme is a KDE theme, that Mageia’s applications don’t have high resolution artwork that is used by GNOME and that there is a cosmetic bug in the way Mageia Welcome is identified in the GNOME Shell, seems to indicate that KDE is really the preferred desktop and that less priority is given to other desktops.

However there is one big problem which in my opinion holds Mageia back from being an excellent distribution which can convince people to start using Linux: its lack of polishing. The installer, while doings its job, could be simplified a lot. The applications menu in KDE is much too confusing, with too many applications of which some have identical purposes and others are rather useless. Mageia’s configuration tools are also a mixed bag of useful things and totally outdated and barely usable tools. And even though Mageia has migrated from its own init and initial ramdisk solution to systemd and dracut, Mageia is still behind in the adoption of other new technologies like Network Manager and Packagekit, which often have cleaner user interfaces than Mageia’s.

I was surprised that actually so little had changed since I stopped using Mandriva, now more than 3 years ago. Lots of the problems I noted here, were already present at that time, and contributed to the fact that I switched to another distribution. I think that Mageia will not succeed in being much more than a niche distribution which has its fans, but will not have much success in the mass market, and will not be able to convince many new Linux users. For these users, Ubuntu/Kubuntu, Mint and others are likely a much better choice.

One thought on “Going back to my roots: testing Mageia 4 beta”

  1. Konversation is a KDE application.

    Konqueror configured to use KHTML instead of WebKit provides an advantage Konq has over all[1] other current web browsers: the ability to display objects on screen at accurate physical sizes when KDE is configured to a DPI matching physical display device pixel density. This difference can be an advantage on ordinary web pages as well. If their styles are using pt rather than px for sizing elements, those objects will be larger if also the physical display density is higher than the 96 that most DEs assume they have.

    [1] specially styled web pages can enjoy the same advantage as Konq when viewed in recent Gecko browsers. Another exception is that most old and very
    old browser versions also are able to display physical sizes accurately if the DE is properly configured. Still another exception is when the physical display device is in fact 96 DPI, and DE DPI is at the usual OEM default of 96, in which case all browsers can display objects at accurate physical sizes.

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