Sunday 22nd October 2006
PCLinuxOS is a bit of an unknown quantity to me. It appears to be pretty popular, sitting at number six on Distrowatch at the time of writing, yet I rarely hear anything about it except for the odd release. So, seeing as I know next to nothing about PCLinuxOS, it's about time that I went and saw what the fuss was about.
There are three CDs on offer - MiniMe, Junior and Big Daddy. I feel as though PCLinuxOS should perhaps rethink the labels it has given to the three CDs if it wants to exude an image of professionalism - something that tends to attract more people than it puts off. Since it was still only a single disc, I went for Big Daddy, although the precise differences between the three are not immediately apparent, which can mean some uncertainty as to which is best for you.
I didn't have too much fun with the installer of PCLinuxOS. First time around, I decided to let it to partition my drive itself by using free space. It then began copying files across, and kept itself busy for a few minutes, until the installer window just closed without warning. No warning, no error produced, just back to the desktop. I realised out that PCLinuxOS had separated the hard drive into two main partitions (excluding swap space), and had inexplicably made the root partition too small to contain all of the files that needed to be installed. After setting up partitioning myself, everything worked perfectly. Incidentally, the partitioner seems perfectly usable to me - you can choose to erase the entire hard drive, use existing partitions, or do it your self (or, use free space if you have any). Doing it yourself brings up a nice graphical view of the partitions, meaning that it should prove relatively straightforward. In the same screen, when you select a partition, you also set the mount point.
However, if you don't choose Custom Partitioning, and partitions are set at the right sizes, it still isn't as intuitive as it should be. For example, telling the installer that you want to erase and use an entire hard drive results in a message that you need to reboot after making the changes. Although this seemed to work the first time around (probably because there was actually free space the first time around), when I tried it on another PC, it left the hard drive untouched. I'm also slightly perplexed as to why it insists you must reboot straight after partitioning, despite the fact that you never get prompted to after custom partitioning.
Besides partitioning, and the usual affair of usernames and so forth, there wasn't really that much in the installation. In fact, it is essentially the smallest number of questions that the installer can get away with. Although this many please some people, just a single extra screen that allows you to edit other things e.g. by means of another dialog, would be appreciated. For example, changing the configuration for the network or for X is something that many people need to do, but cannot be done during the installation. It does not even give you the opportunity to choose a keyboard layout, meaning you are stuck with a US layout until you delve into the configuration. Another criticism I have is the complete lack of a Back button in the installer, meaning a mistake forces you to start all over again.
After a quick reboot after the installation, we get GRUB and a fairly quick boot up process. Sadly, Debian was not added to GRUB, but it's fairly trivial to add it back. Once X came up, I found the resolution was set incorrectly (not surprising given the fact that it was set wrong on the LiveCD), but fortunately I managed to rectify the situation - more on that later.
The menus in PCLinuxOS are slightly odd. Despite the fact that there is a section called Applications, at the same level there are sections such as Amusement, Office and Multimedia. Some of the other options, such as Configuration, have an explainable position, but why aren't the former three in Applications? Still, the menus aren't too difficult to navigate, and can be changed simply by right clicking the menu and choosing Edit Menu.
The theme for PCLinuxOS is pretty standard for KDE/QT. It's not especially vibrant or unique, but still feels relatively modern. On a 1.2GHz Athlon, with 384MB of RAM, PCLinuxOS is somewhere in the middle of most distributions - not exactly bloated, but certainly not lightning fast either.
My USB stick was mounted automatically, and is 'safely removed' via the handy icon that appears on the desktop, which also acts as a direct link to the drive. The positive to this is that 'safely remove' is a phrasing that will be more likely understood than unmount, which is used by many distributions. The only downside is that safe removing the stick only means unmounting it, rather than ejecting it fully as Ubuntu does. On the other hand, CDs that are inserted produce a desktop icon, whose right-click menu boasts both an unmount and eject option. As you might expect, k3b competently handles CD burning.
For all of your office needs, you get OpenOffice.org. This might not be the nippiest suite around, but it is probably the best suited to a user friendly distribution, especially if they are looking to poach users from Microsoft Windows and Office. To browse the web, Konqueror is the default - a decision that I don't actually agree with, since Firefox is the more familiar choice to most users. However, both are installed, so users have the choice. Also included is Kmail and Mozilla Thunderbird, again giving the user some choice. Kopete is chosen over GAIM as the instant messenger, so whether that sits well with you will depend on which you prefer - personally, I have no real preference, so normally just use GAIM because it uses GTK. Both work well, and can connect to a plethora of networks that should satisfy most.
For those FTP transfers, we get gFTP installed, with KPDF for viewing PDFs (who would have guessed!) and Ark for archiving. Moving onto multimedia, and there's a raft of choices - perhaps a little too many. The popular players XMMS and Amarok are present, but there are also a number of programs that don't necessarily away their use unless you actually start them - is it immediately obvious exactly what each of these do: Audacity, Aumix, KAudioCreator, KMix, KRec, KsCD, StreamTuner, aRts Builder, aRts Control Tool, and soundKonverter? With the video section, things are a little more sane with the two main players, MPlayer and Kaffeine, as well as TVtime.
The well-known although memory hungry Azureus is absent as a BitTorrent client, but you can use BitTorrent (the program) instead. For reading your feeds online, Akregator should serve you well. When you are feeling artistic, the GIMP is ready and waiting.
Browsing the network in Konqueror works out of the box - just go to the Network Folders, and select Samba Shares. Those not particularly experienced with GNU/Linux take note: to access shares on Windows machines, you'll need to select Samba Shares, not the Local Network option. I think this is slightly more confusing than it needs to be especially considering when trying Local Network leads to an error message saying "Could not start process Unable to create io-slave: klauncher said: Unknown protocol 'lan'". That's not really too helpful to most new users! On the other hand, Nautilus in GNOME, when selecting the Network option in the Go menu, specifically lists the Windows Network as an option, as well as the computers it can see. There's also a direct link in the Places menu of the GNOME panel. To me, this seems a more intuitive approach. If you so wish, you can also use smb4k to mount the network shares yourself.
Unlike some mainstream distributions, PCLinuxOS comes with support for a variety of media file formats, largely through ffmpeg - it played WMV8s, Sorensen. MPEG-4 V2 and DivX encoded videos, among plenty of others. In fact, it seemed to play just about everything with the exception of WMV9 files - it played the audio, but there was no video to speak of. Installing win32-codecs and xine-win32 rectifies the situation. MP3s and OGGs should prove no problem, with the default media player being Kaffeine for videos, and Amarok for audio. Due to the usual reasons, there's no support for most DVDs by default, but a quick installation of libdvdcss should sort the problem out.
Also working out of the box are Macromedia Flash, as well as Sun Java, which even works perfectly in browsers. Although SeaMonkey is not installed by default, using the official installer from mozilla.org works perfectly, without the need for any additional packages.
Despite a VNC client (tightvnc) pre-installed and ready to use, you'll have to add a VNC server yourself. Fortunately, both the SSH server and client are installed by default, although you'll have to setup and start the SSH server yourself. X tunnelling is turned on by default, and works smoothly.