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PCLinuxOS 0.93a

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.

General Use

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 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 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.

Under The Bonnet

Now, remember I was talking about resolution? Well, the place I went to to fix this was the PCLinuxOS Control Center, which is, so far as I can tell, a slightly jazzed up version of the same thing in Mandriva (not that I've actually used Mandriva for any great length of time since it was called Mandrake). Regardless of who is responsible for the work, the fact remains that the Control Center is probably among the most user friendly things I've seen in a GNU/Linux distribution. Down the left hand side are the various categories of utilities, such as Mount Points, Hardware and Security. Unlike many distributions, changing the resolution is incredibly simple - just go to Hardware, and select 'Configure basic video settings such as...' and pick the right resolution. From here, you can test the resolution, and a quick reboot later, it's done! From this Control Center, many tasks are made a doddle - setting up NTP, changing display manager for logging on, changing where your CD-ROM is mounted (although, sadly, not where USB storage is mounted), configuring the services that run, and plenty more besides.

The Control Center is not perfect though. The various utilities are a little disorganised. For example, let's say we want to set up the networking of the computer. You'd think this would mean just accessing the Networking section of PCLinuxOS, which is true only some of the time. Well, first of all, I think I'll change my DNS settings. This means going to 'Configure DNS settings for your Internet connection', which is in Networking, and changing the options accordingly. Then, you must go to 'Reconfigure an existing network interface', also in Network Settings, to tell the computer not to allow DHCP to set the DNS settings if you want to keep them past a reboot. To set the hostname, you back to 'Configure DNS settings for your Internet connection', while changing the workgroup means going to the Sharing section, and selecting 'Set up a cross-platform (Samba) file print server. From here, you have to click next through some questions that many will not know the answer to along with the workgroup question. Although you can leave the answers as they are, this will be off-putting, and having a wizard sort of setup is a less user friendly solution to the normal utilities used elsewhere in the Control Center.

Then, of course, we can allow users to create their own shares without having to ask root. This is implemented rather well, since you choose none, some or all of users to be allowed to do this, although the user cannot change options such as whether the share is browsable or writable. This is enabled in the Networking section, in the utility labelled 'Configure sharing of your hard disk partitions'. If you want full control over the shares, printers and users used by Samba, then you'll want to select Samba Configuration. Personally, I think that these options are too spread apart across the utilities and sections. A possible solution would be to consolidate the existing utilities, and rethink where each utility belongs.

Every so often, a certain utility would stop working, and trying to enter would simply tell me that it had exited abnormally. Restarting the Control Center was the cure. My final criticism is that the automated installer just tells you that its trying to download and install the relevant package. There's no feedback as to what it is doing, until it's finished - a little information, such as how long until the download is complete, would be handy.

Printing is yet another aspect covered by the Control Center. When choosing 'Configure printers...', it automatically looks for new printers, and detected my HP, down to the correct model.

There are also utilities that exist outside of the Control Center. HardDrake allows you to look at your system, such as the hard drives and network card. (Note: I later realised HardDrake is also accessible from within the Control Center, it's just not called HardDrake - it's called 'Manage your system hardware'.) From here, you can just click a button to get to the relevant configuration utility for that component - for example, 'Run Config Tool' when selecting a hard drive will take you to DiskDrake, allowing you to repartition the drive as well as set the mountpoints, making it superior even to GParted. Just a single glance will tell you the size of each partition, the general filesystem, and where it is mounted.

When using QEMU to test PCLinuxOS, the addition of a sound card proved to be no problem - it was fully working as soon as I logged in. In other words, there appears to be no configuration necessary.

Synaptic is the package manager for PCLinuxOS, and it's a decent enough choice - it is powerful and relatively straightforward to use. The only slight downside is that it can be a little intimidating for some users. For example, if you want to install Abiword, there's more than one pacakge listed - which do you pick? As such, a simpler package manager wouldn't go amiss, although there isn't too much missing by default, and Synaptic only takes a short while to get to grips with.

PCLinuxOS may be aimed at the desktop, but we may as well check out how easy it is to install a web server. Well, the PCLinuxOS Control Center has a utility for setting up a web server, but this will only install Apache for you. PHP and MySQL can be fetched via Synaptic, and I'm also pleased to see phpMyAdmin putting in an appearance. Having installed all three of these, I found that they worked perfectly in harmony without any further configuration - a feat only witnessed by me before when using Debian-based systems.


As well as having a friendly forum, PCLinuxOS has its own wiki. Although neither of these are up to the level of, for example, Ubuntu, as their userbase expands, so should the usefulness of these sites.

When I first tried PCLinuxOS, I'll admit I was prepared not to like it - so far as I could tell, it didn't really bring anything new to the table. However, having now tried it firsthand, I can confidently say that PCLinuxOS's is certainly deserving of attention. Although the best parts of PCLinuxOS, Synaptic and the Control Center, might not have originated from PCLinuxOS, the point is irrelevant. What is relevant is that these various parts have been sewn together to make a highly cohesive operating system, that is the most user friendly I've yet to review. The Control Center makes a wide range of tasks extremely simple to perform, while the rest of the system is solid and reliable. While it may lack the total polish of some competitors, such as the ability to eject USB sticks, PCLinuxOS should have a bright future ahead of it. If you want a GNU/Linux distribution, but don't want to have to muck about with the command line to change settings, PCLinuxOS is certainly a dependable choice.

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