On the Bench: PCLinuxOS 2007, radically simple?
PCLinuxOS released it’s most recent incarnation and has even succeeded to surpass Ubuntu in popularity with (if we use the Distrowatch ranking as an indication of that). With it’s roots solidly in Madriva and dedicated to be even more userfriendly it does deserve a closer look. The slogan “Radically simple” should be promising. However, radically simple compared to what? Debian? Or Windows XP? That does make a difference don’t you think? PCLinuxOS is one of those distributions that want to promote W2L migration. That is at least the focus I chose in this “On the Bench” article.
What needs to be made simple?
In it’s barest essence the installation of any Linux distribution requires the following steps:
1. disk partitioning (at least swap and / (root));
2. creating the first user and give a password for the root user.
The settings for the time zone, default language and keyboard can be considered essential as well. Oh, and don’t forget the internet connection. So how simple can you make this? Each distribution deals with it in it’s own way. PCLinuxOS will boot as a live CD and asks you about your keyboard, timezone and network before you ever see the live desktop.
The wizard to setup your network connection is extensive, even providing options for satellite, GPRS and wifi. I wouldn’t call the steps in the wizard easy, especially if you migrate from a Windows environment.
Installation made easy
One of the nicer things about PCLinuxOS is the easily accesible installation guide. The icon is right there on the live desktpop. All the steps are explained with screendumps to support the text.
You can read it alongside the actual installation which you begin by double-clicking Install PCLinuxOS. Draklive-install is your buddy here. The first step of the wizard is to determine whether you go for a harddisk install or a USB drive install.
I didn’t test the second option, but I am curious about it. Just keep on the lookout for a future article. I went for a clean install on a clean harddrive and PCLinuxOS doesn’t bother you with much questions. Once the files have been copied you give your root password and create he first user. It was at the screen to setup the bootloader that I wondered whether this would make any sense for the novice user. What is the use of the three boot options? We might know, but does the new user know it as well?
Getting acquainted with the desktop
PCLinuxOS uses the KDE desktop with three easy shortcuts in the taskpanel: package management, setting up your computer and the control center. These are also areas where simplicity of use can be of great benefit to new users. Installing and removing software is still considered problematic by non-Linux users, so it is nice if the default tool for software management removes that prejudice. Well, PCLinuxOS fails in this.
Synaptic is a great tool, but it doesn’t unlock the vault of the software repositories. You need to know the name of the package before you can install it. Ooops, that is something the novice user doesn’t know. I am not going into a comparison with Ubuntu, but at least that ships with the simple Install/Remove menu. Easily accessible software via a simple intuitive browser. The PCLinuxOS team might want to take a look at that.
The control center icon brings you the KDE Control Center with it’s cobweb of daunting options. It’s part of KDE so I won’t criticize that, but is it really wise for a “radically simple” distribution to put it prominently in the task panel? To have the PCLinux OS Control Center is a much wiser decision. But again it shows that there is nothing simple about making a simple distribution. You have to look at your favorite tools from the perspective of someone who never saw it before. For instance, we know what Samba shares are and we understand the concept of mount points. So when we want to have access to our harddrive on the server we know that we have to set the proper mountpoint using Samba. I can assure you that this is way above the heads of the novice W2L migrator even if he/she is a Windows poweruser. It mght be a good idea for the team to polish this option, remove everything that isn’t of import to the desktop user (and move it to another location for the expert users) and label the functions in non-Linux jargon. That would be radical.
While playing with Synaptic there were two things I didn’t like. First I did an update and wondered why the X.org ATI driver was included. I don’t use an ATI card. Secondly, the installation of KOffice ended with the cryptic message that extra output was generated. What output? Where? What are the consequences? Well, I did notice that there was no KOffice icon in the menu structure. Could be a bug. Who knows?
Talking about the menu structure. KDE does make for a crowded menu structure, but is it really necessary to have so many submenu’s. Even when there is only one application in it? OpenOffice.org is divided in three submenu’s. Maybe it is a matter of taste, but I find it overly complicated. The software collection is above criticism by the way. OpenOffice.org, Thunderbird and Firefox are all up to date. Kopete is a fine choice for chat and IRC and there is plenty more to get started with video, music and imaging. The screen, the iconset, the PCLinuxOS theme are beautifully done.
PCLinuxOS is a fine looking distribution. There is much to like about it. It’s goal is admirable but that is also the area where it falls short. I don’t think it added much to the experience that Mandriva is already providing. Synaptic is a solid choice for software management, but not for the novice user and it certainly doesn’t contribute to making PCLinuxOS “radically simple”. There is’t much that could be considered radical and though there have been made efforts to simplify things for the users, it can not be called simple.
Using the KDE desktop as a starting point does provide some challenges of course. It is most similar to the Windows interface, but at the same time it makes as many options as possible available to the enduser which works against the effort of making the desktop simple. If the PCLinuxOS team wants to do something radical it needs to re-design the KDE desktop. Of course this would alienate the more experienced KDE users in it’s fanbase, but then again who is the user you want to create a distribution for?
More screenshots can be found here.
Tags: Linux, PCLinuxOS