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With version 8.0, MandrakeSoft has hit a home run in terms of visual appeal and ease of use. Linux-Mandrake 7.1 and 7.2 both received high marks from us for thoroughness and usability, and version 8.0 carries on that tradition. The installer for version 8.0 is seamless as they come. Once you get past the first few screens (confirming keyboard, mouse, and monitor selections), the installer offers a wide range of packages available for installation. A graphical menu displays icons for preset application groups such as office, multimedia, Internet, console tools, development, and so on. You can choose to install entire groups of packages or opt for individual package selection, for which the installer provides an expandable outline listing every available package. After you select and install packages, Linux-Mandrake helps you configure your network with its new network configuration wizard, which automatically detects and configures network parameters. Setting up a dial-up connection is just as simple: you select your modem configuration from a menu, enter your ISP settings, and Linux-Mandrake automatically completes your PPP configuration.
One of Linux-Mandrake's most useful features is the Mandrake Control Center, which lets you configure printers, monitors, and video and sound cards. It also allows you to install and upgrade applications, establish network file sharing, set up a firewall, and more. Linux-Mandrake includes a bevy of useful desktop apps, from productivity apps such as the StarOffice suite to personal finance programs such as the Quicken-compatible GnuCash. Linux-Mandrake 8.0's unique, user-friendly interface is reason enough to choose this stellar distribution, but its merits don't stop there. New additions include the 2.4.3 kernel, KDE 2.1.1, GNOME 1.4 (which includes the Nautilus file manager from now-defunct Eazel), and Xfree86 4.0.3.
The 2.4.3 kernel brings a host of improvements to version 8.0, including more reliable USB and firewire support, ATA-100 support, the Logical Volume Manager and ResierFS. Additionally, version 8.0 features substantially improved display options. Xfree86 4.0.3 offers much improved 2D and 3D graphics performance for DRI-compatible video cards; and KDE 2.1.1 features antialiased font support, which offers a dramatic improvement in display clarity.
Mandrake-specific improvements are less bountiful, consisting mainly of the new Mandrake Control Center, a flashier installation GUI, and greatly improved hardware detection. The Linux-specific package upgrades can be performed individually, but since version 8.0 includes upgraded versions of glibc and RPM, the process can be difficult. The question of whether to upgrade to 8.0 ultimately boils down to one of convenience. If you're willing to roll up your sleeves and upgrade packages separately, you may not need version 8.0; but if you prefer a more hands-off approach, upgrading to 8.0 is a wise choice, especially if you've had less than stellar success with hardware detection in past versions of Mandrake.
Linux-Mandrake features an excellent support package. Once you register, you get 30 days of support via MandrakeExpert, a user-to-user forum where you can post tech support questions and receive cogent responses from experienced Linux-Mandrake users, called experts. This is an innovative concept, but it remains to be seen whether such a service will outshine the tried-and-true Usenet discussion groups consulted by most Linux users. We tested the service by posting questions about printing and DHCP issues and received sensible and useful responses fairly quickly--usually within a few hours. However, the distribution's printed user guide leaves much to be desired. It includes plenty of information to help you get started and troubleshoot a few problems, but if you need more detailed information, you should consult Linux-Mandrake's online documentation.
Users who want to try Linux but are frustrated with the steep learning curve will find a welcome change in this polished, easy-to-use distribution. If any Linux distribution is actually making progress toward the consumer desktop, Linux-Mandrake is surely it, offering a computing experience approaching the simplicity of the Macintosh. New users, especially those looking for a quick and easy alternative to Windows or the Mac OS, will be hard pressed to find a smoother, easier transition to the world of Linux.