Mandrake, SuSE Lift Linux

Offer open-source answers to windows features.

When it comes to individual distributions of the Linux operating system, the rising tide of open-source software and components has lifted all ships.

However, although advances in software such as KDE (K Desktop Environment), the Mozilla Web browser and the productivity suite are equally accessible to every flavor of Linux, plenty of opportunity remains for Linux distributors to differentiate their offerings through skillful integration of these pieces.

eWEEK Labs tested two such well-crafted Linux distributions: SuSE Inc.s SuSE Linux 8.2 and MandrakeSoft S.A.s Mandrake Linux 9.1. These distributions would be as good as Mac OS X as alternatives to Windows.

SuSE Linux 8.2 and Mandrake Linux 9.1 compare well with Red Hat Linux 9, the latest release from Linux heavyweight Red Hat Inc., particularly in the range and the quality of the system administration tools that ship with both products.

The biggest stumbling block to replacing Windows with another operating system—particularly on the desktop—continues to be Windows application compatibility, although SuSE and Mandrake each do a good job of assembling a lineup of open-source software thats functionally equivalent to whats available for Windows.

Whether individual companies find these lineups compelling enough to replace Windows depends on the company, but these distributions deliver everything required for an effective mainstream corporate desktop.

SuSE 8.2, which shipped last month, is available in a $40 Personal Edition and an $80 Professional Edition. The Professional Edition, which we tested, comes with a longer installation support period, more printed documentation and additional bundled software.

Mandrake 9.1, which shipped in March, is available in a $40 Standard Edition, a $70 PowerPack Edition and a $200 ProSuite Edition. As with SuSE, the differences among the three editions involve support, bundled software and included documentation.

Mandrake Linux 9.1 is available for free download from Mandrakes Web site or one of its mirrors. SuSE Linux 8.2, on the other hand, is not available for free download. SuSE may, however, be freely installed over ftp—an option thats less convenient than having CD images available, but that works well for trying out the product.

Both systems include XFree86 4.3.0, KDE 3.1, GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) 2.2, 1.0.2 and Mozilla 1.3. Mandrake Linux 9.1 ships with Version 2.4.21 of the Linux kernel, while SuSE Linux 8.2 includes Version 2.4.20 of the kernel.

Some of the more interesting new features of SuSE and Mandrake, such as remote desktop sharing and kiosk-style lockdown support, come along with the KDE desktop environment thats available with both distributions.

SuSEs and Mandrakes latest versions each include major system library changes—along the same lines as those in Red Hat 9. Upgrading users may experience software compatibility issues, if only in the short term.

Its been about a year since we reviewed Mandrake Linux, which we last evaluated in its 8.2 incarnation. Since that time, Mandrake Linux has grown considerably sharper looking. Weve reviewed a couple of SuSE updates in that time (SuSE Unlocks Opterons Potential, Revisions Extend Linuxs Reach, SuSE 7.1 Professional Still in Minor Leagues, ), but SuSE 8.2 distinguishes itself with the best selection of bundled software weve seen among Linux distributions.

We were particularly impressed with Mandrake Control Center, which compares very favorably with SuSEs excellent YaST2 (Yet Another Setup Tool) system setup utility. In fact, we found Mandrake Control Center to be better organized and more accessible overall than the configuration facilities in Red Hat 9 or SuSE 8.2 (see screen).

However, we found puzzling inconsistencies in Mandrake Control Center that wed like to see fixed in the next version. For instance, while setting up our network preferences, we had to resize one of the tools dialog windows to reveal the "next," "previous" and "cancel" buttons needed to move through the utility.

SuSE and Mandrake include very useful facilities for installing themselves, and both allowed us to use their online update and system configuration tools at the final stage of installation—resulting in systems that were fully configured from the first boot.

Being able to access SuSEs online update system came in handy during our tests because we were able to download the Nvidia driver we needed but that didnt ship, for licensing reasons, with the rest of the distribution.

SuSE Linux 8.2 is the first distribution weve seen that includes a high-quality video editing application: MainActor.

SuSE now offers support for encrypting directories and partitions and ships with a system hardening utility that boosts security through setting restrictive systemwide file permissions.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at