Book Review: Mandrakelinux Discovery 10.1

Mandrakelinux Discovery 10.1 (Starter Guide: Mandrakelinux 10.1), by MandrakeSoft, Inc, 2004, ISBN 284798085-7.

Another “dated” book, but the only one I could find for Mandrake, which is now Mandriva. The book, which comes with an install CD, does promise a free update to the next version, however. I was anxious to see just how easy or difficult the install would be. Like many Linux users, I’ve had a few nightmare installs, but Mandrake has a reputation for being one of the easiest installs. Like Yellow Dog Linux, it also happens to be one of the distributions that is “sold.” The price of the book, with CD, roughly corresponds to the cost of purchasing Mandrake (or Mandriva) with one month of support (I suppose that’s considered enough to get you up and running).

So, book in hand, I popped the CD into an available PC. Since the hard disk had been wiped, there were no dicey issues related to preserving Windows during partitioning. Chapter One in the book is one page long, titled, Installation Warning, with the almost required caveats about defragging Windows and backing up data. Chapter Two is Before Installation, and Chapter Three gives the step by step details of going through an install. I was amazed. I had never seen Install instructions so perfectly matched to what I was seeing on the screen, with really good explanations of the options for each screen. It was a breeze.

In fact, it was deceptively easy. From there, the book proceeds to sections on “Migrating to Linux from Windows and Mac OS X,” and “Linux for Beginners.” It starts out with good use of images and screenshots. But beyond these introductory sections, the book begins showing some holes.

The first clue is that there is no author, other than the corporate author, Mandrakesoft, who apparently outsourced the bookwriting to Neodoc (www.neodoc.biz). The book reads like a compilation of several contributors, with minimal editing. Consequently, occasional grammar and typographic errors pop up, which, thankfully, are little more than distractions. However, when it comes to the illustrations, the helpful balloon labeling was abandoned after the first sections, so labels are difficult to distinguish from the image itself. Definitely a drawback for novices. A few of the explanations will leave novices scratching their heads as well (for example, in explaining “Bcc” in e-mail messages it states simply, “No recipient will have access to the mail addresses to which this message was sent.” Huh??).

The second half of the book presumes a greater comfort level using Linux than the first half. The section on applications (Mozilla browser and email client, OpenOffice (writer and spreadsheet), Konqueror File Manager, XXMS for audio, Xine and MPlayer for video, and CD burning) is generally easy to follow. Most directions and explanations are detailed enough, especially with the screenshots and images, to be useful. There are some, however, which seem to have been inserted almost as an afterthought (the editing problem again?).

After the applications sections, however, the required level of expertise is extremely variable. I also wondered about the placement of some of the chapters. Lightly thrown in between hardware setup and setting up networks is “Parameterizing your Mount Points,” which goes into detail about partitioning, then talks about SMB Directories and, very briefly, NSF. The chapter is in stark contrast to the Hardware Setup and Network Setup sections. It looks more like Appendix material to me.

Also rather puzzling is the chapter on “Personalizing your System,” which is near the end of the book, even after the chapter on “Securing your Linux Box” (which runs through the steps with no explanation). Like the Hardware and Network setup sections, it is written well, and has meaty stuff like automating backups and configuring startup services. So why is it hidden at the back?

The cover states, “Your First Linux Desktop,” implying it is for those new to Linux, but not necessarily new to computers. With the beginner level aspects, such as installing, configuring, and applications, it does a fairly good job of introducing this version of Linux to computer users. Despite the shortcomings noted above, it is worth having if you’re thinking of trying out Mandrake/Mandriva. Better to have a manual in hand when you need one than have to rely on online forums for basic stuff. As to whether to choose Mandrake/Mandriva over some of the other distros, well, that’s a post for another day.

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