tl;dr – PCLinuxOS is a great distro for individuals who favor rolling updates, performance, and a dedicated community. If you’re a first-time Linux user or if you favor aesthetics over technological prowess, better choices are available.
First, a bit of background. (If you want to jump straight to the review, scroll down to where the pictures start.)
In April 2010, I found myself becoming increasingly disgruntled with Ubuntu (my OS of choice since late 2008). There was no one thing that ruined Ubuntu for me; rather, it was a growing list of inconveniences (10.04 had multiple hardware and software issues on my machine) coupled with regular use of Windows 7 at my place of employment. Windows 7 was as easy to use as Ubuntu for most tasks – worse in some ways (updating every piece of software individually), better in other ways (DVRing with Windows Media Center vs MythTV). I had originally switched to Ubuntu because at the time, it provided me a better experience than Windows XP. With the release of Windows 7, this no longer seemed as obvious.
For me, my OS is primarily a tool. I’m willing to fight it on minor issues, but for the most part I want it to stay out of the way so I can get actual work done. The more I used Windows 7, the less I was willing to fight Ubuntu.
I contemplated purchasing a copy of Windows 7, but it’s expensive, and I didn’t think it was fair to leave Linux based only on my experience with Ubuntu (and limited experience with openSUSE and Linux Mint).
So I went hunting for a new distro. My requirements were fairly reasonable:
- KDE or Gnome was acceptable, though I leaned toward KDE (out of curiosity).
- Reliability. Updates shouldn’t break software or hardware functionality.
- Simple install. If 95+% of my needs aren’t met out-of-the-box, I’m not going to fight it. Maybe when I was younger… but now I can’t afford to have a PC out of commission for days at a time.
- Pleasant community. I deal with enough assholes in real life – I don’t need ‘em telling me to RTFM when I post well-researched questions in official forums.
- Large software repositories. As you can tell from my site, I work in a lot of areas (programming, music, graphic design, writing), each of which requires unique software. Niche distros don’t always support the software I need, so they’re not a good fit.
After a bit of research, I decided to try PCLinuxOS (version 2010.2). Many individuals had good experiences with the distro, and I liked some of the edgier things it had to offer (BFS instead of CFS, for example). I also liked that there was no server remix – this was a desktop-only distro, which is exactly what I needed.
Right off the bat, PCLinuxOS impressed by clearly displaying the guest and root passwords on the liveCD background. NICE. More distros should do this.
The installer (based off Mandriva’s) definitely tends toward “powerful” instead of “straightforward.” I had a bit of a heart attack when the drive formatting screen loaded with a blank window titled “resizing…” At first I thought this was blindly resizing some partition… turns out it doesn’t mean anything. Phew. (Someone should do away with that window.) I liked the option to manually specify which drive would receive GRUB… unlike Ubuntu 10.04, which indiscriminately overwrites the Windows bootloader. Besides the brief formatting scare, installation was largely uneventful, as any good installation should be.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend PCLinuxOS for first-time Linux installers. Being able to manually specify bootloaders, mountpoints, and other advanced options are great for individuals who know what they’re doing – but it’s possible to eff up your install if you’re inexperienced. Consider yourself warned.
On first boot, some nice touches appear – the themed GRUB is much better than a stock black-and-white one. You’re asked to provide a root password, followed by a “create new user screen.”
One of my favorite moments from the boot process is the start-up sound; for some reason, it reminds me of the “sleeping” mini-tune from a PS1 era RPG (like Final Fantasy 8 or 9). I laugh every time I hear it.
An interesting PCLOS decision is not including OpenOffice.org by default. Fortunately, a “Get OpenOffice” link appears on the default desktop. This brings up an OO.org installer of sorts, which saves room on the install CD without much inconvenience to the end user.
Not including OO.org allows PCLinuxOS to include a LOT of software by default. Some will like this, some will not. I think some trimming down could be done without sacrificing quality, but I imagine someone out there is grateful for the eclectic collection of default programs. There is no real rhyme or reason to the way software is included – for example, Thunderbird is included instead of KMail or Evolution, GIMP appears (but no Krita), Synaptic is the default package manager, Pidgin is the default IM client, TVTime (a simple tv client) is included, XChat appears instead of Konversation, and Clementine is the default audio player instead of amaroK (or even Rhythmbox). This random assortment of applications from different toolkits, desktop environments, and software teams will frustrate those looking for unification… but it probably isn’t new to people coming from a Windows background.
One clever feature PCLinuxOS includes is a repository speed test, which will ping a list of repositories and let you select the fastest as your default. The user interface is confusing and unnecessarily terse, but once you figure out what it’s doing, you should be able to shorten your update and installation processes. Clever!
By and large, hardware support in PCLinuxOS was good. On my particular hardware, three major problems stood out – I was unable to get my Ralink 802.11n PCI card working (note: several months later, the problem corrected itself…so go figure). I was unable to find and configure a Canon MX340 printer attached to the network via a Windows 7 computer, and I could not get my Hauppauge HVR-1600 TV card working with MythTV.
All three of these issues were not present in Kubuntu 10.04 or 10.10, so I’m not sure what happened in PCLinuxOS. I primarily print and use the TV card in Windows, so I could afford to live without those. The non-functional wi-fi card was a bigger problem, but I solved it by running an ethernet port to a nearby Windows machine and sharing its wireless signal. Inelegant, but functional.
Now for the good news – PCLinuxOS was significantly more responsive than my previous Ubuntu install. (This may be to BFS…idk.) Interestingly, the biggest difference I saw was on full-screen Flash video. Out of curiosity, I also installed PCLinuxOS to my aging Compaq laptop (1.6ghz Celeron processor), which has never been able to play Flash full-screen at more than 4-5 fps in Ubuntu. On PCLinuxOS, full-screen Flash worked at 13-15 fps… so not quite as good as Windows (25-30fps), but significantly better than Ubuntu. This example is purely anecdotal and YMMV, but I was shocked – and impressed! – at the difference.
PCLinuxOS includes Mandriva’s Control Center software, which provides additional control over a variety of system settings. Also included are some handy tools for mixed-OS environments like mine, with a Windows migration tool, a Windows font installer, and a wizard for connecting to shared printers and drives. Some of these worked well (the migration tool), others did not (the printer sharing wizard). Some of the options will be confusing for new users – for example, “Configure 3D Desktop Effects,” which is great for configuring Compiz but useless for KWin (the default window manager). Additionally, many of the tools require you to install various packages before you can utilize them.
This is a prime example of what frustrates desktop Linux users like myself: there are so many great features and great ideas, but the level of polish is often closer to “beta version” than “release candidate.” Some of the tools the Control Center provides are redundant with KDE System Settings, while others are very useful and unique. Also confusing is the branding… “Mandriva” appears instead of “PCLinuxOS” in certain screens, for example.
That said, it was nice to have so many system settings available in one place, even if not all of them worked as expected.
Some of my favorite things about PCLinuxOS
PCLinuxOS is a rolling release distro, which means you get updates in an incremental manner. These updates include the usual security and bug-fix updates, as well as major updates (KDE 4.5 -> 4.6 or OO.org 2.2 -> 2.3, for example). If you like having the latest software, PCLinuxOS is an excellent choice. I often received KDE-SC updates before the final release announcement got posted to kde.org. How many other distros can claim that?
PCLinuxOS also includes a number of pre-configured kernels for various purposes. If you don’t like BFS, a CFS kernel is available via Synaptic. A PAE kernel is also available, as well as one tuned for AMD processors.
PCLinuxOS sports a very large, very impressive software collection in its supported repositories. Many small and lesser-known apps are available, though packaging can sometimes be unpredictable. (For example, I was unable to locate Rosegarden in the 2010 repositories, though I hear it was added in 2011.) If you’re looking for something not found in the official repositories, folks in the official forum often know where to find a compatible download or an explanation of why the software isn’t included.
Speaking of the forums, the PCLinuxOS crowd was universally friendly during my time with them. Questions were answered swiftly and often correctly. It was also fairly common to get responses from actual developers. Also unique is the monthly PCLinuxOS magazine – a community-run collection of tips, tutorials, testimonials, FOSS humor, and more, with articles dating back to 2006. The formatting would make a graphic designer cry (hehe) but joking aside, it provides a nice collection of information on the distro and other free software. Not many open source projects give rise to community efforts of this size and consistency.
Finally, PCLinuxOS does a solid job of providing an out-of-the-box multimedia experience. With the exception of DVD playback, most proprietary multimedia tools (including Flash, mp3, and Java) are included in the default install.
Some of my concerns with PCLinuxOS
I believe it’s a fair characterization to say that PCLinuxOS is a distro “for Linux users by Linux users.” I certainly don’t mean this as an insult (or even as a compliment, necessarily): it is what it is. The team behind PCLinuxOS knows Linux well, and they use that knowledge to put together a very unique distro with good ideas from all over the map. Some have called PCLinuxOS a Mandriva derivative, but that isn’t accurate. Recent versions contain elements from every major distro.
Unfortunately, such an approach is both a strength and a weakness. PCLinuxOS is a technical accomplishment and a well-engineered piece of machinery, but it lacks any sort of unifying design aesthetic. A prime example of this is the confusing array of branding in the project:
“Dobie the bull” is the (un?) official PCLinuxOS mascot, but it appears only sporadically across the distro. A circular PC logo is used some places, but an entirely different font is used in each custom application launch screen. The official website suffers from a similar lack of branding, with only a plain text (!!) logo and a cramped, austere layout. Blue seems to be the preferred color choice, but not any particular hue – instead, a recurring gradient from neon blue to navy blue is used. A total lack of secondary colors leaves the desktop with a bleak, uninspired feel.
Making matters worse is the included artwork – for example, notice the horrible photoshopping at the top center of this wallpaper (included with every install):
It’s difficult to discuss aesthetics objectively, but PCLinuxOS is undoubtedly a project in need of a dedicated designer. The technical aspects of the distro are impressive, but aesthetics are largely ignored. This problem is hardly unique to PCLinuxOS, but it gives off an “amateurish” vibe that’s unfair to its strong technical underpinnings.
Similarly, the name “PCLinuxOS” is… terrible? I guess the random hodgepodge of redundant words/abbreviations mimics the eclectic nature of the distro, but the name is clearly something thought up by an engineer, not a marketer. Again, a lot of people probably don’t care about such a thing – but believe me, it’s embarrassing to share a name like that with my designer and artist colleagues.
One final point, and then I’ll be done with my aesthetics rant. :) As much as its not fair to judge a book by its cover, every Linux distro must accept that people are going to pass judgment based on little things like a name, logo, and color schemes. As a credit to the impressive technical accomplishments PCLinuxOS has achieved, it owes it to itself to package that technical prowess in a handsome package. That’s all I’m saying.
I’ve already mentioned some small technical quirks with PCLinuxOS, but let me add a few more.
First, PCLinuxOS uses Synaptic as its sole package management method. (Raw use of apt-get is actively discouraged.) However, PCLinuxOS is an rpm-based distro, which leaves users stuck with an old, crufty version of Synaptic. It’s well-known in the forums that moving to a new package manager is inevitable; in fact, Texstar – the heart and soul of PCLinuxOS – had the following to say:
The reason for looking at an alternative is because we need to update our rpm package which is quite old now (4.4.6) and has become more buggy resulting in corrupted rpm databases. It won’t recompile against our current gcc/glibc and no bug patches are available. rpm is now at version (4.8.1). apt-get will work with rpm 4.8.1 but Synaptic is in pretty bad shape and crashes out often. Smart gui is not user friendly. packagekit is slower than molasses that last time I looked at it. rpmdrake to me is really not suitable for a distribution that receives daily package updates. The reason I am leaning towards Yumex is it is very close to Synaptic in terms of looks and speed. yum/Yumex works with rpm 4.8.1. The file list generated with apt or yum are compatible with each other. That makes it an easy drop in replacement.
As of this writing (February 2011) no official replacement has been named, but I hope the team settles on something soon. Package management is a core part of the Linux desktop experience, and a grossly outdated, unmaintained version of Synaptic and apt for rpms doesn’t cut it.
Similarly, it is shocking to me that PCLinuxOS doesn’t ship with an update manager. For a distro where regular updates are such a great selling point, this seems like a bizarre choice. It’s trivial to install update-notifier from the repositories, but this is also a poor solution. Update-notifier is unable to update much of anything without throwing the following warning:
(Thanks to http://www.linuxbsdos.com/2010/07/20/pclinuxos-2010-review/2/ for the screenshot.)
This error doesn’t actually mean something is wrong – it just means an update wants to remove outdated packages as part of the update process. Since this happens frequently, expect to spend a lot of time manually checking for updates in the aforementioned crufty old version of Synaptic.
So Do I Still Use PCLinuxOS?
I used PCLinuxOS as my primary desktop OS from April 2010 to November 2010. In November 2010, my PC died (motherboard failure) and I replaced it with a new Core i5 rig from ASUS. This was apparently a bad time to use PCLinuxOS on an Intel chipset – my dual-monitor setup failed to work, the window manager disabled all effects (including useful workflow ones, like “Present Windows”), and having a fresh Windows 7 install made this less tolerable than usual. I kept PCLinuxOS installed on my old Compaq laptop (where it continues to run like a champ), but have not returned to using it on my desktop. I tried reinstalling it last week to test KDE 4.6 and see if it solved my window manager problems, but PCLinuxOS repositories have been down for most of 2011 (due to ibiblio.org server moves) and I was unable to install needed updates. Interestingly, other KDE-based distros (including Kubuntu) have worked with my chipset since last November, leaving me to wonder what quirk affects PCLinuxOS. Perhaps I’ll give it another shot once KDE 4.6 hits the repositories.
I have been working on this review on-and-off since last April. I don’t like posting a full distro review after using it for only a few weeks – to me, the real measure of a distro is how it performs after months of regular use, updates, and assorted troubleshooting.
An article from last week (Is PCLinuxOS on the Ropes? by Susan Linton) prompted me to finally finish up my thoughts and get this published.
I think PCLinuxOS KDE is a massive accomplishment in many respects. In terms of technical prowess, it ranks alongside any of the large, commercially-backed distros – no small feat for a volunteer effort. It amazes me that such a small team can not only produce a very good KDE-based distro, but also LXDE, XFCE, Gnome, “Gnome Zen Mini,” Enlightenment, and OpenBox spins. Each one of these is a massive undertaking in its own right. PCLinuxOS also stands out as one of the only distros to ship BFS out of the box – a testament to its focus on desktop-oriented technology.
Unfortunately, a good desktop OS requires more than just powerful underlying technology – it requires careful attention to the user interface, aesthetics, and the overall flow and feel of the desktop. I would love to see PCLinuxOS receive some attention from trained designers who can help eliminate its many inconsistencies.
Finally, I am in no place to offer advice to a group of volunteers working on something they’re passionate about, but I’ll do it anyway. :) I think it would serve PCLinuxOS well to focus on a smaller set of desktop environments. I’d love to see them polish their KDE version into the truly definitive KDE experience it’s capable of being. With so much of the technical work already in place, it seems a shame to not put in that extra 10% effort necessary to elevate it from “good” to “great.”
I will continue to use PCLinuxOS on older machines, and I strongly encourage any KDE fans out there to give the distro a try. Many thanks to Texstar and his team for their impressive work.
You can download the latest version of PCLinuxOS at http://www.pclinuxos.com/?page_id=10.
Update 17 Feb 2011:
Several relevant comments have been made by PCLinuxOS users, which I thought I’d point out here:
- The default software selection is apparently a community decision. I’m not sure how formal this is… e.g. do they hold a survey, or does whoever complain the loudest get to make the decision…? idk
- Minimalist ISOs are available for folks who want to assemble their own software collection. I was unaware of this when I wrote the original review.
- PCLinuxOS users certainly come in all shapes and sizes. :) Some of the kinder ones have posted comments below, but I was forced to moderate several comments stating nothing more than “you are an idiot, I hope you die, blah blah blah.” As a warning to future commenters – make a relevant point, or your comment will be deleted.
- If you want, you can follow the conversation about this review in the official PCLinuxOS forums via this link: http://www.pclinuxos.com/forum/index.php/topic,87235.0.html. (Note: I will no longer be posting there, so if you want me to see something, submit it in the comments here or use my contact form.)
- Finally, as the title of this review clearly states, this is only about the KDE version of PCLinuxOS 2011. I did not use every other spin available, so my comments may or may not relate to the other versions of PCLinuxOS.