Last year Mandriva partnered with Moscow based ROSA Labs to create a new look for their once popular and user friendly distribution. The result was the attractive but seriously flawed Mandriva 2011 Hydrogen release and a rebranded version called ROSA Desktop 2011. Since then ROSA Labs and Mandriva appear to have parted company. ROSA Labs has forked the Mandriva distribution, creating a distribution that, while still resembling Mandriva 2011 at first glance, actually has gone its own way in many important respects. The first post-Mandriva release, ROSA 2012 Marathon, was officially unveiled last Monday. This is also the first ROSA LTS (long term support) release, offering security and software updates for five years. The release notes state that ROSA 2012 Marathon is intended for enterprise and small business use and is intended to provide stability, not "bleeding edge technology."
Following the Mandriva model, ROSA 2012 Marathon is available in two editions: a Free version offering only Free software and an Extended Edition (EE), which includes proprietary and "restricted" packages. Restricted in this case means possibly patent encumbered, such as multimedia codecs. The release notes make clear that "the laws of some countries may forbid the use of some of these components!" It should be noted that the ROSA definition of Free does not match the Free Software Foundation distribution guidelines. Nothing has been removed from the kernel and some firmware is included in a Free installation. This is very comparable to a Fedora installation, but, much like Debian, a "non-free" repository is easily enabled. Regardless of the version chosen the available software repositories may be adjusted after installation from the package manager. Both the Free and Extended Edition are offered as freely downloadable 1.4GB live DVDs for both i586 and x86_64 architecture. Builds for non-Intel architectures, such as ARM, are not available.
At this point the only desktop offered by default is a highly customized build of KDE 4.8.2. A lightweight LXDE based beta was released and appeared to be an official build at the time. The release notes now make clear that this is a community supported version with a final release to be offered at a later date along with a GNOME based version. The only officially supported desktop environment is KDE. This review will focus entirely on the officially supported KDE releases, both 32- and 64-bit.
I used the same two systems I've used for most of my recent reviews which were published on DistroWatch. The first is an eMachines EL-1300G small-footprint desktop sporting an AMD Athlon 2650e processor (single core, 1.6 GHz CPU with 512K L2 cache), NVIDIA GeForce 6150SE integrated graphics chipset and a 160 GB 7200rpm SATA2 hard drive. I ran the native 64-bit code on this system. I also used my three year old HP Mini 110 netbook which features a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 2 GB RAM, an on-board Intel GMA 950 graphics chipset, and a 16 GB SSD in lieu of a hard drive to test the 32-bit builds.
I've actually been using ROSA 2012 Marathon since the beta version was released in early April. That was followed by a release candidate and then the final release, so I feel I have a fair amount of insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the distribution.
Installation and configuration
I successfully used UNetbootin to create live and installation media on a USB stick for the desktop system and an SD for the netbook. The resulting media booted to a menu with the following choices:
I only looked briefly at the live functionality, choosing instead to install the system to my internal storage. While the system requirements specify 10GB of disk space for installation I discovered that less than 4 GB is actually needed for the root partition. I did my netbook installations into a 5 GB partition with plenty of room to spare, but with /home in a separate partition.
The graphical installer will look familiar to those who have used recent versions of Mandriva or a previous version of ROSA Desktop. You are first asked what language you would like to use for both the installation and the system default. ROSA 2012 Marathon supports a variety of European languages. However, support for languages from other parts of the world, i.e.: Asian languages, is not offered in the installer. You are then presented with a license agreement which you must accept to continue.
The next steps are selecting your timezone and whether your hardware clock is set to UTC or local time. An advanced tab allows you to choose to synchronize to an NTP server provided you have wired Internet access during installation. You are then presented with a list of keyboard layouts to choose from.
Disk partitioning is accomplished with the DrakX Partitioning wizard from Mandriva. You have three initial choices: use existing partitions, erase and use entire disk or custom disk partitioning. If custom disk partitioning is chosen the tool will look familiar to anyone who has used gparted or other, similar graphical tools. I had no problem preserving the data on my home partition, assigning custom mount points to partitions containing other Linux distributions and formatting my chosen root partition with ext4. It all worked flawlessly on both systems. Once partitioning was completed the OS was installed. There is no option to customize the software selection.
Configuring the bootloader was a far less friendly process with less than acceptable results. ROSA 2012 Marathon uses GRUB legacy 0.97 and no other choice is offered. On the netbook the installer did not recognize Absolute Linux 13.50, a Slackware derivative I was also testing. It saw /home as possible bootable Linux partition but did not configure it. It also incorrectly recognized vfat formatted removable installation media as a bootable Windows partition. On the desktop, with four other Linux installations present, it successfully recognized only two: the beta version of the LXDE edition of ROSA 2012 and Absolute Linux. It failed to configure either of them properly. SalixOS 13.37, another Slackware derivative, and Yarok 0.2, an independently built distro in development, were not recognized at all. The graphical bootloader editor included in the installer was insufficient to correct the problems. On both systems I had to manually edit /boot/grub/menu.lst after installation was completed to recreate my multiboot configurations.
Bootloader configuration completed the first stage of the installation. The system rebooted and I was presented with a graphical grub menu. There were two options for booting into ROSA 2012 offered: the default and a "failsafe" mode. I booted into the default and the installation process continued, asking me to set the root password and then to create a normal user account. Next I was asked to set the hostname of my system, including the domain. ROSA 2012 Marathon then booted to the login screen for the first time. The display manager, a customized version of KDM, is unusual in that it offers no menus at all. The only action available is to enter the newly created user password and login.
On the desktop system all of my hardware was correctly recognized by the installer. ROSA uses the FOSS nouveau driver by default for systems with NVIDIA graphics and the NVIDIA GeForce 6150SE chip in my desktop was optimally configured. Both wired and wireless networking just worked. Tools for configuring my printers were installed by default. The only concern at first was that while system sounds were working correctly the media players offered me silence instead of sound. Adjusting the settings in the graphical mixer for PulseAudio resolved that problem.
While audio just worked on the netbook. wireless was not working after installation. While recent versions of the b43 kernel module do support the Broadcom BCM4312 chipset but proprietary firmware is still required. Since Broadcom now permits redistribution of their firmware wireless works out of the box on most recent distribution releases While I was not surprised that wireless did not work with the Free version I was surprised that it was also not functioning after a fresh installation of the Extended Edition. A check of the ROSA 2012 repositories revealed that there was no package available for the firmware. A package for the older proprietary driver was included in the non-free repository but installing it and blacklisting the FOSS driver did not solve the problem. Ultimately I downloaded another version of the proprietary driver from linuxwireless.org and followed their instructions using b43-fwcutter (which was installed) to extract the firmware I needed. Once that was done wireless worked as expected.
Changes since ROSA Desktop 2011 / Mandriva 2011
At first glance it would be easy to mistake ROSA 2012 Marathon for a warmed over version of Mandriva 2011. The default desktop is essentially the same, although it is based on a recent build of KDE. However, both the applications offered and the graphical configuration tools are different.
ROSA Media Player 1.0 replaces Clementine in this release. Forked from smplayer, it offers the expected audio and video playback features, including the ability to trim a video or extract the audio from any video you might play. Also offered is a desktop capture/recorder tool, a feature that is not offered in any other KDE-based media player that I am aware of.
Another very new addition is KLook 0.1, a media preview tool developed by ROSA Labs which provides functionality similar to MacOS X QuickLook. It has the ability to view graphic files, to listen to audio or watch video files, display PDF files and text files as well as offering a thumbnail view of all of the above or a gallery view. The name implies that KLook should work in the KDE desktop of any distribution. Despite the very low version number I had no problems whatsoever using KLook.
If you've used Mandriva over the years you are undoubtedly familiar with the Drakxtools, a graphical tool set used for system configuration. A lot of those tools have been removed from ROSA 2012 Marathon, replaced by their generic KDE Control Center equivalents. One notable exception is drakxservices, which has instead been replaced by system-config-services from Fedora and Red Hat. Tools that were used specifically to access the Mandriva infrastructure have been removed entirely.
All it takes is glancing through the repositories to realize just how little of Mandriva 2011 is left in this release. While there are still some Mandriva packages the vast majority have been replaced. As you might expect this simply means that most software has been updated to newer versions. The big change is that bits and pieces that had bugs in Mandriva 2011 are generally fixed and work properly in ROSA 2012 Marathon.
Under the hood this release sports a 3.0.28 kernel, systemd 39, gcc 4.6.1 and PulseAudio 2.0rc2. As you might expect, the LTS version of the Firefox web browser, currently 10.0.2, is offered rather than the latest build. Java support is provided in the form of OpenJDK but an installer for Oracle JRE or JDK is also provided. The included office suite is LibreOffice 3.4.5. Calligra Suite is not available in the repository, which I find surprising for a KDE-based distribution.
Running ROSA 2012 Marathon
Much like Mandriva 2011 and ROSA 2011 Desktop the customized KDE environment is an interesting hybrid of the old, conventional paradigm and the touch screen device driven new look. If you click on the menu (start) button in the lower right hand corner of the screen you are presented with "Simple Welcome," which offers choices recently used applications, places and documents with huge icons filling the screen. A tab at the center of the bottom of the Simple Welcome tab offers similarly huge icons for most (but not all) of the applications installed on the system. A third tab, Timeframe, only works if you enable Nepomuk.
If you prefer a conventional KDE4 or KDE3 menu all you need to do is right click on the panel, select panel options, add panel widgets and you can then add a conventional menu. It can either exist side-by-side with Simple Welcome or you can remove the default menu if you prefer.
When a window is minimized it becomes an icon on the Rocket Bar, the panel used by the ROSA desktop. If the application already has an icon on the panel clicking that icon reopens the running window rather than launching a new instance. If a window is already open then clicking again can open a second instance for applications.
One of the first things I do after any OS installation is check for updates. When I went into the Software Management tool and chose "Update your system" it failed with an error which reminded me I needed to configure the media sources first. The icon to do this is directly below "Update your system". It's a pity the two steps aren't integrated in the ROSA package manager the way they are in some other distributions, but this is a minor quibble.
Quite a bit has been written about performance improvements in the KDE 4.8.x series of releases. That is very apparent on the netbook. While it does take time for the KDE desktop to fully load, once everything is started the desktop and applications are smooth, responsive and fast. I'm used to seeing that sort of KDE performance only in Slackware and its derivatives. Seeing it on the netbook in a Mandriva based distribution is something new. With the system idling and only the graphical system monitor tool open on the netbook memory utilization was 320MB. While that is still considerably higher than a lightweight desktop environment it actually is a reasonable number for KDE4.
It became apparent to me while testing the release candidate that ROSA 2012 Marathon was going to be a solid release. While most of the little bugs I found disappeared in the final release a few little quirks did remain. For example, Firefox is configured with only one search engine: Yandex, a Russian alternative to Google. While Yandex does work in English I quickly added my preferred search engines. The default home page is a Russian language search page which disappears within a second to be replaced by a welcome page from the ROSA wiki.
A glance through the package selection available revealed that GNOME 2.32, LXDE and a number of lightweight window managers, including Enlightenment, evilwm, Fluxbox, IceWM, OpenBox, WindowMaker and wmii are available. There is an XFCE folder in the repository but the complete desktop environment has not been packaged as of yet. Meta packages to simplify the installation of GNOME and LXDE are available. The desktop configuration tools include selecting themes for KDM, many of which restore the traditional menus. I installed the LXDE meta package and configured KDM to let me choose my session at login. The result was a well configured LXDE desktop that looked remarkably similar to the default KDE desktop. Here's how it looks on my netbook:
During the last netbook installation I incorrectly selected the time setting for my system clock, choosing local time rather than UTC. The net result is that my clock was four hours fast. Since I sometimes work offline I preferred to adjust the time manually rather than sync to NTP. Unfortunately the time change did not survive a reboot when made using the tool in the KDE desktop. Making the change at the command line did stick.
The most telling thing about my experience with ROSA 2012 Marathon is that the clock bug is the most annoying one I encountered. In general the promise to deliver a stable and reliable desktop has been met beautifully in this release. I've also been impressed with how seamlessly KLook is integrated into the desktop despite being a 0.1 release. I have yet to find a desktop where I can find what I'm looking for easily and just get to work that functions better than the one ROSA Labs has designed. All in all things do "just work," they work intuitively and there really are no surprises.
Internationalization and localization
While the list of officially supported languages is restricted to European choices, internationalization and localization packages in the repository are not. FriBidi, the library to support bidirectional languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, is installed by default. Tools for Asian languages are in the repository. A full selection of dictionaries and language packs are also available. GDM, the display manager from GNOME 2.x, is also available in the repository. GDM scores over KDM in that it allows for changing languages on a session by session basis.
ROSA 2012 Marathon continues Mandriva's excellent language support, something you would expect in a distribution targeting the enterprise/business desktop in today's global marketplace.
The ROSA Labs developers have done an excellent job in creating a polished, functional distribution which is stable, reliable, and performs well. The desktop design is intuitive and user friendly and yet it is not dumbed down. The ability to customize the KDE desktop to suit individual needs or to select an entirely different desktop environment is in no way compromised for the sake of simplicity. New tools and applications like KLook and ROSA Media Player provide functionality which is unique to this distribution. ROSA 2012 Marathon isn't just an update of Mandriva 2011. Rather, it's a fork which takes the distribution in new directions.
There is no perfect distribution and ROSA 2012 Marathon is not without bugs. Quirks in the OS once installed were minor and easily sorted. Most of the significant problems I encountered were in the installer. Consequently, while I can recommend ROSA 2012 for newcomers to Linux once it's installed and configured, it would be helpful to have an experienced Linux hand around to get everything working. If ROSA Labs can iron out the installation issues in their next release they would then truly have something newcomer friendly.
Right now there is a fair amount of community dissatisfaction with Ubuntu, the distribution most often touted as a model of user friendly desktop Linux. With a little work it is not hard to imagine ROSA challenging Ubuntu and Linux Mint for leadership on the Linux desktop. Even as things stand now, ROSA 2012 Marathon is a very fine example of a well designed Linux desktop and is well worth a look.