Some time ago, I stopped paying attention to Mandriva. I felt that this Linux distribution, which hails from France and is financially backed by Russia, wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be. All has changed now. Mandriva knows where it is and where it’s heading. Mandriva Linux Powerpack 2011 is available for purchase and is one of the finest releases I have come across in quite some time. What makes it so good? Let’s break it down.

1: Smart desktop

This is really the one major place Mandriva has taken control. Ubuntu and GNOME have tried — and for the most part, are failing — to get people to take the bait for their newest iteration of the PC desktop. Well, Mandriva has succeeded. For all intents and purposes, Mandriva has taken KDE and layered on just a bit of what is unique about both Unity and GNOME 3. You click on the Start button and something akin to a Unity Lens opens. This Lens allows easy access to applications, documents, and even a user-based timeline for documents (called TimeFrame).

2: Better application integration

Now you can have KDE and GNOME applications installed and have them look and feel alike. This has always been an issue when you wanted to have both KDE and GNOME apps installed on the same machine. Oh sure, they all worked fine. But the difference in UI was enough to make users not want to make the journey back and forth. In some cases, this difference was even enough to cause users to look for a less featured or robust application. Mandriva has solved that, and now you will find no graphical differences between GNOME and KDE applications.

3: Better login manager

The Linux login manager has always been less than stellar. Although some might think this not a big deal, it’s the first glimpse new users see. If you have a login manager that looks like it was stripped from a Solaris machine running CDE, you’re not going to be impressed out of the starting gate. Mandriva has really made some major improvements to the look and feel of this piece of the Linux desktop. Other distributions should be looking closely at what they are doing with the whole of the aesthetic.

4: Installation

Let us all hearken back to the days when you installed Linux and were able to choose everything you wanted. Mandriva brings this back. During the installation, you can click off check boxes for what you want and/or go the advanced route and add/remove every piece of software you like. You want Samba? You got it. Apache? Sure. Gimp? No problem. The list goes on and on and on. I was quite happy to see this return to a Linux installation in such a user-friendly fashion. During the installation, you can even choose to add proprietary video drivers (should the install detect a video card that could benefit from them).

5: Package management

Mandriva has finally migrated away from PackageKit to offer a much more user-friendly Add/Remove Software utility. One of my biggest gripes with distributions like Mandriva (pre-2011) and Fedora is PackageKit. As far as package management front ends are concerned, PK is not good, epecially for new users. Mandriva has removed the complexity from PackageKit to create a much easier-to-use software installation tool. This new tool is experimental and is not included in the distribution by default. But you can install it from the current Add/Remove Software tool and then use it to manage your software. Be warned: It is experimental, so it might be prone to issues. But it’s worth trying just to see where Mandriva is going with this.

6: Bug reporting

Average users aren’t going to concern themselves with bug reporting, but Mandriva has managed to make it something anyone can do. The dedicated bug reporting tool is integrated into the desktop so that bug reports are nearly automatic. Communication between users and developers is easy, which will only serve to further improve the Mandriva distribution.

7: Under-the-hood stability

Mandriva has added new pieces and stuck with proven pieces to create an incredibly stable environment. You will find such goodness as Kernal 2.6.38, 7.6, X Server 1.10.3, Bash 4.2, Python 2.7.2, PHP 5.3.8, Apache 2.2.19, Glibc 2.13, and GCC 4.6.1. In some cases, a more proven technology was chosen instead of the latest, greatest. For instance, it opted for a proven stable kernel release instead of the current stable (3.1.2) or the mainline release (currently 3.2-rc2). With the combination of stable technology under the hood and newer technology on top, Mandriva has created a release that really shines.

8: Startup optimization

SysVinit has been replaced by systemd. Although you won’t find bootups as fast as you find with Ubuntu (and Ubuntu derivatives), the new system offers much more control over the startup of daemons, startup scripts, and the like. The systemd system is also compatible with LSB and SysVinit scripts, so there’s some backward compatibility built in.

9: New default apps

Some of the standard applications have been replaced by more reliable tools. For example, the battle for the default music player, waged between Rhythmbox and Banshee, has been won by — wait for it — Clementine! That’s right, a new kid is on the block, and it doesn’t suffer from the bloat found in the other players. Although Clementine doesn’t have a built-in music store, as both Rhythmbox and Banshee do, it’s a powerful player with plenty of options and features to enjoy.

10: Included codecs and other goodies

When you purchase the Powerpack, you get all the codecs necessary to play all the multimedia your heart can yearn for. Out of the box, you’ll be playing audio files, videos, flash, and much more. Also included is CodeWeaver CrossOver, so you can easily install Windows apps on your desktop.

Worth the bucks

Mandriva Powerpack 2011 might well have brought this distribution back to the front of the pack. It’s user-friendly, powerful, and flexible, and it brings elements to the desktop that others have been unable to realize. Although some will scoff at the 59.00 USD price tag, from my vantage point, it’s certainly worth the cost.