OpenSUSE 11.2 Review

14 December 2009 at 23:25 (Linux)

It seems nowadays that when it comes to Linux, Ubuntu is getting all of the attention. However, with their latest release, they have seemed to jump the gun providing a less than quality release with several frustrating bugs in addition to including some rather annoying “customisations” including the neutering of GDM so that it cannot take custom login themes. The entire release was a fiasco that will hopefully not repeat itself with the 10.04 LTS release comming in the spring.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (pun intended), there are many great Linux distrobutions out there other than Ubuntu that provide a quality experience out of the box. One of these, which is a veteran in terms of age is OpenSUSE, which has kicking since the 1990s is a great alternative to Ubuntu and the focus of today’s post. There is a definate reason for SUSE’s success in the Linux “market”.

Installation and Setup:

OpenSUSE offers a great great selection of ways to setup your system, including offering mulitple installation media for both ix86 (32-bit) and amd64 (64-bit) architectures. In addition you have several choices of discs to choose from depending on your needs including:

  • Installation DVD including all of the most common software
  • FTP installation disc for networked installation
  • Live discs for both KDE and Gnome that allow you to demo openSUSE before installing. These can also be used to do simple backup and recovery work as well.

Installing using the DVD is the best route if you know what you want, and it is very easy to do thanks to it’s universal setup tool called YaST that allows you to easily setup some of the most advanced options. All of the most basic tasks are setup in YaST to be as simple and painless as possible, without sacrificing any of the most advanced options.

To make things even better, Novell did not stop at making a great graphical installer. If you are really short on resources, or you just prefer an old school terminal based system / install then you are in luck because YaST also have a text mode that is just as clean, simple, and easy to use. The only thing that is missing is the graphics.

Post-installation system options is also handled through YaST as well, and once it openSUSE is installed, YaST acts as a system control panel that is very powerful and allowes for almost every aspect of the system to controlled from it so there is almost no need to edit system files like you would in other distributions.

Software Selection and Installation:

OpenSUSE comes with a great choice of software and sane defaults out of the box, however, if you find you don’t like a particular application and want to replace it with something else, or find that you need (or want) a particular application for a certain function then they have you covered. OpenSUSE has one of the largest software repositories by default and has many community based repositories of extremely high quality.

Everything is there that you would expect in a modern Linux setup: Firefox, OpenOffice, The Gimp. Plus, if you choose the KDE desktop, there are a few “killer apps” that simply have no competition on their Gnome counterparts including:

  • Gwenveiw (image viewer)
  • Kate (text editor)
  • Skanlite (image scanner)
  • Akregator (feed reader)
  • K3B (disk burning)
  • Okular (document viewer)
  • Yakuake (drop-down terminal)

The only drawback that openSUSE has in terms of software is their choice to neuter certain software in the name of “open source” or to not include certain codecs for proprietary formats due to international and United States laws. This is understandable from a legal aspect and thankfully this is a non-issue because the needed software and codecs can be found in other repositories, namely: pacman and the vlc repository will fix that issue. Strangely, despite this abhorence to patents and propriety, they do provide both Java and Flash installed by default and it works out of the box in Firefox (and Konqueror!).

In addition, openSUSE does not provide the proprietary drivers for NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards, but these can be installed easily through adding a repository. Their wiki even provides a good list of repositories, including all the ones mentioned. Adding the repository for the said drivers will cause them to be selected for installtion and then all that is needed is a reboot after YaST is done worrking its magic.

For older ATI cards, the proprietary drivers do not work because ATI has dropped support for them on both Windows and Linux. Thankfully, on Linux 3D acceleration works perfect thanks to a lot of hard work developers have put into the open source drivers.

Look and Feel:

After installation, the one thing that is noticable is that reguardless of your choice of desktop enviroment, the theme is absolutely beautiful. It is perhaps some of the best default theme choices not only in terms of Linux, but out of all operating systems. The visual elements were well put together and consistent.

However, like always if the default theme is not to your taste, changing it is very simple and there are some really good websites that have custom theme elements use can to peice together something more to your liking. Pretty much everything is changable and swapable.

As far as the feel goes, the openSUSE development team did a lot in the way of making customised improvements to certain applications are integrated well with the desktop including some mods to Firefox that allow it to seemlessly work just like any other KDE application instead of doing it’s own thing. In addition, GTK applications blend in with default theme, so you don’t have to worry about using only KDE / QT based applications as most applications will blend right in. Unfortunately, GTK apps with the exception of OpenOffice (technically not GTK, either) do not call the KDE file selectors and don’t follow the same conventions that one would expect. This is a minor usability issue, but nothing that is confusing or difficult to the user.

Lastly, openSUSE provides the seemless plug-and-play experience you expect from most modern Linux systems and supports a wide array of devices. That said, not all hardware “just works” and there are some snags with more esoteric hardware, especially the cheap off-brand and throw-away type devices that use protrietary protocols. That being said, setup for devices such as printers is minimal, and a lot easier than in Windows.

Final Thoughts:

The overall experience provided by openSUSE is top of the line. It is a well designed, professional system that was also built with ease of use in mind. Thus, reguardless if you are a newbie, or a experienced user, openSUSE will deliver. As someone who has used most every version from SUSE 7.3 onwards, I am definately wowed by the amount of effort that was put into this release to give it that little extra something to make it possibly the best Linux distribution as of winter 2009.

In future releases, I think openSUSE should focus on removing themselves from the Mono platform on Gnome and working to make GTK applications have a more “KDE” feel to them. Another thing that should be considered is replacing the default menu “Kicker” in KDE with “Lancelot” which is much more robust and slightly faster. Default keystrokes to navigate between desktops would be nice to see as well.

It would also be nice to see openSUSE developers not purposefully compile out features such as DVD playback in Kaffeine or DHT in KTorrent. Even though the reason behind this action is logical, the libraries and packages that provide this feature are not even in the default repositories; therefore it makes no sense to totally remove this option for those who do want those features and wish to use the Packman repositories to enable them. Compiling out those features doesn’t put them in any better of a legal position than simply not providing the required libraries and packages and is just paranoia on their part.

That all being said, I am looking forward to the next release in 2010 and I can expect if this release is any indication of the type of progress they are making, then 11.3 will blow everything else out of the water.

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