Distro Review: OpenSUSE 11.2
There’ve been a lot of big releases in the Linux distro world lately, and none bigger than OpenSUSE 11.2, the latest offering from Novell. Novell can be a controversial company in some parts of the FOSS community, but whatever your personal view you can’t deny they’re also contributing to progress in many ways. They employ a lot of important Linux kernel developers for one example. The last time I did a really in-depth review of OpenSUSE was 2 years ago with 10.2, though I did do a quick review of version 11 last year for Linux Planet. I decided it was high time to take a took at look at how things are developing in the SUSE world. So here’s how I got on.
Distro base – None (Slackware if you got back to 1994. See the discussion on this in the comments)
Packaging – .rpm (Managed by Zypper)
Linux Kernel – 126.96.36.199-0.1-desktop
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.28 or KDE 4.3
I began by downloading the OpenSUSE 11.2 install DVD, which contains both the latest Gnome and KDE desktops, along with a raft of other packages. Most of the major distributions focus on live CDs rather than DVDs still and I’m not really sure why. I realise some parts of the world aren’t blessed with the download bandwidth and cheap DVD writers we have here in the UK, but I like the SUSE approach of offering you everything on one disc and then supplementing it with live CDs. The likes of Ubuntu seem to be struggling to fit everything into a CD image these days anyway, and I wonder how long it will be before they’re forced to follow suit. The DVD image downloading in lightening quick time from Mirrorservice.org and I got to work. This DVD doesn’t offer the option of a live session which I find puzzling. I realise they have the live CDs for this, but it would seem sensible to offer a live session on the DVD as well to me. A choice of Gnome or KDE desktop is one of the first things you see on the installer. I chose Gnome initially but would have liked to install both, there wasn’t an obvious option for that. I figured I’d move to KDE later and try that out too. I found the disc partitioning tool worked well but didn’t have the most intuitive UI I’ve ever used. It took a bit of trial and error to get things how I wanted them. You have to right-click on a partition to edit its properties, but this isn’t immediately obvious. The ability to import an existing partitioning scheme from the drive is a really handy feature though. I keep a separate /home partition and it detected the appropriate mount points automatically, even which partitions to reformat. I was highly impressed by that.
After entering some of the usual user details and other basic settings the install was on it’s way. You’re presented with a bit of a slide show while the install progresses and I liked the useful information at the bottom of the screen, it lists how many packages are left to install, their size and how long it should all take. Usually they seem to calculate these numbers purely by chance but this was surprisingly accurate. I did hit one slight snag when it tried to connect to the server to download more packages. I was greeted with an error message about connection problems. Since the Ethernet cable wasn’t connected and I wasn’t asked to configure wireless at any point it didn’t really surprise me that it couldn’t find the server. A prompt to configure wireless networking at this point if you’re on a laptop would be a nice addition to the installer I think. I can’t remember the last time I plugged my machine into a router, these days I live on wireless like the rest of the world. I pressed cancel on the connection dialogue and the install continued, completing in under 20 minutes. Overall the install was very quick and easy enough. A big improvement on what I remember of previous OpenSUSE installs and I’m pleased to see the installer has come on.
VIEW FULL INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW
When I booted the fresh install for the first time I was surprised to see it log me in automatically, not great for security. This must have been an option in the installer I didn’t notice. Still, I think requiring a login by default would be better. An-opt out rather than opt-in policy if you like. One of my first tasks was to configure wireless networking. The setup was nice and simple with Network Manager and I was quickly onto software installation. Clicking the “Install Software” link on the main SLAB menu launches YaST, causing immediate pangs of trepidation in me. YaST is the all-in-one admin tool on SUSE systems and for most people it’s a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. In the past I’ve found myself firmly in the “hate it” camp, mainly because managing software with it was such a hassle. I tried to keep an open mind this time though and in fact, I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s really improved since last I looked. The software management interface is faster and much nicer to use. I like the way it gives you all the information you could need in one window: a list of impending changes in the right panel, categories and search results to the left. Searching for packages was easy, but I couldn’t find anything close to an Nvidia driver in the default repositories. Much like Fedora and some other distributions, OpenSUSE doesn’t contain any non-free software by default. The binary Nvidia drivers being about as far away from free as a trip to the shops with Paris Hilton. I went to the OpenSUSE wiki to search for some answers and was pleased to find a page dedicated to installing Nvidia drivers, there’s even a 1-click link. That seemed to install just fine but there was no prompt to restart the X server or log out to make the changes take effect, that could be helpful for people who don’t know. Restarting the X server and logging in again I saw a reassuring Nvidia splash screen, and a quick spin of the Compiz cube confirmed it was all working. So far things were going well.
I clicked on an mp3 file to see what would happen about codecs. Banshee launched by default which doesn’t surprise me, it’s a Novell product after all. It didn’t know what to do with the mp3 though and I was directed back to the wiki again, I was beginning to feel the wiki and I would become firm friends before the week was over. It lists where a choice of buying Fluendo codecs or looking for community support, which is something I’ve seen on a lot of distros. Some are more pushy with the Fluendo products than others though it has to be said. I found this prompt pretty balanced and fair. Fluendo do sell high quality codecs and I have no issue at all with people buying them, it even helps to fun more Free Software development. However, I do find some of the marketing a bit misleading to people living outside the USA. In the US it’s illegal to have the DVD decrypting libraries and some other things on you computer without a license. This means that most distributions won’t included them for fear of legal action, even if 90% of their target audience live outside the US. I’ve long thought a easy solution could be found in the installer. When selecting your time zone and location, a little bit of logic could easily say “this is a US resident so I won’t install illegal codecs”, and vice versa. I’m big on ideas and slow on action though, so I don’t know how hard that would actually be for the developers to implement. It doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to me. Nevertheless I followed the community link into a maze of wiki pages about different formats. Thankfully, I eventually found a community page offering a 1-click install for all the major codecs and went for that. The “.ymp” file downloaded and launched the YaST installer without any problems. I like that it offers you an option to stay subscribed to the repository after the install or not, that’s useful. YaST then began to ask me a lot of questions about package conflicts and other problems. It offered 3 possible solutions and I picked one in each case. The install seemed ok after that but it’s a bit off-putting when a box with “ERROR!!!” (uppercase and exclamation marks added by me) emblazoned on it pops up every 2 mins. It didn’t like the version of Gstreamer that ships with 11.2, despite the link saying this install was for specifically for 11.2. I should point out this is all community maintained software and nothing to do with Novell. I’m sure there were many chuckles going in the Fluendo office as I grappled on. Afterwards I was able to play most formats with Totem and Banshee, so the install must have worked. I also installed VLC for good measure, because VLC just plays anything you throw at it. I found later in the week that playing stuff with Totem and any other player outside of Banshee caused mysterious crashes. I also had trouble running OpenOffice.org with a crash report every time I tried to launch it. I’m not sure what happened, but that looked bad from a stability point of view.
The software repositories seemed to be reasonably deep, especially after I saw this post from OpenSUSE Community Manager Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier. It gives instructions on adding more repositories to YaST and Zypper (the terminal utility). The list of suggested repos in YaST is actually really useful. I added the Official Google repo for Chrome and the popular Packman repo, which contains much of the software Novell are wary of distributing themselves. It’s quite similar to RPM Fusion or Livna repositories for Fedora, if you know of those. The Google Chrome repo is actually a YUM repository, but Zypper can just convert and use YUM repositories for you automatically, an impressive feature. I installed Gpodder from Packman repository and was greeted with more warnings about possible conflicts, it couldn’t find a Gnome BitTorrent package dependency. I chose to break the dependency and just continue, finding much to my relief the program worked fine once installed. I’ve seen this sort of behaviour a few times now with other packages and I’ve come to the conclusion that YaST and Zypper just like to warn you about every possible problem. Usually the installations work absolutely fine despite the warnings. Perhaps it’s a more cautious approach than other distros, who would just attempt the install everything without telling you. Dealing with problems further down the line if they arose. I’m all for full disclosure but it’s a bit annoying being nagged by the package manager at times. It could be pretty scary to anyone not prepared for it.
Trying KDE 4.3:
I had wanted to install KDE alongside Gnome originally, but couldn’t see an obvious option for this on the DVD. So I searched instead for a way to add all the KDE packages to my up and running install. I didn’t fancy doing this manually there’s hundreds of them, but I knew there must be an easier way. After some consultation with the good people who follow me on Identi.ca, I was directed to this wiki entry. It worked without any problems, I used Zypper from the command line to install all the KDE4 packages in one go. That’s a lot of data to download and install, but it only seemed to take about 10 or 15 minutes and I was impressed by that. I was now able to log out and choose a KDE4 session instead of Gnome. I’d read that OpenSUSE 11.2 shipped with a new and highly polished KDE4 release, I’d also heralded the KDE4 implementation in OpenSUSE 11 as the best I’d seen to date last year. I had high expectations but sadly these weren’t completely met here. It feels very much like the bog standard KDE4 implementation to me without a great deal of customisation beyond the green theme. That may sound harsh and perhaps it is, but coming from what I considered a brilliant KDE4 experience on Mandriva 2010 this didn’t compare well. I know a lot of KDE4 fans won’t like me saying this, I have something of a reputation as a Gnome fan-boy which is fully justified and I own up that completely. Before I’m deluged with hate mail though I should point out that I’m not criticising KDE4 here, it’s just I wasn’t a fan of this implementation. I’ve seen much better on other distros and perhaps my expectations we too high after last year, that may be partly to blame but I felt something was amiss. I actually prefer some of the KDE programs over their Gnome equivalents, Choqok being a prime example. It’s more stable, quick and feature full than Gwibber in my opinion, there’s not much of a contest. I also like the Dolphin file manager a lot, as I’ve said in other reviews, and Amarok still holds a place in my heart since I first saw it many years ago. Back in 2005 it was one of my key selling points in trying to convince people about Linux, it worked well at that time. I think if I were looking for a good KDE4 desktop at home I’d choose Mandriva before this. While I appreciate that KDE4 has a lot to offer and I’ve used it for extended periods quite happily, I just don’t feel OpenSUSE has quite done it justice here. That’s a real shame.
Quirks And False Boots:
I ran across a few quirks in my week with OpenSUSE that left me scratching my head. For example, occasionally when powering up my computer I found it didn’t boot all the way into the desktop session and froze. This happened with both KDE4 and Gnome, so it’s not a desktop specific thing in any way. It would get past GRUB and all the usual stages of booting, showing splash screens and other encouraging signs, but then disaster would strike. I was left looking at a blank green desktop background with no toolbars or icons, and no way to do anything with it. Pressing the power button on the laptop case did usually shut the machine down again. It was most odd. The first time it happened I put it down as a one off, but the problem repeated several times over the next few days. The 2nd attempt would usually boot perfectly, but it didn’t look good when trying to explain to someone “oh yeah it doesn’t boot every time, It’ll work next time”, that’s hardly a good promo for the Linux desktop. It could be some problem with my hardware and I’m prepared to cut them a little slack, but I’ve never seen this on any other distro. I also noticed another little quirk in a clash between the key mappings for Gnome Do and the SLAB menu. Gnome Do is enabled by default, even on KDE. A fact I didn’t even realise until I had to enter the System Monitor to kill something else and I saw the process name. I’m not surprised it’s enabled by default being a Mono application, it’s a program I actually like a hell of a lot, but it might be nice to let people know it’s running in the background eating resources. There’s no splash screen or notification icon by default. When you press <SUPER> + space bar to launch Do, it also pulls up the SLAB menu obscuring most of the Gnome Do window in the process. It’s not a major problem and can be fixed easily enough but it seems a bit sloppy to me. It’s just a little bit of finesse and finish that could make a difference.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 4/5
Stability: 2/5 (due to my false booting problem)
Community Support & Documentation: 4/5
I’m conscious that lot of this article has seemed negative and I don’t want to leave you with that impression at all. I’ve actually enjoyed my time on OpenSUSE 11.2 immensely. I’ve done all my usual daily work, editing podcasts in Audacity and transferring code to various websites, so that’s all good. There are a few bugs that need to be ironed out it’s true, but I think overall they’ve made a good step forward here. On 10.2 I found it felt like a really business-focused desktop to me, without much of what home users want. That’s certainly not the case here. Package management – an old bug bare with me on OpenSUSE – is vastly improved and great credit has to be given for that. I even started to like YaST and my old preconceptions about it have definitely been changed for the better. I can see the merits of an all-in-one administration solution in some cases, and for users making the jump over form Windows it may feel more intuitive. Zypper impressed me with it’s speed and features, it could give YUM and Aptitude a good run for their money any day of the week. Many of the reasons I didn’t feel comfortable on OpenSUSE last time have been fixed and I feel I could happily stay on this as my main desktop if needed. It feels as though the distribution has become more community driven in the last couple of years, possibly because they now have a community manager leading the way. Community is a real buzzword in the Open Source world right now, and I have my issues with some of the way it’s overused, but I can’t deny it makes a hell of a difference to the user experience. The OpenSUSE community isn’t quite a big as the one surrounding Ubuntu with the abundance or tutorials online, the quality of the wiki is top notch though. Having a higher number of articles doesn’t always make them better, often it can add to the confusion and that’s worth remembering.
I think OpenSUSE is heading in a much better direction than it was a couple of years ago, it certainly feels more engaging and I’m pleased about that. There are a few things which could use some work and I hope this continues but I’d say they’re definitely on the right track. I wouldn’t recommend it for the complete novice users as there’s some rough edges to contend with at times. It’s probably best to stick to something like Linux Mint for those people, but for anyone else interested in a change of scene I’d recommend giving OpenSUSE 11.2 a spin. Even if you haven’t traditionally been a fan of the distro you may be pleasantly surprised, much like I was. The development tools are very good and innovations like the SUSE Studio and Build Service are worth looking into if you’re a developer. Not to mention the close links to the Mono Project, if that’s your kind of thing. I look forward to seeing if future releases can keep this improvement going. It could be an interesting ride. If you decide to try out OpenSUSE 11.2 for yourself let me know how you get on in the comments, I’d be interested too hear about it.
YOU CAN DOWNLOAD OPENSUSE 11.2 HERE
It’s been mad busy with new distro releases lately and I’m struggling to keep up. Fedora 12 was released just a few of days after OpenSUSE and that will definitely be my next stop. Linux Mint has a new release due very soon which I’ll also take a look at. After that hopefully the release schedule will calm down a bit and I can get back to some more of the more exotic distros I have on my list. Join me next time to see how Fedora 12 shapes up…