On the Bench: OpenSUSE 10.2
Suse 7.2 was my first Linux distribution ever, around five years ago. I was impressed but also had to struggle with all kinds of issues. That was part of the fun. I remember the sales pitch that working with Linux is like working on the engine of a car while it is running. You were supposed to fix things as you went along. Ever since, the distributions became more and more userfriendly. Suse was bought by Novell, Yast was open sourced and recently Novell made a pact with Microsoft. Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 is considered by many as a solid enterprise ready desktop and community development is taking place in the OpenSUSE project. Over the years I have been impressed and disappointed with the Suse releases. I had serious issues with either 9.1 or 9.2 that would destroy the ability to multiboot to XP. There was a simple patch, but in the Novell Linux package six months later that patch was still not integrated. Then there were the issues with the software update module in 10.x. On the other side there were the spit and polish and the ease of use of Yast, so SUSE and OpenSUSE are distribution I like to keep my eye on as serious contenders to convince Windows to Linux migrators.
OpenSUSE 10.2 is available in either 5 CD’s (plus 1 Add-on packages disk), 1 DVD (http://en.opensuse.org/Download) or a retail double-layer DVD. For this testrun I downloaded the DVD through bittorrent.
Yast is still taking care of the installation routine and that remains a solid and powerfull tool. You can select either KDE or Gnome as your favorite desktop. The option “other” only provides two new options, minimal or no graphical interface. I decided to stick with Gnome for now and accept the default packageselection, which left me with a 2,33 Gb install. This is somewhat bigger than a default Ubuntu install. One thing I really like about Yast is the overview screen where you can tweak all installation settings. This would certainly appeal to the Windows powerusers, but could overwhelm the more average users.
Personally, I like to play with the partition scheme. By default OpenSUSE offers you separate root and home partitions which definitely make sense. As an experiment I decided to take the route of customizing the partition scheme and I was impressed. Even in this route you have the option to go less expert and it results in the scheme you like. From then on Yast will take it’s time to install all packages, which takes about 40 minutes. Just accept (or reject) the licenses for Adobe ICC and the flashplayer.
The configuration part of Yast can be daunting for new time users. The Hostname screen asks some questions, but without any explanation there is no idea what consequences your choices might have. The Network options are extensive, but the defaults were okay for me.
Next is the challenge of the online update, the weak spot in previous releases. After a few scary minutes I got the message that the configuration was succesful and an updateserver was added to the configuration. I decided to run the online update and was surprised to see two security updates already along with the option to install the Microsoft TrueType fonts. After this I was provided the option to add two new repositories to the list. Nice. I always want maximum access to packages through an easy interface. Be patient, it takes some time to finish this step and it isn’t free of errors. After adding the users comes the tricky step of configuring the hardware. It is always a wise decision to check the graphics configuration.
First boot, first impressions
OpenSUSE boots into a barren looking Gnome desktop, with the menubutton in the left bottom corner screen (where about every Windows users would look first 😉 ). The new menupanel should make novice users at home with a decent list of default applications (Firefox, Helix Banshee, F-Spot, Evolution, OpenOffice.org Writer) and easily accessible, categorized other applications. Two other options interest me now, the control center and the software installer. The software installer comes with three main options: by pattern, by package or by patch. The pattern selections deal with various developer packs, the KDE desktop, the various server possibilities, Xen and Voip. Personally I ran into a snag immediately with Bluefish. Bluefish is a nice PHP editor and it is not in the repositories.
To test the installer I decided on getting the KDE desktop. And there was snag number two. As a user you are confronted with an error message. Of course, you need root privileges for this action but why not take the route Ubuntu takes and come with a request for the root password. Now we first have to add the single user to zmd, the Zenworks install tool. This might make sense in a multi-user environment, but even there a less recoiling message would have been better. The overall impression of the interface is not good. Too geeky, especially when compared to Synaptic (apt-get frontend) or Kuroo (portage frontend). No casual browsing through categories or applications, which prohibits new users to find new and attractive packages.
The Control Center gives easy access to fine tuning hardware settings, look and feel, personal settings and system setop. The original Yast Control Center is still accesible by choosing Administrator settings. I could only find one problem with using the Control Center: it doesn’t give any indication whether your double-click was actually working. This way I wound up with three screens for the same function.
The KDE desktop
To round of this first impressions review let’s have a look at the KDE desktop. The new KDE menu again should be recognizable by Windows XP users and the new Vista users. For others it might take some getting used to. For me it feels less organized and less polished than the Gnome desktop that is part of OpenSUSE, especially when compared to the KDE desktop under Sabayon.
OpenSUSE 10.2 is a nice next release in the series, but certainly not mind blowing. The installation procedure is still one of the longest compared to other distributions and it doesn’t result in a larger set of packages. The installation of new software from the desktop interface really needs some work done on it. It is too rough around the edges. That, along with the unpolished KDE desktop, would not make OpenSUSE 10.2 a first recommendation for novice Windows to Linux migrators.