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openSUSE 10.2 review

By Jem Matzan

Many changes have gone into the SUSE Linux operating system since version 10.1, including a name change: the entire operating system is now known only as openSUSE. All of those changes appear to have been for the better -- openSUSE 10.2 is as great a release as 10 was -- but despite the improvements and bug fixes, there are still several underlying problems that prevent openSUSE 10.2 from being competitive with commercial desktop operating systems. As far as free (of charge) operating environments are concerned, openSUSE is among the best. It's also comprised mostly of free (of licensing restrictions) software, but it's neither free enough to be totally restriction-free, nor proprietary enough to be maximally useful.

openSUSE overview

This section is for those new to openSUSE. If you just want to find out what's new in this release, skip to the next section.

Novell openSUSE (formerly known as SUSE Linux) is a complete desktop GNU/Linux operating environment with thousands of desktop software packages. It has long been among the best desktop GNU/Linux distributions in terms of features, ease of use, included software, hardware support, user support, documentation, and quality of design. It has a user-friendly installation procedure and it will work on virtually any desktop or laptop computer, though you may need to do some configuration work to get it to meet all of your needs.

The Microsoft Windows-like KDE desktop environment has traditionally been the default interface (see screen shot below), but a customized GNOME environment is now provided as an equally valid option. In either case, the graphical environment is attractive, useful, and installed software is generally easy to find.

As has become the industry trend, Novell offers openSUSE as a free download, but also offers a commercial edition that has an expanded installation DVD, an extensive paper manual, and 90 days of installation support.

What's new in 10.2

openSUSE 10.2 is mainly a cosmetic update and bugfix release -- the list of changes is fairly light:

  • The Linux kernel is now version, and no longer requires a separate kernel for SMP machines
  • has been upgraded to version 7.2rc2
  • The "kickoff" KDE menu enhancement has been added

The full list of updates can be found here, but there isn't really much to talk about. There have been some superficial changes to YaST and ZENworks has been fixed, but there are no revolutionary new features or changes to speak of.

Putting it to the test

I had no trouble installing openSUSE 10.2 on any of my test machines, using both the 32-bit and 64-bit editions. As has been the case with all previous SUSE releases, 10.2 takes an unusually long time to install -- more than an hour on most machines with a decent selection of software added. openSUSE's desktop GNU/Linux competitors take at most half that amount of time to install, and require less post-install configuration. A large part of the problem is that openSUSE is still using the "old" method of installation -- from several discs or a jam-packed DVD. The standard install takes up about 3GB of space and includes more software than I suspect the majority of users will even be aware of, let alone use.

Post-install configuration still requires a lot of work, and while competent instructions are available, such documentation should not be necessary in the first place. openSUSE does not come preconfigured with package repositories that contain necessary software like hardware-accelerated Nvidia and ATI video card drivers, proprietary wireless drivers, or widely-used multimedia codecs.

Speaking of video card drivers, it's been several months between the release of openSUSE 10.2 and the publishing of this review, and there still is no official ATI video driver RPM in ATI's openSUSE repository. If you want a driver that works, you need to install it from the command line -- way too much hassle for most desktop users. I realize that ATI is more to blame for this than Novell is, but I can't help but observe the fact that competing desktop operating systems -- commercial ones in particular, such as Mandriva PowerPack and Linspire -- generally include all or most of the necessary proprietary drivers.

openSUSE 10.2
openSUSE 10.2: an improvement, but still not good enough

Installation and configuration hassles aside, I found the new openSUSE KDE desktop to be much more modern-looking and streamlined than ever before. The new kickoff menu system is difficult to get used to because it's unlike the standard KDE menu (or anything else I've seen before), but after a few hours I thought highly of it. Even if most people only use a small handful of programs regularly, nobody likes to go fishing through a menu system to find an infrequently-used but very important program. The kickoff menu structure cuts down on erroneous menu clicks and menu navigation time -- I like it a lot, and definitely prefer it to all other KDE implementations that I have seen to date. It almost makes KDE worth using for me, my chief KDE complaints being lack of menu organization and sufficient panel space.

GNOME, unfortunately, is still cursed with the horrid "slab" menu introduced in SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. Only a miniscule portion of your desktop applications are shown to you in the actual menu; you need to click a button and open a window full of program icons in order to see the rest. With some time spent in customization, the loss of productivity due to "fishing" for programs in the slab menu can be mitigated, but it's quicker and easier to simply revert to the standard GNOME layout.

I was glad to see that ZENworks has been fixed -- or at least it didn't give me any trouble. In SUSE Linux 10.1 ZENworks was a bug-ridden abomination that required several updates from the old YaST Online Update system in order to function properly.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

So Novell fixed the damage done by 10.1., but still has not addressed many of the lingering problems with installation and configuration that have plagued SUSE variants for the operating system's entire history. It's still a decent desktop operating system, and has one of the industry's best configuration frameworks (YaST), but it just doesn't compete with commercial GNU/Linux distros like Xandros or Mandriva. It has a hard time competing even with the free-of-charge Ubuntu Linux. Indeed, openSUSE is in danger of losing relevance in a rapidly evolving market. You can't have poor quality releases anymore -- those days of leniency are over. Desktop GNU/Linux is now a mature market, and companies like Novell need to start treating it like such.

It's going to be a long and painful road to success, if openSUSE is going to make it to the last lap in the desktop operating system race. Here are some things that I would like to see changed in future releases:

  • Stop castrating Xine. Why is SUSE the only desktop GNU/Linux distribution that cuts the DVD support out of Xine? There is a workaround for this problem, but SUSE users should not have to go through the hassle. I'm not talking about deCSS -- I'm talking about support for adding deCSS yourself. openSUSE's Xine implementation is totally unable to play DVDs unless the xine-lib package is replaced.
  • SaX SuX. It's either time to ditch SaX2, or make it more configurable (like it used to be). The world would be a better place if SaX2/iSaX did not overwrite the xorg.conf file every time the system starts. Sometimes you need to add custom hacks to this file. At the very least I would like to see a program that allows you to edit the device schemas that SaX uses when configuring newly detected hardware. If my monitor is not properly detected, I should be able to permanently teach SaX the correct settings.
  • Ditch the slab. The SLED 10 "slab" menu for GNOME is terrible -- absolutely terrible. It is the worst non-innovation I have ever seen in a desktop environment. If it can't be removed entirely, could there at least be an option not to install or use it? I'm not alone in my admiration for the standard GNOME interface -- others would enjoy this option as well, I'm certain.
  • Konqueror -- and other KDE-related bloat -- has to go. Nobody uses Konqueror for Web browsing -- I have Web stats from half a dozen sites to prove it. It has a klunky interface, doesn't work with plugins very well, doesn't easily do tabbed windows like Opera and Firefox do, and in general has no advantages over its competitors. Get rid of it! We only need one Web browser, and the market has spoken as to its preference -- Firefox. At very least, Konqueror should not have an icon in the default quicklaunch area of the KDE menubar. Konqueror aside, take a look through the kickoff menu sometime and notice how many software categories there are, and how many programs are in each one of them. How much of this crap do we really need? One of my chief complaints about SUSE for many years has been that there is too much standard KDE crap in the default install. People should choose what programs they want, not be force-fed programs that they may never use. This will also make the installation procedure speedier.
  • More official repositories. You can't trust other vendors -- or even volunteers -- to maintain important software repositories for you. openSUSE users need Nvidia, ATI, Atheros, Intel Centrino, and other proprietary drivers, and if possible, they need them during or immediately after installation. Why do we have to go chase down a bunch of obscure repo addresses and manually add them to YaST just to get similar hardware functionality to Microsoft Windows? If anything is chiefly responsible for the eventual downfall of this distribution, this ignorance of driver RPMs will be it.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Novell
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T, PPC (PPC is not supported in the commercial edition)
License GNU General Public License, although all of the packages on the non-free extras CD are proprietary
Market Desktop users
Price (retail) Free to download and use. A commercial edition is available from Novell for U.S. $60, which includes paper manuals, pressed CDs and a DVD, and 60 days of installation support
Previous version SUSE Linux 10.1
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