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SUSE Linux 10.1 Review

By Jem Matzan

Novell's SUSE Linux operating system has consistently gained momentum for years. Since I started reviewing it at version 8.1, I've found each new release to have more options, better autoconfiguration, and expanded hardware support, all while maintaining a high level of stability. But after having extensively tested SUSE Linux 10.1 for x86 and AMD64, I must say that the positive trend has faltered, and my expectations were not met with this release. While some things are clearly improved in 10.1, others have taken a step backward.

SUSE Linux overview

SUSE Linux 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 computer except perhaps some that use motherboard technologies released in the past two months or so.

SUSE uses the Windows-like KDE desktop environment as its default, but is perfectly integrated with the GNOME environment as well. The menus are easy to navigate, and the installed software is easy to find. There's nothing difficult about SUSE Linux.

SUSE Linux 10 comes with a built-in firewall and spam filter, and although it's hardly necessary on GNU/Linux, SUSE also includes an antivirus program. Because of these features and the fact that it requires a limited-access user account to be created for daily use, SUSE is, by default, more secure than many other desktop operating systems. Overall, SUSE Linux is an excellent choice for those new to GNU/Linux.

There are two versions of this operating system (aside from the corporate products): commercial and OSS. The commercial edition is generally referred to as SUSE Linux; the open source edition is generally written SUSE Linux OSS. Both are essentially the same operating system. However, if you buy the commercial edition of SUSE Linux 10.1, you'll get CD and DVD media, an extensive paper manual on the operating system and its software, and 90 days of installation support from Novell. The open source version is free to download, but it does not come with paper manuals or installation support.

If you find that you're in over your head with SUSE installation and configuration and don't want to wait for Novell to ship you the commercial edition, I've authored a PDF guide called SUSE Linux 10.1 Kick Start, published and offered for sale through Sam's Publishing. If you only need some post-install configuration help, check out my guide on Hacking SUSE Linux 10.1.

What's new in 10.1

SUSE Linux 10.1
SUSE Linux 10.1: still good, but a little buggy

One of the most visible ways that Novell has lost its edge lately is the glaring lack of a changelog or any significant marketing materials for SUSE Linux 10.1. In other words, there is no comprehensive list of improvements and changes since 10.0 -- there isn't even a press kit or reviewer's guide available, which is highly unusual for a commercial operating system. So in lieu of an official list, here are the changes I have discovered in 10.1:

  • AppArmor has been upgraded to the full version; previously only the Lite edition was included.
  • Xen has been upgraded to version 3.
  • KDE, GNOME, and X.org have been updated to their newest stable versions as of the release date.
  • YaST Online Update (YOU) and SUSEwatcher have been replaced by the ZENworks updater.
  • The Atheros wireless networking drivers (madwifi) have been removed; Atheros-based wireless cards are not supported in SUSE 10.1 initially, but you can download a madwifi package after the installation is complete.
  • The proprietary Nvidia drivers are no longer included or available from YaST.
  • Various installation-related improvements.
  • Separation of free and non-free software; the commercial and OSS editions are now materially the same. All non-free software has been moved to a separate ISO, which can be downloaded for free. Previously these packages were only available in ISO form through the commercial edition.
  • NetworkManager replaces NetApplet for easier wireless networking.
  • The XGL graphical interface enhancement and the Compiz window manager are now supported and included with the distribution, but are not installed by default.

Putting it to the test

There are a lot of nice things to say about SUSE Linux 10.1, but most of them I said back when 10.0 was released. It's easy to install and configure, comes with a ton of software, etc. etc. -- it's probably the best desktop GNU/Linux distribution, and easily the best free-of-charge distro for those new to GNU/Linux (Ubuntu fanboys: please send hatemail to ).

The first major change that I noticed in SUSE Linux 10.1 was the distribution method. The commercial edition no longer has any proprietary software integration, and the OSS edition has its own proprietary add-on disk for things like the Java Runtime Environment, the Flash browser plugin, and all of the other proprietary extras that desktop users generally want. The Nvidia video driver is gone, though, which is a disappointment. Its absence means that you have to download the standard driver from the Nvidia and install it yourself... and reinstall it every time your Linux kernel is updated.

Speaking of drivers, Atheros wireless network chip support was officially dropped from SUSE Linux, then hastily re-added to the installation repositories some time after the release. You'll have to put the driver RPM onto a CD or USB drive before installation, or find some other way to connect to the Internet to get the driver afterward.

The installation procedure is largely the same as it has been over the past several years, though there are little enhancements here and there that make it easier for new users to deal with, especially where drive partitioning is concerned. The default partition scheme actually makes sense -- only a root, swap, and home partition are created, with the majority of the drive's space going to /home -- and if you have Windows on the drive already, the NTFS or FAT partition is automatically resized for you. There's no need to mess with boot loader configuration anymore, either -- GRUB is used by default, and automatically adds existing operating systems to the boot menu. Lastly, the Internet connection test usually works; in previous releases, this function was broken.

Once you get to the KDE desktop, you'll notice one major difference in SUSE Linux 10.1: a buggy, highly unstable ZENworks has replaced the traditional, mature YaST Online Update. I've been using SUSE Linux 10.1 constantly for more than a week, and certain package updates (dhcp, totem) consistently crash the update tool. Hopefully Novell will find a way to fix this soon, lest SUSE's security be in jeopardy from a lack of ability to apply patches.

YaST is largely the same as it was in 10.0, even down to the Online Update settings remaining in place despite the fact that they are no longer used by default. SaX now sucks, though -- you can't change the video driver, and if it does not recognize your monitor properly, you can have a lot of trouble updating the video drivers or installing/configuring XGL and Compiz because SaX wants to revert to all of its own default settings every time it has to autodetect something.

NetworkManager is nice, but so was NetApplet -- there isn't much of a difference between the two in terms of the end-user experience. Under the hood, NetworkManager uses an entirely different network device control framework separate from ifconfig and iwconfig. The two different networking subsystems don't play well with each other, so you have to either use the new system or go back to the old method. Most people shouldn't have any trouble with NetworkManager, but if you have any custom network configuration scripts or if you have to compile your network drivers manually, you'll run into problems.

I tried out XGL/Compiz, and only hosed the system twice. When you mess with the X.org and SaX configurations on a low level (as you must do with XGL) and KDE (with Compiz, which is meant for GNOME), you're begging for trouble. The video problems that you can experience as a result of a failed configuration attempt include the inability to switch to a virtual terminal to fix things -- you have to rely on a serial terminal or SSH login, or boot from the installation CD. I recommend staying away from XGL until there is a proper YaST module for configuring it.

Lastly, Novell has trashed the default GNOME theme so that it works from a single KDE-like menu bar at the bottom of the screen. Making it "normal" requires about ten minutes of configuration work.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

While SUSE Linux 10.1 has lost some ground on its wonderful predecessor, I can see where it is headed in the future -- and I like what I'm envisioning. A mildly buggy release like 10.1 was necessary in the big picture, unless of course Novell had opted to wait until issues with Atheros drivers, the ZENworks updater, and XGL were resolved. That would have resulted in a "skipped" release, I think. Despite the trouble I had with 10.1, none of the problems were showstoppers, nor would they keep me from continuing to use and recommend SUSE Linux.

I hold SUSE to a higher standard than most other distributions because it has always been synonymous with high quality and ease of use. Even with the few troublesome spots that version 10.1 has, it is at very worst on par with distros like Fedora Core, Mandriva, and Ubuntu. At best, it's still the same great SUSE Linux.

Boy do I ever have some suggestions for the SUSE developers:

  • Don't push it out the door. SUSE Linux 10.1 feels rushed, like the release engineers put the deadline ahead of product quality. It shows.
  • Atheros drivers -- WTF? I have never seen an operating system -- especially a GNU/Linux distribution -- actually lose hardware support from one release to another. It would have been better to wait until madwifi-ng and the SUSE kernel could play nicely with each other. The fact that Atheros drivers were added later does not make up for their absence on the installation media where people who rely on Atheros-based network cards need network support most.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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 is proprietary
Market Desktop users
Price (retail) US $60 for the commercial edition, but you can download an evaluation DVD, live DVD, or the OSS edition for free
Previous version SUSE Linux 10
Product Web site Click here