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SUSE Linux 10 review

By Jem Matzan

On October 6, Novell officially released SUSE Linux 10, the latest edition of its heavily armed desktop operating system. It offers a choice of great-looking desktop environments, a gigantic selection of desktop software that can do practically anything you could want, and the much-acclaimed YaST setup and configuration program. It's easy to install, easy to use, and it's definitely in the running for the best desktop operating system currently in production.

Key features

For those of you who have never used SUSE Linux, the following is a brief explanation of this GNU/Linux distribution and what you can expect from it.

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.

If you buy the commercial edition of SUSE Linux 10, you'll get CD and DVD media, an extensive paper manual on the operating system and its software, and 60 days of installation support from Novell. The open source version is free to download, but it does not come with paper manuals, installation support, or many of the proprietary extras that the commercial edition has (the Java Runtime Environment, the Macromedia Flash browser plugin, the Acrobat reader, RealPlayer, and other programs). You can certainly add those extras later, though.

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.

Click here for a screen shot of SUSE Linux 10 using GNOME.

Click here for a screen shot of SUSE Linux 10 using KDE.

New in version 10

The following packages are new to SUSE Linux version 10:

  • AppArmor Lite
  • Twinkle and KPhone for Voice over IP (VoIP) communications
  • BitTorrent support built in, with KTorrent as a client
  • Novell iFolder 3
  • YaST modules for AppArmor and PostgreSQL
  • Mozilla Sunbird calendar application
  • Krita, the new image-processing tool of KOffice
  • The Banshee and AmaroK music players
  • The Beagle search tool

There are few revolutionary things in the above list. AmaroK and Banshee are yet more music players when there are already several to choose from. A normal SUSE installation can leave you with four or more digital music players; how many do you need?

Although Beagle was technically included with SUSE Linux 9.3, it was not installed by default because it was still under heavy development. It allows you to search a variety of data sources for a search string, much like the traditional file search function does. Beagle finds information in your address book, email, chat logs, visited Web pages, and documents.

Novell's AppArmor is a security system that detects unauthorized access to files and services. It's mainly a sysadmin's tool, and I don't think desktop users will find much value in it as it requires a great deal of configuration. The version of AppArmor included with SUSE Linux 10 is the Lite edition, meaning it has reduced functionality.

Novell's iFolder is a file system synchronization tool. You save files locally, and they are automatically updated on the iFolder server (you have to set this up yourself) and pushed onto selected other machines. So if you have both a desktop and laptop machine that must have identical /home directories, you can use iFolder to automatically update each computer with the latest files. Again, this is a little beyond the normal desktop user and I think it will go largely ignored outside of business environments. It's a great replacement for rsync scripts and various other hacky methods of updating user files on multiple computers.

Also new to version 10 is the availability of SUSE Linux OSS, a version of the distro that only includes open source software. It's free to download from the openSUSE Web site. Previously, SUSE Linux was only available as a live DVD and as a commercially distributed product. In addition to those, you can now download SUSE Linux 10 as an "evaluation" DVD that contains all of the same software as the actual product, or the "open source only" edition that has none of the proprietary extras that the commercial product offers.

Using SUSE 10

Aside from a few minor shortcomings, I found SUSE Linux 10 to be the same great SUSE experience that it's always been.

The installation routine was, as always, easy to follow and superb on hardware detection. I was a little disappointed to see that Centrino wireless network chips are still not really supported. Theoretically they are supposed to work with the right firmware, or other extra software, but for all of the downloading and trying, I have never gotten it to work. I was hoping that would be addressed in SUSE Linux 10, but it looks like Centrino users will have to wait for 10.1 or beyond for better out-of-the-box wireless LAN support.

Another thing I was hoping to see improved in SUSE Linux 10 was ACPI support, especially for laptop computers. The battery monitor applet in GNOME still doesn't work on my Acer TravelMater notebook computer in version 10. It works on a ThinkPad T40, but it worked on that system in SUSE 9.3 as well.

On the upside, SUSE Linux 10 seems to be faster than 9.3 was. Rendering of menus is speedier, and the system in general seems more responsive and memory-efficient.

GNOME integration is better in SUSE Linux 10. Whereas the SUSEWatcher applet would often fail to show up in the GNOME notification area in SUSE 9.3 (it would appear as a separate running window instead), it now installs there every time.

I tried to upgrade from the previous edition of SUSE, but found myself facing dozens of dependency errors. I chose to ignore them, and in the end it seemed like there was little or no direct effect from doing that. The only program that failed to upgrade properly was Eclipse, but it was easily reinstalled. I later erased everything and did a fresh install because I didn't trust the upgrade. I was afraid that there were hidden problems that I would encounter when I was least able to address them, and it wasn't a big deal to restore my user data from tested backups.

Summary

As always, SUSE Linux is a pleasure to use, and remains my preferred operating system for notebook computers because of its great wireless networking tools, wide array of up-to-date desktop software, and the YaST configuration tool. With a few adjustments to add DVD playback and other goodies, the OSS edition can be just as functional as the commercial version. Speaking of which, the commercial edition is well worth the $60 MSRP, so if you're serious about GNU/Linux, buy it directly from Novell.

Current SUSE Linux 9.3 Professional users will see little or no benefit in upgrading to version 10. There are no significant additions that make the price of upgrading worthwhile, and the software in 9.3 works extremely well as-is.

Developer recommendations

Here are some improvements that I'd like to see in the next edition of SUSE Linux:

  • DVD movie playback. Yes, I know the DeCSS software is illegal in the US and other countries. But Linspire found a way to do it legally, and so can SUSE. And if we can't have a DVD decoder, could we at least have Xine playback libraries that aren't crippled (or should I say "developmentally disabled?") to prevent DeCSS from working?
  • A more sensible default partitioning scheme. GNU/Linux should not be installed entirely on one big partition. At very least, the /home directory needs to be on its own partition to make it easier to back up files and upgrade the operating system. On most large hard drives -- which you'll find in any computer made in the past 3 years -- the root partition does not need to be larger than 10GB, as the entire distribution plus space for temporary files can comfortably fit there. Then dedicate the rest of the drive to /home and life is easier when you want to upgrade or switch distributions, because you can completely erase the root partition and still keep all of your data and settings.
  • Better upgrade functionality. As a corollary to the previous suggestion, upgrading from previous versions of SUSE should be easier. While the installation utility supports upgrading, a huge mess of dependency problems ensues. This can in part be solved by a separate upgrade option that can erase the root partition and install the new edition of SUSE on it while keeping /home intact.
  • Render YaST windows in the field of view. This is something that's annoyed me for a long time, and it negatively affects usability. When you start YaST or any of its child programs, a new window is brought up in the lower right, but about 10 percent of it is rendered out of the frame of the screen. This forces you to move the window to a position where you can see it all, and you have to do it every time you bring up another YaST window.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Novell
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T (both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions are included together in the boxed edition)
License GNU General Public License, although some included packages are 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 9.3 Professional
Product Web site Click here