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Review: openSUSE

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I could start by telling you a long story about trying to get a working XFCE desktop in openSUSE. In fact, I think I will. Sometimes I’m cruel that way.

I installed openSUSE from the KDE4 live CD, figuring that it should be easy to add XFCE from the package repository once I had the basic system installed. After all, starting with Xubuntu, I’d managed to install KDE, Gnome, IceWM, Fluxbox, and more. In each case, it was just a matter of picking one item from a list and letting the package manager take care of the rest.

Not here. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I never could get XFCE completely working. Installing XFCE itself didn’t install the XFWM window manager automatically. When I installed it separately, it didn’t work. I fiddled with this and that, but I never got a proper window manager. Running a windowed desktop without a window manager is a bit surreal. The window manager is what gives you the controls for the windows–simple little things like close and minimize buttons. Without it, there’s no way to move the windows, change their size, or close them.

This is what I mean by "a bit surreal."

This is what I mean by "a bit surreal."

Probably I did things in the wrong order, or made the wrong choice when I guessed which was the XFCE metapackage, or something. But that’s not the issue. If I’m an idiot, then Ubuntu made the process idiotproof. This openSUSE thing doesn’t. There’s a lot of software to choose from, but I’m not impressed with the package management.

There—I got that out of the way. Otherwise, there’s a lot to like about openSUSE.

First of all, it’s really green by default, and it’s a pretty shade of green. We need more pretty green operating systems in the world. It does seem odd that the window decorations are KDE blue, which doesn’t go very well with the green background. But I don’t fault a distribution for aesthetic decisions that can easily be changed, as long as they don’t interfere with usability.

The installation is very good. As with Ubuntu, you can pretty much accept the defaults all the way through and end up with a working system. My impression is that the openSUSE installer gives picky users more options to fiddle with if they know what they’re doing. Another thing I noticed: openSUSE installs separate root and home partitions by default, which will earn it the applause of many Linux gurus. This way, you should be able to change your whole operating system by writing over the root partition, leaving the data in the home partition intact.

The installation doesn’t take all that long—less than half an hour on my excruciatingly slow machine. After it’s done and you reboot, the system spends a few more minutes configuring itself, then lands you on the desktop with a somewhat helpful welcome screen that gives links to where the real help lives.

Welcome to openSUSE.

Welcome to openSUSE.

Hardware detection seemed pretty good to me, which is to say that I was able to get everything working with no fuss. I never once opened a terminal in openSUSE, and to me that’s a very good thing.

Non-free extras like Flash and multimedia codecs are not installed by default, but you can get them easily enough. I wasn’t successful in installing Flash in Firefox by the normal method (“Click here to install missing plugins,”) and I didn’t have the patience to figure out what went wrong.

KDE4 is the default desktop; you can also get a Gnome edition of the live CD, and you can get a DVD that has the kitchen sink, too. There have been a lot of complaints about KDE4, and I can’t say it’s my favorite desktop. It crashed a few times, but it handled the crashes gracefully. It also ran with acceptable speed on my nine-year-old test system with 256 MB of memory, which is a considerable accomplishment when you think of what Windows Vista needs to accomplish roughly the same level of functionality.

I don’t like the “Kickoff” menu style, which is the default style in KDE4: I think it takes far too much clicking around to get anywhere. But it’s easy to change back to the old KDE menu: just right-click on the menu button (it’s a lizard head in openSUSE) and choose “Switch to Classic Menu Style.”

Changing from "Kickoff" to "Classic" menu style in KDE 4.

Changing from "Kickoff" to "Classic" menu style in KDE 4.

The software selection is good. Most of the standard stuff is there: OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Konqueror, and so on. No GIMP, which is a bit surprising at first, but space is at a premium on a single CD, and the GIMP is a logical omission for a distribution obviously aimed at office tasks.

One little surprise: the KDE edition came with IceWM installed as an alternate window manager. You can choose it from the “Sessions” menu when you log in. For old machines, I like IceWM: it works the way most people expect a computer interface to work, but it’s zippy enough for the most anemic hardware. The openSUSE installation of IceWM is sparse, and the menu design is simply awful, requiring five or more clicks to get to most programs. You can tell what kind of person put together this implementation of IceWM by the fact that the only button on the toolbar is one for the terminal. But IceWM is there, and it’s at least customized to work with openSUSE, which is better than you get from Ubuntu, where installing IceWM from the repositories gives you a generic version that doesn’t have menu items for many of the programs that come with Ubuntu by default. If you’re comfortable with the configuration files, you can make IceWM work the way you want it to work, and you can replace the hideous themes that come with it.

Very, very bad menu design.

Very, very bad menu design.

So what do I think of openSUSE? I think it’s aimed at techs and networking people who want a good desktop system they can install for their users and manage with the powerful tools that openSUSE provides. In other words, for real people who get real work done with computers, it’s best to have a geek set it up for you. If your tech sets up an openSUSE system for you, you’ll have a good, stable desktop that’s easy to use. If you have to fiddle with it yourself, however, you might find yourself wishing you had a tech to manage it for you.

Ubuntu is still my benchmark, because it’s what I know best and because it sets a high standard for ease of use and popular appeal. How does openSUSE compare? From the individual user’s point of view, it’s not as good. Things that are easy and obvious in Ubuntu are not as easy and obvious in openSUSE.

But if I were a network pro, I might have a different opinion. The strong selection of networking and administrative tools might sway me toward openSUSE.

I haven’t mentioned yet that openSUSE is sponsored by Novell, a company that many open-source types despise for its treasonous agreement with Microsoft. I have a lot of sympathy for that spite, but I’m not going to get into that argument right now. I’ve just looked at what I can do with the software. From a single-user desktop point of view, it’s pretty good, but it’s not as good as Ubuntu. That’s my opinion, anyway. Now it’s your turn to tell me I’m wrong.

Written by cbaile19

July 15, 2008 at 10:54 am

Posted in KDE, openSUSE, Reviews, XFCE