Linux review: openSUSE 11.3

I installed openSUSE 11.3 in August 2010 and used it continuously until March 2011, and only stopped then due to a hardware issue that put the computer itself out of commission (not, I think, due to anything in openSUSE, but due to a defect in Dell hardware).

(Note that while the distribution’s official name is “openSUSE”, as an English major I cannot bring myself to begin a sentence with a lowercase letter, so such cases will appear as “OpenSUSE”, ignoring the branding.)

INSTALLATION

Installation from LiveCD went smoothly. The graphical installation is very slick. The partition editor required a bit of experimentation to figure out just what I had to do to get what I wanted (i.e., /home on a separate, not already existing partition) but I got there in the end without having to struggle too much.

The installer set up a dual-boot system without hassle (openSUSE as the default on sdb, Windows 7 on sda). The first thing I did after the installation finished was boot into Windows (this was the recommendation of some dual-boot tutorial I found somewhere on the web) to make sure Windows had survived, and it indeed had.

PACKAGE MANAGEMENT

OpenSUSE uses YaST as its graphical package manager, and zypper as the command-line interface. Zypper works pretty much the same way as apt-get on Debian-derived systems. YaST is a bit different from Synaptic. The interface has tabs for filtering packages according to different criteria. Also unlike Synaptic, YaST displays more detailed information by default, such as installed version of a package and available versions, and shows (yet) more tabs to access what Synaptic provides via the right-menu: dependencies, file list, technical information, etc. It’s not necessarily any better to have this information in tabs than in a menu option; it’s just different.

The only real problem with YaST is that when it starts up it refreshes all its repositories, and this is strangely slow. Twenty seconds does not sound like a lot of time, but when you’re talking about having to wait that long before you can use software, it seems unreasonable. (NB: The load time for YaST has been greatly improved in openSUSE 11.4.)

I was usually able to find what I wanted available in the repositories, but not always. There were several times I wanted some particular software which was supposedly available in repositories via apt-get/Synaptic but not via zypper/YaST. This is probably a reflection of the popularity of Ubuntu-style distributions compared to that of Fedora and its relatives (such as openSUSE).

A bigger problem was that I occasionally found packages that did not work. They would install just fine via YaST or zypper, but would not run, or not run properly. Examples are xmms2 and BOINC; both of which I uninstalled and then built from source with full success. This seems contrary to the whole point of package management, which should be to make installation of software simple, handling all dependencies automatically so that things work without any fuss.

INSTALLED SOFTWARE

OpenSUSE 11.4 comes with a plethora of software to rival any Windows installation. Most of it is KDE specific, and includes kOrganize (a PIM suite including calendar, task list, address book, email, news reader, and so on, all of which can be used independently), OpenOffice.org 3.3, a collection of card and board games (mahjong, reversi, etc). Multimedia applications Kaffeine and Amarok are installed, as well as various little tools such as an alarm clock (presumably a front-end for cron, though I never used it to find out). You get Firefox 3.6 as well as Konqeror, the KDE web browser, which doubles as a file manager and system interface. You also get Dolphin, another KDE file manager. For handling images you get GIMP, Gwenview, and digiKam. It all starts to feel a little much after a while.

Most of the software installed and available in the repositories is quite new, usually the very latest public version. The Linux kernel is v. 2.6.34.

For a list of software and the versions available, visit DistroWatch.

KDE 4.4.4

OpenSUSE is principally a KDE distribution. It’s available with Gnome, and there are “unofficial” versions with Xfce and LXDE, but its default is KDE. With version 11.3, you get KDE 4.4.4, quite new though not quite the bleeding edge.

This is another area where openSUSE 11.3 starts to feel “big”. There are plenty of KDE Plasma “widgets” already installed that you can add to your desktop, system tray, or panel, most of which I never used. You can also connect directly to the freedesktop.org system (without even opening your browser) and find more widgets to better suit your needs. If that fails you can surf kde-look.org, which has more widgets (and wallpapers and themes and skins) than show up in the on-board widget browsers.

KDE offers a lot of eye-candy, especially with desktop compositing. The special effects are impressive and make this distribution look highly polished and very, very modern.

PROBLEMS

As I mentioned before, some software installed via YaST or zypper failed to work properly. KDE also had a few problems. Occasionally it crashes and pops up an alert to say that kwin or some such component has crashed. The box invites you to submit a crash report, but fails to detect enough information to submit a report, so it’s ultimately useless. These crashes, however, might otherwise go unnoticed; whatever crashes seems to be restored quickly and life goes on, interrupted only by the crash alert itself.

The other problem I encountered was that returning from suspending to memory would sometimes wipe out my customised keyboard shortcuts. Logging out and then back in always fixed this, of course, but it’s an extra hassle that shouldn’t be necessary.

CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, I quite like openSUSE 11.3. After all, I used it exclusively for over six months. It’s a great distribution and I think it would work really well for Windows users who feel confident with Windows but want to experience Linux, without requiring too much command-line-fu or being held by the hand too much in the Ubuntu fashion.

This is not, however, a good distribution for older computers. It’s not particularly lightweight, what with the large amount of installed software and the demands of KDE. If you have a powerful, modern computer, though, it will impress you.

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