Suse Linux 9.1 Professional Desktop Review

Introduction

Over the past few years, Linux on the desktop has been progressing at a rapid pace. Finally, you can start to see the fruits from all the labor and hours put in by tens of thousands of developers across the Internet come together into a coherent desktop. Software that was once prone to weird glitches and crashes, or was just plain hard to install and use, has now become very stable and feature filled. Instead of the developers only trying to push the limits, the software has become mature enough that developers are now starting to worry about "backwards compatibility" and "easy upgrades". This is very promising, distributions are also starting to have longer release schedules, thus allowing for longer testing before release. Applications are also starting to become stable and standard across different distributions.

In the Linux world, there are many popular distributions available, each distribution has its own features and all of them "battle" with each other on the "free enterprise field" trying to become "The" standard Linux Distribution. With all these different distributions available, choosing which distribution to use can be a daunting task. You must investigate the features that sets each different distribution apart, and decide what features you want to have. When investigating, you must remember that if you decide that you do not like a certain distribution because of the way it handles certain things, or because of it's missing features, there will always be an alternative distribution trying to win over customers and/or users with features that are pleasing to you.

This review covers the latest release of Suse's Professional Linux Operating System, version 9.1. This release marks an interesting development in the battle for distribution dominance. This is the first Suse Linux release since Novell completed acquisition of the company in January 2004. So, this distribution offers a "sneak peak" at the direction Novell is taking in regards to the Linux Operating System. The object of this review is to investigate what exactly sets this version of Suse Linux apart from other Linux distributions.

During this review, I tested the software on 2 different computers, a standard desktop computer and a laptop computer. The desktop computer consists of an AMD Athlon 2600+ processor on a Tyan Motherboard with 512MB RAM, a Soundblaster Live sound card and a Nvidia GeforceFX 5600 video card. The laptop, a Dell Inspiron 2650, consists of an Intel Pentium4 processor, 384MB RAM, a Nvidia Geforce2 MX Video card, along with everything else embeded on the main board.

What's Included

As with any modern Linux distribution, Suse Linux 9.1 includes some of the most recent software releases from the Open Source Community, as well as some popular proprietary software packages. Suse Linux 9.1 contains:

Open Source / Free Software Apps including:

  • Linux Kernel 2.6.4
  • Xfree86 4.4rc2
  • KDE 3.2.1
  • GNOME 2.4.1
  • Samba 3.02a
  • OpenOffice.org 1.1.1
  • Mozilla 1.6 & FireFox 0.8
  • Ximian Evolution 1.4.6
  • KDE's new Kontact groupware client

Proprietary software programs and plugins including:

  • Sun Microsystem's Java Runtime Environment
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader
  • Realplayer 8
  • Shockwave's Flash player
  • A Demo version of MainActor (a Video Editing Suite for Linux)
  • Opera web browser

Installation and Hardware Detection

The installations went extremely smooth. The YaST installation interface seems very polished. I won't cover the installation too much, just what sets it apart from other distributions. If you want a step by step overview of the installation process you can check it out at Suse's website.

One interesting feature of the installation process is the ability to do an online update during installation. This allows you to download any security patches, as well as feature enhancements. The online update feature also gives you the opportunity to download other packages, such as the Microsoft True Type Core Fonts package and the latest Nvidia graphics driver package. During the laptop installation, I was also given the opportunity to download drivers for popular wireless network adapters.

Suse's hardware detection is top notch. Most Linux distributions will scan for and configure any new hardware during bootup. This makes it somewhat difficult to interact with the text based dialogs. Suse Linux, on the other hand, configures new hardware when the graphical system is completely up. Giving a dialog box similar to other popular operating systems. This is a big step in the right direction, and makes adding new hardware somewhat painless under Linux.

Suse's New Hardware Dialog Box
Suse's New Hardware Dialog Box

A feature Soundblaster Live or Soundblaster AWE owners will appreciate is the ability to install soundfonts from the hardware driver CD, thus utilizing the MIDI capabilities of the card. Unfortunately, this is still a relatively new feature and needs to be tweaked. You must have a recent installation CD, and without the inclusion of a "browse" button, you cannot force the program to use any other soundfont banks.

People with software modems rejoice! Suse Linux correctly detected the software modem in my laptop. Furthermore, when I went to configure the modem, all of the software required was automatically installed from the installation media. Suse Linux 9.1 is the first distribution to correctly detect and correctly install all the hardware on the Dell Inspiron 2650 laptop.

The YaST Control Center

One of the best features a Linux Distribution can implement is to provide a well organized, central interface to configure and maintain the system and software packages. Some distributions stay with hard to use command line utilities to configure the system, others use separate applications that configure different aspects of the system, making it hard to find the right tool for the job. The ease of system configuration and maintenance will determine whether or not a user will stick with the distribution, or just move to another.

Suse has been developing a configuration utility since 1994 called YaST, Yet another Setup Tool. Previously, Suse Linux was the only distribution that utilized the YaST configuration utility because it has always been released with a restrictive license. Once Novell acquired Suse, it released YaST under the GPL license. This allows other distributions to take advantage of all the work already invested in the tool. Hopefully YaST will become the standard "Control Panel" for all Linux distributions.

Within Suse Linux 9.1, there are many ways to access the YaST control center. You can start it as a separate application, or you can access each of the individual modules separately from within KDE's Control Panel, or by browsing to "yast-settings:///" within GNOME's nautilus file manager. WARNING: Some modules will not work properly when embedded with the KDE Control Panel, such as /etc/sysconfig editor. It is best to allow YaST to run as a separate application until you know all the available options.

Once you gain access to YaST, you will be able to easily change nearly any system configuration setting graphically, without opening a console. There are many available modules, such as IDE DMA controls, Hardware and Software management, and advanced server configurations for Samba and Apache. As a matter of fact the only time I had to do any configuration from the command line was to mount a remote Windows Share within the local file system, YaST might already have this feature, although I could not find it.

Even though all the YaST modules are very well implemented, the module that I am most impressed with is the Software Management tools. These tools control all the software installed on your computer, and they do it well, probably the best software management utilities that I have seen on any system. Not only do the modules allow for seamless installation and removal of programs off of the distribution's media, but also takes care of any software dependencies that need to be resolved. The tools also allow for Online Updates or Patch CD Updates, as well as a seamless upgrade to the next version of Suse Linux (whenever that may be), a feature that usually is only available with Debian based distributions.

All in all, Suse's YaST is, in my opinion, the best "control panel" currently available for Linux Systems. YaST feels much more responsive and includes many more features than any other distribution's configuration tools. For more information on YaST, including screenshots, check Suse's website here.

The KDE Desktop Environment

Suse Linux has always used the KDE desktop environment as the default interface, and this release is no different. Unlike other distributions based on KDE, which use a highly customized version, Suse pretty much sticks with the standard version from kde.org then adds different features on top of the code. The result is a highly polished desktop interface with different applications that seem to fit together perfectly. Even some of the non-KDE applications can be made to look like they fit into the desktop.

The Suse KDE menus offer a new feature that is severely lacking in other popular (Microsoft Windows) Operating Systems. When you add additional applications to the system, most of the time, the applications will create its own menus, separate from the rest. The result is usually a "start menu" that spans multiple pages. The Suse KDE menus are tweaked in that if there is only one application to accomplish any task, there is no need for separate subcategories. If you decide to install additional packages, such as the GNOME Desktop Environment, the menus are automatically updated to include separate subcategories to allow you to choose which application you prefer to open. This not only ensures the menu will never get cluttered, but also alleviates what some consider a hindrance with the Linux Operating System - "A user has too many choices to accomplish any given task."

Menu showing basic apps with no alternate applications
Suse's Menu showing a default install with no extra applications accomplishing the same task

Menu showing multiple applications that do a certain task
Suse's Menu showing multiple applications the accomplish the same task

Another welcome feature that was added to KDE is the addition of a My Computer and Network Browsing Icons on the Desktop. The My Computer Icon launches a file manager window which allows access to all the removable drives attached to your computer, along with any extra partitions you may have on your hard drive (such as a Windows Partition). This aids in working with files on removable drives because the OS will automatically mount the media so you can access it's files. (However, I would add links to the Home and Root directories so they can be access through the My Computer icon.)

The Network Browsing Icon works like the Network Neighborhood under Windows. Unfortunately, you can not access files on other machines in this way with all applications. You still must mount the remote shares to the local file system. Also I could not get the Network Browsing icon to work consistently across different installs. Sometimes it would not access any Windows shares, while other times it would only access computers not attached to a domain. I never could get it to reliably browse files on any computer within a Windows Domain.

There are various other refinements made to the KDE desktop, such as, when printing from some non-kde apps, such as Mozilla, instead of blindly printing to whatever printer, KPrinter comes up to direct the print job. Granted, some things like these are considered "Hacks", but until they get fixed correctly it is nice that Suse has configured it this way by default.

Overall the KDE Environment included in Suse Linux 9.1 is very polished and well thought out. It is very refreshing to see how well a distribution can polish and personalize a standard open-source project without losing or dramatically changing features of the base software.

The GNOME Desktop Environment

Another popular Desktop Environment available for Linux is GNOME. Many companies such as RedHat and Sun Microsystems have invested quite a bit of money and man hours into the GNOME environment. The result is that GNOME has become very stable and feature filled. As a matter of fact, Suse's parent company Novell, has also purchased another Linux based company, Ximian, which specializes in releasing highly customized versions of GNOME for various Linux distributions.

The version of GNOME included in Suse Linux 9.1 is version 2.4.1. This version is not the latest stable release from GNOME.org. The latest stable release, version 2.6, is such a dramatic change that many feel that the 2.6 branch needs to mature quite a bit in order for it to become more stable. I personally have thoroughly tested GNOME 2.6, and although I only found a few glitches, I totally understand why Suse decided to use an older, but proven, version to include in this release.

When you first log into the GNOME Desktop, you will notice right away at how clean the user interface is. At first glance it looks as if this is just a standard GNOME installation. However, upon closer inspection, you will notice small improvements made to the standard GNOME Desktop. These improvements are directly related to the purchase of Ximian by Novell. Although, there is hardly any Ximian branding shown anywhere, there is undeniable proof that this desktop is in fact based heavily on Ximian's GNOME offerings. The default theme is in fact Ximian's Industrial theme with the addition of different icons. The print dialog and the file selector dialogs are not the standard GTK2 dialog boxes, they are the much improved dialogs from Ximian GNOME. Other Ximian improvements include the addition of a My Computer icon on the desktop and a quick alarm feature added to the system clock.

Gnome 2.4 Standard Save as.. Dialog Box
Here is the standard Save as.. Dialog Box from a standard GNOME 2.4 desktop

Suse's Gnome 2.4 Save as.. Dialog Box
Here is Suse's GNOME 2.4 Save as.. Dialog Box, it is identical to Ximian Desktop's

Depending upon your taste, you may enjoy working with the GNOME environment better than the KDE environment, or vice versa. With Suse Linux, you have a choice between two highly polished Desktops. Personally, I find that I seem to get more work done with GNOME, than with KDE, the reason may be because I have more experience with GNOME, but the fact of the matter is that I tend to "go exploring" when working within KDE.

Other Improvements

Suse Linux 9.1 is filled with various other improvements and additions that sets itself apart from most of the current Linux distributions available today. Small items from the custom themes, wallpapers and mouse cursors created for the desktop, to larger items such all the nice utilities that help control and monitor the system.

A nice improvement included in this release is the work done to the OpenOffice.org interface. OpenOffice.org includes an icon theme that allows it to fit in nicely with KDE. However, this was one area in which I was hoping Suse would have further improved upon. Ximian had been working quite a bit on OpenOffice.org and has quite a few "improvements" over the standard version, such as a nice zoom function, this however was not implemented in Suse's version. The following images show the difference between the different versions of OpenOffice.org available for Linux.

Image of icons from standard and Ximian OOO releases
The standard icons from OpenOffice.org, as well as Ximian's, note the icon zoom dropdown box in Ximian's OOo

Suse's OpenOffice.org Icons
Here is Suse's OpenOffice.org's icons, note the lack of the icon zoom dropdown box

Other improvements include things such as the Suse Watcher KDE applet, which monitors for system updates. There are two nice things about this program. First, the program allows you to view the reasons why the package needs to be updated, which are quite well written and easy to read. Second, unlike other popular Operating Systems, the update system is not based on a web page (enough said).

Image showing information relating to software updates
Updates usually show very useful information ...... usually

Another nice "hack" is the fact that when you try to open a 3D game when you don't have 3D hardware acceleration enabled, Suse Linux will open a dialog box telling you this and asks if you are sure you want to continue without hardware 3D acceleration. This is a very nice touch, especially when you are having difficulty in getting 3D acceleration to work properly.

Warning Box when no 3D hardware support available
Error message when no 3D hardware support is available

Problems

All Linux distributions have glitches. Most of the problems I encountered with this system stems from the fact that KDE and GNOME are 2 separate environments, and it is difficult to be able to get things to work the same way under both environments.

Suse's custom applets, like the hardware monitior and susewatcher update monitor are not available under GNOME. Thus you lose quite a few features when you run GNOME.

KDE's and GNOME's Desktop folder are the same. In theory this is a good idea, so that when you switch between the two you have all your icons available to you. Unfortunately in the real world, this is a pain. Not all icons work properly (or at all) using the different environment. Also, when working within the different environments, you will naturally want to use the applications created for that environment. By using a universal Desktop folder, a user must have 2 icon launchers for the same type of applications. For example, when working under KDE, a user may want to use the new Kontact groupware client, but when working under GNOME, Evolution is a better fit. To fix this annoyance (which pretty much every distribution suffers from) go into KDE control center under the paths tool. You can change the default Desktop folder into something else, such as KDesktop. After doing this, a dialog will pop-up asking you if want to move all the items to the new folder. I suggest selecting no and manually move the icons you need into the new folder.

Another annoyance is when you run KDM as the login manager all the non-KDE applications use extremely small fonts. So, when you are browsing the Internet with Konqueror and a page refuses to display properly, you launch Mozilla to bring up the page only to discover that you need to grab a magnifying glass to read anything. Of course the first thing you do is go into the program's options and adjust all the fonts so that they are bigger. Unfortunately, the next time you try to run GNOME, you find that Mozilla's font size is way to big. This problem can be fixed by editing a single file, "/etc/opt/kde3/share/config/kdm/Xservers". What you need to do is add "-dpi 100" to all the X startup commands, for example: ":0 local /usr/X11R6/bin/X -nolisten tcp -dpi 100 -nolisten tcp -br vt7". Once you edit the file, restart the X server. You may want to install the Xfree86 100dpi bitmap font package, which is not installed by default.

While I am harping on KDM, I do want to add that it is very difficult to get GDM to become the default login manager and have your system still work properly. YaST has a module that allows you to edit the /etc/sysconfig file, which is where you choose which login manager to use. However, if you choose GDM you won't be able to launch half of the application in the system menu. I think that this problem may be related at how the path is setup, or possibly a permission problem. Instead of investigating further, I found an easy work around. During the system install deselect all KDE packages and only install the GNOME desktop, this will make GDM the default login manager. Once you are able to login, be sure to install the KDE desktop, otherwise half of the icons will be missing, and some apps will just plain look ugly. As a side note, Suse includes a very nice GDM theme that fits in nicely with the whole system.

Another problem, when you run KDE, and you launch a GNOME application, such as epiphany, KDE does not bother to check your GNOME desktop settings. What I mean is that if you like "text besides icons" on your toolbars, you must manually launch a GNOME configuration program, such as the theme-manager in order for the GNOME applications to be aware of your preferences. A way to get around this is to configure KDE to launch gnome-theme-manager during startup.

Other small problems that I noticed during testing are:

  • the i8k utilities package for advanced fan control on Dell Laptops is missing
  • some launchers, such as crack-attack are not properly configured, thus don't work
  • you cannot edit the Suse Menu from within GNOME
  • probably many others that I just haven't noticed yet :-)

One final issue I need to cover is the fact that multimedia under Linux is lacking. This is not the fault of the developers and distributors. It stems from issues in regards to copyright law, and the lack of 3rd party support for Linux. So, instead of complaining to the distributors that you cannot watch a DVD under Linux, please keep in mind the technology is there, it just cannot be distributed. So complain to your congressman and the media format creators. If you absolutely need to watch DVDs under Linux I am sure if you do a google search on how to watch DVDs under Linux you will get what you are looking for.

Conclusion

Putting together a Linux distribution is difficult, there are tens of thousands of developers (if not hundreds of thousands) contributing to the GNU/Linux Operating System. Getting everything to work and to fit together in a coherent way, is very hard work. You can immediately tell that a lot of attention to detail has been put into this release of Suse Linux, and the result is a very polished, very stable Operating System.

I congratulate Suse on releasing not only just a customized KDE package, but also spending time on GNOME to ensure it is also complete desktop environment (although I have a feeling that Ximian may have had something to do with it). I also commend Suse on not "dumbing down" either KDE's or GNOME's interface like so many other distributions do, but instead build upon the base that is released by both organizations.

Running Suse Linux 9.1 for the past week has given me great enthusiasm for the future of Linux. I believe that Novell's purchases of both Suse and Ximian are great stepping stones for widespread adoption of the Linux desktop. I am eagerly awaiting what Novell (Suse and Ximian) will have up their sleeves for their next desktop release. Until then, I will certainly stick with running this distribution, especially on my laptop computer.

If you are looking to jump distribution ships, or are a new user in Linux, Suse Linux 9.1 offers the best of everything available for Linux, whether you normally use KDE or GNOME. Also, with the YaST control center, there is no other distribution that offers easier or more inclusive system tools than Suse Linux 9.1. Barring the small annoyances, I was very impressed with this distribution and would highly recommend it to any computer user. If you are still unsure of spending the $80 or so dollars for this, Suse offers a free LiveCD version that you can take for a test drive, or if you are really stingy, you will be able to do a FTP install from the Suse mirrors after June 4, 2004 (sans the proprietary apps and drivers).

Strengths

  • YaST Control Center
  • Consistent Look from Startup to Shutdown
  • Highly Polished Version of KDE
  • Very Stable GNOME Desktop
  • Great Hardware Support
  • Overall the Best Linux Experience

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