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openSUSE 10.2

Tuesday 16th January 2007

At the moment, saying SUSE will probably bring up talk of Novell and Microsoft, and a certain deal that hasn't been looked upon favourably by many to say the least. However, I'm going to ignore all of that for this review for two reasons: firstly, openSUSE is not Novell. Secondly, that goes far beyond the scope of this article.

So, now we can start properly. openSUSE 10.2 is the latest release of the community project, after the somewhat disappointing 10.1 release, where you were liable to not have package management actually working. Hopefully, we'll discover no such flaw this time.


Installation of openSUSE 10.2 is very straightforward, and you should have no problems working your way through. At many stages, you have the basic options that are fairly straightforward, such as the root password and main desktop environment, but there is frequently an extra button for 'Expert options'. Just how much of an expert you have to be to use these is debatable, but their addition means you can configure openSUSE greatly before it is even installed. Of course, users that aren't 'experts' can completely ignore this if they wish, meaning that this installation is well-suited to both types of users. Everything from network configuration to package selection is handled by the installer, with the difficulty (or, if you prefer, easiness) on a par with just about every other major distribution.

During the installation, you get a choice of desktop environment, GNOME and KDE being the main two. For the purposes of this review, I'll stick with GNOME simply because it was first in the list, and so I'd assume that's what most other users would choose if uncertain.

The installation is not without problems though. First of all, it is incredibly slow to run - you can be sitting around for a couple of minutes waiting for a screen to load, and there aren't even changes being made to your PC yet. (For reference, this was on a 1.2 GHz Athlon, 384MB of RAM.) The partitioner, frequently the most confusing part for new users, works well in that you can change a variety of options for each partition on a single screen, such as mount point and whether to format it. The only slight downside is the lack of a graphical representation, but besides that, it is fairly simple to use.

Around the Desktop

The login screen is followed by a GNOME desktop that is slightly unusual. Instead of two panels, one at the top and the other at the bottom, there is just a single panel at the bottom. The GNOME menu is also significantly different. Rather than the traditional GNOME menu, you get this:

The new GNOME menu
The new GNOME menu

Although the new menu looks nice, I can't really see the appeal myself. Going to any application that isn't on the main menu means having to go to an extra dialog, the Application Browser, which tends to load rather slowly. For whatever reason, I find it much easier to scan a list that is vertical rather than one that has both rows and columns of entries. This means that accessing many applications is significantly slower for me on openSUSE. Although the scanning aspect may be a personal thing, the fact that it is somewhat slower to load could affect anybody. It's only redeeming feature is the filter, which lets you type in words to whittle down the applications shown. For example, to find a word processor, you just type "word processor" into the box, and it will show you Writer on the right hand side. However, I suspect the usefulness of this feature diminishes very quickly over time. Not only that, you would have to use the same language as the description given. If you type in 'graphics', but the description only uses 'images', then you're not going to find what you want.

Other parts, such as the 'Install Software' and 'Control Center' entries already exist on the traditional menu, with the only new thing really being the search option - of course, this leads to a separate dialog anyway, and your initial search is unlikely to give you what you want. By default it searches web pages, menu entries, the filesystem - to find what you want, you'll probably have to set some options anyway. In other words, I've found the new menu somewhat unuseful. It is more sluggish than the traditional menu, and the only benefit, the filter in the Application Browser, is unlikely to be incredibly useful seeing as you don't really need to search through applications once you've been using the operating system for a short while - you'll already know what applications you want.

Of course, that's just me - other users might prefer it, but I can't see how it benefits the user. The traditional menu has everything that the new menu has, and more, such as a link to the network. Yes, people will point out that you can add the traditional menu back, but the average user probably won't.

The sluggishness seems to be present across all of openSUSE, not just the menu. For whatever reason, openSUSE always seems to respond slower than other distributions, whether Debian, Ubuntu or Fedora.

You'll find the usual set of programs in openSUSE, including:

Disappointingly, by default, openSUSE just gives you the one workspace. This means that you'd probably have to know about workspaces beforehand to use them - a new user is hardly likely to spontaneously add and configure the relevant GNOME applet. When you do add the workspaces, you find that the window list shows programs from all workspaces by default - in my eyes, a rather poor choice of default settings. Changing this finally gets workspaces working the same as most other distributions, and also allows me to work far more effectively. Although you could argue that this is personal preference, I feel that at least including more than one workspace would be a wise choice.

Mounting CDs and USB sticks wasn't a problem, with icons created on the desktop and Nautilus, the file manager, automatically opened to the relevant directory. Ejecting the CD was also unproblematic, although there was no option to eject the USB stick - unmounting it is the best openSUSE offers. After unmounting the stick, an icon for the stick remains, which you can double-click to mount it again - no option for ejection.

Changing settings

As ever, changing settings for the system requires a visit to Yet another Setup Tool, otherwise know as YaST. Down the left hand side are broad categories such as Hardware, Software and System, while the individual utilities are on the right. YaST allows easy changes to the system, such as modifying the resolution, changing partitions and their mount points, modifying the bootloader, and so forth. This myriad of options is more than enough for many users, and allows openSUSE to gain an advantage over Fedora and Ubuntu in this respect.

Quality is better than quantity, but YaST appears to have both - there are numerous utilities for a vast range of settings, but making those tweaks is still easy, with each section being straightforward to use.

However, network browsing doesn't work by default due to the presence of the firewall, so a dive into the firewall configuration should sort it out... right? Well, actually, I couldn't get it to work. I tried adding any service that said Samba in it (which was... one), but that still didn't change anything. I could dig deeper, but accessing the network should be made easy for the user. I believe that the firewall should be configured to allow network browsing out of the box, or at least have an easy option in the firewall for enabling it. openSUSE provides neither.

On the other hand, setting up Samba is relatively straightforward through the Samba entry in YaST - of course, you have to know in the first instance that Samba is what will let you share your files, which not all users may not. Still, enabling the server is as easy as it probably could be, and by default enables the sharing of the home directories, which should be enough for most users.

YaST remains one of SUSE's strengths, and the fact that I don't have that much to say about it is actually a good thing - you just find the relevant entry, and it works!

Package Management

If you choose the 'Install Software' option in the menu, then the application that is brought up is, to be perfectly honest, not fantastic. There's a bar at the top where you search for specific packages. Below that is the long list of packages available. You can, if you wish, show products instead - this means the choice of 'openSUSE-FTP' or 'openSUSE-FTP-NonOSS'. You could show patterns - this gives us the option to install things such as 'console', 'default' and 'devel_gnome'. Finally, we can choose just to show the packages, rather than everything. This will probably be somewhat intimidating to some users - after all, the name 844-ksc-pcf or a2ps-perl-ja isn't exactly user-friendly. Although there are some descriptions, these can be cryptic if you're not entirely sure what to do.

The package manager within YaST is a far more pleasant affair. Although the package names are the same, there is a left hand pane which lets you sort through the packages in quite a few ways. You can search through the packages, look at the packages in a particular repository, see what packages are going to be installed, updated, etc., and, most helpfully, you can search via category. This means you can click on 'Amusement', and you'll see all of the packages that are there for your amusement. If you want to be more specific, you can click on games, which will show all of the packages for your amusement that are games... and so. This system of category and subcategory make it much easier to find what you're looking for. Although not as friendly as what Ubuntu includes, it is powerful, including information such as dependencies, versions and size.

One bad thing about the package management is that openSUSE 10.2 only used the discs as a source for packages after installation, which is odd considering I ticked the online sources during the installation. Having looked around, I can't see anybody else reporting the problem, so it appears that the problem is, for whatever reason, isolated to me. This meant that it could not get any updates, which is always important to keep secure. This applies to both the package management in YaST and the applet in the tray that informs you of updates. Despite not being able to find updates, I was able to access the non-OSS repository and grab packages from there, making it simple to install Sun Java, Macromedia Flash and Realplayer.

openSUSE wouldn't let me refresh the update applet in the tray as I didn't have the required privileges. Instead of asking me for the root password, it told me I had to added to zmd as a privileged user. I don't know what this meant, and it sounded like trouble that really wasn't worth it - something that might discourage some users. Still, I tried it, and successfully added my user to the list of privileged users. Of course, it didn't make any difference to the number of updates available i.e. none. So, instead, I just used YaST. And this found... zero updates. Somehow, I find this difficult to believe given that it has now being a month since openSUSE's release. Of course, in the unlikely eventuality that there really haven't been updates since, then I retract my statement.

The problem with the package management in openSUSE is what appears to be confusion - what exactly am I supposed to be using? The 'Install Software' button in the menu might seem the most obvious, but there again the configuration utility i.e. YaST is an equally obvious place, yet they lead to very different programs. While there is sometimes a distinction between packages for 'novices' and 'experts', there really does not seem to be any such discernible difference present in openSUSE.


I have mixed feelings about openSUSE. On the one hand, it feels like a polished system, and that is reflected from the installation to YaST. Yet, if we take away YaST for a moment, then openSUSE looks a little weak. It feels sluggish, and has a user interface that isn't necessarily better for the user compared to a standard GNOME interface. It has the cost of deviating from the norm, while gaining very little from it. Compare it to, say, Ubuntu or perhaps even Debian, and openSUSE really doesn't stand very well.

Put YaST back in, however, and openSUSE has a fighting chance. I would go so far as to say that YaST is the best configuration utility I've used. Unfortunately, I don't think that's enough - Ubuntu manages to keep GNOME looking normal, and seems to work better out of the box, from little things such as ejecting USB sticks to big things like package management. If you're not going to miss YaST, then you probably want Ubuntu. If you still want the big box of options, then PCLinuxOS might have the answer. openSUSE 10.2 is a good distribution, but I can think of at least two others I could recommend instead.

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