Review of SuSE 8.1 Professional

If there are two things in this apartment that I don’t like, that would first be the dog upstairs which barks at 5 AM almost every morning, and the fact that UPS almost never deliver things on our door. They never bother to check if we are in. The SuSE people were very kind to send us the Professional version of SuSE 8.1, but unfortunately, I received it 10 days later after it arrived in the apartment’s complex. But now we got it here, we gave it a spin for almost a week, and here is what we think about it.

Click for a larger view I had a special partition waiting for SuSE 8.1 on my dual Celeron machine (2×533 Mhz, 256 MB SDRAM). SuSE 8.1 Professional comes in 7 CDs or 1 DVD. SuSE sent me the CD version, so I placed the first CD to my Matshita DVD-ROM (which has successfully loaded and installed more than 15 Linux distros during its time) but to my surprise, SuSE wouldn’t load. It would read and read and read from the DVD-ROM, but it would not load the kernel or anything else. After about 1 minute of this behavior, the CD would revert the booting process to the boot manager of the machine instead. I tried it again and again, but always with the same effect. When I tried to load it to my husband’s dual 450 PIII via its Plextor SCSI CD-RW it would load fine, a sign that the CD was not physically damaged. Searching at SuSE’s knowledge base, I found that they have specific problems when loading from some DVD drives and they do not know yet the cause of the problem. It only seems to happen on SuSE though and not other distros. I had to find another machine to load it, so I decided to delete my QNX partition on this AthlonXP 1600+ and install it side by side to my Red Hat 8.

The SuSE installation is not exactly what I would call ‘self-explanatory’. Newbies would most certainly have a hard time at specific points throughout the installation. I am not sure I am very fond of the way SuSE expects you to click to different parts of the installation instead of going step by step. It looks like a web page and by clicking on different links it gets you in different parts of the installation. This has its ups and downs. It easily lets you go back and fix something that you might have done wrong, but on the other hand, it is not the most obvious way of doing things. At some points, it was not very obvious what one had to do. I also found it to have lots of micro-management to do. In other cases, I found this to be a good thing, but on others not. I feel that the “micro-management” part should have been only visible after clicking an “Advanced” button or something similar.

I already had a SWAP partition that SuSE automatically recognized and was inclined to use it as its own SWAP, but after telling SuSE to get installed on hda3, it would ‘lose’ the fact that it had selected the hda1 as SWAP earlier. Trying to tell it which SWAP to use, it would not mark it as of its own (while it would do it before I tell it where to put the /). I have 768 MB of RAM in this machine, so I didn’t quite care, but after booting the OS I saw that it had successfully included in the fstab the swap partition.

On the same SIMPLE .doc file only AbiWord is able to open it! The installer successfully found all my hardware and configured both my sound cards, networking, graphics card. I installed SuSE on this machine while I still had the (loaned) 24″ SGI monitor and SuSE either wouldn’t give me a 1920×1200 resolution. Entering the right sync and requested resolution, it would only give me that resolution at the low 73 Hz, as on Red Hat 8. SuSE 8.1 comes with 2D drivers for the nvidia drivers, but a note in the SAX2 tool said that SuSE offers nvidia 3D drivers via the online update.

A few weeks ago we commented on some screen shots regarding the Yast2’s package manager. I didn’t like its UI and its suggested usability back then, I don’t like it now, after using it. This package manager is *bad* from the usability point of view. It is fast, stable, “clever”, but it is not what a package manager in 2002 should have been. The fact that during installation of the OS, I had to resolve dependencies by hand (well, by clicking the “correct” (whatever the correct might be) option to that arcane dependency panel) just to install things like Nethack or Python, well, sucked big time. After using this package manager, I am even more convinced that SuSE did the wrong thing by developing such a monstrosity. The fact that it finds the dependencies and offers many details for all the packages is nice, but not always important for all. The author of the package manager emailed me a few weeks back and told me that this is a tool only for professionals and experienced users, so I wonder how the plain user would be able to go around using it too. I know that SuSE is trying to pitch their distro to plain users too, not just businesses. And at the end of the day, a bad interface is a bad interface. No matter if it is for experienced users or not. And if experienced user means “the person who can go around bad interfaces and screwed up designs“, then it does not make it a better application. I will stop here about the manager, because all I had to say about it, I actually already pointed it out a few weeks ago.

The installation went well for the first 3 CDs (there is a two-stage installation method, not my favorite), but the 4th CD wouldn’t work on my main 52x-MAX CD-rom (I have two CD-roms on the AthlonXP machine). It would just not see that there is a CD in it. Entering the CD to the other CD-Rom (which happens to be a BTC CD-RW) would work perfectly…

SuSE loaded GRUB in graphical mode and was presenting me three options, one to load the normal SuSE, one in safe mode, and one option for the “other” Linux it found installed (Red Hat 8). At the bottom of the GRUB screen you have a text input widget where you can insert more booting options to configure the kernel. It proved pretty useful actually, in order to enter the mem=nopentium option.

Kontour does not launch SuSE loads in fully graphical mode, and this is nice. It has the right blend of “user friendly” loading screens and professional look. Getting to the KDM, you are able to select from various DEs. The main DE for SuSE is KDE 3.0.3. SuSE comes with several window managers, but KDE is the main and recommended one. There is some minor tweaking on the Kicker (there is a very beautiful gradient image for it), Browse buttons for “Work” and “Documents” and a tweaked KMenu. SuSE is using the Keramik Qt theme and the Connectiva Crystal icon theme. SuSE has introduced its own window manager theme which looks spiffy, but it has two problems. The buttons are really narrow and you literally have to carefully “target” them with your mouse and the fact that there are no handles (“grab bars”) in the resizing parts of the windows (always nice to have a visual representation for the resizing handles). Based on this two points, I like Red Hat’s Bluecurve window manager theme much better. On the good side, I simply LOVE the two background images SuSE includes in the distro. One is the main blueish one, and the other one is a greenish one. Both extremely beautiful.

Analyzing a bit more the UI, I found that the “work” browse button on KDE does not make much sense the way it works overall. I am not sure what exactly it is. I don’t understand what kind of “work” menu would have there card games. I think that this menu is like a “Quick Launch” for the things you mostly do at an office. But I found no easy way via context menu or drag n drop to edit this menu, making it look a bit limiting and maybe amateurish (you have to click on SuSE Menu/Preferences/Tools/Menu Editor to edit that menu. A menu showing on the Menu Editor along with 5 more menus, making it kind of confusing which one is which).

Also, the ‘Window Background’ color was not relevant at all to the rest of the color theme and in some applications it just looked weird having this pink-ish color among everything else blue-ish. I changed the pink-ish color with color #F5F8FA, and while this fixed the color on the windows, it unveiled a Qt bug with the menus. The menus also are supposed to get this #F5F8FA color, but when the color is pretty “light” (close to white), the menus and context menus will render as white, even if they should have picked the requested color. Picking a color that it is not so light, the menus would inherit it correctly. Messy.

Also, the default font on KDE is terrible. I immediately leached the Microsoft Web fonts from my Red Hat 8 partition and changed everything to be using the official Arial font. Now everything looks a bit better IMO. All the screen shots in this article are not showing the default SuSE coloring/fonts/Kicker.

For some reason I don’t understand, all the YaST2 modules do not follow the Qt/KDE selected font, but they are hard coded to another font (Helvetica I think, not sure). This breaks the consistency with the rest of the KDE environment.

I was not happy with the Gnome setup. It is pretty much the stock Gnome2 setup, nothing new or exciting to see. There is not nearly as much tweaking as KDE has received, there is no unified look with Qt, and if you run a Gnome2 app from within KDE, you don’t get AA because the GDK_XFT variable is not set by default. Gnome feels left out from SuSE, but that is not too surprising as KDE is the main environment for SuSE.

That package manager. Hmm... SuSE 8.1 comes with a plethora of applications: OpenOffice 1.0.1, Mozilla 1.0.1, 2D and 3D games, a working Java environment and Macromedia Flash plugin, Broadcast 2000, Real Player, Opera and more. However, not all work. I found Everybuddy not be able to connect to Y!, while Kontour would just “die” upon launching (see screenshot). Also, for some weird reason, pkgconfig could not be found installed and I had to manually download and install it (required in order to build Gnome2 apps). Also why there was an empty “Illustration Document” in my ~/public_html folder, only God knows… And why when I delete some files from Konqueror do not automatically go to the Trash Can but instead they get immediately deleted (I haven’t touched these default settings).

You can at any time install new software from the CD, or you can change the installation source and get RPMs from Samba, FTP, HTTP sources and more. Impressive. I just wish that the actual package manager was not so arcane. It has potential, it just needs to make more decisions of its own for most users (except for the people who asked not to), while SuSE should definately work out a bit the dependency problems by trimming them down to the minimal.

SuSE offers a service called “Online Updates” from where you can install updates coming from SuSE’s FTP site for the OS itself. There were already 8-9 updates available for version 8.1, and I could find there “official” drivers from Nvidia for SuSE 8.1 (latest version). Very handy indeed.

For those who read my Red Hat 8 review last week should be familiar with my crashing problems due to the nvidia drivers. I tried everything people suggested since then, and even this mem=nopentium option to start up the kernel. SuSE also crashes with these drivers coming from their online update, in the exact same way Red Hat does. Disabling AGP and passing kernel parameters didn’t help either. Also, SuSE comes with kernel 2.4.19, where a potential AMD problem/bug is not part of the Linux kernel anymore. So, I don’t know what is wrong. One thing is for sure: Nvidia’s 3D drivers on this machine end-up in freezing in simple things like resizing a window or moving a window on the dekstop.

Click for a larger view But this is not too bad, because at least I know what is causing it. All I have to do is “revert” to the “nvidia” XFree86 driver and get on with it at the low 73 Hz. My main gripe with stability is the fact that my SuSE froze twice since last week in 2 of my 5 “configure” scripts I ran. No idea why it freezes on (different) ./configures. SSHing and killing the process would also take down the kernel as in the case of the nvidia freezing (they are different issues though).

Another problem I still have with SuSE 8.1 is that HTTP/FTP connections are slow to get resolved. Everything is correctly setup, but it takes more than 3-4 seconds to usually get to a web site, while on all my other OSes, including OSes in this very machine, getting to a site is instant (RealTek 8139 onboard NIC used). Please note that this machine is believed to be 100% Linux compatible by Microtel-PC (they have made tests to verify this, months ago already).

There is no SuSE without YaST of course. And YaST2 is really a very handy tool. It includes many-many modules to help you administer the OS better. From hardware settings panel, to partitioning, expert config tool (“PowerTweak”), Firewall, NFS, NIS, Routing, Connection Sharing, Proxy, Sound card configuration and many more as you can see from the screen shot. I like YaST2. Some of the modules have their own usability problems in terms of UI, but the fact that Yast2 works pretty well it compensates. YaST2 is possibly the important selling point of SuSE. I like it overall and it is something that really differentiates SuSE from the competition.

SaX2 is the tool where you can configure the X server for multi-head support, color, resolution, monitor, graphics card, 3D support. The fact that it does not let you pick your own refresh rate but rather it picks it by itself depending on the sync values could be either confusing for some users or limited for others (like in my special case of this 24″ monitor that X does not support without forcing X via a custom modeline). But for “normal” monitors, SaX2 should work fine and it should be a pretty handy tool, even if it has bugs (see screenshot. One panel thinks that 3D is disabled, the other one says it is enabled; 3D is actually enabled but I still get an error message window telling me that the game I just launched requires 3D and that I don’t have 3D (while I do, game does run on accleration). This error message started appearing only 2 days ago, it was working fine before that).

Click for a larger view So, what do I think of SuSE? I think SuSE is very tempting, very sleek and sexy. It does have bugs and problems though. It is pretty fast, similarly to as fast Red Hat 8 is (they both use the same compiler and build flags, but Red Hat 8 uses the new, enhanced glibc). It has a pretty professional/workstation look into it. YaST2 and SaX2 can be better, but even as they are today blow most of Red Hat’s preference panels away. On the other hand Red Hat’s XFT font properties are no match to any other Linux distribution so far, while Red Hat has good integration for Qt and GTK+ toolkits, something that SuSE doesn’t. Overall, I believe that both distributions complement each other and each one is better than the other on different parts of the OS.

However, if SuSE fix some of the issues they have, get rid or redesign that package manager, license the Web Fonts, add some more GUI settings panels for wireless support, FTP & HTTP servers, better integration with Windows, fix some of their untested or buggy applications they include in their CDs, modify Star Office and GTK+ application to look more as their primary Qt platform and other such details, I believe that Red Hat’s ’empire’ in the Linux world will be in jeopardy. Red Hat has the contracts, money and resources, but SuSE seems to have lots of potential.

But users will need a demo for SuSE’s distribution. I hope SuSE continues to give away the first CD of their distribution, so people can test before buy. It was a cool ride for me, despite the numerous problems I encountered.

Installation: 7/10
Hardware Support: 8/10
Ease of use: 8/10
Features: 8/10
Speed: 8/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)

Overall: 7.8 / 10

Note: This review is mostly focusing in the usability of the OS and its usage as desktop/workstation. If you are a sys-admin and you would like to review SuSE 8.1 PRO from the server point of view, we will be delighted to post your review. (BTW, here is another very recent review of SuSE 8.1, but in the German language. Translation here.)


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