What a big month this was with many Linux releases (and not just Linux ones). The third most popular Linux distribution (along with Debian), after Red Hat and Mandrake, is SuSE. While the company is more successful in Europe, with their 8.1 release a few months ago they were able to broaden their user base worldwide even more. The new version, 8.2, is coming out in about a week from now, but OSNews had early access to it so we were able to evaluate it. Read more for our experiences with SuSE Linux 8.2 and check out a few screenshots too.
SuSE 8.2 came in 5 CDs full of software. The two stage installation procedure hasn’t changed significantly, it just now features AA fonts and the Keramik theme. SuSE auto-detects most hardware and overall it is easy for everyone to install the operating system (except the dependancy problem with qt-odbc package that pops up even when you don’t change the defaults – adding/removing packages creates 2-3 more dependancy alerts to come up and the user has to manually decide upon). However, I found three issues with the installation that I would like to see resolved before the next release.
1. SuSE uses GRUB by default as its boot manager, but it defaults to LILO if it detects a boot manager already installed. I found this fact later. But when installing the OS, it would use GRUB (and that part was fine) and it would be specifically set to “leave MBR code untouched”. Well, too bad, because SuSE did not detect my existing boot manager, neither respected the MBR flag that was set, and it overwrote my existing boot manager. Next time, I will know better, and use LILO with SuSE and maybe edit its lilo.conf file by hand during installation, just in case…
2. Now, this part is a bit difficult to explain, as it is more visual: in the partitioning screen, it defaults to use existing Linux partitions as its “/” partition. If I set it to use another partition and then give it a mount point of the “/,” it wouldn’t accept it because there is already a “/” partition. In my case, it was my Red Hat Linux 9 partition that SuSE wanted to nuke (for my other machine that I tried, that already had 4 different Linux distros installed, it insisted on trying to nuke my Mandrake 9.1 partition and use it as its own). Now, if I “Edit” the Red Hat partition and give it an empty ” ” mount point (in order to give the “/” to another partition that I want SuSE to get installed), would that render my Red Hat Linux 9 partition unbootable, or these mountpoints are only relevant for SuSE’s installation/point of view? This part of installation there is just not clear and many users would go from afraid to confused when contemplating what would happen if they were to change the “/” of another existing Linux distro installed there to an empty mount point, just to get SuSE to accept another partition as its “/.”
3. Red Hat Linux 9 auto-detected my PnP monitor without a problem (and Mandrake 9.1 was pretty accurate, but not completely). SuSE’s monitor/gfx installation module couldn’t find the info needed for my monitor (vertical/horizontal syncs, monitor name etc). The funny part is that when later I had SuSE up and running, and ran the hardware information application from Yast2 (the one that shows you info about all your hardware), it would correctly find all the monitor info with only a small problem (it would only report up to 1280×960 res, while this 19″ monitor can do 1600×1200@75Hz). RH9, Windows and OSX have been the only OSes I’ve tried that auto-detect my monitor correctly so far (Envision EN-980e). Check the third shot for info.
On the brighter side, SuSE Linux 8.2 was able to boot from my standard 4x Panasonic DVD-ROM (a bug happening with some DVD-ROMs that plagued SuSE specifically for quite many versions of their product as we reported in our previous SuSE review a few months ago). The rest of the installation went as expected, even if it requires a bit of user interaction and is cumbersome at places.
SuSE’s default booting procedure is fully graphical, it doesn’t take too long, and it is indeed beautiful. During installation I had clicked on all major categories of software to be installed (please note that not all packages get installed by doing this), so I could choose between KDE, Gnome and WindowMaker.
KDE 3.1.1 is included, and, as in 8.1, SuSE uses the default Keramik theme, but with an updated and very clean, nice window manager theme (which has “onmouseover” and “onmousedown” states). KDE’s menu has been re-worked and it is now easier to find the applications you need and launch them. A large number of applications are installed (Konqueror continued its crashing party with SuSE as well as all the distros I have tried recently), and there are even more if you use the Yast2 installer to install the rest of the apps from the 4th and 5th CDs. I think that every major application I could think of was there. With the exception of Webmin, VideoLAN and Ogle and maybe 2-3 more, I believe that the most popular free software is there. A few apps included could have more recent versions (e.g. Mozilla 1.3 instead of 1.2.1 and Galeon 1.3.x instead of the 1.2.x branch, especially since upgrading Mozilla manually breaks the installed Galeon which is set as the default browser under SuSE’s Gnome – let’s hope SuSE will provide nice XFT updated versions of Moz 1.3 and Galeon 1.3.x via YOU soon).
SuSE announced that SuSE 8.2 would include the commercial video editing application “Main Actor”. I found it bizarre that SuSE hadn’t put its link to the desktop or to a more prominent place so people would instantly recognize this “asset” of SuSE to be able to include a fully licensed copy of this commercial app. Other than that, I could crash Main Actor (not the Sequencer) by simply trying to load a file that isn’t a video file (its Open Dialog wouldn’t tell me which files it expects on its drop down menu), while the Sequencer simply looks unatural for some reason as it uses the wrong fonts (is the Sequencer a Qt 2 app maybe instead of a Qt3?).
SuSE uses kernel 2.4.20-4GB (is this “4GB” indicating the amount of memory someone could use?) compiled on March 17th, GCC 3.3-pre, glibc 2.3.2, Alsa 0.9.0-CVS, Qt 3.1.1, XFree86 4.3.0 and GTK+ 2.2.1. During installation you can choose between XFS, ReiserFS, JFS and ext3 filesystems. SuSE also supports RAID and LVM while there is an NTFS partition re-sizer option (but only invoked by the command line, as it is not part of the main installation routine yet).
On the productivity side, you will find both KOffice 1.2.1 and OpenOffice.org 1.0.2, while apps like AbiWord 1.0.4 and Gnumeric are also included. The nice thing about SuSE’s implementation of OOo is that when the “SuSE Update” application fetched Microsoft’s Web fonts, these became available immediately to OOo, even if OOo doesn’t use Fontconfig normally. On other distros, after you install new TTF fonts, you have to use OOo’s spadmin utility to add new fonts recognized by the application. And speaking about fonts, the “Sans” font (this is just an alias) used by SuSE on 8.2, is much better than the font both Mandrake and Red Hat use on their desktops! The SuSE default font on KDE/Gnome just looks way better, cleaner and more professional.
Developers should feel fulfilled with the inclusion of a Java that works well and a healthy amount of dev tools, toolkits, languages, IDEs, etc. However, the default installation of Gnome does not include all the needed libraries. I couldn’t build a Gnome app without going back to the SuSE Yast2 installer and manually finding and checking glib and other libraries between hundreds of packages listed there. I know that 8.1 had this problem as well, as mailing lists and forums were full of people who couldn’t build Gnome apps, as pkg-config would report that it couldn’t find vital libs during ./configure. Not installing Gnome’s dev libs at all is fine with me, since it is a strategy and a design decision at the end of the day, but installing only half of the needed ones is weird.
Restarting X to load Gnome 2.2 (actually it is Gnome 2.2.1-pre and includes Nautilus’ 2.2.1 fixes in it), we find a rather darkish theme that doesn’t look too bad. This time we see that SuSE has taken care of Gnome as well (as Mandrake did for 9.1), instead of leaving it in its default state as it was on SuSE 8.1. Unfortunately, the Gnome panel would keep crashing very regularly, as you can also see on one of the shots. Galeon is the default browser for Gnome and the menu is pretty much identical to that of KDE’s. When you load Gnome/GTK+ 1.x/2.x apps within KDE, the Geramik theme is used instead and so the desktop looks consistent.
SuSE’s legendary control center, named Yast2, is a powerful tool, but I haven’t seen many new tools listed there compared to 8.1. The SuSE Update (YOU) downloaded a security fix and the MS WebFonts, and that part worked nicely. Yast was always SuSE’s biggest advantage over other distributions, offering a number of text-mode and GUI tools for configuring NFS, your hardware and peripherals, etc. The main new feature on Yast2 is now the ability to save networking locations, so if you change a location, all your scanner, printer, wireless (which by the way has a reworked tool now), and network settings will automatically change to the ones that correspond to that new location. That’s a neat feature; however, you will find no internet connection sharing or GUI Apache configuration tools. There is also no ZeroConf or BlueTooth support as far as I could see (I am not sure about Firewire support though, or how well the included wireless configuration tool or USB2 works as I didn’t have such devices to test with). Sound worked very well for me, as SuSE recognized both my sound cards in that machine (a Yamaha PCI and the onboard VIA AC-97 one).
ISDN users will find additional fax and phone capabilities for ISDN cards (incoming fax messages can be received by e-mail while phone calls can be received by e-mail and encoded as sound files with the use of an integrated synthesizer found on SuSE Linux).
SuSE was installed on my AthlonXP machine which has an ASUS GeFoce2-MX-400 graphics card in it and it used the XFree normal “nv” driver. I didn’t see any NVIDIA specific drivers in the package or in the YOU online updater. Also, I did not see drivers for the latest ATi Radeon cards (supports up to “Radeon 9100”) listed in the gfx pref panel. On a similar note, SuSE had installed on KDE’s Control Center the RandR extension tool, which allows you to change resolution and refresh rate on the fly under X, but it didn’t seem to work. And checking its checkbox to tell it to load the little tool on KDE’s notification area, didn’t do that either, even after I re-logged in o KDE.
Another thing that didn’t work well was KDE’s context menus on the dekstop when you right clicking on its shortcuts. They are full of bloat and garbage (meaning: irrelevant options unrelated to the icon that is selected). Even Trash’s contextual menu is full of irrelevant options while this was fixed ~2 months ago, supposedly. Yes, all KDE systems have this problem, but SuSE takes it to the max, as it has installed a big number of apps and these apps that add their garbage on the KDE menu without asking. This is not “just a KDE problem” (which is already acknowledged by KDE core developers to me personally and online on the usability list) but it is also the problem of any company that uses and sells that software. Work should have already be done on this (and Konqueror’s similar problem) a year ago already. This problem should be eliminated before KDE 3.2 or in this case, before SuSE 8.3/9, as it has an impact on the usability of the system.
On a last note, I couldn’t connect via Samba on my WinXP machine (with command line utility smbmount). Same problem as in Red Hat 9 actually (OSX connects just fine and yes, I have double checked my XP settings for this directory). Also, I found no configuration panel for samba server/client on YaST. Additionally, I could not browse Samba with Nautilus either, as it seems that the smb-vfs addon for Nautilus was not installed at all.
This SuSE release feels mostly like an incremental version of SuSE rather than a version that includes “at least one big new feature” that would apply to the majority of the users (most of the users don’t use ISDN for example). It is more of the same overall, not groundbreaking or innovative new features not found elsewhere, but with newer package versions, bug fixes and with a better looking desktop overall.
In the last big Linux release madness last October, Red Hat was the big star of the three big distros. This time, it seems that Mandrake with its 9.1 “stole the show.” I think that the next time (around September if we are to stay faithful in the big-3-Linux-distro release cycles) would be SuSE’s show. But this release today is mostly a simple incremental release with few new features OS-wise and people should only upgrade as they see fit. However, if you are a user who has never tried SuSE, then this might be a good version to try out for the first time.
Hardware Support: 7.5/10
Ease of use: 7.5/10
Credibility: 8/10 (stability, bugs, security)
Speed: 8/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)
Overall: 7.66 / 10