Moving from Debian To SuSE Linux and Back Again

I’m sure everyone is sick of reading reviews of Suse 9.1 by now but perhaps this one is a little different. This is not an ordinary review in the sense that I don’t provide lots of colourful screenshots, or ramble on endlessly about the included software versions and other trivial things. Written from the point of view of a Debian user trying to switch to an “easier” distribution, I concentrated on how Suse stacks up compared to some of the traditional Debian strengths.

Before I begin with my impressions of Suse, I’ll start with a little background information:

I switched from Windows to Linux about 4 years ago when I finally found a distribution that didn’t annoy me, Debian. It required a bit of manual tweaking but I always found that the important things “Just worked”. Well after 3 years of just working, I finally rode my installation into the ground through a combination of kernel upgrades and running a diverse mix of packages from the “unstable”, “testing”, and even “experimental” branches of Debian. It got to the point where KDE would boot unbearably slowly, applications would fail to start, and my mouse and keyboard would stop working if I didn’t use them for a few minutes. After much fiddling I finally decided a reinstall would be the path of least resistance. Since I’d been hearing all these fantastic reviews for Suse 9.1 I thought I would give it a try; after all it sounded like this was finally a no-nonsense, “just works” distribution for the fabled average user.

First Impressions

I downloaded the FTP install version of Suse 9.1 and installed it on a spare partition. The installer is absolutely great and I had no problems with it whatsoever (looks pretty too). The install finished and I boot into my shiny new Suse 9.1 installation. At first glance, everything seems to work great, I can see the Windows shares on my roommate’s computer, the internet connection is set up and working, the KDE 3.2 menu is well organized, and the desktop gives a very polished first impression. In terms of setting up a pleasing desktop environment, Suse is far ahead of Debian.

The Problems Start

Unfortunately I immediately ran into my first problem, the wheel and the fourth button on my mouse didn’t work. So I fire up the sluggish but slick looking Yast2 and click on the mouse configuration module. My mouse, a Logitech Cordless Mouseman Optical, is not present in the pitifully short list of mice to choose from. So I select the generic USB mouse and check the “Enable mouse wheel” box. The wheel still doesn’t work and I spend the next half hour unsuccessfully trying different combinations in the configuration module. Finally I decide to restart the system and voila, the wheel works (although my fourth mouse button is still broken). On a related note, this mouse, including wheel worked great with Debian on the first try.

Similarly, my keyboard was set up as a generic 104 key keyboard, when in fact it is a Logitech Cordless with all those volume wheels and special buttons. In Debian, once I had selected the proper keyboard in the KDE Control Panel, the volume wheel was automatically mapped to the volume controls of the KDE Mixer. Not so in Suse. Sure this is easy to correct but I had been hoping to leave these annoying chores behind by moving to an easier distribution like Suse.

Software Installation and Updates

Input problems aside, I decided to get on with setting up my system, which brought me directly to the next issue. Installing software in Suse is a very frustrating experience. I start up Yast2 and click on the software installation management. I don’t know why this isn’t directly in the K-menu since it’s a huge annoyance to have to start up Yast2 every time. The software installation module is very slow to start up and when it appears, offers relatively limited functionality. There is no apparent way to view only installed packages and the package information fails to show you the files that the package will install (although the embedded Yast in Konqueror does). Nevertheless the applications that were available in the database did install cleanly and did a good job of adding shortcuts to the K-Menu.

Suse has a system tray icon which automatically checks for updates and supposedly informs you if there are any available. While this is a good idea, the implementation needs some polish. There is no tooltip on the icon to check the status of updates, nor any progress indication when checking for updates. Also, if there is no updates to install, there is really no reason that this icon should even be visible. The same can be said for the system tray icon for the suseplugger application that monitors for new hardware. Why do we need to see this if there is no new hardware? Does anyone actually reconfigure their hardware so often that they need a quick link in their system tray?

Multimedia Support

Suse, like every other distribution, cannot legally ship some of the multimedia codecs with their distribution because of patent reasons. Sure enough, videos in Windows Media and other proprietary formats fail to play with the Kaffeine video player. I’m perfectly fine with this as I am used to getting these codecs via an external source from my days with Debian.

So I start my hunt for the w32codecs package which should contain all the codecs I need to play my video files. A quick search leads me to two packages on different web sites, one for the Quicktime codecs and one for the Windows Media and DivX codecs. I click on the RPM files in Konqueror to install them and the view changes to a nice overview of the package and a button to “Install with Yast”. So far so good I think and click install. After a long delay the Yast software installation module appears with no sign of my codec package, but clicking “Accept” does proceed to install the requested package.

Unfortunately my videos are still not working. Off on another web search, I find that I should install something called “avidemux”, which, after wrestling with the dependencies, I manage to do. Once again, however, this does nothing to phase my video files, which still refuse to play.

At this point I gave up on the video issue because I was sick of jumping through so many hoops to make Suse’s crippled multimedia applications play game with the additional codecs. Why does Suse even bother including the multimedia software if it is virtually useless for anything other than playing plain mpegs? I think it would be more productive to not include it at all and provide some easy instructions for adding the software from an external source.

All that was necessary to add multimedia support to Debian was one additional line in my apt sources list.

The Yast Configuration System

One of my mayor gripes with Suse is with the Yast2 configuration program. While it is nice to have all the configuration in one place, the whole thing felt quite cobbled together and is missing important features. The hardware section has an icon for setting up the mouse, but nothing for the keyboard. How is anyone supposed to know that to set up the keyboard they need to go into the KDE Control Center instead of Yast? Also, every time I access the network configuration to change an IP address or something equally trivial, Yast goes through the network card detection routine again. Why does it have to detect my network cards again if I just want to change an IP address? Yast seems to take every opportunity to waste time and make common tasks frustratingly cumbersome.
Along with being poorly organized, many icons for configuration tasks just shouldn’t be displayed by default. Everyday, mundane things like “Select keyboard layout” or “Choose language” are right next to “LVM” and “/etc/sysconfig Editor”. Suse should really move the advanced configuration options, which no ordinary users or even most knowledgeable users would ever touch, into a separate section.


Suse has done a lot of things right with this release, unfortunately almost none of those things are particularly useful to me in everyday operation of my computer. The important things, like software availability and management, proper detection of my basic hardware, and straightforward configuration are quite lacking and have sent me straight back to my old Debian install. I have earnestly made an effort to like this distribution and wish I could switch to something “easier” than Debian, but I just cannot bring myself to use Suse 9.1 on a regular basis.

About the Author
I am a Computer Engineering student in Victoria, Canada. I’m currently working in a research position on eye tracking technologies for the severely disabled at the University of Victoria.


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