By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:00 PM

When my copy of SuSE Linux 8.0 arrived, I felt almost like I was coming home after a long trip. SuSE had been my primary Linux distribution for over two years, until last November, so it was exciting to see what they had been up to. SuSE 8.0 seems as good a way as any to come back to SuSE, after all it was the first distribution to ship with KDE 3, and it comes with a truckload of improvements over previous versions.

So after finishing some other tasks that needed to be done, I headed into OfB Labs to give the new distribution a spin on one of our test boxes. The system we placed SuSE 8.0 on was an older Dell Dimension Pentium II/450 system with 256 megs of ram and plenty of room for testing a large GNU/Linux installation.

First Impressions

First impressions being what they are, I was very pleased with what happened next. When we booted the system I was greeted by a very nice customized boot menu that allowed me to easily select a special installation mode if necessary. While all distributions come with some kind of selection screen at this stage, SuSE Linux 8.0's was clean and to the point.

After the system finished booting, I arrived at what I would say is the slickest looking operating system installer available. SuSE's installer has always been very refined looking, but they really pulled out all the stops in 8.0. However, while the new installer looks great, I was about to encounter my first problem with the system.

In SuSE 8.0, rather then moving in succession through the various settings during installation, there is a series of “summary screens” which show a wide range of configuration options. While these make the installation a bit faster if you want to leave everything alone, they also make it very easy to miss a setting that you may want to change. For instance, I did not notice that there was a link to setup my printer that was positioned toward the bottom of a summary screen. The screens also seem less efficient when adjusting common settings in that you must move back and forth from those screens rather than progressing fluidly as you would in Mandrake or RedHat Linux.

Also, while most of the screens are cleaned up, SuSE's package selection screen is still very overwhelming, and is only a slight improvement in layout over the style they used in their old, text-based installer. SuSE would do well to follow Mandrake's lead and place packages in an easy to understand tree rather than over 200 categories in a flat list. The package “series” names SuSE uses in the easier to manage “package sets” mode added to the confusion with cryptic titles such as “k2de.”

After getting everything to my liking, I came up to one of the best features in SuSE Linux; installing via a DVD-ROM (something SuSE was first to market with over two years ago). With such a large selection of packages, SuSE Linux takes forever to install if you choose to load most of the software included, but at least you don't have to swap discs. Of course, if you do not have a DVD-ROM drive, SuSE Linux 8.0 also includes seven CD-ROM discs for you to use instead.

Giving it a Spin

After confirming a few other settings, the system was ready to startup for its first time. I was surprised that the boot messages were still a bit messy, but SuSE made up for it by adding a very nice animated graphic to illustrate each stage of the startup process.

Once the system has started, you are placed in the recently released KDE 3 desktop environment. SuSE was kind enough to include a few scalable fonts with the system, which means you get to enjoy a beautiful anti-aliased desktop out of the box. On the first startup, you are also welcomed by the nice “SuSE Tour” application to give you an overview of your new SuSE system.

The default installation comes with all of the standard applications you would expect in a Linux distribution such as the Abiword word processing program, StarOffice, Evolution PIM software, three web browsers, and various other applications. Most of the software included were recent versions, save StarOffice which was at version 5.2 instead of the newly released 6.0 product. SuSE has a separately available “Pro-Office” package that includes StarOffice 6.0 and various other updates for SuSE Linux 8.0.

The only real fault we found in the default desktop is the clutter. The kicker bar has three additional menus beyond the application launch menu, none of which we found really very useful. Also the menus were rather cluttered, with the “Settings” menu having separate icons to setup two different versions of the X Windowing System, and the application launch menu having many sub-menus that only had one or two icons in them.

While not necessarily a fault, we were also surprised that SuSE chose not to include KOffice or in the default installation selection. Considering that is generally considered much better than its older sibling StarOffice 5.2, it seems that it should have been the default office suite instead. Still, this situation can be easily remedied by grabbing either office suite off SuSE Linux's DVD or CD's.

Yet another Setup Tool

Probably SuSE's greatest strength is their YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) system configuration suite. It contains probably the most robust set of networking configuration applets available, not to mention a variety of options for general system administration as well. As an added bonus, YaST integrates in to the KDE Control Center, which makes it easy to administer desktop and system settings all in one convenient location.

The 8.0 release is a real mile marker for SuSE's configuration tool set, being the first release not to include the venerable text-based YaST1 configuration tool. While the new tools still seem to be lacking the excellent design of the older system, the improved YaST2 does finally provide a much improved text-based interface along with its standard GUI.

Another strength of YaST is the excellent YaST Online Update tool (YOU). While we had been disappointed with previous versions of YOU, this version finally fulfills its promise by allowing components such as the KDE graphical environment to be easily upgraded. YOU still lacks some of the powerful functionality of Mandrake 8.2's Package Manager, however we found its clean, wizard-like interface extremely easy to use.

We were puzzled by YaST's hardware configuration tools, however. Oddly enough, several printer tools and a vendor driver CD loading tool were placed in the Miscellaneous category rather then with the other hardware applets. Also, we were surprised by the fact that SuSE chose to use the older, troublesome LPD printer system over CUPS, which OfB Labs has found produces faster, better results. Fortunately, SuSE does provide a mechanism to switch to CUPS if one is so inclined to look for it.

While YaST still has a ways to go before it reaches the usability level of Mandrake's Control Center system, we are pleased with the progress SuSE has made in usability this release. Unfortunately, technically speaking, YaST is still much the same, using a system that forces users to use nonstandard files to make manual changes to their system.

A Word on TCO and Obsolescence

Any review of SuSE Linux would be incomplete without mentioning quite possibly the two most controversial aspects of the distribution - a proprietary software license and the UnitedLinux consortium. While neither of these are factors in a technical consideration of SuSE, they may need to be considered when analyzing TCO and the time until obsolescence of this software.

The first factor - proprietary software licensing - is usually kept under wraps. SuSE's YaST system has a license with commercial resale restrictions in it, disqualifying it from being considered Open Source or Free Software. While this does not affect the end user directly that much, it does prevent interested developers from coming on board to work on enhancements for SuSE's system. This became demonstratable when SuSE retired YaST1 and no one in the community showed interest in continuing its development - there simply was no motivation to do so under a restrictive license. If your company is looking to avoid dependence on proprietary software, we advise you to consider MandrakeSoft or RedHat Software's respective Linux distributions instead.

The other consideration mentioned above is the UnitedLinux consortium. This consortium has two issues you should consider when looking at any member distribution. First and foremost, consider that the distribution will quite likely have a major change in architecture as changes from “SuSE Linux Enterprise Server powered by UnitedLinux” spill down toward the end of the year.

Also of concern to many analysts and advocates is the fact that UnitedLinux seems interested in increasing the amount of proprietary software in the distribution, and keeping the development cycle as closed as possible. These actions could reduce the advantages of Open Source in future versions of SuSE Linux, and there have even been persistent rumors this may eventually lead to per-seat licensing fees for the distribution.


SuSE Linux is one of the most usable Linux distributions on the market today. Rivaled only by Mandrake Linux as a mainstream desktop Linux distribution, SuSE offers a nicely setup user interface with everything needed for a productive office.

SuSE Linux was also the first distribution to market KDE 3.0, and is still the only distribution that prefers the KDE environment to offer this new third generation version of the system. As such, if you are looking to start using KDE 3.0 right now without the hassles of upgrading another distribution, SuSE Linux is the way to go.

In the end SuSE is an excellent product technically speaking. While we found MandrakeSoft's Mandrake Linux 8.2 easier in some respects, SuSE is a worthy contender for the Linux desktop. If you feel comfortable after considering the issues about licensing and UnitedLinux, this may be the right distribution for your next Linux desktop or server.
  • For additional thoughts on SuSE Linux 8.0 by two long time Linux users, please click here.

Summary of SuSE 8.0 Professional

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User Interface:
Total Cost of Ownership:
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SuSE Linux is one of the few distributions that has spent a lot of time focusing on desktop Linux. As such, any consideration
of desktop Linux distributions would not be complete without looking at SuSE Linux 8.0.

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Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.