SuSE Linux 8.1 Takes Our Challenge

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 4:18 PM

SuSE Linux 8.0 earned positive marks from us last summer for its strong feature set and low occurrence of bugs; will SuSE Linux 8.1 be able to keep up with its older sibling and win the Penguin Shootout? Find out all of that and more below.

SuSE has been known as one of the best choices for a desktop GNU/Linux distribution for years, especially with its intuitive YaST2 setup program. With Red Hat focusing on the server until recently, SuSE's only real competitor was Caldera (now SCO). In recent years, MandrakeSoft, along with newer arrivals such as Lycoris and LindowsOS, have become serious contenders for those considering Linux desktops, but SuSE has retained its place as a serious mover and shaker in desktop GNU/Linux. With that in mind, OfB Labs anxiously looked forward to seeing how the company's latest and greatest would stack up in our tests.

As we expected, the setup system booted just fine, however, we quickly reached the first bug in the system. The mouse wasn't initialized. Oddly enough, the mouse that we were using — a Logitech MX700 connected to the PS/2 port — worked with any other distribution we tried that would boot on the system (Xandros' installer wouldn't boot at all on the test box). We also tried the mouse that came with a Wacom drawing tablet and found that didn't work either.

Now, anyone who is familiar with my review of SuSE Linux 8.0 knows that I am not a big fan of the company's web page-like summaries of various settings in lieu of the traditional step-by-step setup process used by other distributions. While previously I had complained for usability reasons (i.e. it is easy to pass something you need), now it became painfully clear what was wrong with this design — we had to use a keyboard hotkey combination to get a small drop down box that allowed us to select the mouse tool. Especially considering that many people aren't even familar with hotkey combinations and other keyboard tricks these days, we would really like to see SuSE make the mouse tool automatically come up if a pointer isn't detected in the next release.

I should point out that this interface design also presented two more potential issues. Unless we specifically clicked the partitioning option, the system defaulted to what it thought was best for the disk layout. It is certainly commendable that they've made it smart enough to do this, yet we feel that data is just too important not to confirm such things (most distributions ask the user if they want automatic or custom partitioning). Newbie or not, a user would not want to finish the install process to find that two years of market research just got trashed because the installer picked the wrong partitions.

Still, some of SuSE's installer design is commendable. The partitioning tool worked well, and I appreciated the fact that it defaulted to ReiserFS for the partitions rather than ext3 (more on that on another day). I also appreciated that the SuSE partitioning tool allowed for typing custom partition sizes rather than using a slider like Eduardo Sanchez noted Mandrake Linux 9.0 does in our look at that distribution. In terms of use, Mandrake may still have a small lead in that its bar-graph style representation of partitions is similar to that of the well known Partition Magic software, whereas SuSE (and Red Hat) both opt for a list view of partitions that may seem a bit overwhelming at first.

On a more positive note, it cannot be said enough that SuSE is brilliant for including a DVD-ROM of their distribution in every box of SuSE Linux Professional. It is such a pleasure to be able to go do something else and know the system is not waiting with an “insert next disc” message waiting for you. Of the distributions we tested, Mandrake Linux is the only other one to offer a DVD edition, and that is only included when you opt for the server focused ProSuite edition.

After a pleasant (and fast) software installation process, we hit our next road bump. For some reason, SuSE did not include the Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet 0.90 driver that came out in early August, and thus failed to support our HP PSC 2210 multifunction device. On the other hand, while Mandrake Linux 9.0's support for the device was still somewhat buggy, it was at least available. We also ran into trouble when attempting to manually select a driver, getting an error message telling us that we were not logged in as root.

Needless to say, the setup process was somewhat disappointing, but things did start to go better after we finished the installation. Once the system booted up, we were greeted by SuSE's nice welcome screen that provides an overview of the system functionality, access to documentation, a link to product support, and so forth. This was definitely a nice way to give a new user some hand holding before they are dumped into “unfamiliar territory,” and I'm sure many people will appreciate it a great deal.

In reality, to the average user, there really isn't much of note in SuSE 8.1's desktop that wasn't available in 8.0. Like 8.0, the default GUI is KDE 3.0, and also like 8, SuSE uses a pre-release version of the Keramik style for the widgets (buttons, scrollbars, etc.). SuSE added an attractive new window manager style to the mix that went very nicely with the new “Crystal” icons and the aforementioned Keramik style to provide a professional looking desktop. As an added bonus, we found the main program launch menu and the “quick launch” menu both to be better organized in this release than in previous editions.

While it is functionally comparable to other distribution's configuration tools, it must be said that SuSE's YaST Control Center remains the nicest, most professional looking system settings tool available at present. Like Lycoris' tools, YaST is Qt-based, making it blend in to the default KDE environment much better than Mandrake's Control Center does.

SuSE's update tool worked well enough, and found the latest updates for the system quickly and efficiently. However, updates, and package installation in general, are probably one of SuSE's weakest points at the moment. While Mandrake, Lindows, Conectiva, and Xandros place their update and software management systems on top of powerful package downloading and dependency-resolving tools, SuSE still sticks to a fairly old style standard rpm based system.

Unlike all of those systems, there wasn't an easy way to make the package installer fetch packages from multiple remote archives, nor was the standard tool for installing packages able to handle updating. This is a definite weakness and we would like to see SuSE adopt either apt-rpm or URPMI in the future to provide this functionality to ease upgrading and installation from both intranet and Internet sources.

One nice feature that SuSE has added in this release is the ability to easily start additional “sessions.” Although this functionality, known to Windows XP users as “fast user switching,” is nothing new in GNU/Linux, the key here is that it is a simple one-click process in SuSE Linux 8.1. Xandros Desktop 1.0 includes this functionality, as does Red Hat 8, so it was nice to see that SuSE had picked it up as well. We would like to see some refinement in SuSE's system to make switching between sessions using the GUI as easy as it is in Xandros, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

The next stop we took was to test to see if our CD burner had been setup in SuSE. During previous tests, it had not been, and I am happy to report that in 8.1 it was properly setup. The default K3B burning program was not pre-configured for some reason, but at least after running K3B setup, we were able to burn CD's without further issues.

Our final stop in the investigation of SuSE's basic desktop features was to give SuSE's version of a spin. Imagine our shock when we found that SuSE did not setup OpenOffice at all, instead placing an icon for the OpenOffice setup program on the desktop for the user to deal with. This was a common practice in the days of StarOffice 5, but it certainly isn't as efficient, or intuitive, as the method other distributions use (i.e. completely installing the suite when the package is installed) and gives the user a task that should be left to the system administrator in a corporate environment.

As with Xandros, there is another issue that should be mentioned in any review that wishes to give a complete overview of the system. Contrary to common belief, SuSE is not an Open Source/Free Software distribution. This one, often-overlooked matter in SuSE is that all of SuSE's configuration tools are placed under the YaST Source License, a license that does not meet the criteria of the Free Software Foundation or the Open Source Initiative's definitions of Free Software or Open Source, respectively. While the license does allow modification and redistribution of YaST, and thus is rather benign compared to LindowsOS or Xandros Desktop licensing, this choice does hinder community participation in our opinion. In brief, it means that should SuSE ever go under or choose to discontinue YaST in favor of something else, it would be less likely that the utilities would continue to be maintained. On the other hand, a distribution like Mandrake Linux or Red Hat Linux components have the potential for continued development by the community, and in fact, MandrakeSoft already harnesses this possibility to allow it to create a very comparable product offering with a much smaller development staff.

Does this mean that you shouldn't adopt SuSE? Not necessarily. Even with the YaST license, SuSE Linux offers much more in the way of freedom from restrictive licenses, and the resulting benefits to your bottom line, than the more restrictively licensed GNU/Linux distributions that have recently become available. However, when adopting SuSE Linux one should consider this issue in relation to the longevity of deployments.

Overall, SuSE Linux 8.1 presents a nicely polished, powerful, and fairly easy to use desktop GNU/Linux distribution. Sadly, numerous issues that we encountered make it seem like a step backwards from SuSE Linux 8.0 in many ways. While organizations considering adopting SuSE for the first time should probably go with SuSE Linux 8.1, we see no reason for those using 8.0 to take any risks in moving up to this release.

Summary of SuSE Linux 8.1

User Interface:
Total Cost of Ownership:
UPSIDE: SuSE Linux 8.1 has a professional aire to it and many high quality tools. While this release seems to have more annoyances than 8.0, it is still a solid GNU/Linux distribution worth consideration for deployment

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