As we lead up to the 2003 Open Choice Awards here at Open for Business, we start afresh on our desktop distribution survey. Over the next few weeks we will consider Mandrake and Red Hat's latest entries, as well as lesser-known Libranet GNU/Linux. Today, however, we put the microscope on the successor to the spring Penguin Shootout award's winner — SuSE Linux 8.1.
SuSE 8.2 is very much an incremental release, as the version number would seem to indicate (although we put very little weight on version numbers when it comes to distributions). As one might expect in such a case, much of what we said about SuSE Linux 8.1 is still valid for 8.2.
Unfortunately, this includes not only the good but also the bad points we found in 8.1. Our Logitech MX 700 mouse, connected through the mouse's included PS/2 adapter, failed to be detected again. This left us with a frozen mouse pointer that forced us to navigate through the first few screens and select the mouse utility, to change the settings, using only the keyboard. The “overview screen” that we have complained about has been somewhat improved for those who keyboard their way around it, allowing us to go directly through the options on the main part of the screen just like one would on a web page. The mouse screen was slightly more problematic, not responding to pressing the Alt key and the letter underlined on the various buttons (normally an underlined letter on a button indicates that Alt plus that key will have the same effect as clicking on that button).
It should also be pointed out that, unlike Xandros Linux and Mandrake Linux 9.1, SuSE Linux 8.2 does not support resizing NTFS drives. To resize NTFS partitions, such as those used by default in Windows 2000 and XP, you need to go with SuSE Linux Desktop, which unfortunately does not include all of SuSE Linux 8.2 Professional's features (it does add some others such as CrossOver Office).
Speaking of filesystems, this batch of GNU/Linux distributions includes a wide variety of choices depending on your needs. The legacy friendly ext3 journaling file system is available along with ReiserFS (which we found to be faster), XFS from SGI, and JFS from IBM. Unlike our usual preference for ReiserFS, which is SuSE's default choice, we decided to try XFS, a filesystem that originates from the IRIX operating system, this time. Installation on an XFS partition went without issues and seemed to run very well.
Save the mouse incident, the first stage of installation was uneventful. The overall design seemed slightly improved although mostly the same as SuSE 8.1, the most noticeable change being the switch to the Keramik widget style (from KDE 3.1) for the YaST installation program.
As always, we enjoyed the benefit of SuSE Linux Professional's DVD installation. For systems with a DVD-ROM drive, this added bonus makes it a snap to install several gigabytes worth of software while you do other work. The installation took only a few minutes and played a slide show about GNU/Linux software while we waited.
Once the system installation was complete, SuSE rebooted and we were greeted by a nice refinement — the system messages are now hidden behind a graphical progress bar and SuSE logo during the system startup. This makes things far less intimidating looking for new users, a big bonus when deploying GNU/Linux systems to those that are use to using Microsoft Windows (for those who like watching the messages and for those who need to see them because something isn't working properly, pressing F2 brings up the familiar boot messages on an attractive background).
At this stage, the installation tool returned for a few more steps. Notably, SuSE Linux 8.2 tests one's Internet connection to insure it is working and then offers to grab the latest updates from YaST Online Update (YOU). YOU not only has updates but also a few items that couldn't be included on the DVD due to licensing issues, namely nVidia video card drivers and the Microsoft Web Fonts collection. Making these files available over YOU is something we really appreciated, although we wish SuSE could have acquired a copy of ATI's latest Radeon drivers in addition to the nVidia ones (to those who have asked OfB about those since our article a few months ago, we have been unable to confirm the official status of the XFree86 4.3.0 Radeon driver from ATI, although they have been available from a German vendor for awhile).
YaST's other major weakness compared to Mandrake Linux's DrakeX installer appeared at this point. While Mandrake has been able to detect our Hewlett-Packard PSC 2210 multifunction device since September of last year when Mandrake 9.0 was released, YaST still does not detect the unit. We also found that when we finally manually told YaST to use it's DeskJet 900 Series driver (YaST uses one from the Gimp-Print Project), that this configuration yielded substantially slower printing speed than the Foomatic/HP Inkjet Driver (the official, open source driver from HP) combination that Mandrake automatically configured for us.
The SuSE desktop remains much the same in this release, although a few items were improved. SuSE's menus are clean and well thought-out, and as an added bonus, YaST provides an easy way to switch to KDE's default menu structure should one wish to do so. We can sincerely say that SuSE 8.2 provides the most polished default desktop design available right now from a distribution. Mandrake and Red Hat would do good to follow SuSE's emphasis on a polished layout and style. We applaud SuSE's use of the Keramik/Geramik combination, which insures that KDE and GNOME applications not only look the same, but also have the same color scheme. SuSE is the first (and to our knowledge, only) distribution to make this wise choice.
Oddly, we soon found what appears to be a violation of the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS) in SuSE 8.2. Mount points for other non-SuSE partitions, CD/DVD-ROM drives and floppy drives were placed in the root (/) directory rather than in their proper home under /mnt. We were puzzled as to why SuSE would do this and hope that SuSE adopts the layout the rest of the GNU/Linux distributions use in the next release.
SuSE seems to be aiming for a new direction in this release as well. MainActor, a proprietary professional video-editing program, is included as an added free bonus. This is another exclusive to SuSE Linux and perhaps could be a start towards an attempt to compete with Mac OS X for the multimedia editing sector.
As we noted last time, SuSE also takes advantage of GNU/Linux's long standing ability to use what Microsoft now calls “Fast User Switching” and provides easy access to do so. Presently, the only other distribution to harness this functionality, even though it has existed to the knowledgeable user for years, is Xandros Linux.
8.2's updated desktop also includes a tray icon for YOU to make updating the system easier. While we would like to see SuSE move to support apt-get or urpmi as a more robust updating system, YOU has been greatly enhanced and now provides even more information about updates at the click of a button. If 8.3 (or 9.0) can eliminate the need to download the entire list of updates every time YOU is launched, we could probably consider this one of the best updating utilities available on GNU/Linux or elsewhere.
In all, SuSE 8.2 doesn't bring a lot to the table that SuSE 8.1 users don't already enjoy, but it does continue to polish the distribution into something serious desktop users will find comfortable and well designed. While earlier in its history, SuSE's distributions often suffered from a lack of refinement, this is certainly not the case any longer.
For the third time in a year, we will say this about SuSE Linux… yes, it is SuPERB.
Summary of SuSE Linux Professional 8.2 |
UPSIDE: SuSE has succeeded in combining all of the right elements to create a real competitor to Windows XP and Mac OS X right out of the box. While most distributions are good alternatives to these operating systems, SuSE's hard work really makes its Free Software foundations shine.