April 15, 2004

An in-depth look at SUSE 9.1 RC2

Author: Joe Barr

Here is our promised in-depth look at the latest SUSE 9.1 beta. I found a little more flakiness than I would be comfortable with long-term, but I have been using this near-final version in my day-to-day work for nearly a week now and see no reason to go back to my previous installation.Instead of installing RC2 on the low-powered test box with which I tested an earlier beta version, I decided to thoroughly exercise the beta by installing it on my desktop machine. The desktop box is powered by a AMD Athlon XP 2000+ processor with 512MB of SDRAM.
The install was polite, quick, and painless.

The installer in RC2 is a well-mannered beast. You won't find yourself accidentally installing SUSE a second time because you forgot to remove the CD from the drive; though it recognizes the bootable CD, the default action is to boot from the hard drive.

My desktop system has three hard drives and an ATAPI IDE CD-ROM. One drive is dedicated to my /home directory, another is strictly for backup and swap, and the third holds Linux itself. The installer made it quick and easy to designate each drive properly. The only change I made to my current partitioning was to use SUSE's default ReiserFS on the / partition instead of ext3. The other two filesystems remained ext3. I chose the default software offerings.

Slightly more than 15 minutes after starting, the installer rebooted from the hard drive and installation continued. A few minutes later it asked me to insert CD2, and not long after that it prompted me for a root password. It configured by network connection automatically; I took the opportunity to test the connection when it was offered, and it worked just fine.

After I added a local user, the installation procedure finalized the install by configuring my sound, video, printer, and Hauppauge WinTV card, all without input from me. SUSE called the printer an HP 840C instead of an 842C, but I don't think that matters. The basic install was complete in just a hair over 30 minutes.

The default install

The image below (click on it for the full-size image) shows my SUSE 9.1 RC2 desktop immediately following installation. As you can see, the default desktop contains icons for OpenOffice.org, Support, SUSE portals (that's the green lizard icon identical to the SUSE Menu icon on the bottom panel), Trash, My Computer, Network Browsing, and Printer.

SUSE 9.1 contains OOo 1.1.1, which is quite nice, and SUSE includes an OOo Quickstart applet, which makes it even nicer if you use OOo a lot. It cuts the startup time way down, to about three seconds on my system.

The Support icon (the keys on the keyring) takes you to the SUSE support portal, where you can register and get tech support. The SUSE portals icon lets you choose from direct links to the SUSE home page, support portal, installation support, hardware database, and release notes for SUSE 9.1. My Computer brings up the Konqueror browser, pointed at the CD-ROM drive but easily switchable to other directories to explore your system. Network browsing is handy if you're running Samba. The Printer icon brings up a print queue monitor, and Start Here gives -- oops -- an error for a malformed URL.

The task bar at the bottom of the screen contains icons to bring up the SUSE menu tree, Konqueror pointed at my home drive and referred to as "Personal Files," a terminal window, a help center, Konqueror as a web browser, and KMail. On the far right side of the task bar are more icons for a handful of applets: Klipper, the clipboard manager; KAMix, a sound manager; Plugger, the SUSE hardware tool; and Plugged In, a power manager.

Shaking the tree

Let's go over the major items of software that are loaded by default excluding games.


  • Digikam .6 (sitting atop gphoto2) for digital camera work
  • KIcon Edit 3.2.90 to create/modify icons
  • KPaint 0.6.2 for creating your own masterpiece
  • The GIMP 2.0 for all sorts of magic with digital images
  • KFax 1.3.0 for viewing G3/G4 faxes
  • KGhostView 0.20 for viewing PostScript and PDF images
  • KuickShow 0.8.6 for quickly displaying images
  • XSane for scanning
  • OpenOffice.Org 1.1.1 for drawing


  • Kopete 0.8.1 for IM and IRC chat
  • Kmail 1.6.2 for email
  • Konqueror 3.2.1 for Web browsing
  • OpenOffice.Org 1.1.1 for composing HTML
  • KInternet for dial-up connections
  • KNode 0.7.7 for Usenet news reading


  • Kaboodle 1.7.1 media player
  • XMMS 1.2.10 media player
  • aRTs 1.2.1 synthesizer media design/edit tool
  • KRec 0.5 for audio recording
  • KRecorder 1.15.1 sound recorder
  • Kaffein 0.4.1 media player (based on Xine)
  • Natun 2.4.1 frontend for aRTs
  • KsCD CD player
  • K3B 0.11.7 CD/DVD burner
  • KAudioCreator 1.0 for creating audio CDs
  • JuK 2.0.1 music manager/player
  • RealPlayer media player
  • KdeTV 0.8rc1 TV player
  • KAMix 0.0.7 volume control


  • Dictionary 2.4.1 client for MIT dictionary server
  • Image indexer
  • Rekall 2.2.0-beta1 database GUI
  • OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 for spreadsheets
  • KAddressBook 3.2.1 for address management
  • KOrganizer 3.2.1 for calendar management
  • Acrobat Reader 5.0.5 for viewing PDF files
  • Kontact 0.8.1 groupware
  • OpenOffice.org 1.1.1 office suite for presentations and word processing


  • 13 desktop applets including:
  • Konqueror 3.2.1 for file management
  • 5 file system tools
  • 4 system monitors
  • Desktop sharing (server and client)
  • 3 configuration tools (not counting Yast2)
  • Konsole 1.3.1 for terminal sessions
  • KDE password changer

That's not the complete list of items on the default tree. There is also a section on utilities for the desktop that includes archiving and editors. But this list gives you a feel for the major apps included in the default install.

In my opinion, the list is strongest in Multimedia and weakest in Internet tool choices. And because I feel that way, I had good reason to try making things a little more to my liking.

Next -- Fine-tuning with the KDE 3.2 Control Center

I became very familiar with the KDE Control Center -- at least that part of it that brings up Yast2 -- over the past few days as I customized and modified and altered the default installation. I give it high marks for usability in almost every area.

SUSE failed to recognize my monitor during the installation, so I ended up with a generic definition and a 1024x768 resolution on a 19-inch screen. To change that, I opened the Control Center, then YAST2, and then Hardware in order to change the Graphics card and Monitor specifications. I was able to replace the generic setting with my ViewSonic PF790. As a result, I could choose from a range of resolutions going as high as 1600x1200. I chose to configure the monitor at two resolutions: 1400x1050 and 1280x1024.

That chore done, it was time to install the mission-critical apps I prefer to replace the SUSE defaults in key areas: Xchat 2.0.7 instead of Kopete, Evolution 1.4 instead of Kmail, Mozilla 1.6 instead of Konqueror, and gedit 2.4.1 instead of Kedit. It was easy enough to install each using Control Center->Yast2->Software->Install/remove. This is true even though installing Evolution, Gnome's flagship mail client, in a KDE environment created beaucoup dependencies. It was also easy to place their icons on the task bar.

All I needed to do was right-click on the bar, select Add, then Application Button, then follow the Menu tree to the app I wanted to add and select it. The icon appeared on the bar and I could right-click->Move to drag it wherever I liked.

The camera war

The default app for handling digital photos in SuSE 9.1 is Digikam. It's a nice-looking GUI app based on the gphoto-2 project. It's a great product, but it doesn't work with my old Sony Mavica MSAC-SR1.

Configuring Digikam is straightforward. You start by selecting the camera or device from a scroll-list. I found and chose MSAC-SR1 on /dev/ttyS0. After I changed permissions on the /dev file DigiKam could connect to the reader, but it couldn't read anything from it.

I tried a lot of things but never succeeded in getting it to work. I started looking for gphoto, the app I've been using the past few years, to use in DigiKam's place. No luck. It was Gphoto-2 or nothing. I replaced DigiKam with a Gnome equivalent: gtkcam. It failed in exactly the same way Digikam did.

Finally I was able to locate an old Mandrake gphoto RPM. I used the SUSE Control Center to add a dependency (flphoto), then deleted gphoto-2, then installed gphoto. It worked! Color me impressed with SUSE's apparent ability to work on either side the desktop environment picket lines.

... At least until the next time I ran Control Center to add another package. It noted the discrepancy between gphoto and gphoto2 and offered to fix it for me. After it did, gphoto2 was back in place and I could no longer access the memory stick reader.

Favorite SUSE touch

Although it's not new with 9.1 -- it's part of SUSE 9.0 and perhaps even earlier releases -- the SUSEwatcher applet is an important tool in fighting off the bad guys. This little app keeps an eye on the SUSE home base and alerts you to updates and patches as they become available. When it finds updates, you simply click on the "Start Online Update" button and are whisked away into the bowels of Yast2, where you can manually select which updates to apply, or configure autoupdates. I was told online that the configuration allows you to exclude things like the kernel or specific apps from the autoupdate process, but because there were no updates available at the time I tried it, I wasn't able to test that.

Random weirdness and observations

I ran into some flaky behavior with SUSE 9.1, but most of these issues are more likely to be related to application bugs or differences in specific versions of the applications than to the 2.6 kernel or the SUSE installation. I mention them because I had not experienced them before installing SUSE 9.1.

Firefox, the standalone Mozilla browser, crashed and burned several times while I browsing with multiple tabs open.

Occasionally, the Tools->Document Statistics window would appear with a "crack" running down it which prevented me from being able to read the statistics. Dragging the window to a new location resolved the problem.

When logged in as root, the KDE background is a bright red in color. It also has a large black exclamation point in a yellow triangle alternating with a cartoon bomb and fuse. The message is clear that running as root is a dangerous practice. This is a good thing.

Burning CDs with K3B 0.11.7 results in slightly unusual behavior. When I used TDK Data CD-R disks (up to 48X-compatible) under LibraNet I saw an advisory message from K3b that the media could not support 8X burns so it was setting the speed to 4X. Under SUSE, with the newer version of K3B, I get the same advisory message but with the speed set to 0X instead of 4. The burn speed would actually be 8X at times and 4X at other times.

While using -- or simply changing the configuration on my HP5200C USB scanner -- the mouse action became slow and jerky. Sometimes it would disappear completely, meaning when I restarted XSane it would not detect the scanner. Disconnecting and reconnecting power to the scanner usually resolved the problem, returning mouse activity to its normal fast and responsive state. I suspect that USB was taking too many CPU cycles while talking to the scanner. Still, the USB strangeness with the scanner is a concern. I don't know whether it is a kernel problem, a hardware problem, or something else. I have used the scanner fairly often the past couple of years with Xsane and I have never seen the flaky behavior I got in this review.


Remember, this review was done on a second release candidate of 9.1, which is not quite the final version. I'm pretty happy with SUSE 9.1. All of my personal mission-critical apps (Gnome apps, every one of them) integrated wonderfully into the KDE environment. They just work, just like they are supposed to do. Next time, hopefully on the production release, I'll install the Gnome environment and see how well it integrates the best KDE apps.

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