March 6, 2006

Five things I dislike about SUSE 10

Author: Joe Barr

I've been running the retail version on SUSE Linux 10.0 as my production desktop machine since early November. I like its online update facility; it's a great way to keep the system refreshed with the latest security and bug fixes, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. But I've found a few things in SUSE 10 that I'm not too fond of, and that make me start thinking about changing distros.

I'm not talking about the community version, openSUSE 10, which is supported by Novell and available for free download. This is the boxed set of CDs (or DVD) available for purchase from Novell for $60.

Mind you, the retail version is no different from its community cousin. But you do get a book and five CDs, even a DVD if you prefer. What you don't get, but which I assumed incorrectly that you did, is any extra testing, spit and polish, or better integration of the whole. I didn't appreciate finding this out the hard way, instead of knowing it up front.

The open version of SUSE is touted as making all the latest stuff available earlier than you can get it in the commercial version, with perhaps a few bumps in the road as a result, for hobbyists and aficionados to play with and test and help debug the latest application releases before they get rolled up into the professional edition. It turns out the retail version has exactly the same set of bumps in the road as the open version.

Another criticism I have of SUSE 10 is that the GNU Compiler Collection (gcc) is not installed by default. How can this be? If you're trying for an edgy distro, I would think that would mean including by default the ability to stay edgy a week, even two, past the install date. Static repositories don't do that for you. You have to find, download, and compile the newest bling for your bad boy on a regular basis. But you can't do that with SUSE 10, at least not right out of the box.

In addition to what's not included, I dislike something that is. Beagle, the hound assigned to track and allow you to find all of your data, all of the time, is installed by default. Novell assures me that Beagle is one of the more popular features in SUSE 10, but it's not popular with me. Within a day or two, it had my Athlon XP 2000+ with half a gig of RAM system crawling, to the point of being unusable.

I don't know if it's because I have three disk drives, or because I'm running ReiserFS on one drive and Ext3 on the others, or because I keep about 100,000 messages in my Evolution folders, or something else altogether, but I do know Beagle doesn't work well on my system. It got so bad that my system couldn't keep up with the new mail coming in every 10 minutes. I would have to wait a minute for a response to a mouse click.

In addition to a lack of responsiveness thanks to Beagle, I found a lack of stability in one program I use frequently. Gnumeric crashes in SUSE 10. When I open a spreadsheet in Excel format from our corporate headquarters, Gnumeric crashes after I've filled it in and tried to save it. I've been told, unofficially, that this problem is a result of the fact that Gnumeric 1.4.3, which ships in SUSE 10, is incompatible with the GNOME Structured File Library (libgsf) 1.11, which also ships in SUSE 10, and that I can resolve the problem by upgrading Gnumeric or downgrading GSF.

My problem with that advice -- which is probably very good advice, by the way, if you have run into the same problem -- is that this is exactly the type of problem that the packaging of a distribution is supposed to prevent.

I found another annoyance in a program that many people consider a SUSE advantage. YaST hangs up too often. A flaky piece of hardware, such as my CD-ROM drive, or a slow-to-respond online repository, causes YaST to lock up tight. Clicking Abort does no good. Clicking the X in the upper right corner of the Window does no good. The whole system slows down while YaST whirs in a tight loop, impervious to all but a kill command by root.

I was told in a community forum that I should get a new CD drive and should choose better online repositories. Those things are both true. Another thing that is true is that YaST shouldn't ought to do that in the first place. Occasionally, a repository is going to be unavailable, and when that happens, YaST should be able to time out gracefully without plunging my system into a death spiral.

Conclusion

After several months of living with SUSE annoyances, it's time to rotate my desktop distro again. I'm leaning towards Ubuntu, which is enjoying tremendous popularity of late, but which has issues of its own. Maybe it's time for Debian again. I won't be considering Red Hat or SUSE, since neither deems the desktop important enough to provide one to the general public that it stands behind. Yes, I know about Novell Desktop and Red Hat Advanced Workstation, but those are for corporate clients, not the average Joe. All suggestions for my next desktop distro are appreciated.

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