December 11, 2006

openSUSE 10.2: the best Linux desktop yet?

Author: Joe Barr

First impressions are important, and openSUSE 10.2 made a strong enough impression with me that I may be making openSUSE 10.2 my new desktop OS. I installed openSUSE 10.2 RC1 soon after its release in late November, and I've been kicking the tires on the final release since it was made public last Thursday. Here's my report.

Going for the gold

I didn't have any problems downloading, burning, and installing the 5 CD set for RC1, but getting the final release was a different story. I ran into a number of problems getting a viable ISO image from the openSUSE mirrors. Hopefully, all the problems I ran into were the result of the pushing, shoving, and crowding at the download sites on release day.

Not long after openSUSE 10.2 appeared in public at openSUSE.org and its mirrors, I started an HTTP download. I couldn't believe how fast it was going, but with a transfer rate of about 580KB/sec, I had the entire DVD in about two hours. Unfortunately, the image was corrupt, so I downloaded it a second time.

I'm not sure what mirror I got the first image from, but I noticed cache.novell.com was involved on the second attempt. The second download was not as fast as the first, but it was still a good speed, holding above 400KB/sec for the most part. But the second download was bad, too.

The gurus on the #suse channel on irc.freenode.net -- an excellent source of information about openSUSE -- told me that if I used BitTorrent I would be assured of getting a good image, so I started a third download using BitTorrent. But the speed was so slow that the projected download time would exceed 24 hours. I asked on the channel for a better way, and one kind soul provided the URL of a site in Belgium where I could grab RC1/GM (Gold master) delta ISOs. Delta ISOs allow you to download a small file to apply against previous ISO images to bring the ISOs up to date, instead of downloading the entire remastered ISO.

I reinstalled RC1, used the applydelta package to create new ISO images from the RC1 and delta ISOs, and burned CDs from the resulting ISOs. All went well from that point on, and about half an hour later, I was running the release version of openSUSE 10.2.

My test machine is an AMD Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, 1GB of RAM, an MSI K8 mainboard with onboard Ethernet and audio. It has a Logitech USB mouse, an Nvidia GE Force 6600 PCI-E video card, ViewSonic V17B display, and a Linksys WMP54G wireless PCI card. In addition to a single 160GB Maxtor hard drive, it has a Sony CD/DVD ROM drive.

Installation from the five CD set was a breeze. The biggest thing I found to complain about during the install was that the CD tray did not automatically eject as the installer moved from one CD to the next. And I was pleasantly surprised -- and relieved -- when the automated online updater ran without a hitch at the end of the install process.

When the install was complete, I found everything was working except for the Linksys wireless card. My understanding is the driver (rt61pci) for the card was broken by recent changes to the kernel. In any case, it's not just an openSUSE issue, it doesn't work on Ubuntu Edgy either, although it did work on Dapper.

In a break from tradition, I chose the KDE desktop environment instead of GNOME. As usual, openSUSE 10.2 not only offers you a choice, but makes it easy to mix and match your favorite apps from either environment.

My first reaction after the install was "What a beautiful desktop OS this is." But remembering the update woes that plagued openSUSE 10.1, I wondered if its beauty was only skin deep.

What you get out of the box

OpenSUSE 10.2 debuts with Kernel version 2.6.18.2-34, KDE 3.5.5 "Release 45," and X.org 7.2-26, along with tons of applications. Here's a short list of the default offerings from the Apps menu:

  • KMail 1.9.5
  • FireFox 2.0
  • Konversation 1.0.1
  • OpenOffice 2.0
  • Kaffeine (video player) 0.8.3
  • The Gimp 2.2.13
  • K3b 0.12.17

Getting started

Click to enlarge

My normal course of action is to immediately replace the default offerings of whatever distro I am trying or reviewing with my standard apps: Xchat2, Gaim, Evolution, gedit, and so on. This time around, I decided to try the default offerings, especially since I don't often use the KDE environment. I thought I would give them a look, and then punt them in favor of my regular choices. For the most part, I was surprised by how much I liked the defaults.

It took me a couple of tries to get used to the redesigned openSUSE KDE start menu for running apps, doing configuration chores, and shutting down. Instead of the familiar menu tree I'm used to seeing, when I click on the SUSE icon an interactive start menu appears. As your cursor moves over the various sections (Favorites|History|Computer|Apps|Leave), the screen above them changes to display the drill-down options for that section.

Hovering over Computer, as seen here, allows me to choose between Yast2 and Sysinfo. while if the cursor is over the History section, shown here, I can select one of the apps I've run recently.

Once you get the hang of it, it's easy, but while I was still fumbling my way around I would always manage to move the cursor over an adjacent section and thus lose the options that I had wanted before I could click them.

Chat, IM, and Games

I need IRC and IM for work. For IRC, I tried Konversation, KDE's native IRC client, for the first time during this review, and it is much better than I expected. I don't know its ins and outs as well as I do XChat's, but I never felt lost or slighted in functionality. Adding server/channel destinations, joining, parting, beeping on nick, it was all there, and more.

Instead of using gedit as my editor, I went with the default offering of Kate. Just as with Konversation, I found it to be a competent replacement, though I have to admit I miss the built in word count function gedit offers. I still prefer Gaim to Kopete for IM, but it is certainly usable.

My only real disappointment with the defaults came -- unfortunately -- in a mission-critical area: KDE's Mahjong game is butt-ugly. Luckily, I turned this shortcoming into an opportunity to check both openSUSE's KDE/GNOME compatibility and its software update functionality. Yast2 installed the GNOME Games package quickly, and there was my favorite Mahjongg with its gorgeous tiles.

Printing and file sharing

I have a HP6840 network printer on my LAN, and setting it up for use was a trivial task. I started Yast2, selected Hardware, Printer, and then followed the menus to install a network printer, entering the IP address of the printer, selecting make and model from drop down menus, and testing the connection and printing before clicking finish.

Then I decided to set up file sharing. Normally, I simply use SSH and secure copy (scp) to look around and/or copy files from one machine on the LAN to another, but the Network Folder option in openSUSE 10.2 looked inviting, so I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

In less than a minute, I had an icon on my openSUSE 10.2 desktop representing my home directory on my primary desktop box. Simply clicking the icon gives me a Konqueror file browser with complete access to whatever I need in the directory on the distant machine. I dragged and dropped the text for this review, for example, from Konqueror to the desktop, and continued writing it using Kate on the openSUSE box. A very nice feature that makes my LAN a more productive place to be.

Digital cameras

I've used two cameras with digiKam 0.8.2, the default photo management tool which not only imports the images but stores and displays them as well. It handled both the Kodak EasyShare Z740 and Canon Powershot A90 without a hitch, identifying both as soon as they were plugged in to a USB port.

Xgl and Compiz

Getting Xgl and Compiz installed and enabled was, for the most part, straightforward. Before I could make use of those packages, though, I needed to install the proprietary Nvidia driver. I took the easy way to get that driver installed and configured, as documented on the openSUSE site.

The helpful bot (suseHELP) on IRC didn't help a lot when it came to getting XGL and Compiz working, though. The documentation has not been updated for 10.2 as yet, at least for the KDE environment. Finally, I decided to install the Gnome version of the Compiz package (package name gnome-compiz) to see if it included the tools referenced in the docs. It did, and the mystical Desktop Effects as well.

Once I had all the necessary parts in place, it was a snap to get back to the land of quivering windows and 3-D cube. Compiz may not have all the bells and whistles that the Beryl Project does, but it does have the advantage of being stable. We recently reviewed the Beryl-Project and the reasons for its split from Compiz. While Beryl brings you burning windows, transpant cube, snowflakes, and a lot of other glitter, it is not a stable environment. Compiz delivers much of the bling, and is stable. The choice is yours.

Playing video

Out of the box, openSUSE doesn't support proprietary video codecs or encrypted DVDs. I added an unofficial repository or two in order to install MPlayer in all its glory so that I could watch Revolution OS from the Netflix DVD. By the way, you can find a list of third-party repos for openSUSE here.

To make a long story short, I have not yet been successful in playing the movie nor in watching streaming video with MPlayer. I'm still hunting for the mplayerplug-in package suitable for openSUSE 10.2. But I'm optimistic that both problems will be straightened out soon.

I've been told that if I got the Smart Package Manager, I could find such packages very easily, so that's another thing I'll be investigating in the next few days, though I have to admit that mixing not only a greater number of repositories but package managers does not sound that appealing.

Conclusion

Online updates are my only source of concern with openSUSE. Updates are slow at times, particularly during installation, and it seems to me that the repositories are not as reliable as they should be. Add to that the mysterious Update Error Message I found on the screen this morning, and it makes me think twice about replacing my Ubuntu Edgy production desktop with openSUSE 10.2. I think I'll give it another week or two before making that decision.

If your choice of distribution is driven by philosophy, religion, or politics rather than functionality, you might pass on openSUSE regardless of how good it is. That's a shame, too, because this is probably the best Linux desktop distribution I've ever seen: it's easy to install, look at, and to use. And if you have a mixed environment at home or work where it's necessary to peacefully coexist with Windows machines, it has no peer among leading Linux distros.

As for me, and I have precious little or no use at all for Windows, I'm seriously considering changing to openSUSE 10.2 on my primary desktop.

Category:

  • Linux
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