November 26, 2007

openSUSE goes live

Author: Mayank Sharma

openSUSE is one of the most popular free-software-only distributions, and it's jointly developed by Novell and members of the community. In the first week of November the openSUSE developers released installable live versions of the distro's latest 10.3 release, one each for KDE and GNOME desktop environments. The live versions are replicas of their install-only cousins in terms of software, and apart from a few quirks, they seem set to replace the older versions soon.

openSUSE's current arsenal of releases include an install-only DVD, two installable live CDs, and two install-only CDs. The live CDs are currently available only for 32-bit hardware, whereas the install-only versions can power 64-bit and PowerPC computers as well. openSUSE 10.3 also distributes an add-on CD that packages several non-open-source software, such as the Opera Web browser, RealPlayer media player, and Acrobat PDF Reader. This CD is useful for saving bandwidth if you plan to install openSUSE 10.3 on multiple computers. If these permutations confuse you, use openSUSE's distribution selection interface to find the version that suits you.

Users will appreciate openSUSE's consistency across the releases. The installation screens across the live and install-only versions are almost identical. openSUSE 10.3's YaST installation program is simple to use and has enough information to guide new users through the various stages of installation. At the same time the installer is fully capable of tweaking the installation to meet expert users' needs. Apart from tinkering with the package selection and boot parameters, you can also add logical volumes or NFS partitions, and set up RAID 0, 1, 5, or encrypt the entire filesystem.

The only difference in the installer between the live and install-only CDs is the ability to add online software repositories during installation. In the install-only version, YaST allows you to add software from online repositories. This feature is missing from the installer bundled with the live versions, so you cannot install software from online repositories during installation, but you can do so once openSUSE is up and running.

For some reason the installer reads both FAT and NTFS Windows partitions on all my machines as Linux partitions. Another quirk is that the installer adds GRUB entries for all partitions, whether they have any operating system on them or not. It also incorrectly points to the Windows install as a Linux boot option.

While openSUSE doesn't actually change the partitions, it could confuse new users into formatting the wrong partition, especially if they're not used to Linux partition numbering. Partitioning is probably the most important aspect of installing a distro; there shouldn't be any bugs at this stage.

The live versions mimic the install-only versions in terms of appearance and software. In addition to GNOME 2.2.0 and KDE 3.5.7, all versions pack GIMP 2.4.1, OpenOffice.org 2.3.0, Firefox 2.0.0.6, and Pidgin 2.1.1. Of course, as with any other distribution, you can easily add new software from online repositories. Being a true community distro, openSUSE 10.3 allows you to enable third-party and community-supported and -maintained repositories as well for installing programs like VLC, GnuCash, Nvidia drivers, Google Linux apps, and hundreds more.

openSUSE has a clear and crisp desktop and includes the Novell variant of the KDE and GNOME menus, called Kickoff, which is designed to help users access common applications quickly. The customized GNOME menu is radically different from the traditional GNOME menu; if you're used to navigating through those menus, it could take you some time to get used to Kickoff. The customized KDE menu still has submenus, but instead of expanding to take up more screen space, submenus slide into the position of their parent menus.

On the hardware front, all versions of openSUSE 10.3, including the live CDs, work seamlessly on all my computers -- two Celeron laptops with clock speeds of 1.3GHz and 1.7GHz, and the two dual-core desktops, the 2.0GHz E4400 and the 1.8GHz E6300. openSUSE 10.3 is the first Linux distro that correctly identified and configured all components on my E6300 computer, which has Intel's DG965RY motherboard and a 19-inch wide-screen LCD monitor. Furthermore, openSUSE 10.3 detected all my USB devices (mice, portable disk drives, cameras) and a PCMCIA wireless card.

If you have PCMCIA wireless cards in your desktop box, openSUSE doesn't have any graphical utility for installing Windows drivers for cards that don't work in Linux natively. It does pack Ndiswrapper, but you have to install the drivers via the command line, and you can do this only after installing the distro. This means that if you are installing openSUSE on a machine that has a wireless card that runs only via Ndiswrapper, you can't install additional software from online repositories during installation.

I was impressed by the openSUSE 10.3 live CDs. If the developers can add the online repository install feature during installation from the live CD and iron out the partitioning and boot loader bugs, the installable live CDs will make good successors to the install-only CDs.

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