April 2, 2004

A quick look at the SUSE 9.1 beta

Author: Joe Barr

I was eager to get my hands on the newest version of SUSE Linux, the first version produced by the company under the Novell corporate umbrella. Like many others, I wondered how it would jell. SUSE has been a leading commercial proponent of the KDE desktop environment. Common wisdom the past few years has held that if you liked KDE, SUSE was your best bet. If Gnome was your choice, Red Hat was the best way to go. Prior to the SUSE purchase, Novell acquired Ximian, with its deep involvement with the Gnome project. Would KDE suddenly find itself a second class environment on the distro that loved it? Many feared that would be the case. What I learned with the beta should go a long way towards allaying those fears.Installation of the beta was a lengthy and slightly painful process. On my first try I tried to opt for Gnome instead of KDE as the desktop environment, but ran into dependency problems right away, so I abandoned that and stuck with the default installation. I say it was slightly painful because the fonts used by SUSE's YaST setup tool were so small that it hurt my old eyes to read them. On the plus side, the only question I was asked was whether to do a new install (replacing the existing Linux installation) or something more tricky. I went with the new install, meaning SUSE could have the whole disk to itself.

The default install took about an hour and a half on my 800MHz VIA-based test machine with 128MB of RAM, and required three CDs. Almost all the installed software came off the first CD, and it took almost an hour to read it. The SUSE 9.1 beta took much longer to install than any of the Debian-based distros I've recently reviewed on the same machine. I'm guessing that YaST takes more memory for itself than the Debian-based installers, leaving less available for copying data from CD to disk.

After everything had been loaded from CD, YaST detected and configured the network card. My first order of business after getting the Internet connection operational was to check for updates from SUSE. There were some, believe it or not.

SUSE 9.1's default desktop features a gorgeous mountain landscape, and the tweaks to KDE make it better-looking than other distros. Click on the image below to see a larger version. All in all it's a sharp-looking starting point. By the way, I captured that screen image using the GIMP 2.0, which has also had a nice facelift.

Exploring the obvious

With that big fat window beckoning, how could I shutter it without at least taking a look at what was inside? I clicked the link for the SUSE homepage. Konqueror whirred to life and shortly the SUSE US Web site appeared. Next I tried the SUSE Portal. This time I was whisked away to a page featuring a searchable knowledge base. Konqueror wanted to know if I would accept a cookie. I said, OK, but just this once. A pop-up ad for online romance appeared.

Next I tried the Installation Support. That appears to be where you can register your purchase and then get support for installation. I kept moving since I had no need to register the beta.

The last of the links in the info window was for the SUSE hardware database. This time I said no way, José, when the site tried to foist a cookie on me. I didn't get a pop-up ad this time, but a banner ad for eBay appeared.

Looking for Gnome in all the wrong places

It was obvious already that the default browser on my KDE desktop was Konqueror. I don't hate Konqueror, but I prefer Mozilla. I decided to see what email client had been set up for me. I clicked the email icon on the bottom panel and up came Kmail. The default choice for chat? Kopete. Don't get me wrong -- I think KDE is a very nice desktop environment. But I want my Gnome, and even more than I want my Gnome, I want my choice of apps: Evolution for email, xchat for IRC, and Mozilla for browsing. Time to go to work.

Starting YaST and clicking its Install & Remove Software icon was a snap. I wasn't sure what packages to install to get a working Gnome desktop. First I tried the Gnome 2.x Desktop default settings for SUSE -- no joy. Then I tried Evolution. That brought up a long list of Gnome dependencies that I hoped would produce Gnome itself. No luck. Finally I selected gnome-libs and gnome-session. Hooray!

Those last two items (probably just gnome-session) finally allowed me to select Gnome as the session-type at login. I was home again. Never mind that Gnome whined about the lack of being able to resolve Linux; it loaded and ran. Now I could log into IRC and brag to all my buds about being on the SUSE beta. But xchat still wasn't around. I tried to start YaST in order to install it, but it failed because of a missing dependency.

I logged out and back in under KDE. I tried to use YaST to install the missing component (gnomesu), but it was nowhere to be found. I installed xchat while I was in KDE/YaST, then logged out and back in again under Gnome.

Conclusion: likes and dislikes

OK, so things didn't work perfectly. That's fine. This is a beta. Bugs are expected. Work will be done before it goes gold. Most of the problems I ran into were the result of trying to swim upstream by using Gnome instead of KDE. I expect the glitches will be gone by the time SUSE 9.1 ships. That said, there were still a couple of things I didn't care for.

I find having ads forced on me while I am registering or seeking tech support offensive and in poor taste. Novell should think long and hard about the community it is attempting to get in bed with before pursuing such mercenary plans.

The next least favorite thing for me was the dumbing down of menus to a single choice of application, especially when I found myself disagreeing with the choice in almost every instance. Oh, and before I forget, that tiny font size -- maybe there is a way to change it but I never found it -- used for the install? Truly a horrible experience to subject less than perfectly sighted users to.

I like the work SUSE has done to make things look nice, and I'm very hopeful that before she ships SUSE 9.1 will be as Gnome-friendly as it is KDE-friendly. A leading distro like SUSE should offer users their choice, without shortchanging one or the other.

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