May 24, 2006

Review: SUSE 10.1

Author: Joe Barr

Novell released SUSE 10.1 -- the distro once known as OpenSUSE -- this month after an extensive public beta that went through five public and two closed release candidates before being deemed worthy. Here's my take on the final version of SUSE 10.1.

I installed SUSE 10.1 on a desktop system and a laptop. Installation was fairly normal for a modern Linux distribution, easy-as-pie in the full default mode if you're not concerned with partitioning or dual-booting, and not difficult even if you are. I ran into a bump in the road during installation on both machines: a small bump on the desktop and a more pronounced one on the laptop. Both bumps had to do with hardware compatibility.

The desktop machine is a locally built "white-box" unit made up of an MSI K8 mainboard with an AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3200+, 1GB of memory, Maxtor 160GB Ultra ATA133 7200RPM 8MB disk drive, Hitachi GDR8162B CD/DVD ROM drive, and a Logitech USB/PS2 optical rodent. I used the on-board Nvidia video, sound, and Ethernet components provided on the MSI mainboard.

The only hiccup during installation came when I tried to install using a previously untested Microsoft Digital Media Pro USB keyboard. The BIOS could see the keyboard during power-up, but the kernel could not, so I went back to my Micro Innovations PS2 keyboard.

Since this is my test machine, I have the Maxtor hard drive divided into three primary partitions to house different distributions, plus a swap partition. To coax SUSE 10.1 to lay itself down on the first partition without disturbing the other two, I had to select Custom partitioning and point it at the proper partition. I added mount points for the other two partitions to make them accessible to me while running SUSE 10.1. The default filesystem is ReiserFS, and I let that choice stand for the install.

I enabled OpenSSH and left the firewall up during network configuration. The installer correctly identified all the on-board components, including the MCP51 Ethernet controller, and demonstrated that by successfully connecting to the Internet and configuring the online update function. The only update available at the time was a security fix for Opera.

In just over half an hour, SUSE 10.1 was ready for business on the desktop machine.

The default desktop

SUSE's default GNOME desktop shows a sky blue abstract image with two lone icons: one for my home directory and one for the trash. A panel located along the bottom contains contains three clickables on the left: one is called Applications, the next is Places, and the third is Desktop. Applications is where you'll find all the programs that you'd want to use. Places allows you to do things like open the file explorer in predetermined places, like your user home directory, or the desktop. You can also display network servers found on your LAN, connect to a server, search for files, or clear recent documents. Desktop is the GNOME menu equivalent of clicking Start in order to stop the system on Windows. Click it and you can log off to change users, reboot, or shutdown, as well as take a snapshot of the desktop, get help, configure the desktop, or start YaST, openSUSE's management application.

On the right side of the panel, openSUSE has icons for online updates, volume control, video display info, local search, and the date/time display.

Applications, anyone?

SUSE has always provided a ton of apps with its distributions. OpenSUSE 10.1 is well stocked, too, thus explaining why the full distribution takes five CDs or a DVD to hold it all. Here's what I saw on a quick trip down the default application menu tree, which is only a small fraction of the available applications.

There are menu sections for Games, Graphics, Internet, Multimedia, Office, System, Utilities, and Help. Games has submenus for Action, Arcade, Board, Card, Puzzle, and Tactics and Strategy. Highlights include Frozen Bubbles, Super Tux, and Free Civ.

Graphics includes the GIMP, the F-Spot photo handler, XSane, Inkscape, Draw, and a new drawing program I haven't seen before called Skencil.

Internet choices include Gaim and XChat, Evolution, two RSS readers, GnomeMeeting and Linphone for VOIP, Pan for newsreading, and browsers Epiphany, Firefox, and Konqueror.

Multimedia has Banshee and Sound Juicer, GNOME CD-DVD Creator, CD Database Server, and Kino to edit videos. Sound tools include both a sound monitor and a sound recorder. Video playback can be handled by Totem, and Vanity is offered as a webcam utility.

The Office section has everything, including a database, dictionary, PDF viewer, flow-charting tools, a project planner, Gnumeric and OOo Calc for spreadsheet chores, and of course Impress for presentations and Writer for word processing.

System contains choices for configuration, desktop applets, documentation, feedback, file manager, filesystem, monitors (more than 20 of them), more programs, network, remote access, terminals, and YaST.

And finally, the Utilities section offers tools for archiving, calculator, nine different tools for configuring the desktop, four different editors, three tools for controlling print and fax, and a Bluetooth manager for your phone.

Making it yours

Click to enlarge

I don't know anyone who sticks with the default menu choices; I certainly don't. The first thing I did was add the apps I use all the time. That was as easy as finding them in the Applications menu tree, then right-clicking on them and selecting Add to Panel.

But with this release, I wanted to do more. For instance, I wanted to try bleeding-edge apps such as Glx and Compiz. We first wrote about the 3-D magic they bring to the desktop in our review of Korokaa. Here's how I got them running on 10.1 with GNOME and an Nvidia video card. It's not a trivial process, but just take it one (well-documented) step at a time and you'll get there.

  • Read about Xgl.
  • Read about using Xgl on SUSE Linux.
  • Install the kernel-source, make, and gcc packages with YaST.
  • Install the Nvidia driver.
  • Install the Xgl, Compiz, libsvg-cairo, and libsvg packages.
  • Configure /etc/sysconfig/displaymanager to use Xgl.
  • Configure Compiz.

Note that SUSE also has separate instructions for configuring Xgl to work with ATI cards and KDE, as well as Nvidia and the GNOME desktop.

One of the coolest features included with SUSE 10.1, if you've installed Glx and Compiz, that is, is the new GNOME Control Center dialog for Desktop Effects. You can do some pretty amazing things here, beginning with enabling or disabling the 3-D desktop. Beyond that, you can:

  • Make windows wobble when moved.
  • Make window edges "sticky" when moved.
  • Make window edges translucent when moved.
  • Make windows wobble then they appear.
  • Make windows fade when they are closed.
  • Zoom windows to/from taskbar as minimized or maximized.
  • Change window opacity in real time.
  • Define number of sides to the
    3-D desktop cube
  • Set control for flipping cube.
  • Enable window sorter/organizer.
  • Set control for desktop zoom.
  • Enable desktop rain.
  • Adjust rain from "chance of showers" to "downpour."

Honest, I'm not making those settings up. I offer as proof the following tabs (tab 1, tab 2, and tab 3) from the 3D-Effects Settings of the GNOME Control Center.

Naturally, such magic can be used either for good or for evil. I do not recommend taunting Windows or Mac users sitting next to you on a long flight, as you open your laptop and throw your colors before their incredulous, "still waiting for Vista" faces.

In fact, the only real use I've found for all this desktop alchemy so far is the zoom function, which is something my tired old eyes have been longing for. I've got mine set to zoom in on Ctrl-Mouse3. I had to change it from its default of the "Super" key, because I didn't know which key that is. I'm told that normally, it's right next to the "any" key, but I couldn't find that either.

SUSE 10.1 plays well with others

No desktop is an island, so I decided to test SUSE 10.1's ability to reach out and touch other devices from the desktop. First up was my Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 6840 wireless network printer. I used YaST to install it, and in about a minute was printing test pages from across the LAN.

I expected the second test to be more of a challenge for SUSE, but it rose to the occasion. I plugged my Canon Powershot A95 camera into a USB port on the front of the desktop box and was immediately greeted by a pop-up window asking if I wanted to import photos from the recently detected camera. I chose yes, and F-Spot started up, downloaded thumbnails of all the images on the camera, and allowed me to pick the ones I wanted to import. If only everything in the world of personal computing worked so easily and seamlessly, I'd be a happy camper.

The last test involved my iPod Nano. I plugged it in and it was immediately detected, just as the camera had been. Banshee, the music player, started up, which was a slight annoyance since that's not why I connected the Nano to the box. I run Rockbox on the iPod, and when I connect it to my computer it is either to install a newer version of the firmware or to add music to the iPod. It's never to play music from it or to synchronize the iPod and my computer. A quick peek in the GNOME Control Center, and I found Music Players under Removable Drives and Media -> Multimedia. After unchecking Play Music, Banshee no longer pops up when I connect the Nano.

SUSE 10.1 on the laptop

While the desktop machine's purpose in life is testing, my IBM T40 laptop is a production workhorse. I take it shows and conferences in order to submit stories and pictures, and generally stay in touch via the Internet. Other than taking a little bit longer than the desktop install, installation of openSUSE 10.1 with KDE on the laptop went just as smoothly as the installation on the desktop. There was a more serious hiccup on the laptop, however. The installer did not correctly recognize the T40's built-in wireless adapter.

The onboard IBM 82801DB PRO/100 Ethernet controller and the Intel PRO Wireless LAN 21003B PCI adapter were detected during the install, but the Intel wireless adapter was identified as an Ethernet connection instead of as a wireless device. Manually changing the type to Wireless in YaST did no good.

I resolved the problem after asking about it in the #opensuse IRC channel at -- which, by the way, is not the right place to ask for support. The right place is the #suse channel on the same network; #opensuse is for developers working on the project. I got lucky, however, and one of the developers tipped me toward some packages not included in the 10.1 distribution release but available online. I was told to add a site as an installation source in YaST, and then to install the ipw-firmware package. In the end, I also had to install the ipw3945d and wlan-kpw-default packages, but once I added those, everything worked just as it should.

The applications selected as defaults for a KDE installation are different than those for GNOME: Digikam for photos instead of F-Spot, Kooka for scanning instead of XSane, no drawing apps other than OpenOffice draw, and so on. Most of the differences have to do with using a standard KDE tool rather than a best-of-breed choice.

Luckily for me, and others in the "one size does not fit all" crowd, it is a trivial process to replace default tools with those you wish the developers had chosen in the first place, whether that means putting K3b in the GNOME menu or XChat in the KDE menu.

I re-tested the Canon A95 and the iPod Nano with the laptop. As soon as the camera was connected, KDE detected it and offered a menu of five or six choices, one of which was to start Digikam. I selected that one, then configured it by adding the camera -- the auto-detection identified it for me -- setting up a folder to hold the images, and downloading the images. It took a few more clicks than needed on the desktop, perhaps, but it was a smooth and satisfactory experience nonetheless. Ditto with the iPod, except that instead of starting an unwanted music player, KDE offered me the choice of doing nothing or opening a Konqueror view of the contents of the device.

Zen flesh, Zen bugs

According to the site, SUSE 10.1 has a new package manager resolver called libzypp, which is a combination of the best of YaST2 and Ximian Red Carpet. Or it will be, once it gets fixed. I thought it strange there were no updates after a week, and learned on IRC that it's broken. It runs under the name of ZenUpdater if you use the GUI version, or by the name of rug if you prefer a command-line tool. Both versions of this application, the GUI and the CLI, are written in Mono, so the same executable apparently can run on both Windows and Linux machines. Though I can't swear to that, I can testify to the fact that seeing ZenUpdater.exe and rug.exe appearing in the output from running ps ax is a startling experience.

The bug -- whatever and wherever it is -- is probably the reason that I haven't seen any security updates available since the day I installed 10.1.


SUSE 10.1 is an incremental improvement over its predecessors, but many users will experience Glx sight-effects on their own desktop for the first time with 10.1, so for them, 10.1 will be anything but incremental: it'll be incredible.

At least at first it will be. Glx's spinning-cube, translucent, quivering windows grow tiresome after awhile. But geeks like bright and shiny things, so I'm predicting a big surge in the popularity of openSUSE as a result of this release, bugs and all.

With SUSE 10.1, Novell has embraced and extended its role as the leading desktop distribution. Given the amount of eye-popping eye candy and playtime 3-D effects available on this desktop, it's easy to forget that Novell is all about bringing Linux to the corporate -- not the home -- desktops. Yes, the money is all in the server market these days, but after the revolution Linux will inherit its rightful share of desktops, too.

Novell competitor Red Hat ignores investing in the desktop because there isn't any money to be made there -- yet. That's probably a wise call, because I don't believe they have the talent or the passion to match Novell's desktop magic: David Reveman's amazing work on Xgl and Compiz, and the Ximian crew Novell acquired prior to buying SUSE. When the barriers to the corporate desktop finally come tumbling down, openSUSE will be in position to lead the charge.


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