November 16, 2001

Review: SuSE 7.3 Personal: easy to love, hard to install

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -
For me, getting SuSE 7.3 Personal installed and running was a lot like having a baby -- it
was painful and took a long time. But baby, am I ever happy with the result.IANAC -- I am not a coder. IAAW -- I am a writer. And I'm not a hardware junkie, an overclocker, or a systems
administrator. I am SU -- Susie User. So if you're looking for benchmarks and lots of numbers and statistics, I apologize in advance.

I don't have time to play; I stuck with Mandrake 7.2 because it worked
for me. Mostly. But I kept hearing about the new KDE, and the new KOffice, and KMail and Konqueror -- and I
kept thinking, I've gotta get those, because KMail is my number one mail program, and the version I
was using had some irritating quirks -- like resurrecting deleted messages, pulling in new messages out of order, and just plain running slow.

I heard how Konqueror had made giant leaps in speed and rendering, and how KOffice was beginning to rival
other office suites. I knew I had to upgrade to a 2.4-based distribution. But neither Mandrake 8.0 or 8.1
would cooperate with a USB mouse. So I'd attempt an install, get frustrated and put 7.2 back on. I did
this four or five times, with 8.0, 8.1, mandrake-freq, and the traktopel beta. Cable connections are great
for that. Download the ISO in a couple of hours, and try it out. No commitment.

The installation

I was loyal to Mandrake because of its reputation for being "user-friendly." I considered SuSE, having always heard good things about it from my LUG friends, but the free download and installation process seemed
cumbersome and time-consuming because there were no ISOs. And yes, I was a little bit chicken. Besides, I can't afford to bring my system down even for a day. I have to be online; it's my job.

Then the editors of Linux Journal
gave the product of the year award to SuSE 7.3. Not just the "distro of the year," but the product
of the year. Had to try it. Because I still don't have time to play, I went to Best Buy and picked up the
boxed version of SuSE 7.3 Personal.

SuSE 7.3 Personal comes with three CDs and three manuals -- a quick installation guide, a configuration guide, and a applications manual with information about a wide range of programs that come with the distribution. All three are quite thin, not the unwieldy tomes that usually come packed with operating systems. Very un-intimidating. I dove right in.

It didn't take long to know there were going to be problems when right from the start of the install my USB mouse didn't work. With
Mandrake 8.x, I was fooled into thinking things were OK because the mouse worked during installation. Not so
with SuSE. I had to use "tab," "space" and "enter" instead of click, click and click. I might have thrown in
the towel at this point, except that sometimes determination overpowers common sense ... and then
there's the money. For me, and I suspect the same holds true for many of you, money tends to equal
commitment. It was only $39.99 plus tax, but that was enough to drum up the perseverance needed to make it
work.

The boxed version comes with free installation support, and I thought I was going to have to use it -- but I searched the knowledge base first like a good,
obedient customer. Funny how they try to encourage you to try to find the answer yourself. I'm sure most paying customers would not think to do this -- they probably don't even read the Web site, just pick up the phone. Good thing I have two computers; GUIs don't work well without mice -- I could have run
Lynx to search the knowledge base -- I just didn't want to. Using sneaker net, I was able to find the
information needed in order to "mknod" and "modprobe" my way to a working mouse. (note: SuSE took a look at my hardware configuration and suggested that next time I disable the unused onboard USB controller so it doesn't interfere with the PCI USB controller that the mouse is plugged into.)

What is the deal with X11 configuration? Maybe it's just me. I always cringe when it comes to that last part
of the install. It could have something to do with the fact that I never write down the settings that work.
I'm always so relieved when I finally figure them out, and I say to myself, "self, you need to write this
down
," or at least try to remember them -- but I never do. Setting up X11 with SuSE proved little different
-- except for a couple of added twists: there was no driver specific to my monitor, and no matter what I did,
the configuration would not "remember" that I wanted the display set at 1024x768. It kept reverting back to
640x480.

Here's how I got it fixed: When the first screen appears from the install CD, there are options across the bottom of the screen: [F1 -- 640x480] [F2 -- 800x600], etc. Yup. I chose the 1024x768 option, and from then on it worked just like I wanted it to. Odd, but I'll take it.

Living with it

SuSE 7.3 is gorgeous. You won't see any goofy, cross-eyed incarnations of Tux here. It's sleek and understated. The GUI defaults needed only a little bit of tweaking. For instance, the taskbar and icons were too large for my taste, and I didn't like the GNOME-like way it stacked the open windows in the taskbar. But that was easy enough to fix.

The default web browsers are Konqueror and Mozilla, and Netscape 6 is installed. Konqueror runs fast, renders quickly, and hasn't "krashed" yet after four days. I was impressed by how fast it opens and displays the /home/tina directory -- in Mandrake 7.2 and the old version of KDE, it took two or three times as long.

Yast, on the other hand, is slow to get started. Yast is SuSE's own control center, package manager, and configuration tool all rolled into one. Everything good you've heard about it is true -- it simplifies setup, updates, system checks, and administrative duties. Once you get it open, that is.

One thing I really like is the menu option to "install software package -- SuSE menu," which organizes packages according to the same tree under the "K" (start here) icon. So if I'm looking for an IRC client that didn't come installed by default (like KVIrc), I can look for it under the "install software package -- SuSE menu" before I go to the trouble of opening Yast or downloading it from the 'Net.

Disappointing: I still have had no success at getting my Lexmark Z52 to work with SuSE, and previously with Mandrake 7.2. It works with the Mandrake 8.0 that's installed on my laptop, with no fiddling necessary. I believe it's a matter of getting Ghostscript configured properly, and yes, it's a GDI printer.

A rank newbie is going to have some problems getting SuSE 7.3 Personal installed and configured. It makes me cringe to think how many people are picking this up off the shelf and expecting to just go home and load it up. Some things in SuSE 7.3 are so much easier -- like setting up a network card and configuring a cable or dialup connection. But the X11 configuration is going to stop many in their tracks. No wonder SuSE says it will take four days or so for them to reply to emailed support requests.

If the neophytes can persevere, however, they'll be richly rewarded with the excellence of SuSE 7.3 and KDE 2.2.1. This is one pretty baby, and so smart -- don't you want one of your own?

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