November 13, 2003

Review: SuSE Linux 9

Author: Pete White

SuSE Linux 9, the latest release from Nuremberg, Germany-based SuSE Linux, was released at the end of last month. I put SuSE Linux Professional through its paces, and found it to be the most user-friendly Linux distribution on the market. It's not a "must" update for users of previous versions, but it does have some nice perks.

The differences between Linux distributions have been getting bigger in recent years, in terms of which packages are included and where files are located. SuSE 9 closes the gap in certain areas by complying with standards such as the File System Hierarchy Standard (FHS) and the Linux Standard Base (LSB).

Installation of SuSE 9 is very simple. The installer is almost the same as it has been in the last few releases, making it easy for those who have used SuSE before or who are upgrading from a prior version. For those who have not installed SuSE Linux before the installer asks a minimal amount of questions and assumes the rest. You can change certain settings before you start the installation; I added more packages to the basic selection that the installer had chosen.

One of the new installer features is the ability to resize NTFS partitions, the file system most Microsoft Windows machines use as a default. Once you are happy with all your settings, from languages to the boot loader, the installer begins its work. It took around 45 minutes to copy all the packages I selected, including KDE, multimedia, games, and basic development and networking tools, from the DVD (or 5 CDs if your computer doesn't have a DVD drive); had I gone for a more basic installation it would have taken less time.

The first time you reboot you see a nice SuSE loading screen which takes you on to set up your hardware and user accounts. In total, the installation took just over an hour. Almost all of my hardware was detected and set up, apart from my printer which was detected but not supported. All of my existing data and Windows installation remained intact.

Making it work

When I was first introduced to Linux four years ago at work I was told that installing Linux was the easy part, configuring Linux to do what you want it to do was the killer. This changed in SuSE some time ago with the introduction of YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool). SuSE 9 builds on YaST's modules and includes better configuration for Samba and a variety of server setups.

One problem came when I tried to play an MP3 music file. No sound would come out of my speakers, though I could play CD audio fine. I played around with some values for my sound card setup in YaST. When I disabled the support for DXS channels all sound worked fine. While it was a bit annoying that it didn't work in the first place, without the help of YaST it would have taken me a lot longer to work out the problem.

YaST has built-in online update, which installed Nvidia drivers for me so that I could get Unreal Tournament 2003 and its mods working. This went smoothly and it wasn't long before I had the game running at top spec, which is more than what I could do in Windows.

In debugging some of my problems, I discovered SuSE's new Web support portal, which provides better support than the previous site did.

A new feature for SuSE 9 is auto login, something Mandrake has had for quite a while. This just automatically logs you into the default windows manager with the default account when you turn on the computer instead of displaying a login window. Its the sort of thing you either love or hate. For my personal PC it's great not having to log in every time, but at work it can be a security hazard. Luckily it can be disabled.

Day-to-day use

SuSE 9 seems to run a lot smoother than 8.2. It recovers from errors better and menus are more organized. Whether this is a result of the underlying kernel or more stable programs, it makes running Linux a lot easier. Graphically SuSE 9 looks a lot nicer too. Grub has a smooth loading bar and a similar bar is displayed when booting SuSE.

SuSE claim to have an accelerated boot process in the new version, but it didn't seem any faster than 8.2. SuSE liked my external hard drive; I could turn it on and the operating system would automatically mount it and put an icon on the KDE desktop. Accessing Windows files on my external hard drive's FAT32 file system was fine; the rest of my main drive is NTFS, however, so write access is disabled. While I could enable writing it is not recommended.

Though I have Linux installed I still use Windows for some things -- games, for instance -- so I like to try to make the two OSes as similar as possible so that moving between them is easier. For instance, in both operating systems I use Mozilla Firebird and Thunderbird for Web browsing and email, Gaim as my instant messenger, and for word processing. Firebird and Thunderbird are not part of SuSE's default installation, but they were easy to add.


What makes SuSE Linux 9 different from other friendly Linux distributions such as Lindows and Xandros is that it is highly configurable and gives users much more than just a Web browser and office suite. SuSE's closest rival is Mandrake, as both provide similar packages. In my view SuSE has a slight advantage with its configuration tools and good support. I also find that its easier to find RPMs for SuSE than for Mandrake.

SuSE 9 is basically a big update to all the software packages that it comes with. This release adds a few new features to the OS, such as auto login, NTFS resizing, system recovery, and more documentation. But it also fails to solve some problems that were in 8.2, such as a conflict between Glib 2 and GTK 2, which meant I couldn't compile Gaim and some other programs. I would have liked to have seen such more support for DivX and Xvid codecs, so that I could play more videos without having to download codecs from the Internet. However, all in all, SuSE 9 is a nice improvement on what we have come to expect from SuSE.

SuSE Linux Personal edition retails for $40 and SuSE Linux Professional costs $80. SuSE Linux Professional for the 64-bit AMD64 platform retails for $120.

Pete White is a student studying Computer Science at Coventry University UK. He is keen on Linux and open source and runs his own Web site.


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