February 17, 2003

A Review of SuSE Linux Office Desktop

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
I was going to write a review of the new (and pricey - at $129.00) SuSE Linux Office Desktop, but Adam Doxtater of MadPenguin sent us his review (with permission to republish) before I had mine finished, and since he said almost exactly what I was going to say, we're running his review (below) instead of the one I was in the process of writing. Thanks, Adam.

If there is one thing I can say about SuSE Linux, it's that they know how to put together a desktop distro. This has been evident for quite some time, and nothing has changed. Their new Office Desktop release is built upon the solid foundation that is SuSE's desktop expertise.

I don't use SuSE as a desktop anymore, but I did for quite some time. It was for one reason that I decided to leave them for another OS: I wanted out of the RPM distro business. In a search to use a more raw version of Linux, I went to Gentoo, then Slackware, and then finally to VectorLinux. I still think SuSE is #1 as far as desktop distros are concerned, so don't get me wrong here. For one, I think SuSE's included package list cannot be beat as far as sheer quantity as well as diversity. Aside from being a Linux nut, I'm also a musician... which is why I turned to SuSE in the first place: Their distro came LOADED with digital recording and editing applications. No other distro does that to this day. SuSE will always be my first love.

Here are a few key features of SuSE Office Desktop:

Kernel 2.4.19 (or 2.4.19-4GB as uname reports it)
KDE 3.0.4
GNOME 2.0
StarOffice 6.0 (complete with Sun Java 1.4)
CrossOver Office
CrossOver Plugin
Acronis OS Selector

It also comes with a time-limited version of VMWare for Linux, which is quite literally a virtual PC that runs inside Linux and allows you to host multiple "virtual" systems. After all, I've always said that Windows runs best in a window.

The included Acronis OS Selector allows you to resize existing Windows 2000/XP partitions without data loss. This is especially helpful if you do not want to fully commit to Linux due to incompatible programs that will only run on the Windows platform.

Initial Impression

SuSE delivered their new offering to us via overnight airmail as soon as the code was released, and it came to us as we would have purchased it over the counter at Best Buy, CompUSA, or [insert favorite computer store here]. The box was solid and pretty heavy. I soon found out that 90% of the box's weight was due to the size of the manual that came with the distro... you have got to see this thing. It's 364 pages of pure Linux knowledge. SuSE has covered everything in this book from installation/configuration right down to CrossOver Office setup and use. This was a welcome sight, not necessarily for me, as I am pretty comfortable with Linux, but for new users this book will be invaluable. I must also say that the book is well written and definitely geared toward the newbie, without being overly simplified so as to sound redundant to the veteran Linux user. It was actually fun to browse through and I even learned a couple of new tricks in the process. This book makes the package well rounded and fun to use.

When I booted from the first CD, I noticed it looked like a rework of last years 8.1 Professional release (and by reading their PR material, it is). This is not to say they've just rehashed it, because they haven't... it just looks like they took 8.1 and made it better. It might be better referred to as SuSE Linux 8.2 as far as I'm concerned.

If you've ever used SuSE Linux, the setup routine is the same (as far as I could tell, anyway) as it has been for some time. Why change it? It remains one of the easiest Linux setups around. It is also easy on the eyes... as is with everything SuSE cranks out. They know how to design a visually appealing distro, and that's important. Why? Newbies will be more comfortable with a visually stunning desktop environment that also happens to be very easy to navigate and use.

The desktop is also very similar to that of SuSE 8.1 Professional. By default, you are escorted into KDM and are given you choice of desktop environments to launch. Like I said before, this distro comes with GNOME 2.0 and KDE 3.0.4 out of the box and both are armed to the teeth with applications to get you running within less than ten minutes. From my perspective, SuSE places a lot more emphasis on the KDE desktop than on GNOME, and that's fine. When I used to run SuSE as a workstation, I used GNOME and have to say it was one of the fastest GNOME implementations I've seen. All is not lost. SuSE has a history of paying attention to detail.

On The Desktop

I booted the machine into KDE to complete the review and accompanying screenshots. At first glance, I saw an Icon called "Assistant that caught my eye, so I launched it. What I got was a dialog that presented me with several tasks:

Install Microsoft applications
Install Microsoft plugins for the web browser (this is actually misspelled in the dialog as "webbrwoser"... they should fix that)
Share my directories with other users
Connect to shared directories in network
Setup a printer

This is a pretty handy tool. To start off things off, I gathered up my copy of Office 2000 Premium, popped it in the CDROM drive and clicked on Install Microsoft Applications. Immediately, CrossOver Office launched and walked me through the initial setup. When it was complete, I chose the Office 2000 installer option, it mounted the CD, and I was staring at the Welcome to Office Setup screen. It never ceases to amaze me, even though I know how it all functions, that Windows apps can run on Linux... let alone Microsoft apps. It makes me chuckle a little even now.

Office installed flawlessly and I tested all of the applications (Premium comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, Internet Explorer and FrontPage). All tested good except for FrontPage 2000. It opens but immediately dies. I immediately went to the Internet to see if this is was a known issue. It was. This is a problem with CodeWeaver's software, not SuSE Linux. All in all, I can't complain too much, but CodeWeavers should not be advertising a product that runs Microsoft Office out of the box. This is not a true statement. It only runs most of Microsoft Office applications. I would not purchase this product seperately from SuSE Linux for that reason. There are, in my opinion, better Linux counterparts to MS Office that are free. To SuSE's credit, though, it is a smart thing to package this whether it runs FrontPage or not. If your target audience is Windows users, you need to emulate Windows at all costs... and in most cases that will mean running Windows applications. I can appreciate that for what it's worth.

Next, I looked at the Install Microsoft plugins for the web browser. This launches the CodeWeavers CrossOver Plugin, which allows for Linux browsers to load Windows (specifically Internet Explorer) browser plugins. This product is worth it's weight in gold, or so to speak. In my opinion, this is CodeWeavers strongest product. With this installed, you will have the ability to run Windows media, QuickTime MOVs (see screenshot of QuickTime plugin playing a movie trailer from Apple's site), Shockwave, etc with your favorite Linux browser. You can view the full list of supported formats here.

Everything in this area works well, except I wasn't able to get Shockwave completely installed on the first pass. I had to delete the install files and restart the installation. After that, it worked great.

One problem I had with the whole CrossOver thing was that it plays havoc on the K menu. All of my MS Office apps were placed appropriately under Windows Applications in the K menu, while QuickTime under programs. This isn't really a huge issue... it still works, but it is annoying. Again, this cannot be rightfully blamed on SuSE. It's another CodeWeavers glitch.

99% of everything I tried on the test machine loaded with SuSE Office Desktop ran right out of the box with minimal effort, but it has it's flaws. Let me list them for you here...

CrossOver Office needs work - CodeWeavers needs to work on their product to get all of MS Office working before I would ever shell out a dime for it.
YaST Online Update - This is a great tool in theory, but I cannot get it to work to save my life. Even when I was using SuSE as my main workstation distro, I couldn't get it to work reliably. First, I would recommend that SuSE find some faster, more reliable mirrors for their updates. The current list is horrible. Most of the time, YaST will just hang searching for the update server. I know this isn't a connection problem on my end because I'm on a 3MB connection where everything downloads at the speed of light... and for YaST to search for twenty minutes and hang looking for a mirror is unacceptable.
Clean up the file system - The organization of the file system in SuSE is not normal. They have a strange way of organization inside the system that, while functional, is an irritation to someone familiar with the way Linux is normally laid out. This is no huge deal, just a tiny itch.
Clean up the menus - The K menu under KDE and the panel menu in GNOME are organized poorly. There is absolutely no need for an extra SuSE menu under each desktop. Though I am not really a fan, take a look at the way Red Hat has organized their menus. Everything should have its place in one location, not two or three. That's confusing. If I'm looking for Mozilla, for instance, I would expect to find it under Internet, not SuSE Menu | Internet.

Conclusion

All in all, SuSE has struck a home run with this release as they have with all of their other offerings (even though it has those few things that need to be tended to in my opinion). Setup and configuration are simple and painless, performance is excellent, and with the included commercial software it makes for an excellent migration solution.

Concerning the migration from Windows to Linux, we still have a long way to go before this is actually a viable option for most. This is not a flaw on the part of SuSE, but a matter of fact concerning Linux as a whole. What SuSE has to their credit is the ability to help bridge that divide as best as they can, and to make the transition across as smooth as possible. They do it well.

For $129.00 USD, it is more expensive than it's peers, but with the added software and support that comes with it, it makes for a valuable package and addition to any business. With the open licensing involved with Linux, node for node, it is also less expensive to purchase than Windows. I highly recommend this product to anyone running a small to medium-sized business looking to make the move to Open source software.

You can read more about SuSE Office Desktop at http://www.suse.com.

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Added in response to reader comment - Ed

The test platform

The machine I tested on was built by me (of course) and has pretty industry
standard parts. Needless to say, hardware detection was flawless. It even
picked up and installed my USB pen drive (actually this is more attribute to
the kernel than the OS, but I was happy just the same). Here is a listing of
the internals of the machine:

Abit KG7-RAID mobo
AMD Athlon XP 1600+
512MB PC2100 DDR RAM
NVIDIA QUADRO2 64MB DDR Video
SoundBlaster Live! 5.1 Platinum Sound (with LiveDrive)
3Com 905C 10/100 NIC
32x LG CDRW

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