May 8, 2003

SuSE 8.2 -- better than Mandrake for new users?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

I have been using SuSE Linux 8.2 Professional for two weeks now, and it is as close to Linux desktop perfection as I have found so far. (I know I'm not the first to say this, but I figure saying it one more time can't hurt.) This doesn't mean it's totally perfect, and my experience is on one particular laptop and may not be duplicated on your hardware, but this is the first SuSE version I have actually liked -- and the first one I've kept on my "production" machine for any length of time.The laptop I'm currently using is a Toshiba Satellite 1410-S173 that came preloaded with Windows XP Professional. I decided to keep a small Windows partition around so I could use Explorer to check OSDN sites in that browser, just in case we have a reader or two who hasn't yet discovered the many fine features Mozilla offers that Explorer doesn't.

Since I wanted to keep XP around, my first task was to resize the NTFS partition on my hard drive down to about one-third of its original (full disk) size. This was a one-click, no-hassle operation, same as in Mandrake 9.1. Both SuSE and Mandrake have managed to transform dual-boot partitioning for Windows 2000 and XP from a problem into something so routine it is hardly worth mentioning. Good.

The next stage was the install itself. It was uneventful. I selected "default" all the way. When presented with screens that asked me if I wanted to set up things like my video card, monitor, and network, I simply clicked "autodetect" and sat back. Everything autodetected, including my SMC wireless network card and Epson 777i printer. The built-in (Win)Modem was the only device that was not set up automatically. There are supposedly ways to get it going, but I own several PCMCIA modems that work fine under Linux without any thought whatsoever, so I'll leave the Linmodem work for another time -- assuming I ever get around to it.

I automatically downloaded package updates when asked if I'd like to do that, and they downloaded and installed themselves, no problem, including -- and this is a very nice touch -- Microsoft TruType fonts, which most Linux distributions can't package directly because of licensing restrictions.

The one update package that gave me a problem was the 3D NVidia driver SuSE thought would work better with my laptop then the generic 2D one installed from the packaged CDs. It didn't. In fact, after it installed, on my first reboot X wouldn't run. I immediately backed off from that change after restarting in "failsafe" mode.

That was it for the basic install. Sound and printer, check. Popular Mozilla plugins installed automatically, check. Lots of nice fonts, check. Nice, up-to-date KDE, check.

In fact, I didn't even need to dick around solving a well-known keyboard bug that afflicts most Toshiba laptops; unlike Mandrake 9.1 (and earlier SuSE versions, and apparently all other distros), it never reared its head at all with SuSE 8.2, which I appreciated.

And so, to work

Well... almost. If I was a new -- or even possibly an ordinary experienced Linux user --v I'm sure I would have been entirely satisfied with OpenOffice and Mozilla 1.2.1 and the basic KWrite editor. But I'm picky, and finicky, and spoiled, and there are certain packages I like to use out of habit if for no other reason.

The first SuSE default package I didn't like was Mozilla 1.2.1. It's just about as good as 1.3 for everyday use in most ways, but I dearly love the spam filter in 1.3, and once having tasted it, courtesy of Mandrake 9.1, I wasn't going to give it up. I found no "official" SuSE Mozilla 1.3 package, so I was forced to root around online for a generic Moz 1.3 to download, which wasn't all that hard; one minute after I started looking for one on Google I was happily downloading and installing a nice Moz 1.3 RPM.

I was impressed with how easily SuSE's YaST2 installed this "foreign" RPM and set it up in SuSE's "linker cache," which some purists deride as a knockoff of Microsoft's much-despised Windows Registry, but which seems to work fine for me. I have not been totally satisfied with earlier versions of SuSE's YaST administration tool including the one included with SuSE 8.1, which I couldn't get to work right in many ways), but the version of YaST in 8.2 has done everything I've asked of it without complaining. The few functions that weren't clear to me looking at the screen were explained clearly in both the online documentation and the paper manuals that came in my boxed set, which are the best and most complete distro-produced user and admin Linux guides I have ever seen.

Bottom line: I got everything installed and set up the way I wanted it without any major problems -- except for one thing that won't affect you unless you have a newish laptop, namely that I haven't been able to get the battery monitor to work correctly, and I haven't been able to find any information that helped me correct this problem even though I looked in the manuals and SuSE's online support base. It is not a big deal, since I am AC-connected 99% of the time, I get my laptop's full, rated battery life of a little more than two hours, the screen blanks and restores correctly (which did not happen on this laptop with Mandrake 9.1), and with a journaling filesystem, an unexpected shutdown is no big deal. Both Mandrake and Knoppix seem to interact correctly with this laptop's power management. I'm disappointed that SuSE doesn't. But on the other hand, I'm happy that the Toshiba "key bounce" problem didn't appear with SuSE. I suppose I should count my blessings... including the fact that SuSE automatically gave me a desktop icon that gives me one-click access to all my Windows XP files. In my case this is a "So what?" since I don't use Windows (except, as mentioned above, for MSIE tests), but for those of you who have important files in Windows you may want to access from Linux, this is a nice little feature.

Menus and desktop appearance

I don't like the way SuSE groups applications in its default menu structure. Come to think of it, I don't really like the way Mandrake and other distributions do it, either. I always end up customizing my menus like mad. KDE has made this "once a chore" task super-simple in 3.x, which I appreciate. Just right-click on the menu icon in the panel, click on "Menu Editor," and it's pretty self-explanatory.

Once I got my menus set up to my taste, and made a few other personal desktop modifications, like pretty wallpaper and putting icons for frequently-used applications on my bottom-of-the-screen panel, I didn't need to change anything else. My desktop was -- and still is - exactly the way I want it, and it took a minimum of fuss to get it that way.

Daily use

The highest compliment I can pay SuSE 8.2 here is that I don't notice it while I'm working. I read and reply to email in Mozilla Messenger (refreshingly spam-free with 1.3), I write online articles -- like this one -- in Bluefish, I use OpenOffice to deal with the MS Office-format material I must deal with as part of my work, I browse the Web with Mozilla while listening (more often than not) to my favorite MP3s with XMMS through the high-powered Altec external speaker system I have plugged into my laptop. I get and send instant messages through GAIM, and participate in IRC with XChat. I use my USB printer without thinking about it; I click "print" and I get paper output through CUPS, no sweat except for one little trick, which this is a good time to clarify.

Printing with CUPS from Mozilla and StarOffice

I mentioned that I downloaded and installed a "non-SuSE" Mozilla. I also installed a copy of StarOffice 6.0 I had around because it has slightly better filters (and more templates) than OpenOffice.

Both of these aps are set up to print through good old lpr, not the CUPS system that's now the default in SuSE, Mandrake, and some other distributions.

But changing that default to CUPS is literally the work of five seconds. All you need to do is click around in the "print setup" or "print preferences" section of the application that won't print until you find something that looks like "Print Command," followed by a little window with something like "lpr" followed by some text in it.

Highlight and delete that text.

Now, without closing that window, make some space on your screen so you can see the "printer" icon on your (KDE) desktop, and right-click it. From the menu that'll appear, click "preferences," then click "execute." You'll see a line marked "Command" that has a window containing something like this:

/opt/kde3/bin/startprint %u

You can paste this line into that "Print Command" space in your application, and suddenly you'll be printing away, no problem, without even having to log in as root to make this little change.


I'm trying to think of any other tricks that might make SuSE 8.2 easier for you to use, but I doubt that you'll need any unless you're going beyond standard desktop applications, and if you spend a bit of time rooting around either in the SuSE manuals or in their extensive (and easily searched) online knowledge base you'll almost certainly find an answer to any question you may have.

The one thing I'm finding it a little hard to adjust to after years of other distributions is looking in /opt for applications I'm used to seeing in /usr/lib/. If you're a "point and click" desktop Linux user, this isn't going to affect you, and if you're a command line genius you'll figure it out in a second. And, of course, if you're somewhere in between these two states of grace, you have SuSE's fine documentation to help you.

Will you like SuSE 8.2?

I can't really answer this question. Dennis E. Powell, who runs the Linux and Main Web site, doesn't like SuSE 8.2 at all.

Sometimes I wonder if it's all just hardware roulette; that if the distribution you install happens to detect and set up your hardware correctly you'll be happy, and if it doesn't you won't be.

All I can say, personally, is that SuSE 8.2 seems to do what I expect it to do without a lot of fuss, and that the few, small problems I had with installation and setup were due to my own software finickiness, not SuSE flaws -- and that I was able to solve all the important ones easily by reading SuSE's documentation.

I find SuSE 8.2 easy enough to install that I have no trouble recommending it to new Linux users, although it might be a good idea to check SuSE's hardware database to make sure your gear is compatible before you put a lot of effort into an installation that may or may not work.

(Actually, this is good advice for any hardware/operating system combination.)

The one big problem with SuSE -- and the reason you need to check hardware compatibility before you buy -- is that the complete SuSE package, including YaST, is not available as an ISO download you can try for free. If you're not 100% sure SuSE is going to run properly on your hardware, you may want to play with it at a LUG meeting or installfest before you purchase a copy.


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