Free Agent: Leaping Lizards, It's SUSE Linux

SUSE Linux 10.0 is the latest edition of a venerable Linux distribution that Novell took under its wing nearly two years ago. SUSE has always been known for including everything but the kitchen sink--like previous versions, SUSE 10.0 comes on five CDs, compared to Ubuntu Linux's one--and for its extremely comprehensive YAST setup and configuration tool set. (YAST stands for "Yet Another Setup Tool," because geeks just can't get enough silly acronyms.) In SUSE 10.0, not only has Novell included all the latest Free Software goodies, but it's changed its release strategy: SUSE Installation CDs are available as a free download for the first time. The news is good all around.

I've been playing around with the boxed edition of SUSE Linux 10.0, but Novell representatives assure me that the Evaluation edition available for download through OpenSUSE.org is the same product, complete with proprietary extensions (such as Java, Flash, and RealPlayer) that other distributions tend to leave off their freely downloadable editions.

Despite its name, the Evaluation edition is unrestricted--it won't time out on you or anything like that. Here's what you don't get if you decide not to shell out the $60 for the box: a 275-page startup guide that's very nicely done; five CDs and one DVD emblazoned with the SUSE mascot, a lizard named Geeko; a beautiful green cardboard box, also sporting the image of Geeko; and installation support via e-mail, Web, or telephone. These bells and whistles are probably most useful to Linux newcomers, while the gearheads that SUSE seems to be targeting can most likely do without them.

The YAST-driven installation process is a natural evolution of previous SUSE installers--still detailed and rather geared toward folks who know a thing or two about their hardware. If you're going to leave Windows on your drive and set up a dual-booting system, you probably also need to know a thing or two about partitioning: Although online help is available at every stage during the installation, it's relatively technical stuff. Newbies are unlikely to feel comfortable.

Choose a Desktop

Early in the installation you'll be asked to choose between the Gnome and KDE desktop environments. At this point in the process, there's no option to select both; but at a later stage, you can let the installer know if you want both desktops installed. In my testing, pursuing that route met with very mixed results: There was a significant amount of bleed-through from one desktop to another. The most annoying example was that when I logged into KDE, nonfunctional, Gnome-specific icons appeared on the desktop, and similar KDE-centric icons were missing.

In fact, even if you only install the Gnome desktop, you still end up with a bit of a desktop melange: A few KDE apps are scattered throughout the Applications menu; and where Gnome users expect to see a Help entry in the Desktop menu, there's a "SUSE Help Center" command that calls up the KDE Help Center, which has been stocked with both Gnome and KDE documentation. This is a little bizarre, and it suggests to me that the distribution remains pretty KDE-centric, despite parent company Novell's emphasis on the Gnome desktop.

Geeko sez, "I am the Lizard King; I can do anything!"
Geeko sez, "I am the Lizard King; I can do anything!"
The installation process might astonish you when it completes without a single reboot. (Why can't Microsoft learn that trick?) After you log into the desktop environment of your choice, you'll find a clean interface containing just a few icons--none of them for ads or special offers--and, of course, desktop wallpaper depicting Geeko. If you don't want to stare at the Lizard King all day (apologies to Jim Morrison fans), you'll be happy to find a set of beautiful nature photographs built-in as wallpaper alternatives. That's not exactly a crucial feature, but a very nice touch.

SUSE 10.0's Gnome is version 2.12, the same version included in the Breezy Badger edition of Ubuntu Linux, which I covered in prerelease form in my September column. As I said then, 2.12 is the best Gnome yet, with several key improvements to the Nautilus file manager. The only piece I found missing from SUSE's default Gnome is a full-featured CD-burning application, such as GnomeBaker or Graveman.

On the KDE side, we've got version 3.4.2, which is attractive and speedy. I'm not a KDE fan, but Konqueror, the desktop's hybrid file manager and Web browser, has grown so slick and versatile that it makes me wonder what I'm giving up by computing with Gnome all the time. With both desktops, I was able to browse the Windows network here at PC World without any futzing at all--an unusual luxury that I'm hoping will spread to other distributions.

Neither Konqueror nor Mozilla Firefox, the default Web browser on SUSE's Gnome desktop, is set up to handle rich media other than Flash and RealPlayer files. This is a serious disappointment. With quite a bit of work, I've gotten my Ubuntu machines to seamlessly handle all sorts of streaming media, including the holy grail of online videos: the movie trailers at Apple's site. This sort of functionality should exist first thing out of the box if you're parting with three minimal ATM withdrawals. At that price, all batteries should be included.

OpenOffice.org version 1.9.125 (a very late prerelease version of version 2.0) is on board, and is as beautiful and stable and slow to load as it is on any other Linux distribution. In other words, it's quite beautiful, quite stable, and painfully slow to load. You can easily upgrade to the just-released OpenOffice.org 2.0 via SUSE's YAST Online Updater.

The "/etc/sysconfig Editor" entry in the YAST Control Center gives you an idea of the geeky target audience for SUSE 10.0.
The "/etc/sysconfig Editor" entry in the YAST Control Center gives you an idea of the geeky target audience for SUSE 10.0.
Where some user-friendly Linux distributions--Linspire, Ubuntu, and Xandros, for example--take a "less is more" approach to keep users from experiencing application and configuration overload, SUSE, true to its roots, definitely takes a "more is more" approach. Your Applications menu will overflow with entries, especially if you install both desktops. And the YAST Control Center, SUSE's all-inclusive control panel, contains more than eighty modules. If you're a hard-core system tweaker, you'll love this, especially if you're not a fan of the command line. But if you're just looking to get up and running with a new OS, this sort of overkill could make for a steep learning curve.

Still, the bottom line is that SUSE has remained a very strong distribution on Novell's watch, and its availability as a cost-free download can only increase its exposure both within the Open Source community and on the general computing scene.

Looking Ahead

My old IBM ThinkPad bit the dust recently, so I headed to ThinkPadWorld at EBay to pick up a factory-refurbished unit at a cut-rate price. I highly recommend this approach if you're a ThinkPad fan like me but can't afford a brand-spankin'-new model.

I've spent a few days getting Ubuntu Linux up and running; at this point, everything works except for the Suspend and Hibernation features. If I don't get things figured out within the next week, I'll likely slap SUSE 10.0 on the machine and see what happens. Either way, I'll try to report back about the state of Linux on laptops in my next column. I'm also hoping to spend some time with Mandriva Linux 2006.

Till then, stay as Free as you can--and remember, just because the Free Agent can't respond to every e-mail he receives, that doesn't make his inbox a black hole! Keep those lovely messages coming.

Have you taken the Free Software plunge? Used Ubuntu? Surveyed SUSE? Messed with Mandriva? What works? What doesn't? PC World's Free Agent wants to hear from you. Speak Freely!
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