Free version of SUSE Linux packs in the features, yet feels unfinished.
OpenSUSE 10.3 is the fourth stable release from the OpenSUSE project, the online community founded by Novell to further develop the SUSE Linux operating system. It ships stuffed to the gills with the usual assortment of open-source applications, including the OpenOffice.org office suite, the GIMP image-manipulation software, and many multimedia bells and whistles. In fact, OpenSUSE has more software and features crammed into it than you know what to do with, which proves a mixed blessing.
The OpenSUSE distribution DVD disc boots to the familiar SUSE Linux installer. A Live CD approach, like that found in Ubuntu 7.10, would have been more versatile; but even though OpenSUSE’s method seems old-fashioned, it’s at least effective. The SUSE installer is top-notch, and OpenSUSE 10.3 dresses it in attractive, professional-looking new graphics. It’s not as effortless as it could be–the installation process gives you enough options to get you into trouble–but novices should have no problems if they play along with the default selections.
Desktop Interface Debate
OpenSUSE offers a choice between two different desktop environments, KDE or Gnome. Superficially, they both provide GUI features similar to Windows or Mac OS X, but they differ in the details–enough so that desktop preference has become a hot debate within the desktop Linux community. Gnome arguably has become the favorite with recent SUSE releases, now that many of the prominent Gnome developers work full-time for Novell, but OpenSUSE’s Gnome desktop differs from the stock version. The menu bar on the top of the screen has been removed, consolidated into a single taskbar along the bottom. The chief feature of the taskbar is a new menu, code-named Slab, that gives one-stop access to the most important applications, control panels, and recently used documents. The overall effect is very Windows-like, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much to improve productivity.
The action of reaching for the lower-left corner of the screen feels familiar, but finding applications among the Slab menus can be tedious. It’s too sluggish, and the organization of the menu icons does not seem particularly intuitive–if you’re looking for a spreadsheet, for example, you must first scroll through almost a full page of games.
The same must be said of YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool), SUSE’s other major contribution to the Linux desktop interface. YAST tries to gather all of the important control panels and system-configuration tools into a single, combined application. It’s a noble goal, but users have often complained of YAST’s poor performance in the past, and OpenSUSE 10.3 doesn’t seem to have made any significant improvement in this respect.
Hardware Hassles, Software Softness
Compounding the problem, OpenSUSE’s hardware support seems iffy, particularly on laptops. It failed to set the correct resolution on an early-generation Centrino laptop’s wide-screen display, and nothing I tried could fix it. As I slogged my way through YAST’s configuration screens, the unused portions of the screen slowly filled with strange colors. No other recent Linux distribution I’ve tried has exhibited this problem on the same hardware. Similarly, the installer detected the Wi-Fi chip set properly, but couldn’t seem to connect to the wireless network to download the latest updates during the install process. OpenSUSE fared better on a desktop system, but its inconsistency made me leery.
In fact, inconsistency seems to be the watchword for this release. OpenSUSE 10.3 gets the job done, and clearly some thought has been put into its usability, but an overambitious software selection and haphazard execution undermine the distribution’s better qualities. For example, one of the advertised new features of OpenSUSE 10.3 is Compiz Fusion, the graphics engine that enables flashy desktop effects competitive with those in Mac OS X or Windows Vista. While the Ubuntu team went to pains to integrate Compiz Fusion and enable it by default, however, on OpenSUSE it’s merely an option, and then only if you know where to look for it. Similarly, a security-conscious user will be confronted by four separate icons on the Applications menu that look like keyrings, in addition to the ‘Lockdown Manager’. You can guess that one of them manages your passwords, but which? OpenSUSE wins points for its high-quality documentation, but its initial learning curve is more difficult than it needs to be for neophytes.
Ultimately, OpenSUSE’s bid to be all things to all users betrays its origins as the developmental branch of SUSE Linux, and as a result, this distribution will be most attractive to Linux hobbyists. It’s free, so nothing is stopping you from giving it a whirl. But business power users will benefit more from a polished, commercial desktop Linux distribution such as Xandros, while new users will likely find Ubuntu’s limited menu more palatable than OpenSUSE’s buffet.