Review: openSUSE 10.2 Explored

openSUSE is a widely known distribution for its huge array of unique tools for managing virtually every part of the system, without having to even think about using the console. Its also known for the stability of the official packages and releases, and it’s known for a very stable package-system.

SUSE was acquired in 2004 by Novell, which meant a significant change in the future development of the distribution. From now on it would be an open-source project for everybody to help developing, while Novell kept maintaining a commercial pay-only edition, focused mainly for corporations.

As it’s a free project it’s available for download, both via
torrents and using one of the many mirrors available. openSUSE comes in
both CD-editions and a DVD-edition. It is not a necessity to download
and burn all 5 CD’s if you don’t have a DVD-burner, as there’s also a
network-boot-CD available, which is only capable of starting the
installation, while all the packages will have to be downloaded from
the Internet (or the LAN if you have a server available with the
installation-sources).

Expectations
Knowing that this distribution has a long history and has siblings sold
for commercial usage, I expect a lot of this distribution. I expect it
to be very user friendly – I expect to not ever have to touch the
console, even for rather extraordinary tasks not usually supported by a
GUI front end.

I hope it to include all necessary packages for all the tasks needed
for general usage, or at least easily, safely and officially available.

Test-system
The test-computer used in the article is my parents workstation, so the
specifications are not very impressive (they use the computer for
word-processing and mail-checking only). The final set-up which was
created during the research for this article, is actually what they’re
going to use when they come home from the vacation they’re currently
having. Because they’re going to actually use it, the need for the
distribution to get up and running perfectly, as they’re used to a
stable and responsive Windows XP, is critical. The hardware is as
follows:

CPU: AMD Athlon XP 2200+
RAM: 256 MB Kingston DDR (PC2700)
Harddrive: 40 GB Maxtor (7200 RPM)
Mouse: Logitech MX 700-mouse
CD-writer: Teac CD-W512EB (12x CD-R)
DVD-ROM: NEC DV-5700A (using a flashed firmware for region-unlocking)
Ethernet: RTL8139B-based on-board
Audio: VT8233A-based on-board
Graphics: S3 Trio3D/2x AGP-graphics card
Printer/scanner: Hewlett-Packard Photosmart 3210 All-in-one Network-printer/scanner

First impression
Booted into Windows, I inserted the DVD in the DVD-ROM-drive and
expected to be greeted by a friendly autorun-menu with general tips on
how to boot to the installation, but nothing happened. Well, fair
enough, I went into “My Computer” and opened the drive to find some
documentation. What I found was some release-notes and a lot of other
useless files, and that was about it.

Well ok, so Windows-users are in for a rough start, let’s move on though to the interesting parts.

Installation
After booting the installation, welcoming was nothing special. I was
greeted with a simple interface that asked of me what language I spoke,
then it wanted me to read and accept a license (ironically only
available in a small subset of the languages openSUSE supports) and
then it wanted me to choose whether I wanted to do a “New install” or…
well, that was my only choice, which made me feel kind-a stupid – like
when mothers asks their kids if they would be nice and go to bed,
obviously not giving the poor kid a real choice as the only valid
answer is “yes” – then why bother giving the choice at all?

01 02 03

06Now,
I was asked nicely if I wanted KDE, GNOME or “Other”, “Other” which
contained “Minimal Graphical System” and “Text Mode”. I choose KDE as I
believe it to have the most Windows-like interface, although in general
I believe both GNOME and KDE are just as powerful and if you have the
time, you should definitely try both out – they both have their pros
and cons which I’ll not dig into in this article, but I’ll most likely
do an article on these two (and a third one called Xfce) in the near
future. Having to do choose this instead of having a default picked is
not very user-friendly. A new user who only heard about Linux and not
about KDE and GNOME should not have to choose.
07Anyway,
it then presented me with a suggested scheme for how the computer would
be set up. It suggested the Windows-partition would be shrunk to make
space for the Linux-partitions and it suggested a default setup which
would take up 2.2 GB of space. I had already done my backups so I
entered the “partitioning”-menu to change that, so I could remove the
Windows-partition in order to utilize all the space for Linux.

Update: It should be noted that openSUSE does not warn the user
that shrinking NTFS-partitions (default file-system for Windows XP,
2000 and the other NTs) is not fail-safe. The user should receive a
warning that his data on the Windows-partition should be backed up if
not already, before continuing (thanks Nikoo for pointing that out).

A user-friendly note: The button I needed to press in order to gain
access to the partitioning-schemes was just a text-link, which made it
look like it was not a button, but just a heading. Normal users would
not think they could click there and would therefore probably not enter
any of those menues, while technically minded would at least try hover
their cursor over the text to find out if it changed shape, indicating
a button was underneath the mouse. I like this, because then the basic
users will just accept the defaults (they only recognize button-looking
buttons as buttons).

14I
had a quick look at the default package selection and I noticed that
several closed-source, but free applications, were available, such as
Adobe Acrobat Reader, Macromedia Flash 7 (Macromedia is actually Adobe
now, but the distribution is from primo December 2006) and RealPlayer,
all before-mentioned selected per default. Of things it lacked was
multimedia-support in general. Nvidia-drivers, ATI-drivers, w32codecs
(for WMA and WMV) and mplayer was not available during installation. I
accepted the default package-selection and the installation started
like it expected.

Update: It should be noted that if you select additional
packages, openSUSE automatically selects whatever other packages the
package you selected might need. While this is good, as the user
definitely wants these packages, the size-counter, which tells you how
much space is going to be needed for installation, does not count these
additional packages, although they obviously also take up space, which
gives a quite misleading count
(thanks Nikoo for pointing that out).
22First
it formatted my hard drive and then it started copying from the DVD.
During the copy-process which took about 40 minutes, static banners
were rotated with simple messages about openSUSE. The rotation was
awfully slow though, which I guess is because instead of having
predefined intervals for how long a banner should be shown, the banners
were shown until some percentage of the installation had completed,
which on a slower system like the test system resulted in long pauses,
so I decided to grab myself a bite instead of waiting for interesting
banners. This is a bit sad, as somebody has probably worked on those
banners, but on slow systems nobody will hang around to see them and on
very fast systems, they might rotate so fast you don’t fully get to see
them either.

19During
installation, a “Detailed” mode could also be switched on, which wasn’t
more fun though. It just stated what packages it was currently working
on, which isn’t a sight for general users, but okay, if you like
looking at live-logs, hey, have a look!

Afterwards it did a reboot and it booted into the new system like it
should in which the wizard continued. I choose root-password and so on.
Perhaps I had too many options, as I had to choose both hostname,
domain name, 24whether
I should accept the DHCP-servers suggested hostname and so on. Now,
home-users don’t care about any of this (they’d rather have the choice
of DSL, Dial-up, Cable, etc.), so I believe this could have been hidden
for the advanced users to find.

Now for some technical reasons, the test system wasn’t properly
connected to the Internet during install, which resulted in a big error:

I got no repositories set up but my installation-DVD!

help5Now,
what does this mean? It means that it decided, as it couldn’t obtain
Internet-access, to simply not let me add repositories from the default
list. This meant that even though I got the Internet connected shortly
after, I had no update-sources, so my system would not be updateable
until I found an update-source – this would prove to be a big problem,
as the link for the mirror-list found in the official documentation,
was dead – capish – /dev/null – 404!

Anyway, installation was over and the system booted like it should.

Technical note:
how it was doneI
did the installation through a VNC-server in order to be able to make
screenshots. Use the parameter vnc=1 vncpassword=*, where * is the
password needed for logging into the VNC, to do the installation from a
remote computer using VNC. If you don’t have a DHCP-server the computer
can access, also add the parameters hostip=*, where * is the IP of the
installation-computer. The screenshot to the right is a screenshot
taken during installation of the entire window I used for
remote-installing. This type of installing can be really nice if you
have to do a lot of similar installations or if whoever you’re doing it
for is far away.

First boot
02 1At
the first boot I was welcomed with a message telling me that I should
register to obtain free support and that I should keep my system up to
date, oh, and that I should also subscribe to the Free Novell Linux
Newsletter. Anyway, after closing this welcome-message, I got the
probably most misleading tip to date from KTip (Tip of the Day) which tried
to give me a useful tip. It gave me the tip: “Double-clicking on the
titlebar of any window ’shades’ it, which means that only the titlebar
stays visible.”. Ok, I gave it a shot by double-clicking on the
titlebar of KTip. Now I would definitely expect the titlebar to
’shade’, but what did it do? It maximized the window! Double-clicking
it again, restored original window-size. Haha, that was really
misleading! It seem the openSUSE-designers customized the KDE-interface
to simulate the Windows-way of handling windows, but simply forgot to
customize the tips.

Besides that, the default setup was clean and I personally like the
theme for no particular reason, it’s just nice and plain. Oh, besides
the mouse-cursors, they… hm… I somehow think about Ms Paint when I look
at them (which is not good)… The default theme looks like this:

cursors

I found the “Industrial theme” to be much prettier and as switching
to it was very easy, it didn’t bother me much that I had to do so. This
is the “Industrial theme”:

cursors1

03 1A
merry surprise was the Kicker (KDE’s replacement for the start
menu-button from Windows). In standard KDE a very Windows 9x-alike
start menu pops up, with more options and automatic organization
though, but still very Windowsy. Now, this new one is really revamped.
Now it’s more Windows XP’y, but yet again, very unique.

In the top it has a search-bar which searches all your documents,
e-mails and your Internet-history, by utilizing a rather new
Linux-technology called “Beagle”. Beagle continually scans your files
in the background and indexes the content in the same manner Google
indexes websites, which makes searching for something very fast, yet
the Beagle-daemon is very light, so you won’t feel it indexing in the
background.

04Per
default the new menu starts in “Favorites” which keeps a list of your
personally picked favorite actions (well, there’s a default selection,
but they can easily be replaced).

The next tab is your history of your most recently visited locations
on your computer and most recently used applications. The third tab,
Computer, has a list of your connected devices, links to network places
and shortcuts to applications for administering your computer.
The fourth tab is a complete list of all your installed applications
and games, nicely organized. The last tab has shutdown and log
off-options.

I wasn’t quite sure if I liked this new layout, but after switching
back and forth with the original KDE-menu, I quickly ended up using the
new one more and I’m quite sure any new user will like it better. It’s
much simpler, yet still at least as powerful as the classical KDE-menu.

YaST
YaST is the special tool bundled with openSUSE. This is an old tool which has been modernized a dozen of times.
I’ve heard people calling it the most powerful
system-administration-utility for Linux in which you don’t have to do
any manual console-hacking whatsoever, as it is capable of configuring
pretty much anything (only stuff which affects the entire system, ie.
all users) by a GUI-interface (for individual user-configurations like
background-switching, KDE has a built-in control-panel named Kcontrol).
YaST is a package-manager, YaST handles services, YaST takes care of
backing up your configuration, YaST manages user-accounts, YaST sets up
your network, YaST configures your firewall, YaST … you get the point.

This is both a good and a bad thing: The good thing is that you need
no other tools for those tedious tasks. The sad thing is that you don’t
necessarily get to try out the alternatives to the YaST-tools, as
you’ll very quickly feel comfortable in YaST as all the sub panels
within it, all are very similar. A lot of what YaST can do (if not
all), is possible though through other tools with similar easy
interfaces. But hey, you can always go explore the other tools. YaST
doesn’t shut the other tools out, but using both YaST and some other
tool to do the same task cannot be recommended.

But it really is amazing – I didn’t need to open the console at all
during all the testing I’ve done – this is so much different than
anything I’ve ever tried!

Hardware
As the test system uses pretty modest hardware (besides the hard drive
which is only a few months old, each component is at least 2 years old)
so all hardware worked pretty much just out of the box. Scrolling
wasn’t very smooth in all applications, due to the very old graphics
card, but that could easily be fixed by disabling “smooth scrolling”.

printer1About
the external hardware, the printer/scanner, I was pretty sure it
wouldn’t be an issue, as Hewlett-Packard officially supports Linux and
does so by releasing fully open-sourced drivers for all their models.
The only annoyance was that I had to manually activate the appropriate
service. This could be a big headache for general users, but I believe
it would have automatically activated had the printer been connected
directly to the computer instead of through the LAN, but besides
manually having to activate the service, the rest of the installation
was a smooth GUI-only installation and the printer worked perfectly
afterwards, responding instantly when I hit the Print-button.

Then I went right on to installing the scanner. The installation was
very similar and because I had previously configured the printer, the
network-part of the scanner-configuration just automatically copied
itself right over so installing the scanner was a real treat – I had to
pick it’s name from a list and I was done.

Default software-choice
openSUSE has a pretty default configuration with some interesting
twists (reminder: this is the default configuration for KDE-systems,
had GNOME been chosen during installation there would be different
packages included):

  • KDE 3.5.5
  • Mozilla Firefox 2.0 for browsing, as well as Konqueror (a matter of taste, but Konqueror starts faster than Firefox if you’re running KDE).
  • KMail for e-mail. Korganizer for Outlook-replacement.
  • Gimp for pixel-image-manipulation, as well as Krita (I’ll do a review on those two and some more similar graphic-applications soon). For vector-graphics, Karbon from KOffice is included.
  • OpenOffice.org 2.0.
  • Kopete for chat. It can connect to MSN, ICQ, Jabber/GoogleTalk, IRC and some other networks.
  • KPDF for PDF-showing.
  • Kerry Beagle for searching your documents and e-mails.
  • Amarok, kaffeine and RealPlayer.
    Amarok for large music-collections, kaffeine for movies and smaller
    music-playlists and RealPlayer for RealMedia and MP3 (yes, it’s the only application capable of playing MP3s! More about that later in the article).
  • digiKam and GwenView for image-organizing and basic image-manipulation.
  • KTorrent for bittorrent-connectivity.
  • OpenOffice.org Writer/Web for website-creation.

Multimedia-support
kaffeine1As I mentioned just above, the only
application capable of playing MP3s is Real Player, as Novell is an
American company so they follow American legislation, which includes
those (sorry, can’t keep it in me) absolutely insane
software-patent-laws.

The same problem occurs with CSS-encrypted DVDs (all retail-DVDs are
encrypted). No software-players are capable of playing legally
purchased DVD’s per default in Linux as far as I know. Ironically,
pirate-DVD’s which have had their protection removed, should work out
of the box. In other words, if Americans want to watch legal DVDs they
have to break the law, one way or the other – either by pirating the
DVD or pirating the software on the computer.

installrpmAs
I live in a country with sane laws, laws which were actually written
with the people and not just the corporations, it is legal for me and
my fellow citizens to make our computers fully capable of playing
legally purchased DVDs and not just pirated DVDs, same applies to
music. Therefore I started searching for a solution (the official
documentation, due to the laws of the USA, could not aid me in the
search). I found this nice site, following a link from the official
website for Xine:

http://cambuca.ldhs.cetuc.puc-rio.br/xine/

kaffeine2Follow
it to find the files needed for making all the players on openSUSE
capable of playing DVDs, MP3s, Windows Media Video and Audio (only
files without DRM though), Real Media (so the other applications
besides Real Player can play Real Media too) and a dozen of other
formats. What you should install is the following (remember, this is
illegal if you’re in the USA):

  • libdvdcss
  • libxine1
  • w32codec

Installing is just a matter of downloading the files and opening
them in Konqueror and then just following the on-screen instructions.

Result: Now I can play my legally purchased DVDs with the series of
“Far away from Las Vegas”, with complete DVD-menus, 5.1 sound-track and
everything – just like in Windows – and I can play my MP3s:

playdvd1 playdvd2 kaffeine3

Although I know Novell is just trying to follow the law, having to
manually find a website (not even mentioned how to in the official
documentation anywhere) is a very big lack. I expect to be able to
watch my DVDs and listen to my music out-of-the-box, but the way I had
to find packages on some random site, is not very nice. The packages I
installed could have contained viruses or spyware (okay, none of which
really exists for Linux yet) or perhaps just be of so low quality that
they would never pass the quality-requirements of openSUSE.
When it comes to surfing the web, as you might expect, there’s not
direct support for the various formats the rest of the system just got
access to. Flash is supported per default, so is PDF, but live-streams
of music or video you have to install additional plugins for. Now, on
the page I linked to just before, there’s also a browser-plugin for
Mozilla Firefox, which makes it capable of playing video and music
directly from websites, but…
DON’T INSTALL IT!

It is extremely unstable and very buggy. For instance, if you have a
page which both embeds a live-stream of some sort and a flash-movie,
Firefox will simply vanish. If you see a live-stream and you decide to
browse on, the browser is likely to crash shortly afterwards. Instead,
if you like a browser-plugin for handling live music and video, I
recommend mplayer and mplayerplug-in, which is available from various
sources, for instance here:

netradioworkingmplayer: http://rpmfind.net/linux/rpm2html/search.php?query=mplayer
mplayerplugin: http://mplayerplug-in.sourceforge.net/download.php

After installing mplayer and mplayerplug-in, streaming from the net
using Firefox works just like expected. If you browse the web using
Konqueror, I highly recommend kmplayer, as it integrates much better
than mplayerplug-in does and uses Xine, so you don’t need to install
mplayer too.

Package-management
As the package-management is RPM-based, all the command-line RPM-tools
are readily available, but if you’re not a console-guy, then YaST
includes its own package-manager. There isn’t really much to say about
it – it’s a bit slow to start and it takes a bit long to end
installation, but it does it’s job and it does it well. It has support
for adding multiple sources and do advanced searches, while a
categorized view is also available. So nothing extraordinary here. I
might prefer an installer like the one in Ubuntu for easy installations
were available too, but beginners seems to just have to learn to
install stuff the hard way.

Localization
As this system is for my danish parents, all applications must be in
danish, as well as a global spell-checker for any form whatsoever needs
to be present.

When I tell YaST that I want a secondary language to be installed on
the system, and that language being danish, it automatically installs
all the translation-packages and spell-checkers. But how is this second
language activated?

I try in the kcontrol and I tell it that I want danish to be the
primary language for the current user. It says ok and after a log out
and log on again, it does seem very danish, but when I open Firefox
it’s still english, when I open OpenOffice.org, it’s still english.

changetodk3The
only solution I could find was to set danish to be the primary language
for the entire system, as only KDE-applications were affected by the
language-change. Perhaps there’s some GNOME-tool I don’t have that
could change the rest of the applications to danish, even though the
system-default is english, but that’s not very intuitive.

So I set the global default to danish, I created a new user-account
for my parents and it was in danish all the way through – and I mean
that literally. All applications they’re going to use, was in danish.
Good job, YaST.

File-sharing
Picture 2On
this subject too, I found a lot of interesting tools in YaST, because
enabled file-sharing directly in KDE did not seem to do the job. After
having followed the wizard in YaST, which included that it installed
SAMBA which is a protocol for file-sharing, which is out-of-the-box
compatible with most versions of Microsoft Windows, Macintosh and most
desktop-Linux variants, it still didn’t work though. Now I was capable
from MacOS to get to the login-screen, but when I entered my username
and password, I would get rejected.

Now, I’m sure there are some GUI-way of making this work, but as
this article was already when I did this, I decided to pull forth the
terminal and use it for doing the last part, which was enabling a user
to share files – after all, if you know the command, it’s most likely
faster than navigating some GUI. To make one of the user-accounts
accessible via SAMBA, open a console and type:

sudo smbpasswd username

where username should be replaced with the username you want to be able to share files.

help2Documentation
YaST is very well documented and the documentation is available through
the KDE Help-center. There’s dozens of screenshots for the subjects
described and lots of links for how to get going. If the built-in
documentation is not thorough enough, opensuse.org should fill the gap
as the website is basically one big very active documentation-wiki. It
has topics on virtually everything, besides getting media-playback
support (well, there’s some, but it’s useless due to ridiculous
American laws as described earlier).

Web-server (LAMP)
Now, a LAMP-web-server (Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP) is not a thing my
parents would ever need so setting such one up on their computer seems
pointless. I did so on my own workstation which presently also runs
openSUSE. I did not do any screen shots, but it was a very
straight-forward process. After installing Apache, MySQL and PHP using
the package-manager, a new icon popped up in YaST in which all
configurations could be accessed and a special wizard was available for
setting up virtual servers (generally used for hosting multiple domains
on the same computer).

This is the first distribution I’ve tried where editing the
configurations did not include having to hack text-files manually. It
just worked out of the box, and editing the default configuration was
available from a GUI.

Conclusion
radiokonqueroropenSUSE
is a stable, fast and very powerful distribution, capable of anything
Linux without having to do a lot of extra work, as there are
RPM-packages for virtually everything. It is not the most user-friendly
distribution, as the installation gives the user some tough choices
(although hitting next will give a good default, I think such options
should be hidden away from the beginners) and playing DVDs and
listening to MP3s or WMAs, or watching live-content from the web, is
not possible without installing unofficial packages. Finding and
installing these packages feels like breaking the law, as there’s
warnings all over the official documentation warning against making
such content possible – but it isn’t illegal, unless you live in the
USA.

If you are a power-user you will not feel in any way cheated for
options. Even though YaST is a GUI for managing virtually everything,
it doesn’t hide any options, and even if you feel like hacking your
configurations on your own, feel free to do so. If something goes
wrong, it’s easy to restore configurations with YaST. Some parts,
especially the package-manager, is quite slow as it does a lot of
unnecessary tasks before and after you install anything (like it always
updates your list of fonts, even when you haven’t installed or removed
any fonts).
If you’re a beginner there’s easier distributions out there, but not
necessarily better, as openSUSE is fast and very stable, but it’s just
not that intuitive.

Thanks to Source Web Site: friendlylinux.org

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