Saturday, July 17, 2010

OpenSUSE 11.3 - my Linux love / hate relationship continues...

OpenSUSE 11.3 was released this week after an 8 month development cycle, and so I had to download and try it out. This distribution is the only one which keeps me interested in KDE. It is also, in my opinion, the distribution which gets closest to feeling like a proper commercial product, including everything a user needs to get started. 8 months is longer than Fedora and Ubuntu takes to knock-out a release, so I expected the latest OpenSUSE to be highly polished.

I've played around with it for a bit in Virtualbox, trying to decide whether to replace Fedora 13 on my HP Mini netbook, and, well it's not been great. I've always had a love / hate relationship with Linux desktops, and the latest SUSE release has done nothing to help. What follows are my thoughts as to why this is. Granted, some of these issues are not specific to OpenSUSE, but I as far as the general integration and coherence of the Linux desktop is concerned, I think we still have a long way to go.

So let's start with the 'hates':
I installed the KDE desktop first, with default options, and booted-up. First look through the Kickoff menu, I notice the hateful 'Edutainment' category is there as usual, containing only the Marble desktop globe programme. I decide to uninstall this, but when I try I'm told Marble is a dependency for Digicam. Why? What have these two programmes in common? I load Digicam and open the 'Digicam handbook' to investigate. But instead of seeing the handbook, I get a KDE Help Centre error: "The file or folder help:/digikam/index.html does not exist". I give up.

Next, I install Google Chrome and launch it. It complains it is not the default browser so I tell it to become so. But wait, next time I launch Chrome, I'm told again it is not the default. And again, and again. OK, this is a known issue with Chrome but it's been around for months. How frustrating that such an apparently simple, yet annoying incompatibility between two significant open source products can hang around for so long.

Oh, and on the subject of browsers, why is Konqueror still included? I would like to see this removed by default in future releases. It just seems to be irrelevant. So I've just uninstalled it, which worked fine actually, so this annoyance is easily solved.

There are two different control panels: System Settings, and Administrator Settings (YaST). Both appear in different locations in the main Kicker menu, and there's no obvious clue as to which one contains the setting you want to change. In fact, both tools overlap in some areas, such as network settings, date & time, system services, and so on. If I change a setting in one tool, then change it in another, what happens? I'm just amazed nobody has stood back and said "this is confusing, we need to simplify this". Just one single control panel next time will do thanks.

Oh, and one more comment about YaST's omnipresence in the Kicker menu. When I click on the 'Computer' view, I see an icon named YaST, with a sub-title of 'Administrator Settings'. However, in the Applications -> System menu, it appears with the same icon, but now named 'Administrator Settings' and sub-titled 'YaST'. Unnecessary inconsistency - does anyone check for this kind of thing?

It's a shame SUSE has not adopted the Plymouth boot system for seamless graphical boot. It's a matter of taste, but I like my PC to just switch on and take me to the log-in screen without any fuss. MacOS X and Windows does this quite nicely. So does Fedora. But SUSE shows you the Grub menu for too long (8 seconds), followed by ugly text as the Kernel is loaded, and then finally quite an attractive graphical load while everything initialises. It all feels a bit old fashioned.

EDIT 19/07/2010:
Oh, and what appears to be one quite serious bug to make it through to release, is that as far as I can fathom, you can't enable AppArmor. Try it. Go to YaST, AppArmor Control Panel, which brings up a fairly blank panel with a check box entitled 'Enable AppArmor'. Enable this, then click 'Done'. AppArmor is now enabled, yes? No! Open AppArmor Control Panel again, and the check box is de-selected once more.

EDIT 28/09/2010:
I've actually been running Suse on my netbook for the last couple of weeks having decided to try it one more time. Today a fix for this Apparmor issue has just downloaded and I can confirm this is now resolved. We're heading in the right direction.

OK – that’s enough moaning. Now, what do I love about this distribution?
The installer is very nice - attractive, user friendly, functional, & fast.

I love the way that, on first boot, the system checks for updates and automatically pulls-in Adobe Flash Player (which also works great on the 64bit distribution) and then offers you an option to download Microsoft Fonts & MP3 codecs. OK, slightly at odds with the spirit of free software, but since most users install this stuff anyway, I love the fact SUSE makes it easy (and optional, should you wish to remain free). This is better than any other mainstream distribution I have tried.

I love OpenSUSE's integration of OpenOffice into the KDE theme. Very smart.

Excellent default desktop theme in fact, although why does the Gnome desktop have a larger selection of wallpaper than KDE? Annoying inconsistency [sorry, I know this is the 'love' section]!

YaST, despite the appalling name, is an extremely capable system configuration tool. Probably the best out of any of the main distributions.

KDE's 3D desktop effects are very slick and attractive, and I prefer them to Gnome's equivalents.

Again, please don't take all of my complaints to be directed specifically at OpenSUSE. These are frustrations I feel with most distributions, but OpenSUSE's latest release just prompted me to write about them. Functionally SUSE has a lot going for it, but it could be so much better with some attention to detail in the user interface.

Fortunately though, with Linux being so configurable, I might just spend some time trying to get things how I want them. I'm not convinced yet that 11.3 will replace Fedora 13 on my netbook, but I might just install it and see.

Finally, I must recognise the fact that OpenSUSE, along with all the other distributions, is completely free. For the cost of a 4Gb download I have a hugely sophisticated and powerful system at my disposal. I can only thank everyone who contributes to these projects, and hope all of these distributions continue to improve over the next few years.

Thanks for reading,

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