OpenSUSE 11.4: A blast from Linux past

OpenSUSE is back with a new, improved version, but it reminds me of how spoiled I've been by other Linux distributions.

OpenSUSE is back with a new, improved version, but it reminds me of how spoiled I've been by other Linux distributions.

I've liked openSUSE since before it was named openSUSE and went by the unlikely name S.u.S.E Linux 4.2 back in 1996. It's come a long, long way since then. Today, this Novell-supported community Linux distribution makes both a strong, server and desktop. For all that, though I've found in this go-around some fit and polish issues.

[ See also: Image gallery: OpenSUSE 11.4 ]

To test it out, I put openSUSE 11.4, on two computers. The first was a Gateway SX2802-07 desktop. This PC uses a 2.6GHZ Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 processor and has 6GBs of RAM and a 640GB hard-drive and was being wasted doing nothing but serving as a full-time Windows PC. The other was VirtualBox 4.04 VM (virtual machine) running on my Mint 10 desktop. Behind the VM was a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set.

Neither of these are exactly screamingly fast PCs. I'd characterize them as inexpensive, older PCs. You'd almost have to try hard to get slower PCs in today's market. That said, openSUSE 11.4 ran like a top on both of them. I especially noticed on the Gateway PC, which I'd been using for Web browser benchmarking on Windows 7, just how much faster openSUSE is than Windows 7. It was like moving from a family sedan to a sports car.

On both systems, there was nothing to the installation process. I downloaded the full DVD, which took a while even with my 25Mbps (Megabit per second) Internet connection. If you have a slower connection, you can also download it in CD versions, which are much smaller and hence are faster to download.

With the Windows 7 system, I just booted it up from the DVD and let openSUSE take care of dividing up the hard disk with the copy of Windows 7 Ultimate that was already living there. No fuss, no muss. In less than an hour I had both a working Windows 7 system and a new copy of openSUSE 11.4.

The basics are great. The brand new openSUSE 11.4 uses the 2.6.37 Linux kernel. This kernel does a great job of scaling virtual memory. On your desktop that's not a big deal, but it can be on your servers when you're running tight on memory.

As usual with openSUSE releases, the package comes with a full assortment of server software. If you want to set up a Linux, Apache MySQL Perl/Python/PHP (LAMP) server, openSUSE gives you everything you need and easy ways to set up a file server, Web server, or whatever you need in the way of a basic server. This is one of the reasons why I've always had at least one openSUSE server running in my office for years now. It's just easier the openSUSE way.

As for the desktop, I like that this kernel includes the open Broadcom Wi-Fi drivers. It also includes the latest and Mesa graphic driver for noticeably better 2D and 3D acceleration.

By default, openSUSE uses the KDE Plasma Desktop 4.6 desktop. I've had my ups and downs with the KDE 4.x desktop, but I've gotten to like KDE 4.6. OpenSUSE also makes it easier to control the desktop so you can get it working just the way you want... Except, that is, for the fonts.

I never was able to get the fonts looking quite the way I wanted. They were perfectly usable, but they just weren't that smooth. The overall impression was that I was using an older desktop even with all the gizmos and gadgets that come with the KDE Plasma Desktop.

If you prefer the GNOME desktop, you can also use the GNOME 2.32 interface. This distro also includes the the GNOME Shell, which is part of the forthcoming GNOME3, available for testing. I only played a little bit with GNOME on openSUSE. Once again, though, I wasn't happy with the fonts.

OpenSUSE also boasts that they're the first major Linux distribution to bring LibreOffice to the Linux desktop. That's open to debate, but I think LibreOffice is the best office suite for Linux I've ever used.

[ Open office dilemma: vs. LibreOffice ]

Built on top of OpenOffice, LibreOffice 3.3 brings excellent import and export tools for Microsoft Office 2007 and above OpenXML formats. I dislike these but since more and more businesses are using these formats, being able to work with them is becoming a business-critical feature. In addition, LibreOffice can also now import Adobe PDF, Microsoft Works, and Lotus Word Pro documents and has better WordPerfect document import facilities. LibreOffice is the answer to anyone who insists that you have to have Microsoft Office to trade documents back and forth.

OpenSUSE desktops uses Firefox 4 as its browser. I would have used Chrome, my favorite Web browser, but it's easy to install from the Chrome Web site.

Some of the other application choices struck me as a little odd. I'd expected openSUSE to use the outstanding Banshee 1.8 media player, but instead Amarok 2.4 is the default media player.

Also, instead of using my number one email client of all time, Evolution, the developers used KMail and Kontact. I know, of course, that Evolution is a GNOME-based application, but personally on any KDE desktop that I use, one of the first things I do is to install Evolution and however much of GNOME it needs to run. Be that as it may, KMail and Kontact actually worked quite well.

It was while installing Evolution and some other programs though that I realized how spoiled I've gotten by Mint's Software Manager and Ubuntu Software Center. It's just so much easier to install new programs with them. There are time I appreciate openSUSE's do-it-all administrative program Yast, but there are times when I don't want to OK every last library I'll need to install a new program. I just want to install a new program; the package manager can worry about making sure I have all the software libraries, not me.

It's not that openSUSE is any worse. It's as good as ever at installing programs. It's just that the bar has been set higher.

On the plus side, openSUSE now includes Tumbleweed, a rolling-release repository. This enables you to easily get the latest stable versions of open source programs for your copy of openSUSE. If you want to live on the cutting edge of open source, the popular third-party openSUSE software repository crew at Packman are also supporting for Tumbleweed. For me, Packman has always been an essential software 'store' for SUSE Linux programs.

OpenSUSE also makes it easy to work with Windows systems. For example, it's easy to read and write files in a Windows directory on the same hard drive.

I also really liked openSUSE's multiple virtualization stack support. OpenSUSE supports not only Xen, which Novell has done for years but it also supports VMware Workstation/player drivers, the latest VirtualBox, and Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM).

Taken all-in-all, I still like openSUSE. I plan on updating my two openSUSE servers to openSUSE 11.4 shortly. As a desktop though... well it works for me and I'm sure it would also work for anyone else who's comfortable with older Linux distributions. If you're a newer Linux desktop user, I fear you'll find openSUSE isn't that friendly. Think of it as the difference between driving a manual transmission car and one with automatic transmission and you won't be far off in the overall effect. Of course, there are times that you want a manual transmission, and for those days openSUSE is a fine choice.

For more Linux reviews, see:
ITworld review: Ubuntu 10.10 scores close to a ten
ITworld review: Fedora 14 is leading-edge Linux
ITworld review: Arch Linux for Linux fundamentalists

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