Date: June 29, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams
If you are intrigued by the Linux world, there is no better time than now to get in on the action. There has never been so much support, or a wide variety of distros to choose from. One of the most popular distros in recent years have been SuSE, due to it’s ease of use.
Novell acquired SuSE back in 2003 and gained full rights to distribute it however it likes. I remember that announcement clear, and was a little worried to say the least. To that day, I loved SuSE and didn’t want to see anything screw that up. To my surprise though, things have only really gotten better because SuSE is now more widespread than ever.
SuSE is regularly touted as a Windows replacement, as is Linux in general. However, it’s friendly to Windows users because paired with YaST and KDE, it shares a familiar desktop environment. Back in the day, SuSE used to cost money whenever a new version was released. $100 smackers to be exact. After a few months though, it would become available through the website for free. Things changed once Novell started up the OpenSuSE project which offers the exact same feature-rich operating system, just with a few commercial applications cut out. In the end, you can either choose to purchase the retail product which includes support, a thick manual and tech support, or download the completely free version.
Because I will be taking a look at the retail copy of the OS, I won’t be touching on anything that’s not included with the free version. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever used any commercial application that’s included with SuSE. However, the absolute primarily difference between the versions is that you get professional tech support with the retail version. You also get a nice thick manual which is good bathroom reading. Of course though, there is still a -lot- of support via forums if you choose to simply download the free version.
I have used every major release of SuSE in the last five years, with the exception of 10.0. This was due to the fact that I had installation troubles on my laptop, which is where I used it primarily. Thankfully though, all the problems I encountered with that version have been fixed with 10.1. Skipping past the laptop this time, I will be installing 10.1 onto my primary desktop to see how it fares.
SuSE is known for having one of the simplest installation processes of any distro out there. It’s so simple, it’s like installing any other standard application. Thankfully, SuSE does all the hard work for you. You just need to review what it says and make sure it’s a-ok.
If you have a Windows installation that you want to keep, SuSE makes it easy to dual boot. All you need to do is create a new partition for your Linux install and it will do the rest for you. That even includes the modification of the boot loader, so straight after the install is done you can go back into Windows if you need to.
My installation went rather smooth, for most of the process. However, that changed when it came time for the online update. SuSE allows you to download software updates before you hit the desktop, to ensure your first boot is the most secure out there. However, for whatever reason the update stalled half-way through and required a hard reboot. The computer didn’t freeze, but it was the actual application that just completely halted.
Due to the reboot, the final four steps of the process were automatically skipped. This meant that the first reboot required me to first log in as root to finish up manually what the installer should have done for me. Needless to say, the installation process is buggy. Since SuSE is well suited for novice Linux users, a problem like this could easily turn anyone away, or cause further problems… especially if you are unaware of what you are doing.
After the first boot into my regular user account, I decided to try updating the components that failed during the installation. The same listed updates where here, although whenever I pushed “Accept”, the YaST window would close instantly. Bugged is not even the word here. In an attempt to believe that this was just a string of glitches, I reformatted and started fresh. The second time around was far better, because I didn’t run into a single issue. The entire install process was smooth as silk.
I have e-mailed Novell regarding the issues I experienced, but have not yet received a reply. As soon as I do, I will update this article with the responses. Now that the install is finally over with, let’s see what we are dealing with.
KDE has always been my favorite Linux desktop environment, so I tend to stick with it with each new distro install. The SuSE desktop never changes too much from version to version, though the desktop wallpaper is always a nice treat. You will first be greeted with a welcome screen offering you to register the product. This will entitle you to the professional support.
The main problem with buying a retail version of Linux is that by the time you get it installed, many components will already have newer versions. KDE 3.5.1 is the version bundled with 10.1, while the latest version is 3.5.3. For most users this will not matter in the least, but for a power user it will only take a few steps to update.
Firefox began being bundled with SuSE ever since 9.3, and 188.8.131.52 is the version included here. Luckily, Firefox has a built in update feature, so updating to the latest version is not a problem.
Oddly though, even though my internet worked through the installation, it did not once I hit the desktop. During the installation, I -had- to manually input my IP address in order for the online update to function, even though my connection supports DHCP. When I hit the desktop though, I could not manually specify the IP address, but rather had to let DHCP do it for me. It’s almost like SuSE didn’t know what it preferred.
I have to wonder why SuSE doesn’t automatically install an NVIDIA driver for you, when it knows you have an NVIDIA card. As you can see in the Xorg configuration, the ‘nv’ driver has been specified. This doesn’t do much for you in terms of 3D acceleration though, so you must download a new driver manually. In SuSE 9.3, an NVIDIA driver was included in the YaST update but that’s not the case any longer. I am unsure of why this is, but it was convenient.
Next up was the sound driver, which was not automatically configured after the boot. I am unsure of why it wasn’t because there is really nothing holding it back. Both the PCI and onboard sound were detected, but had to be manually enabled to function. My Chaintech AV-710 was detected as an Albatron card, which is ok since they both run on the same Envy24HT chipset. After enabling both sound cards, they worked like a dream.
Due to a few foolish laws, DVD movie playback is not something you will be able to take advantage of out of the box. So that SuSE complies with these laws, scaled versions of multimedia programs are included, one being Kaffeine. In order to play DVD’s you will need to uninstall the version that comes with SuSE and manually install the version found on the website. Paired with some required DVD libraries, you will be good to roll.
The “My Computer” component of this version of SuSE is quite nice. It allows you quick access to the home or root folder, and even gives nice information about your computer such as the CPU speed, memory, video card and Kernel and SuSE version info. It reminds me a lot of the “My Computer” of Vista. Hmm..
The DVD is filled to the nines with many development tools. MonoDevelop is one of them, although it failed to run after creating a project. I am not sure if these quirky bugs will ever end.
As seen in the following picture, SuSE adds a cool, yet simple feature to the K Menu. If you are unsure where a program is in the menu, you can type the program name above and it will show you exactly where it is. This is very useful if you are moving over from another distro, because many distros like to place the programs in different spots.
GCC 4.1.0 and 184.108.40.206 kernel. Both slightly outdated, but only slightly.
Here we have OpenOffice.org 2.0, which has been somewhat updated by Novell. All the goodies are here though, including Writer, Calc and Impress.
SuSE bundles Wine 0.9.11, so you are ready to go if you need some of your more simple Windows apps. This is a better experience if you have Windows installed though, because installing a few programs under Wine is not always the easiest feat.
Because YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) is such a big part of SuSE, we will take a quick look around to see what it offers. YaST is comparable to the Control Panel in Windows and offers -full- control over everything system related. Lots of tweaking is to be had behind these doors.
First up is the installation source. Here you can specify the media you wish to download from. You can add extra URL’s to check when you want to update a product. This is useful if the Novell servers do not have a certain version you need, or the program at all, but another source does.
SaX2 allows you to change anything you need to video related. That includes resolution, depth and whether or not you have more than one monitor.
You are able to edit your bootloader in a GUI interface, but to be honest it’s more confusing than just editing the grub.conf yourself. However, I am not sure where SuSE even stores the grub.conf…
If you have more than one disk, you can take advantage of the partitioner. You are not able to resize any disk that’s in use, which is a downside if you only have one drive. However, if you have a SuSE LIVE DVD lying around, you will likely be able to resize your main drive with it, since that version of SuSE is loaded into memory instead of installed on your drive.
PowerTweak gives you a lot of control over the finer points of your system… similar to a Windows registry.
While I am comparing things to Windows [don’t hate me peeps, hate the game], here is SuSE’s version of msconfig.
SuSE includes a simple backup tool that will back up a slew of packages and required dependencies in case anything goes awry during your experience. It will bundle everything into a tar file, and save it to wherever you want.. probably to a blank DVD if you want to use it later on. When the time comes to restore, you can use the System Restoration tool which will untar all of the files, and use the included XML file to do so properly.
Hostname configuration… You probably will not have to touch this part.
As always, AppArmor is included, although it’s for a real poweruser who genuinely cares about application security. Probably for business use more than personal use.
For even more security, a firewall is included and is turned on by default. It includes the ability to specify which services can access the internet, and which can’t.
Under the user management, you can create a new group, and even password them if need be. You can add a new user also, and specify which groups they should be added to. All of these is incredibly simple and will save you from having to type it all up in the console.
Last up of note is the online update configuration. You have the ability to have YaST automatically download the updates for you, or not.
There’s really never a conclusion when it comes to an operating system. They are so vast, and new versions come out before anyone has a time to conclude on them. In addition, no operating system is perfect, which is quite apparent. It will -always- be that way. Regardless, SuSE is a great choice for a distro, especially if you are a Linux newbie looking to get into it.
That aside, I cannot say I am as impressed with SuSE as I used to be. In fact, it almost seems to be getting worse in terms of bugs. One reason I did not evaluate 10.0 is because I had some weird problems that would not go away.. and that’s just for normal OS operation. 10.1 fixed those problems I had before, but introduced some new ones… the online update for example. Because the online update halted during the first install, I ended up having to reformat and start fresh.. and just hope that it didn’t happen again. Since SuSE is known as being a great OS for beginners, that’s not a very welcoming thing to happen.
Even after the second install, which proved successful, some things didn’t work so well. MonoDevelop for instance, worked up until you wanted to create a new project… then it would just crash. Though trying it in another installed distro proved to work just fine. Overall, SuSE just seems to be quite buggy, but chances are you may not run into the same problems I have. Or maybe you will.
Pesky bugs aside, SuSE does continue to become more user friendly. YaST is top notch in terms of customization and tweaking and I wish more distros had such an in-depth power tool. In fact, YaST would be one of the main reasons to pick up SuSE, or OpenSuSE… it’s a great addition.
If you choose to pick up the retail box, don’t worry, you will not be wasting your money. Before making that jump though, you may want to check out OpenSuSE first and see if it suits your fancy. If it does, you may want to pick up the retail version for the support, manual and additional programs not found in the free version.
Next time a major port of SuSE is released, you can be sure I will revisit it and see how things have evolved. I am hoping that with 10.2 or beyond, that the problems I experienced will be fewer. Between two installs I ran into a few bizarre problems, and I am assuming I will not be alone in this.
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