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News and Editorials

Review of SUSE LINUX 9.1 Professional

April 21, 2004

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

SUSE LINUX 9.1 was released to manufacturing (and journalists) late last week, which gave us an opportunity to take an early look at the new product. The operating system was installed on a computer equipped with a Pentium 4 1.4GHz processor and ASUS P4T mainboard (Intel 850 chipset), with 384MB or RDRAM, NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti4200 graphics card, Lemel 17" LCD monitor, two IDE hard disks (/dev/hda and /dev/hdc), a Panasonic DVD drive (/dev/hdb) and a Plextor PlexWriter CD-RW drive (/dev/hdd). The configuration included a SoundBlaster Live! sound card (emu101k) and a Realtek (8139too) network card. We installed the Professional Edition of SUSE LINUX 9.1.

Installation. SUSE's installation program is part of YaST (Yet another Setup Tool). Compared to previous versions, there are only minor cosmetic changes, as YaST has proven itself to be a very competent system installer. Some reviewers have found it somewhat complex and even intimidating for users new to Linux, especially in this era where some distributions promote a "4-click installation" technology. However, SUSE LINUX Professional is designed for system administrators and power users, many of whom will appreciate the many choices available to them during installation. Following the usual partitioning choices, YaST will first install the base system, after which it reboots, then proceeds with the rest of the installation by copying the requested files from the remaining CDs or DVD. The program also performs an online security and bugfix update, and it even offers to download and install Microsoft True Type fonts and the proprietary NVIDIA driver. The hardware autodetection was near-flawless, the only exception was the USB mouse - its wheel wasn't setup correctly, but a quick post-installation trip to YaST's hardware module brought an easy fix to the problem.

YaST. YaST is one of the main components distinguishing SUSE LINUX from other Linux distributions. Some users seem to have a love-hate relationship with the tool, although there is little doubt that YaST is a beautiful piece of software providing quick access to dozens of configuration options ranging from software and hardware configuration to networking and services. Critics will argue that YaST is slow, it tends to reset some of the manually edited configuration files, and that some of the configuration files generated by YaST can be messy. But as most of us are familiar with certain configuration files, but not with others, and given the number of available options, it sure is a welcome relief to effect a quick change through the pleasant graphical interface of YaST, instead of having to scroll through a file with vim while looking for the option to modify. Besides the ability to change configurations, YaST also provides a powerful package management and software updating utility. Most of the tools are nicely integrated and have the same interface as the main YaST module, although some, like the SaX2 module for graphics card and monitor configuration, and the package manager are clearly independent applications.

The desktop. SUSE has always shown a clear preference for KDE on the desktop and version 9.1 has not departed from this tradition. As an example, menu structures in KDE have undergone substantial modifications, while those in GNOME and other desktop environments were left at their default settings. This can result in some inconsistent behavior - KDE icons are set up for single-click action, while those in GNOME need to be double-clicked to get a response. The KDE menu has a Xandros-like "Switch User" tool to switch between virtual terminals, but this menu entry is missing from menus on other desktops: if you happen to start a second virtual session and log into GNOME, the only way to get back to the KDE session is by remembering its virtual terminal and pressing Ctrl-Alt+[F7-F12]. It is clear that GNOME is treated as a second-class desktop in SUSE. This is in sharp contrast to Mandrakelinux 10.0, which provides identical menus and themes, as well as similar default settings across both the KDE and GNOME desktops.

Multimedia. Multimedia is a mixed bag in SUSE LINUX 9.1. The presence of an automounter and auto-detection of media disks are a welcome addition to this SUSE release, now on par with Xandros and Linspire, but not without some minor annoyances. For example, inserting an audio CD into the CD-RW drive (/dev/hdd) correctly launched the KsCD application, although it refused to play the CD because it was configured to play it from the DVD drive (/dev/hdb). Surely, if the system is able to detect where the CD is inserted, it should be able to perform a quick KsCD re-configuration before launching the application? As expected, DVDs, even non-encrypted ones, and proprietary media formats do not play in SUSE LINUX 9.1, but MP3 files do. Inserting a Video CD did not launch any media player. Overall, SUSE has made good effort to make the multimedia experience as smooth as possible, but unfortunately, the user is still left with plenty of configure && make && make install, as well as some post-install tweaking, before this experience is on par with other operating systems.

New applications. Having read through the list of new features and applications in SUSE LINUX 9.1, I was looking forward to trying out Moneyplex, a new home banking software from German software maker Matrica. Unfortunately, the installation of the program was quickly followed by a disappointment: the user interface of Moneyplex is exclusively in German. Other new applications fared better - Rekall, an MS Access-like database program from theKompany is a welcome addition, and some might perhaps find use for Textmaker and Planmaker, two MS Office-compatible word processing and spreadsheet applications from Softmaker Software. Other than the above, the usual wide range of desktop and server applications, together with development tools, are bound to satisfy even the most demanding Linux user.

Comparing SUSE 9.1 and Mandrakelinux 10.0. Following the recent official release of Mandrakelinux 10.0, SUSE is the second major distributor delivering the new 2.6 kernel to the general public. How do the two compare? Both distributions have been given highly positive early reviews by the Linux media, so deciding on one or the other is going to be a tough call. One noticeable difference between the two is speed. On the same hardware, Mandrakelinux 10.0 feels considerably more responsive: testing launch times of several randomly selected applications indicated that Mandrakelinux is up to twice as fast as SUSE on the same hardware. GNOME users might also be more inclined to choose the French product as SUSE clearly does not treat the two main desktop environments as equal. On the other hand, SUSE's configuration utility and package management tools provide more power than the "drak" equivalents in Mandrakelinux. Also, SUSE is one of only two distributions with active hardware and third-party software certification programs, which might be a decisive factor in some corporate environments.

Conclusion. Overall, SUSE LINUX 9.1 is a solid incremental release. Besides kernel 2.6 and application updates, there aren't any major breathtaking new features in this release, but the many small usability and design improvements will likely appeal to desktop users. It is easy to see where SUSE is going: while some other major distributions have been reluctant to spend effort on developing a desktop Linux solution for the enterprise, SUSE is pushing ahead regardless. Is it too far-fetched to picture SUSE LINUX as a new standard corporate desktop in the not-too-distant future? With the traditional SUSE quality and with Novell's new Linux-driven revival, it might just happen.

Comments (5 posted)

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