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SuSE Linux Pro 9.0 screeches out of Fernando's Hideaway

Review Serious Linux for almost everyone
Mon Dec 01 2003, 15:15

Product: SuSE Linux v9.0 Professional
Company: SuSE Gmbh Web Site: WWW.SUSE.COM
Average Price: $59.99
Media: 5 CD-ROMs, one two-sided DVD-ROM


Test System
IBM Thinkpad T40 - 2373. 1.5 GHz. Intel Mobile CPU, Centrino marchitecture. 512MB RAM. DVD-ROM reader and CD-Writer. Intel gigabit on board. ATI Radeon video. 2 Cardbus PCMCIA slots. Onboard Wi-Fi. Preloaded with WinXP. "Designed for Windows XP" - shame on IBM

I HAVE BEEN using SuSE Linux Pro 9.0 for about two weeks. And here it is, finally, the review you probably haven't been asking for.

The SuSE 9.0 Pro packaging continues the tradition of previous SuSE Pro releases. The box and contents are almost identical to the SuSE 8.2 Pro release. In other words, a big box containing two hefty books, and a folded cardboard box with the bits in 5 cd-roms and this time a single but double sided DVD-ROM disk. SUSE has taken the extra case to put the DVD ROM disk inside a paper/plastic sleeve. This is a nice touch, because slipping the media in and out of the cardboard can do more harm to a packed DVD-ROM than to a standard CD ROM.

Installation
This time I choose to use the DVD media, and "oh boy!" I will never go back to CD-ROM installs, specially for big installations like a new operating system. Installing from DVD-ROM simply means "no more CD switching" - at least for the initial installation.

So I put the DVD disc into the Thinkpad, rebooted the system and was greeted with a message: "this is a two sided disc, you booted the wrong side. Please turn the DVD over". The "you moron" was implied. ;)

There are two choices: normal and "acpi disabled" installation. You should choose the later if you encounter problems with the "normal" installation mode. I choose "normal". One minute and 10 seconds later, SUSE's install program, YAST was already in graphical mode, with the TrackPoint and touch pad recognized and functioning.

The default hard disk layout presented to me - remember this system had WinXP installed - was to "delete everything", by creating one 502MB swap partition and a root partition of 36.7GB, using ReiserFS as the default. One of the most promoted features in SuSE 9.0 is the ability to resize your existing NTFS Windows partition to create space for the installation.

While the process is easy to anyone who has used Partition Manager, I feel it's not intuitive enough for the novice. It involves skipping the "Select Hard disk" option and clicking on: "Custom Partitioning - For Experts", then clicking (selecting) the existing Windows partition and selecting "RESIZE". Yes, it sounds easy, but the screen layout and presentation could be better. How about a simple plain language dialog asking "Windows detected on the hard disk, do you want to install Linux alongside it or to overwrite the existing operating system?" That would be easier for people moving to linux for the first time.

However I was not able to resize my NTFS partition: "Your NTFS file system has 30657 MB of free space available. Due to limitations in the NTFS resizer, the file system can be only shrunk by up to: 0 MB. To be able to shrink the file system more, boot windows a run a defragmentation program". Out of my laziness for rebooting XP, I chose to overwrite the existing partition, changed the file system used from the ReiserFS default to IBM's JFS (Journaling File System). Blame that on my OS/2 roots.

I left the defaults in place, without selecting any extras, to see what the "default install" would bring. It started copying files, showing cute graphical "advertisements" of the applications included, with the first one being a KDE ad. Second is Mozilla, described with the phrase "Mozilla is a fine choice, but its KDE integration is not very good" (!) or "Gnome comes with Epiphany". All this browser vs. browser advertising, by the same vendor of the package, looks bad, if you ask me.

Seventeen minutes after the process started, the system finished copying files from the DVD and the system was rebooted. YAST appears again, asking the user to set up the root password. After that, the network setup screen: it identified the IBM Ethernet controller, selected "DHCP" as TCP/IP configuration method, asking the users for approval of these values.

The best part of the install routine kicks in at this point, asking the user "Do you want to connect to the internet to download the latest release notes, and check for system updates?". This is great. I wish it included also the option to download the latest stable web browser version available, if of a higher version than the one included in the CD.

It downloaded and installed 18 system updates -"patches", including kernel updates, all in 12 minutes.

At this point the only setup left is entering the LAN configuration - if the system is a stand-alone machine or part of a network, and if so the type of network login-. Notably absent is the option to use a Novell NDS client login. I'm sure Novell will make sure a Novell Client for Linux is installed at this point, in the future.

Hardware Compatibility
The system worked seamlessly with every hardware config I tried. A "CD Burner" icon was placed on the desktop. Other tests included: Printing to an Epson C62 inkjet printer connected to the parallel port. Printing to a HP LaserJet 1100 over the LAN through an Axis print server. PCMCIA/Cardbus modems. USB 2.0 storage. When I tried playing a MP3 file and realized sound was not working, it puzzled me for a while, until I found the Thinkpad's "SOUND MUTE" button. I pressed it and the volume was at the maximum level. I almost died of a heart attack. Oh! The life of the reviewer is at stake.

I had to manually reconfigure video from the default 800x600 - everything looked ugly and the KDE icons too big, to be honest - to 1024x768. On SuSE you do this through the "SAX2" program. Seriously, why not call it "Video Configuration", or "Advanced Video Configuration"? Believe it or not, the acronyms and tiny names scare the newcomers away.

At 1024x786 the screen was nice, and in SAX2 I even enabled 3D hardware acceleration. Despite being labeled as "experimental" to be "used with caution", it worked flawlessly, with the nice OpenGL screen savers I tried. "Molecule" is my favourite.

The Curse of the Winmodem
If you plan on using SuSE -or any other Linux, for that matter - with a portable's internal modem, first check for the availability of Linux drivers for the particular chipset used by your system, as these days most notebook and laptop builders go the cheap route, and use "Soft Modems" also known as "Winmodems", by techies as "CPU eaters", or by the common man as "this darn thing" or "this piece of c#ap!"

The situation is slowly improving, however. Thanks to the pressure of Linux users, some vendors are now starting to offer drivers on their own, without relying on kernel hackers to play "catch-up" reverse engineering every proprietary "Winmodem" chipset on the market as they appear. This was the case with the system used for this review.

IBM does provide one Linux driver for the "AMR Softmodem" used on the Thinkpad T40. The bad news is that the compiled driver module is offered as RPMs for several Redhat versions, and for SUSE version 8.x as the latest. Since I'm running SUSE 9.0, it means I'm -and you are too, if using SUSE 9.0 - screwed.

I had no luck when I tried downloading the .tar.gz version and executing doing the "Make Install" dance as instructed by the "readme" file. A quick glance at the "Makefile" showed that the script seems to expect several paths to be there that do not exist in my kernel source tree, for example [kernel_version]/SuSE/include (there is /include sub-dirs but no "SUSE" in the directory names that I could find). The computer geek in me tried to edit the makefile by changing the paths but the installer continued failing miserably as before, with several dozen warning messages ending in "Error 2". The script header included a name that sounds like Indian in origin: H-1B visa or another case of classic Bangalore, India outsourcing? There are culprits for this: Agere Systems, and IBM. Some IBMer should be kicked into orbit for having the guts to provide this half-baked driver on the IBM Thinkpad drivers page to Thinkpad customers using Linux. And second, someone from Agere Systems should face the heat as well, preferably on Earth and before being sent to hell. Yes, their driver is a "beta", and as such failure is to be expected on certain circumstances, but it shouldn't be this pain to install. Why not provide RPMS for SuSE 9.0, for a start?

I think it is the hardware makers' duty to provide quality drivers, specially on "integrated" and bundled hardware that you buy as a complete system. This is specially irritating coming from a company like IBM that is investing so much into Linux. And if IBM doesn't want to write quality drivers themselves, at least they could demand quality Linux drivers from their hardware suppliers before designing a new PC/Thinkpad model.

A warning about Wi-Fi on Linux
The test system, Thinkpad T40 / 2373, includes a Centrino based Wi-Fi card - the Pro/Wireless 2100 - that currently lacks Linux drivers. Linux users have been complaining loudly to Chipzilla, and in their Wintel tradition they are taking a long time to develop them. At least they have recently updated the Centrino Linux Drivers Availability web page which now reads: "A Linux driver for the Intel® PRO/Wireless 2100 wireless network connection is currently under development.". I guess La Intella earns "Microsoft Discount Certificates" for each day that passes without a Linux driver...

The impatient, however, can insult the Wintel duo loudly while installing DriverLoader, a set of drivers that we talked about before, which lets you load Windows LAN drivers on Linux through an emulation layer. It apparently works.

While Wi-Fi functionality was not tested as part of this review, once you have the right drivers in place, SuSE should work as well as any other Linux with Wi-Fi, as wireless LANs are just another type of NIC, as far as the operating system and TCP/IP applications are concerned. Most Wi-Fi cards, wit chipsets from Lucent, Cisco, and Intersil cards are expected to work without problems, using the generic "Orinoco" driver module. SuSE 9.0 even includes a set of Wireless-Tools on the CDs, as part of its - sometimes overwhelming - collection of bundled open source tools.

The Software
SuSE tries to be "everything for everyone", and it delivers. On the default install, GNOME is notably absent, with four window managers available as options at login time: KDE, WindowMaker, FVWM2, and TWM. The last three probably only of interest for those setting up SuSE in low memory systems or for use as a server.

Office Suite compatibility is included in the form of OpenOffice 1.1, and the AbiWord word processor is also available. In a strange choice, double-clicking on ".doc" files opens them in Abiword, if both OpenOffice and Abiword are present. Tools for burning CDs and data DVDs are included, along with Real Player, PDF viewers, about a dozen of MP3 players, you name it. Everything that is not installed is available for installation from the CDs or DVD.

The defaults are what I find lacking: Konqueror as the default web browser. You try to bookmark something by using the common "Ctrl-D" keystroke, and end up with a second browser window opened. Oops, CTRL-D in Konqueror is "duplicate window" not bookmark. You click on any "mailto:" link and "K-Mail" is launched.

In its current version I find the default install is too KDE-centric. With GEMS in there like the Evolution email client - which is a joy to use and would appeal every Outlook user - or the Mozilla Browser Suite, why make something as dull as Kmail as the default?

Hopefully it's very easy to turn this nightmare into a wonderful product: at install time select Gnome2 -or install it later through Yast2-. Then you will have a wonderful desktop, that loads much faster than KDE 3.1, looks nicer, has a great fast browser - Epiphany, based on Gnome and using the Mozilla engine - a fast file/folder browser, Nautilus, and other goodies. The difference with Gnome 2.2 and KDE 3.1 is outstanding, in my humble opinion, in favor of Gnome2 of course.

On Gnome, for example, it is possible to install an OpenOffice "fast loader" that, like in Windows and what Microsoft uses in their office, portions of the code are preloaded at boot time to improve the load time when double-clicking on office files or the openoffice icon. With this function enabled, OpenOffice 1.1 load time was cut to just 2/3 seconds!. On KDE I wasn't able to find how to achieve this. However, I realize this is entirely a personal preference, and some people might prefer KDE. Just not me!

Now the dirty details for the geeks. The kernel included is version 2.4.21-99. KDE is version 3.1.4, GNOME is v2.2.2, the Mozilla web browser version is 1.4, the Evolution email client is v1.4.4, and Sun's Java2 VM, version 1.4.2 is included as well. I'm just listing the most relevant components.

And finally my wish list: I wish SUSE included a tiny applet on the system bar - both on KDE and Gnome - allowing easy switching between different LAN configurations with two simple clicks. On a scenario like mine it would allow toggling between "Home", with DHCP and no proxy, "Work/Office" with a fixed IP and a proxy, and maybe others. There is a Windows shareware utility that does this, and I think Linux could copy that functionality, by default.

Summary
The Good Installing the OS and applications from the dvd-rom couldn't be easier. Launch "Yast2" - why not call it something more human like, "SuSE Control Center"? Click on the "Install/Remove software" icon, search for the application you want to install - with a dual-sided DVD-ROM, what you are looking for is likely in there - and sit and relax as your hard disk is filled with your selected programs, drivers, or libraries. All with dependencies "auto checked". That means you won't get those nasty messages like "hey, this program is missing ncurses", so annoying when you install applications manually.

It is SuSE. Like it or not it has a "major Linux player" written all over it. Hardware makers and software vendors certify their systems on the major distros. So chances are that if you're looking for a big linux deployment or just asking a vendor like IBM "does this software runs on linux" they are probably going to tell you "it's been certified to work OK on RedHat version X and SUSE version Y". Good luck having them test your YellowPenguix little unknown distro tested and certified. Now with Novell's future backing and dollars behind it, it can only get better.

The Bad
1. Some of the included applications and drivers are not the "latest" available. Mozilla version 1.4 and the alsa drivers -0.9.6 included, dated mid July, when 0.9.8 dated October is available-. This is inevitable with any "boxed" product with "frozen bits on a cd", specially due to the rapid pace of developments in the open source world. But perhaps there are some ideas that can be copied from Lindows' "click and install" approach.

Maybe the user could be presented with a dialog at the end of the installation, if an Ethernet internet connection is detected and present, so the user could choose either to install the web browser or email client version present on the CD/DVD, or download a newer stable release as part of the installation. Just food for thought.

2. The Linux/Unix jargon. It is quite difficult to create a balance between an end-user and a power user's product. But I think that is quite possible, and a road still not traveled by the major Linux distros, RedHat and SUSE. Four letter program/icon names and acronyms should be abolished, if Linux wants to become mainstream. Icons labeled "System Setup", "Control Panel", "Video Setup" sound better and should be used instead of YAST2, SAX2 and other four letter acronyms.

3. Some very common libraries and tools used when compiling and installing new software, are not installed as part of the default installation: automake, autoconf, the ncurses libraries, the gcc compiler.

The Ugly
It is hard to find something really "ugly" about this distro. But I will try.

1. KDE loads slowly, even on high-end hardware. Plus Konqueror as a file manager/browser is SLOW. Read my lips: SLOW. Even on this test system with a 1.5 Ghz CPU, it was noticeably slow opening folders, archives and the like.

2. Konqueror as a default browser may make the default system useable on old systems with slow cpus or limited ram that are good candidates for a new linux install, but in the long run, it's a bad choice. Why not settle on Mozilla Firebird?, if SuSE insists on having KDE as the default. Or why not Epiphany with Gnome or the full Mozilla browser suite. Hopefully the next version under Novell management will - I suspect - make Gnome the default desktop and leave KDE as just another choice, leave KDE for the KDE lovers. Please, if you are a KDE lover save your flames.

3. On the test system, WinXP booted in 54 seconds. SUSE 9.0 with KDE took one minute and twenty seconds just to begin displaying the KDE splash screen with its slow loading-progress panel. After switching to GNOME 2, startup system almost rivals WinXP, plus it looks nicer. Why not make Gnome2 the default?

4. When will Linux distros learn that double-clicking on a ".jar" file is used in Java2 as an user friendly manner to START a desktop java application?. Because they continue associating .jar files with the file manager, Konqueror, in this case. When I double click on a .jar file I want the system to start the java application (java -jar). Sun made the effort to bring this ease of use to Java and it works as intended on Windows desktops after installing the Java2 runtime from Sun, yet not on every other linux distro I've seen, -until you manually change the file association to invoke java -jar). Programmers could still open the .jar files from the File->Open option in their favourite file manager.

Scores
Installation: 3/5 <- could use some "dumb down" for the newcomers. Specially the disk partitioning and resizing screens.

Stability: 4/5 <- no OS crashes. Only a funny segfault in one Gnome applet.

Software Included: 4/5 <- The full "StarOffice" could be nice in the "Pro" version!.

Printed Docs: 5/5 <- I wish every distro included printed documentation like this. (Yet the Greenpeace member in me would appreciate recycled paper).

Hardware support: 4/5 Since it's a "Pro" version with a premium price, how about bundling a copy of Driverloader and SNAP Graphics for the ultimate video drivers support?

Default setup: 3/5

Yes, the kde-centric rant you have read above, due to the bad choice of programs on the default install :). If, however, you install Gnome, Evolution, and Mozilla and use these as the default desktop, E-Mail client -as I suspect Novell will do as soon as they take the steering wheel at SuSE-, and Mozilla -or Epiphany - as the default web browser, this score would turn into a "5/5". The end-user experience is a "night and day" difference.

As in any other review, these are all subjective and arbitrary in nature, limited to my background and the limited experience with the test system.

My Verdict
I give SuSE Linux Pro 9.0 four Fernandos in my "one to five" product scoring scale. Our editor promises he will have a nice graphic scoreboard with "tiny little faces of me" ready soon, for your admiration and horror.

If they fixed the "end user experience" - that is, the default install selections - and got rid of the linuxspeak like LindowsOS has done, this would be a perfect linux for everyone. Until then, I think SUSE 9.0 Pro is the best linux distro you can get, for people who already has linux experience, and for someone looking for a quality distro to deploy into a workplace. µ

L'INQS
Review pictures and screenshots at Fernando's site
Linux can run Windows Drivers shock
SUSE 9.0 Pro - Product Description Page

 

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