SUSE Linux 10 is here

After I went to the London Linux World Expo a couple of weeks ago I ordered a copy of Novell’s new SUSE Linux package, having missed the “product launch without a product” which was the main event of that expo. I ordered it from Novell’s official distributor, Holborn Books, which charged a bit more than Amazon (and most of the sites out there which sell it are actually Amazon resellers), but Holborn promised a mid-October delivery date and I wanted my discs as soon as possible. They arrived yesterday. (Technorati tag: , .)

I’m really promiscuous about Linux distributions; I tend to keep them on the two machines on which I install Linux and replace them after a few months. In the last few months, besides SUSE 9.3, I’ve had Fedora Core 4, Ubuntu “Breezy” and (very briefly) Debian Sarge on one or other of my systems. There is a lot of hype about Ubuntu, a Debian derivative bankrolled by the South African businessman and space tourist Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth is paying developers to write new software which he hopes might be incorporated back into Debian; this includes the software installation program Adept and KDE System Settings, a replacement for the KDE Control Centre which is distinctly inspired by the Mac’s System Preferences program. Oh, and there’s a rather nice theme for both their KDE and GNOME desktops, the former not being their brown “Human” theme (this is an African distro, remember), but smooth and unobtrusive.

For all this, I found that Ubuntu didn’t match my needs. Word processing, by the way, are not among those needs; the first thing I look at is the Qt development tools. KDevelop seems not to be in the Ubuntu collection at all, and when you install the Qt development tools you’d think it would install a C++ compiler, since you can’t develop much in Qt without that. But it didn’t. Not only that, it didn’t install the Qt Designer and Assistant in the Qt package; you had to get that from the Ubuntu “Universe” collection. The Luxi fonts, not being sufficiently open source for Debian’s exacting standards, are also in the Universe collection. I’m not entirely sure whose needs Ubuntu does match, but with SUSE Linux 10 on order, its presence on my system was always likely to be short-lived.

So, SUSE Linux arrived in my house yesterday morning. The package is thinner - in fact, probably thinner even than the Personal package SUSE killed off last year, with less than a third of the amount of documentation that came with 9.3 Professional. The Start-Up book has 274 numbered pages, compared to the 680+ pages in the SUSE 9.3 Adminstration Guide, which had been growing in thickness with each new release (there was a user guide as well with the full package; I always bought the upgrade version). Clearly SUSE is counting on someone buying one of the many books which exist - Sams has a book called SUSE Linux 10 Unleashed scheduled for later this year, for example, and Red Hat no longer has a near-monopoly on published Linux literature. Start-Up has an installation guide, a changelog going back to version 9.1, configuration details, and what is basically a summary of the software in the box.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve got three years’ experience in installing this package, having installed every version since 8.1, I don’t need to look at the manual before going ahead. Novell’s YaST installation and configuration system is simply the most comprehensive out there. Linux Format writers hate it, but the only thing I don’t like about it is that screens take so long to come up. It’s an easy walk-through if you know what the basic terms mean (for example, what disk partitioning is). Packages are set into groups, and you can pick an entire group or just individual packages within it, and it will also install the packages on which those you choose depend.

SUSE Linux comes on five CDs and a DVD. The DVD has a number of packages the CDs don’t, which isn’t too much of a drag if you have a broadband internet link, which I do, but of course not everyone does. Why they can’t just bundle an extra CD (or two) and drop the DVD is beyond me. The packages not on the CDs include Java 5, Eclipse, XFce, Mozilla Thunderbird and Qt 4. In my case, the DVD would not install on my desktop computer at all, failing to find package after package on the DVD, including bash, an essential package for pretty much any Linux system. I had to abort installation on that system; for whatever reason, that system (a Compaq Deskpro Pentium III, 450Mhz), did not recognise the second CD in the package either.

I had a rather happier experience installing on my laptop, however. It detected all my hardware without incident and installed without failing to find a single package. As often happens, the packages themselves installed in less time than the indicators said they would, although post-install configuration, including downloading patches from the net, extended the install time somewhat.

Many people have commented on the improved speediness and responsiveness of this release; having only used KDE so far, I can say that this problem really has been taken care of - problems like menus not appearing until a second or so after you click them are history. The standard desktop is a picture of what I presume is a gecko (which is SUSE’s logo) in a tree, with the foliage behind it out of focus so that the lizard stands out. The default theme is Plastik, with SUSE’s own window decorations. I replaced them all, having found a port of Linspire’s Clear style on the popular KDE Look. A common problem with KDE’s chat client, Kopete, is that it doesn’t connect to MSN; that’s not the case here. KDE also offers the KWallet passport control system, by which you can store passwords for websites in a passport-protected wallet. GNOME doesn’t.

Fonts are OK, the default font being a smoother version of Bitstream Vera which eliminates the “fat look” which bugged me so much about Vera. I sometimes find that they don’t scale down well, though - small letters often look squished together, and you get other weirdnesses like asymmetrical capital T’s and I’s. SUSE being a commercial release, they also have some commercial fonts from Agfa.

SUSE, being a comprehensive distro, also includes GNOME, this being the latest version (2.12) using the Industrial style brought in when Novell bought Ximian, and the recently-released Clearlooks is also included as an optional style; apart from that, the themes on offer are the usual GNOME themes. It works well enough - again, the performance is improved, the look is sober and unintrusive (if you want bright colours and other eye candy, choose KDE), and Firefox, rather than GNOME’s own Epiphany, is promoted as the default web browser. (It is, in fact, even in KDE.) Evolution, Ximian’s fairly well-known Outlook clone, is of course also included. Menus are well-laid out, with most things being in the third layer of pop-up menus. They are not segregated according to whether they are GNOME or KDE apps in either GNOME or KDE.

In conclusion, I’d say this was the best distro I’ve ever used, either from SUSE or anyone else. It’s certainly an improvement on 9.3 - for the person who said that there’s not enough improvement to justify upgrading, I got rid of 9.3 pretty quickly, while 10 looks like it’s staying for the long haul. My only real complaint is that the CDs don’t have all the packages - there’s no excuse for this given that you have to buy the CDs with the DVD. We all pay the same. If Linux were ever to be broken as a serious desktop option for western countries, this might do it.

A few screenshots: Firefox in GNOME, Konqueror in KDE, the KDE menu.

Update 21st Oct: I take back most of what I said about SUSE’s fonts. The sans fonts are OK, but the serif fonts, or perhaps the system’s rendering of them, are awful - I suspect the rendering, because I don’t see why a commercial font foundry would supply fonts as bad as this. Examples being bold type in which the verticals are too wide and the horizontals barely there, squishy letters, and serifs half as wide as the letter itself. It really looks bad.

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