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Monday, November 16, 2009

First look at openSUSE 11.2

When Ladislav asked me last week if I'd like to review the new release of openSUSE I jumped at the opportunity. After looking at much improved releases by Ubuntu and Mandriva over the past two weeks I had very high expectations for Novell's community distribution.

The upstream problems with common Intel video and audio drivers, which created so much grief in releases from earlier in the year, seem to be solved. In my work I support Novell's enterprise operating system offerings, including both SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and Novell NetWare.

The releases of Mandriva 2010 and Ubuntu 9.10 both installed smoothly and work nearly flawlessly on my hardware. I had no reason to expect anything less than that from openSUSE.
For this review I used my two usual systems, an HP Mini 110 netbook (1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 16 GB SATA SSD storage) and my nearly 7-year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 (1 GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 512 MB RAM, 20 GB HDD). The Toshiba laptop barely meets the published minimum RAM requirement for openSUSE 11.2. Both systems are 32-bit Intel architecture so this review does not include the x86_64 edition.

openSUSE offers eight different operating system images for download. live CDs for GNOME and KDE are available for both i686 and x86_64 Intel architectures. A 4.7 GB installation DVD image is available for i586 and x86_64 Intel and a 110 MB network install image is also available for both i586 and x86_64 systems. I downloaded both live CDs and the network installation image for 32-bit systems and decided to try out all three.

Running as a live CD
My initial attempts at running the live CD image on the netbook proved to be problematic. I tried both the dd command as described in the release announcement and the latest version of UNetbootin to create a live USB stick. The resulting image would start to boot but fail fairly early on in the process. I next used an external USB CD/DVD drive and that also failed. The failure was much deeper into the boot process and occurred when attempting to load the wireless drivers for the Broadcom 4312 chipset which HP uses in the Mini 110 netbook. I had seen something similar when I first attempted to install Pardus Linux 2009. This was caused by a wireless driver conflict and the fix is to pass "ssb.blacklist=1" to the kernel as an option when booting. I tried the same thing with the GNOME live CD and I was up and running.

openSUSE 11.2 GNOME

openSUSE 11.2 with the GNOME 2.28 desktop
I had very little reason to expect that either of the live CDs would run acceptably on the old Toshiba laptop. Some lightweight live CDs do work well on that system despite its very slow DVD-ROM drive, including the Ubuntu-based Debris Linux and a number of Slackware-based distros. Both Ubuntu and Mandriva live CDs run incredibly slowly on that system, to the point of being really unusable. The openSUSE live CD was a truly pleasant surprise. Performance was crisp and was every bit as good as the smaller, lighter distributions. Kudos to the openSUSE developers for successfully optimizing their live CD for maximum performance.

Installation and configuration
Most recent distribution releases I've tried on the HP netbook have installed smoothly without any sort of special process required. Unfortunately that was not the case with openSUSE 11.2. The live CD installer simply would not run. No error message was displayed and I never have figured out why. I was able to use UNetbootin to successfully copy the network installer image to a USB stick. I expected that the documentation for a network installation could be found in the openSUSE Wiki but clicking on the Wiki link from the distro home page yielded an error: "your desired Wiki was not found. the incident was reported. we will contact you." I have no clue how they could possibly contact me or anyone else without an e-mail address or any sort of interaction. A Google search did get me to the correct page in the Wiki which describes an FTP installation of openSUSE 10.3 using the network installer. The address for the mirror in the example is no longer valid but I was able to ping the main openSUSE download server, obtain an IP address of, and use that plus the correct path to the repository to do my installation via HTTP.

The installation process, once you start the GUI portion of the installer, is fairly straightforward. I chose to use the Expert disk partitioning option to allow me to install openSUSE side-by-side with Ubuntu. I found it strange that the "Edit" option for partitioning actually is the one that erases your hard drive and gives you a new partitioning scheme. What you are actually editing is the suggested layout provided by the installer. The "Create" option, on the other hand, lets you choose which existing partition(s) to use. This is precisely the opposite of the language used by other Linux distributions and seems counter-intuitive to me.

The installer offers a choice of GNOME, KDE, or "Other" for the desktop. If you choose "Other" you are presented with three further choices: Xfce, minimal X, or text-based server installation. The default choice is KDE which is what I chose on the netbook. A network installation of openSUSE 11.2 with a KDE desktop requires downloading 2.27 GB of packages. Even with my fast Internet connection it took several hours to download and install the necessary packages.
The first stage of the installation completed and when the system rebooted I saw that the installer had also failed to detect and include my Ubuntu installation in the GRUB menu. Therefore I booted into my new openSUSE installation. The boot process hung when the system tried to activate wireless networking. The installer correctly detected both my wired and wireless network interfaces but installed an incorrect driver for my Broadcom wireless chipset which caused the problem. Passing "ssb.blacklist=1" to the kernel produced an error claiming this was an invalid option. Despite the error, it successfully prevented the ssb and b43 drivers from loading and my system successfully booted into the new installation. Wireless networking was non-functional but at least I was up and running to some extent.

The installation on the Toshiba laptop was somewhat easier. I tried the network installation again in order to install a minimal system with an Xfce desktop. It hung at 60%, just after downloading GRUB. I booted the GNOME live CD again. The live CD installer warned me that I had less than 1 GB of RAM and that it might fail as a result. I decided to try it anyway and the second attempt at installation on the old laptop proceeded without a hitch. The only problem I experienced was one I had seen many times before with this particular laptop: I was left with a small desktop surrounded by lots of black space, the same result I had with Slackware Linux 13. Since I had an X configuration that I knew would work from my VectorLinux Light installation I just copied that to /etc/X11/ and I was up and running. Otherwise I would have had to manually create an /etc/X11/xorg.conf file or modify the one used by the installer.

Finishing the configuration of the netbook so that it would no longer hang when booted required me to edit the /etc/modprobe.d/50-blacklist.conf file to properly blacklist both the ssb and b43 drivers. I then researched my wireless chipset in the openSUSE forums. Unlike the recent Ubuntu, Mandriva or Pardus releases the broadcom-wl driver I needed is not included in openSUSE 11.2 repository. I had to obtain it from a third-party community repository called PackMan. PackMan is to openSUSE what is to Slackware: it's a relatively large and well-trusted source of additional packages. openSUSE actually makes adding PackMan and a number of other community repositories easy by listing them in the YaST2 graphical package manager. Installing the broadcom-wl package also added a new "debug" kernel and required a reboot. Once I booted into the new kernel my wireless was working and configuring my WPA2 encrypted network was easily done in NetworkManager.

I should note that the 3G modem built into the HP Mini 110 is still disabled at this point and, once again, the driver is not in the openSUSE repository. I don't have 3G service as yet so I didn't take the time to track down, install and test the required driver. All in all, getting openSUSE 11.2 working properly was the most challenging Linux installation I've done in a very long time. I'm an experienced, knowledgeable and decidedly stubborn Linux user so I tracked down the information I needed and made it work. I expect a lot of users, and not just newcomers to Linux, would have given up in frustration.

Running openSUSE 11.2
As expected, openSUSE has recent versions of most popular applications. Since Novell is based in the United States they must comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and also avoid including software which may be patent encumbered.

The net result is that multimedia support out of the box is quite limited, with even basic MP3 playback functionality left out. If there are no such restrictions where you live the Restricted Formats page on the openSUSE Community website allows you to add this functionality with SUSE's One Click Install. The YaST2 metapackages offer all the missing codecs and libdvdcss for DVD playback. Non-free software, like Flash and the Opera web browser are also included. I also was surprised to find Fluendo codecs and plugins for GStreamer and Flumotion, the Fluendo streaming server, in the PackMan repository.

Fluendo products are properly licensed for use in the U.S. I can only assume that Novell has paid for the license necessary to make this product available to the openSUSE community. A Fluendo license came with my netbook in any case so this provided me with a legal option for adding multimedia capabilities.

openSUSE 11.2 KDE

Vacation Home Rentals

openSUSE 11.2 with the KDE 4.3.1 desktop
openSUSE features a KDE 4.3.1 desktop. I've been impressed with the look, feel and also the performance of KDE as implemented in Pardus 2009 and Mandriva 2010 so I expected it to work well with openSUSE as well. Instead I've been treated to applications crashing and occasional hard lockups of my system, mainly when running KDE apps.

Kaffeine has crashed on me on several occasions when trying to start playback of an MP3 audio file and locked up my system when I tried to play a FLAC file. I've given up on it since other media players are readily available in openSUSE. YaKuake also locked my system once when I hit the F12 key to roll up the terminal window. This is particularly frustrating to me as I really like YaKuake on systems with limited screen space like my netbook. I've also seen the KDE panel crash and burn once but it promptly restarted. I've also had problems with one non-KDE application. The AbiWord 2.6.8 package for openSUSE is completely unusable. It consistently crashes after typing just a few lines of text. I normally write my DistroWatch Weekly features in AbiWord and then add the HTML in Bluefish.

I've found that running openSUSE 11.2 with KDE is generally unstable to a greater degree than any Linux distribution I can remember. I ended up installing an Xfce 4.6.1 desktop environment on the HP netbook and so long as I religiously avoid AbiWord and KDE apps (with the exception of K3b, which is a must for me) the system mostly behaves as it should. GNOME 2.28 on the Toshiba has been stable but AbiWord crashed regardless of which system I use or what desktop environment I select.

openSUSE 11.2 Xfce

openSUSE 11.2 with the Xfce 4.6.1 desktop
One other complaint I have is that it seems like the openSUSE developers really didn't do much testing on netbooks in general. Many of the dialog boxes are just too long for a 1024x600 or 1024x576 screen resolution. I find myself using the ALT key and my touchpad to move the oversized boxes around. Both Ubuntu and Mandriva don't have this sort of problem and do seem to understand just how popular netbooks have become. On a more positive note I must say that performance, even on the limited, old Toshiba laptop, is very good with openSUSE 11.2. The developers have done an excellent job of optimizing this distro for speed with what subjectively seem to be the best results I've seen in one of the "big four" distros.

One of SUSE's great strengths has always been its incredibly large, complete and very functional suite of graphical system administration tools. That tradition continues with openSUSE 11.2. There are graphical tools for almost every imaginable system configuration process under the sun. All work well, many are unique to SUSE, and almost all of them are very well thought out and intuitive. For those who prefer working at the command line there is no lack of tools to administer the system from a terminal or the console as well. A user who isn't comfortable at the command line will find they probably have more control over even small details of their system configuration with openSUSE compared to any other distribution I've tried.


The YaST2 control panel
The repositories for openSUSE 11.2 are reasonably well stocked but are not nearly as large as either the Mandriva or Ubuntu repositories. I found myself relying on the community repositories heavily, especially contrib and PackMan. The net result does include some package conflicts. Both YaST2 (graphical) and zypper (command line) do an excellent job of alerting the user as to what conflicts exist and offers one of three solutions: 1. remove what conflicts and replace it from the repository chosen for the new package, 2. ignore the conflict, or 3. don't install the new package. I've not chosen to use the second option at all and I have had no breakage resulting from the conflicts I've found. It's pretty easy to see how someone could end up in dependency hell using multiple community repositories and ignoring the errors.

Even with the community repositories all enabled I still couldn't find everything I normally use on my system. Mostly I found myself missing highly specialized packages but the Bluefish web editor, which I think is quite popular, was nowhere to be found. Another developers' editor I like, medit, is also missing. In the case of Bluefish I ended up using a Fedora package and installing it with rpm using the --no-deps option. That actually worked without a problem but I am well aware that Fedora packages are often incompatible with SUSE packages. Under the hood openSUSE sports a 2.6.31 kernel and X.Org 7.4. As previously mentioned I've had no problems at all with my Intel 945GME graphics chipset.

Internationalization and localization
openSUSE offers a very complete collection of dictionaries, language packs, and other internationalization and localization packages for all the supported desktop environments and applications. The selection is as extensive as any I've seen. YaST2 includes a graphical tool which allows a user with root privileges to select both the system's primary language and install support for a number of secondary languages. GNU FriBidi is installed by default so openSUSE has bidirectional language capabilities right out of the virtual box. This is important for those who need to support languages written right-to-left including Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Yiddish. An impressive selection of international fonts for languages written with non-Latin glyphs is also available.

If a KDE desktop is installed the default display manager is KDM which does not allow for changing languages on a session-by-session or user-by-user basis. A GNOME-based installation will install GDM which has that functionality. It is possible to install GDM after the fact and change the default display manager if language flexibility is important. What is not included in the openSUSE repositories are some specialized applications for languages included with distributions like Fedora, Mandriva and Ubuntu. I'm most familiar with Hebrew and I found that there are no packages for any of the Hebrew-specific applications I'm used to finding in major distribution repositories. From what I can tell the same is true of some Arabic applications. Users of languages who are not comfortable building from source may wish to investigate which applications they need are available before installing openSUSE.

While SUSE has never been my favorite I have always found it to be a solid distribution in the past. Sadly, at least on my hardware, that simply isn't true of openSUSE 11.2. Installation on my netbook, which is extremely well supported by a half a dozen other distributions I've tried, was exceptionally challenging with openSUSE. While installation on the old Toshiba was less problematic it still didn't "just work." Once installed the KDE desktop environment was pretty enough and performance was very good. Stability, however, was a major concern. Within an hour or two I would run into an application crash or even a hard system lockup (no, not just X) which is simply unacceptable in a modern operating system. GNOME and Xfce are considerably better so a user who has little interest in KDE or KDE applications would likely be able to use openSUSE 11.2 without many problems once installation and configuration were complete.

Some of SUSE's traditional strengths, including a fantastic suite of graphical administration tools and rather good internationalization and localization support, are still present and do offer some compelling reasons to consider openSUSE. The front ends to RPM package management (zypper at the command line and the YaST2 GUI package manager) are the best I've seen. The forums show clearly that openSUSE has a very large user community and I found answers to all my issues without having to ask any questions. Some documentation (i.e.: for the network installer) proved to be somewhat dated but was still adequate for me to figure things out.

I must say I found openSUSE 11.2 to be a major disappointment. I've come to expect better, much better, from Novell. If it weren't for the stability issues with KDE and relatively poor netbook support this distribution would have been a keeper for me. There really is a lot to like. Perhaps the results will be different for people with different hardware. For me, though, openSUSE 11.2 just doesn't compare favorably to the other major distributions and I can't recommend it at this time.


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