OpenSuse 11.3 review (GNOME desktop)

20.07.2010

The new version of popular Linux distribution from Germany is finally out on 18th of July. OpenSUSE 11.3 has been under development for previous 8 monthes and now it is ready for general public. In this review I’ll focus on usability, ease of use and other features that are vital for an average desktop user. Though openSUSEe 11.3 offers KDE4 as a default desktop, I’ve chosen the GNOME desktop as my own preference.

Let’s start with technical details about core system components:

  • Linux kernel 2.6.34
  • KDE 4.4.4 as default desktop environment (DE), also GNOME 2.30.1 and two lightweight DE’s – XFCE 4.6.1 and LXDE 0.5.5
  • New version of X server 1.8 and X.org 7.5

Kernel Modesetting (KMS) is now enabled by default for both NVIDIA and ATI systems. This means less blinking when switching from bootsplash to actual desktop thanks to KMS supporting native resolution of your LCD monitor. When you log in, log out or switch user accounts, the screens will change much faster and smoother. There are even more new things with graphics within 11.3. By default the system now uses nouveau graphic driver for Nvidia cards instead of older nv, which means that cards starting from NV30 (this is Geforce 5 and newer) now have direct rendering and OpenGL support. Nouveau is not as fast as proprietary Nvidia driver, but it’s open source and works fast enough to deliver decent desktop effects. Ati Radeon users will also notice that default system offers radeon driver instead of old and unsupported radeonhd. The latter is also very good together with new Xserver 1.8 and delivers smooth effects and even acceptable fps in basic OpenGL games. So, openSUSE now offers the first its release to support desktop effects out-of-the-box for all major graphic vendors: Nvidia, AMD/Ati, Intel and VIA. Speaking about other changes I have to notice the elimination of Sax2 – the long-aged SUSE graphic setup tool. Modern openSUSE doesn’t need it anymore as soon as the system automatically chooses the right driver for your video card. If you have a CRT display and need to change the default resolution, then it is easily done in GNOME or KDE’s userspace utilities. So, good-bye Sax2.

As soon as I’m tuned to what we call “an everage desktop users”, I’ll skip those changes about new Zypper features, new virtualization and cloud computing tools. All this is placed in official OpenSUSE announcement.

I’ve tested OpenSUSE 11.3 on the following machine:

AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 2Gb RAM, Ati Radeon HD 4730 (512MB RAM) and WD Caviar 40 GB (10K).

I’ve downloaded the x86_64 full DVD ISO, and burned it on my disc. The installation process was quite the same as that in 11.2 release. The wizard was intuitive and easy to use, so I installed the standard software selection with GNOME desktop within 20-25 minutes or so. The openSUSE flavor in installation is that it doesn’t need a reboot after the OS is installed. The system gets installed and configured and afterwards boots into desktop, which is very good and professional. Also, If you start working with OS right after it’s installed, you will not even know how the GRUB loader looks like – I think this is where openSUSE team can be proud of what they’ve done.

The GNOME desktop isn’t much different from 11.2 version, but there are plenty of minor changes and fixes that make your experience very smooth. By default the desktop layout has only one bottom panel with Novell’s SLAB menu in the left corner (you’ll also find its modified version in Linux Mint) and standard tray elements in the right one. The system looks very smooth and professional thanks to dark green and gray design of Sonar theme. There are Sonar GTK2 look and Sonar Metacity theme, and Sonar icon set, which is an improvement, because in 11.2 Sonar icons were not even installed by default and Gnome desktop has only GTK2 and Metacity theme. but the default iconset is Gilouche, which is strange, because there are better-fitting Sonar icons in openSUSE repo.

In OpenSUSE 11.3 I’m finally satisfied with the way the system is visually decorated. The style is now consistent for all applications, there are updated  SUSE’s splashes for GIMP and OpenOffice.org, and everything looks professional. Desktop effects (Compiz) were enabled be default and worked very smoothly, so I left them enabled. Previously I’ve had many troubles with compiz and kwin effects on my Radeon HD, so this time I’m very joyfull that everything is so fast and responsive.

In my case the very first action on freshly installed system is the Internet connection setup (I have a static IP). I’ve noticed that there are no NetworkManager icon in the tray, and the connection is meant to be configured via Main menu > Internet connection. After you press it, you will be prompted with root password and then the Yast window will appear. Yast connection wizard remained almost unchanged from 11.2 and you can either set all connection details in traditional SUSE way, or switch to NetworkManager mode. If so, then the NetworkManager appears in desktop tray and you’ll have to the same you do in Fedora or Ubuntu.

The next vital action that you will probably want to do is to install extra software packages, including missing media support and your favourite applications. Because of it’s open-source status, openSUSE is not shipped with proprietary codecs, but you can install them in a few steps. Before you install anything, go to Software Sources section in Yast and add Packman repository (it is in Communuty repositories subsection). You can add any number of available repos according to your need or curiosity. Then lets install extra stuff. Yast software management is now even better in GNOME, because the interface where you select packages has been refined and polished specially for GTK2 version. Now it’s easy to select multiple packages, read their versions and overviews. Basically, if you want your movies and music files to play flawlessly, be sure to install the following packages:

  • gstreamer-0_10-ffmpeg
  • gstreamer-0_10-plugins-bad
  • gstreamer-0_10-plugins-ugly

Also it’s a good idea to have a selection of media players, such as VLC and Mplayer. All the rest stuff will be included as dependencies and installed together with those packages automatically.

After a few minutes Yast had successfully downloaded and installed everything from my order and I noticed that movie files in my folder started getting respective thumbnails. This was good!

If you plan to work with audios, videos and pictures, pay attention to standard software choice in openSUSE 11.3. By default all music files and movies files are played with Banshee 1.6.1, while photographs are handled with F-Spot 0.6.1.5. These two apps were developed using Mono framework by Novell. While there is a mixed acceptance of Mono apps in Linux community, they are actually perfectly fit in openSUSE Gnome desktop and are very good for home users, IMHO. You’re supposed to keep a photographic database within F-Spot but surely, if you need advanced editing tools, better use GIMP. Unlike Ubuntu, openSUSE keeps offering Gimp for default desktop and there are no plans to abandon it.

After a while, I decided to install Skype and went to its website. There is a package for openSUSE, and it gets installed very smoothly. Somehow, Skype is always 32 bit and on my AMD64 system it’s simply refused to start up. Skype requires a bunch of 32 bit libraries , including X server libraries, QT4 libraries and a like. Of course it’s not good for a inexperienced user to face this problem. But if you need a working Skype installation, you’ll have to install it’s dependencies by hand. Try to launch Skype from command line and see what file is missing. Then paste it to rpmfind.org search field and figure out which package it belongs to. Then simply install this package in Yast Software Management. Most probably you’ll need to do this several time until Skype will finally load. There’s more elegant solution to associate files with their packages via Zypper, so if you feel to explore it, just man zypper.

By far, this is what I have explored after two days of using openSUSE 11.3. I like the new version much more than 11.2 because there are much less rough edges in 11.3 than in 11.2. When you’re using the system for several hours you notice how much work had been done under the hood. I suppose that KDE4 desktop has seen even more improvements, but I haven’t tested it yet.

So, a little verdict:

The strong

  • Faster boot , faster kernel, faster application launch time
  • KMS enabled for ATi and NVIDIA – a more smooth boot and login/logout experience
  • Greatly improved YAST GTK2 version
  • Faster Zypper work – a more smooth package installation
  • New great artwork and consistent look and feel
  • Built-in BTRFS support for all your experiments with this great filesystem
  • Very broad software selection, thanks to OBS (openSUSE build service) and third-party repos.

The weak

  • Few quirks with Sonar GTK2 theme, left unfixed from 11.2. Look here for example.
  • It’s not that easy to turn off root password prompting. If you don’t need this paranoic security and don’t have local network neighbourhood, you’ll probably want to authenticate to system tools without password. The consistent root password asking is annoying.

What you can do else?

Some screenshots:


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