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openSuse 12.1 Review: An Elite OS

This is the favorite time of the year, it’s like Christmas for a GNU/Linux user. This is the time of the year when most Linux distros release their latest versions. We have already played with Ubuntu 11.10, Fedora 16 and today openSUSE 12.1 arrived. I have been casually using openSUSE 12.1 (RC) for a while and am quite comfortable with it — a compliment as its coming from a long-time Ubuntu user. If I look at my pattern I have been switching between Ubuntu 11.10, Fedora 16 and openSUSE 12.1 quite a lot recently. My Google + page is full of my experiences with these three OSes.

I never was an openSUSE user. I completely shifted to Linux at the same time when Novell signed that infamous deal with Microsoft which tried to ‘validate’ Windows maker’s base-less and false claims that Linux infringes upon its patents. I distanced myself from openSUSE after that deal. Now, with Novell gone and Microsoft shifting focus to Android (Barnes & Nobel just exposed that Microsoft’s Android claims were bogus) openSUSE appears to be back as the community driven project, and I am back too.

Gnome Shell 3, Getting Out Of Cocoon Of Gnome 2
openSuse comes with the latest version of Gnome, 3.2. This version offers Gnome 3 Shell which has fully matured and is now ready for the prime time with all those extensions. Gnome Shell 3 attracted me from the beginning, when I showed it to my wife and she loved it too.

Gnome 3 is they way forward. With Linux Mint’s decision to move to Gnome 3.x, its time for users to start getting used to it. There is no point holding back to old technology like Gnome 2. It’s like investing resources to keep IE5 alive. I think such users must come out and voice out their needs and I feel extensions can take care of a lot of stuff.

There are couple of extensions which make life easier for a user. I am an Ubuntu user, but I prefer Gnome 3 over Unity as it has more customization options.

One of the cool extensions allows you to access the old-school drop-down menu from within the Gnome 3 shell.

I don’t want to write much about Gnome 3 as I have already written enough about in my Fedora 16 review and there is not much difference in what Fedora or openSUSE offer with Gnome 3 Shell. It’s known that I prefer Gnome 3 Shell over Unity as it offers more customization, and that I simply ‘abhor’ Global Menu. Global Menu is an ugly mess that Ubuntu is trying to borrow from Apple Mac. Please get rid of Global Menu from Unity or at least give the option to disable it completely.

Global Menu is one reason I have set Gnome 3 Shell as default for my PC. Since the Gnome 3 Shell experience across all platform is consistent there is not much to write about it other than what I already wrote in Fedora 16 review. What matters the most is to see how the core system works, for me. Your usage can be different and what works for me may not work for you.

One good thing that openSUSE has done is tweaking the default (what’s default?) user menu and shows the option of Power Off as well as Suspend (and Hibernate in laptops) unlike the stale Suspend option. I think ‘Power Off’ (and ‘Restart’) option must be there. Only the ‘Suspend’ button doesn’t make any sense.
 

Beauty Lies In The Eyes Of User
Even if openSuse is targeted at advanced users, its is very well polished. I loved Fedora but I would give openSUSE extra points for the efforts they have done to polish and create seamless experience across applications. Apps look part of the OS, just check the LibreOffice and you would know what I mean.

However, there is a minor glitch. Fonts don’t render very well on openSUSE.I totally understand that there are patent and licensing issues that openSUSE can’t use Microsoft’s ClearType patents. Why Microsoft did not allow the ‘open source’ community to use their ClearType patents, did not they signed deal with Novell about some stupid patents?

Fonts rendered on openSUSE (bad) Fonts rendered on Ubuntu (great)

 
Anyway, the openSUSE page on Subpixeling is not working and clicking on the One Click install button takes you to an error page. Also if you try to do it manually there are issues with lower and upper case. You need to use Subpixel instead of subpixel when using manual method. Never mind, I tried everything suggested there but sites (fonts) look ugly under openSUSE. I think, since most of our PC use is via a browser, it will be better if there are clear instructions on how to make font rendering work better on openSUSE. Ubuntu renders fonts very well. There is a cool tool for Fedora called Fedora Utils, which fixes the fonts related issues.

Proprietary Hardware
openSUSE 12.1 and Fedora 16 both come with open-source drivers for proprietary hardware so there I don’t have to make any effort to make it work. It just works. Yes, if you do need to install proprietary drivers under openSUSE that’s a huge challenge. At the moment the Nvidia repository is not active so I can’t test. Last time when I tried to install proprietary drivers in with openSUSE 11.4, I ended up with a broken system. Under Ubuntu there is a tool called Jockey which detects the proprietary hardware and finds and installs appropriate driver. If openSUSE is targeting average users then tools like these will make life easier and boost adoption. I don’t think openSUSE has ordinary user as their target audience, otherwise given the bright developers they have, features like these would have been there.

So, even if most of the stuff works out of the box, Ubuntu does have an edge over openSUSE when we are talking about average desktop user.

Printing Error
Unfortunately, openSUSE failed to detect my HP Photosmart over the network. Fedora 16 was able to detect the printer but could not scan and unless I connect the printer via USB and install HP application its not going to work. Under Ubuntu everything works with that single click that you make in printer settings option.

So, openSUSE doesn’t work out of the box, the way Ubuntu does. I love openSUSE but will I recommend openSUSE 12.1 to my aunt? No. Ubuntu? Yes.

Advance Level
Everything starts looking great in openSUSE as soon we leave the average user behind and enter the advance user mode. Here you have all the time you need to play with your PC.
 

All The King’s Horses And All The King’s Men: Packages
openSUSE, just like Fedora, has a huge repository of packages. The first thing you need to do is enable some repositories from Yast. Under openSuse Yast is your ‘command center’. From here you can nuke the whole world. So, hit Super key, the one with Firefox or Logo on it (OK if you still see Windows logo on it, get a Firefox logo and cover it) and from Activities open Yast. Nvidia also doesn’t have any repo for 12.1 at the moment. Other than that I found all the applications that I needed. You can always search http://software.opensuse.org and install by one click.

One  funny thing is that when you add new repos or if there is any notification, the pop-up window doesn’t show the action buttons and you have to stretch it. I don’t think buttons will be visible in the netbook at all. I think this needs to be fixed.

The installation and removal of applications is extremely easy under openSUSE. Yes, there is no Ubuntu Software Center like tool, but then as I said openSUSE is not targeted at the average desktop user. For a seasoned openSUSE user using terminal and zypper is far more easier than using a ‘software center’.

You may want to install some Shell Extensions as I did, just search for gnome-shell extensions and select the “Gnome Shell Extension”, it will install all other extensions as well which you can customize later.

openSuse, just like Fedora, boasts of a huge repository of software packages. So, I wanted to check if all the packages that I needed were available or not.

This is the list of what I use on Ubuntu: GIMP, LibreOffice, Liferea, Thunderbird, Chrome X, Arista, Phatch X, Amarok,Clementine, Rhythmbox, VLC, VirtualBox. I found everything except for Phatch. Under Fedora Arista was not available.

I have been using Fedora 16 for a while and when using openSUSE I missed a few things. There is a nifty tool called ‘Fedora Utils’ which helps a lot if you want to tame the beast called Gnome 3 and Fedora. It takes care of font rendering and also installs the needed codecs and drivers. There is no such tool under openSuse. If you are aware of any such tool, do let me know.
 

Let’s See Whats New Or Extraordinary
openSuse, as we all know, just like Fedora is targeted at advanced users. openSuse is the ‘innovation’ hub for Suse Enterprise Linus, just the way Fedora is for RHEL. So, openSuse may not be able to suit the needs of an ordinary computer user. If you are someone who think of computer more than an email dispatching machine, and thing of it as a big toy then openSuse is perfect for you.

openSuse boasts of being the first Linux-based distro to come with Google’ Go language. openSuse also comes with ownCloud integrated within the OS, which means users can now run their own private clouds without having to worried about handing over their data to some company. Clubbed with PageKite service you can access your private cloud from anywhere around the globe. I will review the openSuse, ownCloud and PageKite combo in a separate article.

For developers, openSuse 12.1 comes with a tool called Snapper, which offers file versioning, the systemd init system and the Google Go language.

As we know that btrfs (developed by Oracle) is touted as the future filesystem of Linux which will replace ext4. openSuse comes with btrfs and you can choose btrfs as the default file system in openSuse 12.1. btrfs offers snapshot functionality which makes the file system very space efficient. You can install Snapper tool in openSuse and take advantage of the snapshoting that btrfs offers.

Snapper allows a user to not only view the older versions of files but also revert changes. That’s not all. openSuse has integrated it with zypper packages manaher which enables a user to roll back entire upgrades or software installations with the accompanying configuration changes. openSuse is using systemd as the new init tool which improved the booting process.

I have yet to test openSuse on my beast and then only I will be able to say anything about how proprietary drivers from Nvidia works with openSuse.

Conclusion
If we accept the fact that openSUSE and Ubuntu target different users, the life will be easier. openSUSE is not for the average user. You have to work a bit to make things work, and if stuff like printers don’t work out of the box, its a challenge to recommend openSUSE to an ordinary user. The problem is openSUSE has everything that one needs. All it needs is to make its developers realise that they need to loosen the grip a bit. In the age of the Internet when user the OS is becoming more and more irrelevant, Windows market will slide and Linux can become dominant. What we need is some help from the Fedora/openSUSE developers to make things a bit easier for an ordinary user.

I have not faced any issues with openSUSE other than the problems that I mentioned. I think a lot of users will find openSUSE to be a perfect replacement of Windows/Mac and a perfect companion of Ubuntu.

I would recommend openSUSE, if you know how to find your way out out of some problems. I think this is the best openSUSE release ever — why, because I love it.

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A request to the the developers: openSUSE is cool and 12.1 simply rocks, just expand your target audience a bit. Please include the ones like me!

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Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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