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Flipping the Linux switch: openSUSE, geeko of many colors

YaST looks really hawt today.Please, allow me to explain. This week's FTLS was not at all what I intended it to be. For weeks now, I've been toying with idea of dual-booting a Debian based distro with a RPM based distro. Ubuntu Hardy (now reasonably mature enough for day to day use with minimal bork ups) was the obvious choice for a Debian flavor, as it already existed on my hard drive.

I am not a big fan of RPM based stuff, in general. I historically have had some real issues with installing Fedora on any piece of hardware I touch. I am intrigued to pieces by PCLinuxOS, but not intrigued enough to actually try it. SuSE, when it was just plain ol' SuSE, was the first Linux I ever tried. I liked it well enough, and it does hold a dear place in my heart. I guess it's kind of like a first crush.

The last openSUSE install I tried for any real length of time was 10.1. I installed 10.3 a month or two back to try some things, and found, though it's really usable, there wasn't anything that made me want to say, "Screw Ubuntu."

But I wanted to try openSUSE as my RPM based distro, again, because there are some nifty little apps on the horizon that seem, for now, to work best/easiest with openSUSE and/or RPM distros. I intended, wholeheartedly, to write about one of those little apps this week.

Until I reinstalled openSUSE 10.3, with the GNOME desktop. I was taken by the whole presentation, the whole delivery of the OS. I am still blown away by it.

Maybe not blown away enough to stop using Ubuntu entirely... but I haven't actually booted into Hardy for some time now. And I am anxiously waiting to see what changes are in store for openSUSE 11.0, due this summer.
So much for speculation, though. Let's look at what we have, right here, right now.

openSUSE, for the new Linux user, is really not a difficult install. Surely the hardest part for me was setting it up so that I didn't lose Ubuntu. Because I was not installing it on a Windows machine, I am not sure how the dual boot process works in that regard in this version, but I recall early versions of openSUSE were quite forthcoming and friendly about resizing Windows partitions. (Just not so much with co-existing Linux partitions!) What is particularly nice is the draggable resize option for existing partitions. They're very clearly marked (you know what partition is getting bigger/smaller, and what resides where), and fairly intuitive.

Easy, yes. Quick? Oh, god, no. It takes an inordinately long time to install openSUSE, if you accept the defaults it offers you. We're talking on the order of an hour and a half or so, for just the software packages. This is something that has always irked me about openSUSE. It's not as long as Windows install, especially when you consider all the stuff you'll have to install after the fact to have it be half as useful. But it's got to be the longest Linux install ever, with the exception of Gentoo or Linux From Scratch.

So needless to say, I was a bit, er, surly when whole process completed. I was sure hoping that little app I wanted to look at was worth it -- you know, feeling how I do about RPMs.

openSUSE desktop. Plain, green, but a LOT to love here.

Off blew the socks. I log in to my desktop, and there is GNOME. Well, sort of. It's like no other GNOME I've seen. Here's the other admission: Never been a real big GNOME fan. I generally prefer KDE, but only if there's no access to Xfce. But somehow, this GNOME layout (2.20.0) takes the fancy bits of KDE, and the ease and speed of Xfce.

openSUSE GNOME menu. Like KDE4s, but somehow, not as annoying? Why?

It's an interesting sort of phenomenon. Previously, I had been using the KDE version of openSUSE 10.3. On a really superficial first look, both versions were nearly identical. Sure, if you took a second look, one is unmistakably GNOME-ish and the other screams KDE. The first thing you recognize, though, is that you are clearly using openSUSE. You can easily identify it as an openSUSE product, before the desktop environment really springs to mind.

And perhaps this is a major reason why new users might start with openSUSE over Ubuntu. Conceptually, K/X/Ubuntu are the same flavor of Linux. The fact that they look radically different, despite the -ubuntu suffix, confuses the living daylights out of many new users. The differences between openSUSE-KDE and openSUSE-GNOME may not be any less drastic than Kubuntu versus Ubuntu. But they don't feel as drastic. Something feels like it's been translated across the desktop environments, and it just feels less like an entirely different beast.

openSUSE control panel. Coolest thing about nix is that you make it your own

But cosmetic things are cosmetic things, and those are usually tweaked by the user, in time. The one thing that always made me sort of want to run screaming from openSUSE back to Ubuntu (or just about any Debian based distro) was YaST. YaST is the openSUSE package management/package installer system, the equivalent to Synaptic or Adept.

It isn't that YaST wasn't effective, or didn't work right. It isn't that YaST's reliability and utility were ever in question. I started out using YaST. It was just fine, and was getting better with each new version. It was just that in my endless curiosity and quest for the perfect Linux distro, I fell in love with the elegance, and simplicity of APT and Synaptic-type tools.

When I tried openSUSE at version 10.1, YaST didn't look much different than it did in the SuSE 8.2 days when I'd started out. It wasn't that I'd call it completely user-unfriendly. A new user would be a bit puzzled by YaST, but as long as they overcame the fear of clicking on buttons without being a hundred percent sure what it would lead to, it was not a real stretch to figure out. It just wasn't as user-friendly a presentation as a Debian or Ubuntu installer.

And now I see that my aversion to RPMs was solely because I was bugged by the layout of YaST.

YaST is a great tool for new users. I can say that without reservation now. It is laid out nicely, easy to comprehend, and just looks clean and fresh. YaST worked fine before, but it felt so clunky and just not elegant. YaST, now, is a joy.

openSUSE YaST software installer. Almost Synaptic elegant!

Can you do anything with the new YaST that you couldn't with the old? Honestly, it's hard to tell. The number of whizbang widgety things on the old YaST made searching and determining what was installed hairy. There actually appear to be fewer widgets on the new YaST, but I believe it's probably just a better interface. Searching can be done by package name, categories, functions (patterns), or languages. Seeing what's installed versus what isn't is a lot simpler, and no longer requires deciphering funny icons to determine install/upgrade/reinstall status.

System configuration, in any Linux flavor, has come a long way. openSUSE is no exception. SaX2, the YaST module used for configuring graphics cards and monitors, is fairly reliable. It may not recognize your video card's ability to run Xgl or perform any 3D acceleration out of the box, but between one click driver installs and an actually helpful GUI, it shouldn't be much of an issue.

If you'd asked me a week ago what distro I'd be most likely to recommend for a new user to start with, I'd have to have said Ubuntu. It may not personally be my favorite (although picking a favorite distro, for me, is like picking a favorite kid), but it usually does a pretty good job of being many things to many people with different computer backgrounds.

Now, though, I'd have to give openSUSE a mention. It's always been a polished, good distribution, but for some nagging issues with what seems to have been, all this time, really design and user interface problems. If Ubuntu doesn't float your boat, or you find the openSUSE geeko ridiculously cute and want to take the OS for a spin, openSUSE 10.3 is available in liveCD form, as well as in different install-directly-to-hard-drive formats.

Tags: beginner, linux, linux-switch, new user, newbie, NewUser, Novell, opensource, openSUSE, osupdates, SUSE, Ubuntu