Just a few days ago the OpenSUSE developers released the first release candidate of the soon to be available OpenSUSE 11.3. We are still about a month from that final release, so I decided to check it out and find out how it stands when compared to other 2010 releases.
As usual, I downloaded the LiveCD ISO image, this time in the KDE flavor. I am not sure why, I guess I have always heard good things about the OpenSUSE KDE implementation, which naturally led me to it. I have to say that I have not tested the GNOME version, so my conclusions in this preview may not apply to it.
Booting from the LiveCD is a visually pleasant experience. There is a professional vibe to the whole installation process, which is filled with eyecandy and a tight and consistent branding style all around.
OpenSUSE's warm welcome message.
That professional vibe is maintained as you start the installation itself, whose very first step involves accepting the general terms of the GPL license agreement. One interesting element that should be noted here is that we can choose the installation language, which is a nice feature for non native English speakers. Unfortunately, judging by the Spanish translations, they are imcomplete. I saw several important messages displayed in English, but I am assuming translations are still in the works for this release.
GPL license agreement.
Following the usual steps that pretty much every distro follows, we are asked to set the time zone settings.
What a cool little World map...
The installation wizard then runs a check for installation media and suggests an optimum partition arrangement for the new system. I had Mandriva previously installed and OpenSUSE successfully detected that previous installation, then suggested the best way to work around it for its installation to take place. I found the suggested automatic settings to be exactly what I needed, very convenient. I haven't tested this tool under different configurations (a drive with no partitions, with only one partition, etc.), so I am not sure if it will always be spot on, but it worked great for me. If anything, I think the amount of information provided was perhaps too much for someone who's using Linux for the first time or simply does not know much about computers. Something more generic, like "the whole disk space will be utilized for the new installation" with a "more details" button available for the curious would probably make more sense, I think.
Automatic disk partition scheme suggested, which was spot on.
The next step involves the creation of users and offers plenty of flexibility. We can choose whether to create the default account as admin or not, enforce logging in or not, etc.
A flexible and handy user creation screen.
As a final step before the actual installation starts, a summary of the choices made throughout the process is presented for us. I was happy with it, so I continued on and had the installation run.
The installation completed successfully.
There is no fancy slide show here, no introduction to OpenSUSE and certainly no pretty pictures. Apart from the progress bar and some text messages, there is not much here that would be interesting for anybody but "techies". I believe that's a bit of a shame, as it would have provided a nice well-rounded feel to the whole installation process.
All in all, OpenSUSE's installation process is very good, offering a friendly interface that feels consistent and attractive throughout. It is exactly because of that that I miss a bit more work to make it even more accessible for all kinds of users and to provide a more visually appealing introduction to this distro while the installation is running in the background. To that effect, I believe OpenSUSE's installation process is slightly behind Ubuntu's and Pardus', which are particularly polished.
Once the installation finishes, we are asked to reboot the machine. As is the case in other distros, a bit of extra configuration is still awaiting us as we first boot. OpenSUSE deems this process "Autoconfiguration", and its name is self explanatory. If a network connection is available (recommended), the autoconfiguration tool will use it to download updates, extra configuration files required, etc.
A bit of extra configuration takes place on the first boot.
Once complete, we are presented with the default login screen, where we can enter our credentials before starting a new session. The KDM theme is consistent with the overall branding, which is welcome, but perhaps a bit too simplistic for my taste.
The default KDM them in OpenSUSE 11.3.
The OpenSUSE 11.3 desktop is once again consistent with the distro branding. Using the default wallpaper, an ongoing theme through the installation, splash screen and KDM theme, it provides a familiar vibe throughout.
The OpenSUSE 11.3 KDE desktop after the first login.
A large window appears right in the middle of the screen, attracting our attention as it presents information, documentation and an introduction to KDE. A welcome effort, which should help those using OpenSUSE/KDE for the first time, but I think it falls short. The first problem is that most of the contents are online, almost immediately rendering this welcome screen useless unless there is a working network connection (something most Linux distros keep on taking for granted, not sure why!). The second problem is that the contents are limited and mostly text-based. This one feels like the typical window that most users will close without even looking at it, which is a shame. One thing I liked, though, is that this window is easily accessible any time from the desktop "OpenSUSE" launcher, so users can go back to its contents if they need to.
Surprisingly, KDE SC is still on version 4.4.3. Considering KDE SC 4.4.4 is out since about 3 weeks ago, and the fact that it is simply a bugfix version, I am not sure why it is not included. This release candidate is probably a frozen compilation already, which means KDE SC 4.4.3 will still be there by the time OpenSUSE 11.3 goes live, roughly a month from now. Yes, I know, KDE SC 4.4.4 will probably be available from the repositories, but still feels too conservative an approach in my opinion.
OpenSUSE 11.3 sports KDE 4.4.3 SC.
That conservative approach on KDE SC is contrasting with a risky one, involving the Internet browser choice: Firefox 3.6.4pre. Frankly, I don't really understand it. KDE SC 4.4.4 is a safe bet, while including such unfinished version for Internet browsing duties could cause problems to users (compatibility issues with existing Firefox addons, certain websites not working as expected, etc.).
Firefox 3.6.4pre is the default web browser.
That's about as risky as it gets, though, with most other applications included sporting older and stable versions. Amarok 2.30, for instance, is part of this release, even if 2.31 was released at the end of May.
LOOK & FEEL
The KDE desktop in OpenSUSE does not feel terribly customized. There is only one wallpaper available to choose from, no custom OpenSUSE icon set or window borders, etc. Having said so, the desktop conveys a feeling that its panels, icons, menus and application catalog have been carefully put together.
An OpenSUSE custom theme included for the desktop panel, but that was about it.
When I browse the main menu in other KDE distros, I almost always feel like too many applications are included, some of which look obsolete or discontinued. On the contrary, the OpenSUSE menu contains less applications under each category, and it is hard to find one that looks out of place. The right icons are used throughout, providing a nice and consistent feel as I browse through the main menu categories.
There are some application splash screens that have been customized to the distro branding, but because they are just a few, they actually give the distro a bit of an unfinished feel. I guess this could be an ongoing effort that could be finished by the time the distro goes live. I certainly hope so, because I loved the custom splash screens.
I like the custom application splash screens, which will hopefully make it to all applications.
Acknowledging that this is just the first Release Candidate, it does feel as if OpenSUSE is not as mature in terms of Look&Feel as other distros like Pardus, Linux Mint or PCLinuxOS. It does provide a good looking and consistent KDE desktop experience, though, that should please most users.
SYSTEM ADMINISTRATION: YaST
OpenSUSE includes a wonderful tool for system administration: YaST. Mandriva users will probably feel it shares the same principles as their control center, and rightly so. On the left hand side, a list of categories to choose from. On the right, the main applet including the bulk of tools/applications to manage language settings, security, privacy, users, etc.
YaST plays the system management tool role in OpenSUSE.
For instance, we can configure the firewall from this screen, simply double clicking on the corresponding icon. The firewall interface is not the easiest or most intuitive I have seen, but it did alright.
Firewall setup screen, accessible from YaST.
The one thing I didn't like about YaST is probably its interface. Mandriva have refined the category menu concept further in that clicking on one determines what is displayed on the main applet, as opposed to displaying everything all the time, which is what happens in OpenSUSE. In fact, clicking on a category in OpenSUSE simply highlights a group of applications/tools on the main applet, which is not really that clarifying.
In summary, I think YaST is a good tool, but I think it could benefit from a bit of polishing its interface.
OpenSUSE also includes its own software management tool, which should ease things up for those not command line inclined.
OpenSUSE's software management tool.
I personally liked the interface provided, but I have to admit it is far from being as sleek as that of, say, Linux Mint 9.
On a different note, an update manager applet is locked on the system tray, automatically informing the user that updates are available for download.
The update manager didn't really work as expected.
Unfortunately, it didn't really work as expected for me. I used it once, applied an update, but then the tool kept on saying that that same update was still pending. I am not really sure if this was a one off issue, perhaps related to the current release candidate nature of the distro.
OpenSUSE 11.3 is certainly not a distro that will be remembered for having lots of applications preinstalled. I am sure some people will like that approach, while some others will probably miss a richer application selection out of the box. I believe the OpenSUSE developers cleverly picked some key applications, so I don't see any critical misses here, perhaps with the exception of a proper free video player (Caffeine?... Really?). OpenOffice, Firefox, Amarok and GIMP are just about a few of the applications included in OpenSUSE 11.3.
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
OpenSUSE 11.3 already feels like a solid release at its current RC1 state. It provides a solid and friendly installation experience, a good KDE implementation and a carefully picked set of preinstalled applications. There are obviously some areas that could benefit from polishing, but something tells me we will probably have to wait for a future release before that happens.
As usual, I will write my final thoughts when the final release is eventually out, but for now I hope this preview gives you an idea of what OpenSUSE 11.3 has to offer.
Thanks for reading!