INSTALLATION & MEDIA
One welcome thing outside of testing the distro itself is the official ANNOUNCEMENT, which is so informative and detailed that I feel should be an example for other distro builders out there. Once you are ready to download, there are a few media formats available, ranging from the full blown 4.7GB LiveDVD image (the one I downloaded and will review below) to less complete options, certainly better suited for slower connections.
The installation process is not that much different to what we have seen in previous releases, which is not necessarily a bad thing. OpenSUSE was one of the first to bring forward a beautiful GUI installation wizard, and at this stage, it is a mature and solid product which works great. If anything, I wish it incorporated some of the latest enhancements and ideas we have seen in Ubuntu, like the ability to download updates during the installation.
Installing OpenSUSE 11.4 from the LiveDVD, users can choose the desktop manager to be installed, KDE being the default option. I installed GNOME first, more than anything because I was curious to learn more about GNOME Shell, but I didn't really had a chance to test it. OpenSUSE 11.4 is built on GNOME 126.96.36.199, an up to date version of the current stable environment. GNOME Shell is available, but reading through the documentation, I learnt it has already become obsolete due to the current frantic development pace. GNOME Shell aside, my only comment about OpenSUSE GNOME would be that KDE is the default and it shows. In other words, it's easy to tell when a release does a good job at implementing one desktop manager or another and when they simply offer it as an option. In this case, GNOME is clearly plan B.
After browsing around for fun, I removed GNOME and off I went to get KDE installed. I have to admit I was interested to see if OpenSUSE would incorporate the recently released KDE 4.6.1, but that was not the case. I think that is unfortunate, because KDE 4.6.0 was a major release bringing in lots of changes and inevitably some bugs, so it would have been nice to get the most relevant fixes from those March KDE updates already. If KDE 4.6.1 was not available when the production release was frozen, a method to download it as one of the first main updates could have been enabled for user convenience. I hope it happens eventually.
The installation process went by and took quite some time, but I guess that's reasonable when using such a big sized LiveDVD. In both my GNOME and KDE installation attempts, everything worked smoothly and no errors were found.
(NOTE: An interesting little fact for some, I was able to install OpenSUSE 11.4 on an external USB hard drive. That in itself would not be worth mentioning, but after getting repeated errors when trying to do the same thing with Pardus 2011, I thought I would bring it up.)
The KDM login theme is consistent with the installation wizzard branding. It's not busy, but it doesn't look oversimplified either. The same applies to the desktop, which sports an elegant wallpaper made of vertical stripes, adding an original twist to the SUSE logo. I personally love this wallpaper and have kept it as is.
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Other than the wallpaper, the overall look and feel is pretty standard for a KDE desktop. The OpenSUSE community have created a custom Air theme specific for their distro, but fonts, controls and icons are all the usual.
One thing I quickly realised is that OpenSUSE is a good implementation of KDE 4.6.0. My previous experience was under Kubuntu 10.10, and well, I wasn't too impressed. KWin effects now run very smoothly, seemingly not impacting system performance in a noticeable way. In fact, the overall performance is good, with menus and applications feeling quick and responsive.
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My testing with OpenSUSE 11.4 also marked the first time I tried Faenza on KDE, and I must admit I love it. I am not entirely sure why, but I always considered Faenza a GNOME icon theme by definition. Having said so, it works out well under KDE as well, changing the already familiar KDE style in a refreshing and original way... It's a subtle change, but it added some new excitement to using the KDE desktop!
Good old YaST2 is in charge for most things configuration. Similar to the Mandriva Control Center, YaST2 owns software management duties, but also anything from user account management to Kernel settings, Novell AppArmor settings or Firewall configuration, to name just a few. As is the case with the Mandriva Control Center, the YaST2 interface does not look native inside KDE, giving it a bit of a rusty vibe. All in all, it does what it is supposed to do, albeit with some quirky overlaps with KDE's own System Settings.
To summarize, OpenSUSE 11.4 provides a reasonably good looking and performing KDE 4.6.0 desktop. Looks could be improved and perhaps the amount of customization could be more significant, but I have to say my first impressions were quite positive.
Out of the box, OpenSUSE users get quite a big application catalog in KDE. There is nothing revolutionary here, but there are some interesting picks. Firefox 4.0 comes in its Beta12 suit. LibreOffice 3.3.1 takes over as the office suite of choice, continuing a trend that most Linux distros are already following. Amarok, Kmail, Ksnapshot, digiKam, Marble, GwenView and many other typical KDE choices are available, but also a few more "obscure" options, like LinPhone.
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Installing applications is simple(ish) with YaST2, but it is strange that very common applications still require the addition of extra repositories. For example, I was unable to install Chromium browser from the standard repositories. Fortunately, once I added the contrib ones, it was simple and I got a very up to date version, which was welcome!
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In case you face this issue, here's how to add the contrib repositories:
1.- From the main menu, go to Applications > System > Configuration > Add/Remove Software. Open the Configuration menu > Repositories..., then add the following URL as a new entry:
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to download other popular applications (Skype comes to mind) from YaST and was forced to download it from the application's own Website. In fact, installing Skype was one of the many problems I faced when testing OpenSUSE 11.4. I will discuss them in detail in the following section.
EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES...
Let me be clear here: I can't recall testing a major distro release with as many issues as OpenSUSE 11.4. Hardware support problems, application installation issues, lack of stability and consistency... It's taken me many hours just to get some basic things working.
When I found out about the OpenSUSE 11.4 release, there were two main things that sparked my interest. First, I wanted to test the new 2.6.37.x Kernel series because of its supposedly enhanced hardware support, specifically the new Broadcom wireless drivers. On the hardware support department, I was also interested in checking whether this new Kernel would be able to cope with current Intel HD graphics cards while maintaining support for older models (something older Kernel versions not always managed successfully). Second was my interest on GNOME Shell, as already mentioned.
I originally installed OpenSUSE 11.4 on an external USB hard drive successfully from an HP nx7400, an old but trusty notebook which is usually a starting point for me because of its Linux-friendly hardware. No hardware support issues appeared, as I was expecting, but the great thing about installing on a USB hard drive is that I can simply plug it on any other tablet or laptop and get to test that hardware.
A Wireless Odyssey
My next target was my HP2740p tablet, whose Broadcom B4312 wireless network card and Intel HD graphics card always required a bit of extra work to get going. On the good news department, the graphics card worked flawlessly out of the box. Unfortunately, when it came to the wireless device, that was far from being the case. It seems the new Kernel series provides the open source B43 driver by default, which gets some functionality working, but not all. Scanning for wireless networks worked OK, but I wouldn't get a lasting connection, it would disconnect right after connecting. I wasn't that surprised, to be honest, because that is exactly the same behavior I get in Ubuntu with that same driver.
To provide a bit of context here, after installing and booting Ubuntu 10.10 for the first time on the same machine, it only takes a couple minutes before it notices the wireless card requires specific drivers. Ubuntu provides the open source Broadcom driver available as the primary option, but also the Broadcom STA proprietary one in case I need it. Long story short, it takes about 5 minutes to get it to work under Ubuntu, with little extra effort required from the end user. Unfortunately, that was far from being the case in OpenSUSE 11.4.
Because of my previous experience with Ubuntu, I knew installing the Broadcom STA wireless driver would get things going. After quite a long time Googling about it and finding a specific forum THREAD on the subject, I learned that installing the Pacman
broadcom-wl-kmp-desktopdriver was probably my best shot. Now, anyone who has ever had to overcome similar problems under Linux knows that there is a lot of hit and miss involved, for not all forum replies capture the right solutions. As a result, it took me a few hours and a lot of tries to get to the final solution.
Unfortunately, that final solution wouldn't be straightforward either. When I finally installed the apparently working drivers, I got my network card to be able to scan wireless networks again, only this time it would not connect to mine at all. Back to square one. I was scratching my head because I was running out of options. Using common sense, I thought it was very weird that my card was apparently behaving correctly but could not connect to my WPA2 encrypted wireless network, and then it hit me: "Could encryption be the problem here?." Off I went to investigate once more, and once again, I found other people experimenting similar behavior in forums. I again found workarounds, but they were specific to the B43 driver, not the Wl I was using.
I decided to test on an open (not encrypted) wireless network, just to see if encryption had anything to do with it. As I was expecting, OpenSUSE 11.4 successfully connected with that open wireless network, which was good news because it was the first time I could get a working wireless connection. However, I had no clue about fixing the encryption issue, so I decided I would try again on my encrypted network, hopeful that I would maybe spot something that could lead me to the final solution.
Long story short, after having tried on an open network, connection on an encrypted network worked as well without me changing anything else. The screenshot below shows proof, but how and why it started working all of a sudden, I have no idea. Bizarre!
Installing RPMs (or banging my head against the keyboard)
I finally got my wireless problems out of the way, time to continue testing hardware and applications. My 2740p has an integrated webcam and internal mic, which I often test through Skype. I therefore downloaded the corresponding RPM from the Skype Website and proceeded to install... Little did I know that I was about to get stuck with another problem.
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The screenshot above shows the error message I got when trying to install any downloaded RPMs. As they say, Google is your friend, so I started searching again, and again I was not the only one with the problem. Apparently, this issue is caused by a conflict with the
PK_TMP_DIRrepository, which already exists in YaST. I removed it and the installation finally completed successfully.
Skype Wars too
So, I finally had Skype installed, time to open it up... Open the main menu, click on the Skype icon... Nothing happens. "I probably didn't really click properly, let's try again...", I said to myself, but again, nothing happened. "Argh!!!." Investigation was on again, so I opened skype from the command line, just to check if an error message would show up, and indeed one did.
skype: error while loading shared libraries: libpng12.so.0: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
At this stage, Google is my brother, certainly closer than a friend... Anyways, I searched for this error and found that the Skype package was missing some dependencies and that installing
libpng12-0was required, which proved to be correct because it fixed my problem.
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At last, Skype was running and the webcam was apparently working. Unfortunately, the internal mic was not, rendering the application pretty much useless... Oh, well! (To be fair, the internal mic was successfully configured and working on my HP 2730p).
Leaving stability issues aside, which are somewhat expected so soon after release date, OpenSUSE 11.4 is not a bad release. The KDE 4.6 implementation is stable and responsive, and all applications on board work well. Unfortunately, issues as critical as not being able to install RPMs, having popular applications not running successfully, or missing hardware support when it actually worked on previous versions, may become show stoppers for standard (non-expert) users.
If you like OpenSUSE, I would suggest waiting a few months before downloading/installing. I think many fixes should already be on their way to hopefully provide its great foundation with some much needed reliability.
Thanks for reading!