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SuSE 8.0, KDE 3.0 first look

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People have been wondering why a conservative company like SuSE would go with two x.0 versions, theirs and KDE's, to form the core of their latest distro; and I must say that on the basis of my experience with x.0's I was ready for some comic frustration when I installed SuSE 8.0-Pro the other day.

Ah, but it was a delightfully boring affair which went off without a hitch. YaST2 has been sharpened a bit since 7.3, with cleaner splash and boot screens, and a Web-style links menu for installation options. I chose XFS again, chiefly to be fair to Mandrake which I kicked to the curb in a recent review of their new 8.2 distro.

Package selection in any SuSE Pro distro is a lengthy affair, taking a good twenty minutes if you're familiar with it. If you've never used SuSE, then you might count on forty-five minutes to get it all sorted. Pretty much everything you could ever hope to find on the Web for Linux is there. The packages have been separated into even more categories now in hopes of simplifying the task. I don't think it helps much; but I really like the freedom of choice. That is, after all, one of the chief virtues of Linux.

Once the installation was finished, I set up my networking. The Ethernet card was not a problem. But for some absurd reason my DSL provider, Verizon, insists on PPPoE for customers in my region. I'd installed the SuSE-supplied Roaring Penguin RP-PPPoE RPMs (an excellent product, btw) during the installation in anticipation of this, but PPPoE wouldn't work.

I don't think there's much point in trying to conceal my loathing for RPM. I didn't even try to fix it; I simply went with the source tarball, as I normally do when RPM screws me, and all was well. (For times like this I maintain a CD containing the binary or source tarballs for all the stuff I either prefer or need. It's saved my bacon on numerous occasions, like this one where I'd need Web access to get what I need for Web access.)

So with that accomplished I ran the YaST online update. That was a bit weird. I got a message telling me that GPG wasn't installed or was corrupt, and did I want the packages even though they might not be coming from SuSE? So I exited, though I had selected GPG during the installation, and re-installed it. I went back to online update, and the same happened. So I threw caution to the wind and gambled that SuSE's FTP server hadn't been overtaken by YIHAT weenies, and installed the updates, rootkits and all.

Once that was done I set about rebuilding the kernel to get rid of unnecessary support and modules and bring it in line with my own processor. Whereas Mandrake had made that difficult, with the SuSE kernel it was a simple matter of running .config and making the desired changes, and proceeding in the traditional manner. I did have to do the modules, which slowed things considerably, but I'd removed a number of unnecessary features and 'modularized' some which had been compiled into the kernel. (And some items originally set as modules need to be compiled into the kernel when you roll your own, most importantly support for the file system.) These pre-compiled kernels tend to be pretty big, anticipating various sorts of hardware and peripheral support. I like mine small.

That also was pleasantly boring, and when it was done I performed a few tweaks like installing my proper hdparm parameters in boot.local, installing the latest drivers and libraries from nVidia for my GeForce-3, and installing TrueType fonts with the old bytecode_interpreter trick (I just know I have a copy of that license around here somewhere...)

Now it was time to play with my new system. Being a security paranoiac, I don't run servers of any sort on my home desktop machines -- not even Webmin, so you'll have to look elsewhere for commentary on that aspect of the distro.

SuSE Firewall-2 is simplified, allowing you to configure iptables for your internal interface (e.g., eth0) and your external interface (e.g., ppp0) individually (though not separately, if you see what I mean). It's a good deal more convenient than before, and can be set up in about thirty seconds.

As for the UI, most users will be pleasantly surprised. Not only is KDE-3.0 a lot more attractive than its predecessors, it's more functional and logical. And it's stable -- more so than any earlier version, so far as I can tell. Like SuSE, it seems to defy the x.0 conventional wisdom.

The clipboard bugs aren't entirely gone, but they're reduced. When you select text and hit the delete button, the stupid thing still copies it. But you can now insert text (like a URL in the address bar, say, or boilerplate for a CGI) into Mozilla and Netscape6. Of course this was never a problem with Konqueror, and isn't now. The clipboard seems not to work with Netscape Communicator, as before.

Your choice of browser may be limited by a few unpleasant issues. Font rendering in Mozilla 0.9.8 is sub-par, to put it mildly. The clipboard doesn't work in Communicator; and while fonts and clipboard functions are great in Netscape6, it has a loathsome new feature haranguing you to register for it's stupid IM service, which appears every time you start it, in the most vile, Microsoft tradition.

The only browser I've played with which doesn't offend you, which works with the clipboard, and which has reliable font rendering all in one package is Konqueror. And it's improved significantly over past versions, as this screenie indicates. The JavaScript permission feature in Mozilla 0.9.8 doesn't work; but Konqueror now has a similar feature which does. If you like Opera, you'll love Konqueror. If not, you can always install Mozilla 0.9.4, which I find fabulous on Linux. You can always disable JavaScript, after all.

Krusader is also improved, though more subtly; but the search utility is vastly better than it was -- in other words, it's finally a proper search utility. With the split window, you can now go directly in Krusader to a file or directory you've searched for. Hallelujah.

Kmail is actually beautiful, as this screenshot shows. It still defaults to displaying incoming mail in plain text, as any conscientious e-mail client should. And now it's a lot easier to look at. The import utility is unchanged -- still rather clunky but quite effective.

I didn't notice any dramatic improvements in Koffice. It's a great suite in and of itself, but that really isn't good enough; it still lacks decent import and export filters.

But file downloads are now looking and acting very nice. Instead of the cheesy, texty box of before, we have a true GUI incorporated into the file manager, and an easy, familiar way of choosing where the download ought to go. See this screenshot for a pleasant surprise. The same dialog now appears when opening or saving files in most KDE apps.

SuSE 8.0 gives you StarOffice 5.2 by default and OpenOffice 641 as an option (I think I have that straight), whereas Mandrake gives you the very nice OpenOffice 1.0 by default. I installed SuSE's OO 641 and immediately regretted it. I know this sounds almost impossible, but it managed to eliminate my taskbar in the process of creating itself. The next thing I knew every app I tried to minimize disappeared, but running ps ax | more showed that they were in fact still running, only invisibly. And of course with no taskbar I couldn't switch desktops. At first I wondered if I'd have to re-install all of KDE-3 to sort it out; but being bone-idle, I did what seemed easiest first, which was to try re-enabling the taskbar with the panel configuration, and that did the trick. So beware of this little surprise if you install OO 614 on your new SuSE box. I later installed OO 1.0 and it had no such ill effect.

Otherwise everything works just as it should. I've been using SuSE 7.3 pretty much exclusively on my personal machines for five or six months now, though with several upgrades of the kernel, FreeType, KDE, etc. It's accessible to Linux newbies if not exactly easy, yet reasonably power-user friendly. It may well be the best of all the packaged distros. And while there are imperfections in a few of the packages, overall I'd have to say that 8.0 is a solid step forward. I'll be keeping it, that's for sure. ®

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