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SuSE 8.1 illustrates MS' fear

Windows killer around the corner

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Anyone wondering why MS execs Steve Ballmer and Brian Valentine are so bent out of shape about Linux should check out SuSE's most recent distro, 8.1, for insight. For a desktop PC or small-biz network it's already miles ahead of Win98-SE and ME and closing fast on XP for ease of installation and use by first-timers.

The user experience is so close to XP now that one can expect it to surpass it in the next edition or the one following. Now add to that Linux's resistance to viruses, the comparative speed with which open-source security bugs get fixed, the wealth of free applications included, and the GPL enlightenment that allows you to install it on as many machines as you please and upgrade it free of charge on your own, and you can see why MS is feeling the heat around the corner and not taking it terribly well.

What's new

Most of the changes between 8.0 and 8.1 are refinements. Package installation, whether during the initial system build or later tinkering, now includes detailed information about packages, dependencies and conflicts with pop-up dialogs offering alternatives for resolution. It's fast, logical, and easy for a new user to understand. In a recent OSnews review, author Eugenia Loli-Queru said she found the package manager a 'monstrosity' but personally I think it's the best one going. The installation is not a linear process, but instead there's a tree menu from which users can choose which bits of the installation they wish to customize and which they prefer to leave to the SuSE defaults.

Initial package selection during the system build can be very time consuming with the pro edition; just about every package you might ever wish to install is available. For a seasoned Tuxer who knows what they want, choosing 'detailed package selection' and going through the tree should take only 20 minutes or so, but for a newbie it can be overwhelming. There is also a very handy package search feature which makes it easy for seasoned users to find the packages they like.

However, a new user can comfortably choose the default system because adding needed or desired packages later is quite easy with the YaST2 GUI control interface. Again, it offers the same simplified conflict and dependency information and search features one gets with the initial setup. This item will make the distro easy for Windows and Mac users to configure and administer; you can accomplish almost everything without recourse to the shell. In other words, you need to know as much about Unix to run SuSE 8.1 as you need to know about DOS and Basic to run Win-XP.

Purists may balk, but I think it's a significant and welcome step towards bringing Linux into the mainstream, where it very much belongs. Of course, if you prefer to work from the shell and build your apps from source, there's nothing in the SuSE setup that makes this difficult. SuSE remains remarkably accessible to newbies and yet power-user friendly. It's still 100% Linux.

Hardware detection during the installation is every bit as good as Win-XP. As with XP, the hardware drivers supplied are functional but may not be as good or as up-to-date as the ones the manufacturer supplies, so it's always a good idea to visit the maker's Web site and install the latest ones when you get around to it.

The NIC detection and networking setup went off without a hitch. My ISP requires PPPoE for my DSL connection, and the supplied Roaring Penguin RP-PPPoE driver which I installed during the system build worked flawlessly. Previously I'd had to install the RP package again manually to make it work properly, but this time SuSE has got it sorted. Getting my machine on-line was as easy and trouble-free as it is with XP. There's no 'wizard' but the basic networking setup in YaST is simple and intuitive, yet it allows for advanced tinkering.

SuSE is now including the hsflinmodem driver for victims with Conexant WinModems (software modems). I've used this driver on my laptop and it works like a charm, but you do have to select it for yourself during installation. There are several other WinModem drivers as well, though I've had no occasion to try them.

Network security is easy with SuSE Firewall2, which defaults to a nice, tight configuration for iptables easily set up in YaST. In the 'Security and Users' section of YaST is a simple configuration utility to tighten up file permissions. Root and user passwords can be MD5 encrypted for additional security.

You also get Mozilla 1.1, which gave me some trouble with fonts in KDE. This might be attributable to the supplied SuSE RPM, as I recall installing 1.1 from a binary package on an older system and having no such problem. In any case I downloaded and installed 1.2b from Mozilla.org and that solved the difficulty.

Multimedia support is getting better with each successive distro. I use a SoundBlaster Live card which needs the emu10k1 driver which can be loaded as a module or compiled into the kernel. It works well enough, though there are no bass and treble controls. There are plenty of audio and video codecs, a plethora of players, mixers, grabbers and burners, and numerous audio and video editing utilities.

There is now support for the Promise controller, a fact which made my day as I've had a Promise ATA 133 card for some time and previously no chance to play with it. When I hooked up a drive with an existing Win-XP image on it, the Windows image became permanently un-bootable, even after returning it to the mobo's built-in controller where it had resided happily for weeks. Linux simply wouldn't boot, but with no detrimental effects. The trick is simply to pass the parameter ide=reverse at boot time; this corrects the drive detection difficulty which had previously made the Promise controller a hassle. The controller does its job all right; the system became noticeably more lively, and hdparm reported the following (to me quite impressive) benchmark results:
Timing buffer-cache reads: 128 MB in 0.25 seconds = 512.00 MB/sec
Timing buffered disk reads: 64 MB in 1.62 seconds = 39.51 MB/sec

This was on a Maxtor 40GB drive with ATA 133 support. Your mileage may vary. I found also that the kernel support for the Promise controller makes it unnecessary to tinker with hdparm options and place them in /etc/init.d/boot.local. I tried numerous combinations but was unable to make any significant improvement in the benchmark results. (Note that it's important to run hdparm -Tt /dev/hd* several times after each change to weed out anomalies.)

Headaches

For all the progress in SuSE 8.1 there are some hassles, most of them minor and easy to fix. Nvidia cards are still a trial owing to Nvidia's reluctance to permit Linux packagers to distribute their drivers. But the SaX2 X Window configuration utility has been tweaked nicely since 8.0 and is getting along with Nvidia better than ever, so once you download and install the real drivers from the Nvidia Web site you should have no problem. I strongly recommend not opting for 3D support during the system installation. This will make it much easier to configure the video card later.

I ran into one glitch with SaX2; I had downloaded the Nvidia drivers and installed them before running SuSE on-line update. When I started SaX to configure my video system, it stumbled on the fact that I hadn't downloaded and installed the 'real' drivers via SuSE update (i.e., some helpful engineer making things a bit more idiot-proof than necessary). So it's best to run the on-line update first, then install the latest drivers from the Nvidia Web site, then check your XF86Config file, then re-boot, and then finally configure X with SaX.

But there was another glitch. The on-line update feature installed the Nvidia RPMs all right, but failed to configure etc/X11/XF86Config properly, leaving the statement, Driver "nv" in place of Driver "nvidia", which made it impossible to start X after the required re-boot. I found this out the hard way and had to run vi from the console and correct it, which was no problem; but for a newbie this would be a major difficulty. It needs to be sorted out immediately.

Finally, I've always found that the RPMs Nvidia supplies don't put all the files in all the right places. I strongly recommend using the binary tarballs for the Nvidia kernel and GLX driver instead. It's incredibly easy; you just unpack them wherever you please, bust out a root shell and run make from the top level directories. It's actually easier and faster than RPM, and even better, it always works. Just make sure that the statements Load "glx" and Driver "nvidia" appear in etc/X11/XF86Config under Section "Module" and Section "Device" respectively before you re-boot (or make sure you know how to use emacs or vi, and make sure you know the path to your XF86Config file -- different distros put it in different places.)

The free OpenOffice.org 1.0.1 is now included in place of StarOffice. It's a full office suite with excellent import and export filters, which I use exclusively. People who follow my Linux coverage are probably sick of hearing me complain about RPM, but here again it let me down. The RPM which was installed during the system build seemed to unpack properly, but whenever I attempted to open a Word document OO invariably crashed and shut down. However, when I downloaded the tarball from openoffice.org and installed it (same version), everything worked as it should.

There is a stuff-up with the clipboard in KDE. Whether this is due to SuSE's tinkering or KDE's carelessness I don't know, but whenever you highlight a URL the clipboard brings up a little menu offering to open it in the browser of your choice. I've always found it irritating but at least it always worked properly. But now, when you select a URL the thing copies it wrong, so that "http://theregister.co.uk" is mangled as "openURL(http://theregister.co.uk, new-window)" in the browser's address field, which of course puts a stop to all the fun.

SuSE has severed its long-standing relationship with LILO and gone to GRUB as its default bootloader. I've never used GRUB before and I have little to say about it, except that it appears to work as it should. It has the advantage of allowing the machine's owner to set a boot password which can be MD5 encrypted. YaST still makes it easy to configure the boot parameters and I personally haven't noticed any problems, or vast improvements. However, when booting a second, physical HDD SuSE still doesn't configure the bootloader properly and requires the user to correct it manually.

Conclusions

For me it feels odd to review a SuSE distro without recommending it, but this time I'm going to pass. 8.1 is a significant evolutionary step towards a mainstream Linux desktop. It shows where SuSE is going with the desktop PC (and the small-biz server and work station), and it shows how quickly the company is moving. That's impressive, all right. Fundamentally, SuSE Linux is an XP killer, but it needs buffing. All the major pieces are in place to make migrating from Windows a pleasant surprise, but there are too many little rough spots to make a strong recommendation. I think current SuSE users should stick with 8.0 for now; and people looking to get rehabilitated from the Windows licensing and upgrade crack addiction and seeking manumission from Microsoft's abusive EULAs might wait for 8.2 or 8.3, when most of the little irritants mentioned above will have been polished smooth. ®

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