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OpenSUSE 12.1 delivers Fedora punch with GNOME 3

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Review The big news in openSUSE 12.1, whose first beta has recently dropped, is the arrival of GNOME 3 – in this case GNOME 3.2.

Unlike Fedora, which is already into its second GNOME 3-based release, openSUSE had – thanks to its release schedule – stuck with GNOME 2 for its last release earlier this year.

OpenSUSE 12.1 embraces GNOME 3.2 and, like Fedora 16, drops support for the GNOME 2.x line.

This release marks a slight change to openSUSE's versioning convention. If you were thinking this should be openSUSE 12.0, you're correct. But the openSUSE project has decided to stop releasing .0 versions. Strange perhaps, but in the wacky world of software versioning that adjustment is fairly minor. OpenSUSE 12.1 it is.

If you've used any of the milestone releases preceding the beta there isn't much in the way of new features here, but there are a lot of bug fixes and component upgrades. Perhaps the most noticeable is the move to GNOME 3.2, which was released not long ago.

OpenSuSE 12.1

GNOME 3.x finally makes its presence felt in openSUSE

Naturally you'll find all of the improvements that come with GNOME 3.2 in openSUSE 12.1, including the new integrated chat and messaging system that's now built in to GNOME. There's also a new status bar notifications system that lets you to do everything from reply to chat messages to browsing files or eject external disks. Status bar messages can also now display a counter, for example to show the number of unread emails or new chat messages.

GNOME 3.2 in openSUSE looks identical to what you'll find in the recent Fedora 16 beta release. Unlike previous versions of GNOME, where the menu layouts and desktop environment could be tweaked to create considerable variation, there is – thus far – little that downstream distros can do to customize the look of GNOME 3. A few outside GNOME Shell themes do exist, but they primarily consist of changing the menu colors.

Given how much the openSUSE project used to customize GNOME 2.x – moving the main menu to the bottom, layering in its own very Windows-esque start menu and more – current openSUSE GNOME users may experience something of a shock moving to GNOME 3.2.

All of openSUSE's old GNOME theming is gone in openSUSE 12.1 and with it goes much of what made openSUSE's GNOME effort different from that of Ubuntu and Fedora.

The absence of easily customised themes for GNOME 3.2 isn't just an end user complaint, it's something of a downside for distros as well, particularly distros like openSUSE that completely reworked the GNOME interface.

In a way openSUSE will likely lose some of its appeal – particularly with potential new users who are often focused on what the desktop looks like. OpenSUSE's custom GNOME menu bar at the bottom of the screen mimicked Windows because that appealed to the openSUSE audience, "the broader non-technical community of computer users interested in Linux", as the openSUSE website puts it. The website even goes on to say, in explaining how it is different from Fedora, that openSUSE boasts "many of the top open source GUI designers in the world".

Whether or not you agree is irrelevant; what's interesting is that with GNOME 3 it really doesn't matter how many GUI designers your distro has on staff anymore. At least for now, GNOME 3 effectively eliminates the more subtle visual distinctions between Linux distros.

OpenSUSE does include the gnome-tweak-tool, which can help change some of the GNOME Shell settings, but even with that you're not going to recreate the old openSUSE GNOME skin. GNOME 3.2 is just not built with that kind customisation in mind. Out of the box, there's now little visible difference between openSUSE 12.1, Fedora 16 or even Ubuntu 11.10 if you swap out Unity for GNOME 3.

Behind the GNOME

The interesting side effect of leveling the GUI playing field in GNOME is that it throws the spotlight on what arguably should be the primary means of judging a distro – all the stuff under the hood.

In the case of openSUSE that means things like the YaST package system, a stronger set of multimedia options, stability and of course all the enterprise-level tools that come from SUSE Enterprise Linux.

Indeed that's where the focus for openSUSE 12.1 has been and you'll find plenty of new features under the hood. Among them Btrfs file system, systemd, which has finally made its way into openSUSE, and PulseAudio, which has been integrated system-wide.

If you like what's on the inside as much as on the interface, then the openSUSE 12.1 beta's for you.®

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