SuSE Linux 6.1

This is a serious, high-performance distribution which is more complete than practically any single distribution, and at the same time is clean and fast due to effective configuration and intelligent design.

SuSE Advanced X Configuration Tool (SaX) is a graphical interface for configuring X (and we all know how much of a pain that can be). You can navigate its menus with the mouse or the keyboard, and all you have to do is choose your mouse, graphics card and monitor from a few lists and an XF86Config file is created. I noticed that the lists were not as long as I have encountered elsewhere, and some older hardware was missing. SaX configures your keyboard and mouse as well and offers many expert configuration options.

Once you have finished with basic configuration, SaX allows you to test the video modes and make real-time adjustments, rather like xvidtune but graphical and easier to use. You get to see the standard X test pattern for a little while, and that's nice, but I would still prefer keeping it up all the time to get a better idea of how well the screen is configured. It's very simple to use, and if it doesn't work, you can always try the xf86setup or xf86config. Even after your system configured, you can use SaX to update your configuration in case you would like to use higher resolution, a new video card or a new monitor. This is unlike other installers which configure once during installation and require the use of external software or manual modifications afterwards. Once the XF86Config file is created, it's time to try out X.

The X Window Manager

The default window manager on SuSE Linux 6.1 is KDE, which has, in addition to its standard menus and KDE software, a SuSE menu housing entries for many of the various packages installed by YaST. Also configured in the menuing system are the various Applix programs, though at the moment they insist the license is out of date. (I hope this is corrected in 6.2.) SuSE's custom menus have more to offer than the custom menus of most other distributions, even though some menu options don't work and many installed software packages are not incorporated into the menuing system. Still, it is a clever idea to have YaST configuring KDE's menus during installation in such a way as to have optional packages included. If SuSE had more time to devote to going over the packages and making sure they all were properly collected into the menu tree, the system would be really neat. (The next step would be automatic real-time updating of the menu trees to correspond with the software on the system...)

Screen Shot

On the whole, SuSE's window manager works just fine. You might have to know enough during installation to select the right XF86 server, however. SuSE's menuing system looks quite neat, and for the most part, files seem to be in the right places. No menu selections I found led to core dumps or worse, and although many of the packages I installed did not get entered into the menus (and some selections didn't do anything), you can do a lot with KDE as installed on SuSE. If you like GUIs (I, for one, vastly prefer consoles), KDE is very functional.

Technical Concerns

It is difficult to say anything bad about a Linux distribution; after all, they're all based on Linux and GNU software. Nevertheless, concerns sometimes arise over the decisions made about which programs and versions are used, and sometimes things just don't work. Where installation is concerned, auto-installers are nice when they work, but probing often crashes the system. On the other side, many people have no idea what hardware is inside their system and what IRQ and DMA values they ought to enter. Preconfigured package collections are convenient but lose flexibility, whereas manual selection of packages takes forever. Experimental software usually has enhanced functionality over stable software but often fails unexpectedly, as many of you know who simply must run the latest kernel/library/compiler, even when parts of it aren't working.

The choices to be made by a distributor can be difficult, and the practice of targeting a specific audience guides distributors in their decisions. Although I've recently been recommending SuSE when asked by newbies which distribution to install, I am aware it's not for computer illiterates. At the same time, it is easy to install and use and is rather well-endowed. It appears to be an ideal distribution for the middle 68% of Linux users, often choosing ease-of-use and stability over the cutting edge, while at the same time favoring maximum functionality and flexibility against oversimplification. The installation and configuration utilities (YaST and SaX) are examples of the latter, while the choice between gcc and egcs is an example of the former and latter, respectively.

I tried compiling a number of “problem” packages, sources that have always “bugged out” when I tried to compile them in the past, and every single time, SuSE compiled without error. Obviously, SuSE must have functional libraries in the right locations. (This was a problem with certain distributions years ago.) The kernel has never been one of those problem packages, and recompilation/installation went very smoothly. SuSE has a KDE menu item which starts up the kernel recompilation—another clue that SuSE is geared towards non-neophytes. Upon reboot, everything was in the right place and all the modules worked. This probably has more to do with kernel developers than with SuSE, but someone truly clever could have contrived a way to stop a kernel and its modules from working. In any event, kernel recompilation worked even better on SuSE than on Red Hat (which had some complications involving modules) and Caldera (which isn't targeted at kernel hackers anyway), although Slackware has never presented me with any problems.

SuSE Linux 6.1 has a lot of small things going for it, such as a different color scheme for the ls command, syslog messages logged to alt-F10, a first console which does not clear the screen on logout/login (so you can still read system messages from startup, etc.) and various other details. Unlike Red Hat, SuSE does not stick its logo all over the desktop (or on every single window, as many of you may remember). On the whole, SuSE has a cool, modern feeling to it—it isn't obnoxious. SuSE has not bent over backwards to make system configuration easy for the command-line impaired, so the system itself is not overly complicated or obtuse, yet it still works. And if it doesn't work, there's always support.