Another year another operating system (openSUSE defeats Mandriva)

About this time last year I decided that Linux simply wasn’t good enough and returned to Windows XP. A week later I discovered that Mandriva was actually up to scratch, and so I ditched Windows and moved completely across to Linux. Since then I’ve upgraded from Mandriva 2008.0 to 2008.1 which worked rather smoothly, and when 2009.0 came out I actually made the switch to the 64-bit version without too much fuss as well. So, 2008 really was the year of Linux on the desktop for me.

However, recently I’ve actually started to do more with Mandriva than just replacing a day-to-day operating system. I’ve decided to start learning MySQL and PHP to actually get some first-hand knowledge of what I have long regarded as bug-ridden ghettos. And this is where my problems with Mandriva started to well up. I went looking for a decent editor but Quanta (or kdewebdev) seemed not to be in Mandriva’s repository. The kdewebdev4 package contained no files but depended on various and sundry utility programs. It turns out there is no qt4 version of Quanta and you have to install the qt3 version, which complains about an unsatisfied dependency (which is actually there, you just have to select it yourself). On the server-side of package mismanagement, Apache doesn’t depend on a Multi Processing Module (MPM) in drakconf (a trick for newcomers: installing Apache on Mandriva doesn’t actually give you a working web server unless you have prior knowledge and know that you also need to choose an MPM).

To top it off I think Mandriva probably made KDE 4 their default KDE version too soon. Not being able to use one’s desktop like a folder was very annoying, and creating icons manually that showed an ugly strip of buttons on mouse hover also irritated me. KMess also crashed rather too frequently (it was 2.0.0 I guess, but still… if it was buggy it should have been held back) and little things were just getting to me. It wasn’t so bad that I could have switched back to Windows (XP or Vista) but it was enough for me to want something better. Given that Mandriva fired one of their most valuable employees recently, I think the writing is on the wall for that distro, sadly.

Having said some rather unpleasant things about openSUSE 10.3 it doesn’t sound likely that I’d be checking it out again, but openSUSE seems to have a larger community and when the chips are down, having more people on IRC to help out counts for something. There’s also my cute SUSE plush gecko with fridge magnets for feet (given to me by a colleague several years ago) beckoning me to try it again. So, here’s a summary of my experiences with openSUSE 11.1 so far:

The good

  • The installer was very impressive. Given that I didn’t want to trash my former home partition I was pleased to see that openSUSE selected it by default and opted not to format it.
  • KDE uses Plain Desktop by default but that’s easily fixed with Folder View (which openSUSE have backported from the still-in-progress development version of KDE 4.2). Mandriva will “feel” much when they get this functionality.
  • I was initially let down to see that KMess isn’t provided by openSUSE but when I found that Pidgin 2.5.1 now supports the MSN “status message” feature, I was able to cope (not seeing the silly slogans of one’s friends can be isolating).
  • The desktop effects in KDE 4 seem to be better integrated with openSUSE than in Mandriva and worked with my bog-standard ATI x300 video card (albeit not dazzlingly fast). I miss the Compiz shortcut of Ctrl Alt MouseMove to spin the desktop cube around, however I leave this turned off anyway, and only turn it on to show off the power of Linux to somebody.
  • The YaST Control Center seems nicer than the Mandriva Control Center, though not by any order of magnitude. I will say that the Hardware > Mouse Model section is apparently for show only.
  • The KDE wallet is not as annoying in openSUSE compared to Mandriva. Wallet-aware applications obey my wishes to store passwords in plain text, whereas Mandriva’s wallet would not shut up about it, and was most insistent.

The not-so-good

  • The back and forward buttons on my mouse only work with Firefox and do nothing in Dolphin. I’ve read far and wide on the topic and got nowhere using evdev in xorg.conf, and only managed to disable these buttons in Firefox or maintain the status quo using xmodmap. I may have to bite the bullet and compile imwheel myself (since there’s no package for it, grrr!) but for now I just don’t have the time or the patience. I can’t believe that in 2009 and with version 11.1 of an operating system that mouse support is still so pathetic! This is one area where Mandriva was better.
  • IP details are configurable by default in the Network Manager applet in the panel, but since I logged on as a test user first, and configured my IP there, then logged in as the username I intended to keep, I was puzzled when the network seemed to go down. It seems that IP addressing is user-specific, which is quite bizarre. Going into YaST > Network Devices > Network Settings allows you to use global settings thankfully, but this section of YaST is a tad disorganised in my humble opinion and could be tidied up.
  • VLC is not available in the standard openSUSE repositories. I found this quite surprising since VLC is an exemplary open source project, but apparently there are some patent issues, and configuring the Packman repository got me this (as well as Audacious – even this is now apparently an enemy of open source. Amazing.)
  • The obligatory sound problems surfaced when trying the Packman-packaged version of Songbird 1.0.0 – it simply showed some stream error message and couldn’t play a thing. Weirdly enough, the version I downloaded myself from Mandriva in a tarball works fine. A packaged-for-openSUSE program can’t even play sound, but a harmless tarball-version works perfectly.
  • K3b said it couldn’t detect my burner, and I found that running a “chmod o+rw on /dev/sr0” meant that K3b could both detect it and burn a DVD successfully. A forum post later reveals that I have to add my user account to the “disk” group, which is just plain silly as far as I’m concerned. An ordinary user is going to expect to be able to use their burner as burner, and any arguments that could support such stupidity will not be entered into :-) I’ll assume this just slipped under the radar and will be fixed eventually.
  • There seems to be two places for configuring monitor power management in the KDE 4 System Settings: 1) in General > Display > Power Control and 2) in Advanced > Power Management. No matter what I choose in either of these areas (even customising the “Performance” profile in the advanced section), my common-enough Dell 2407WFP never goes to sleep, so I have to turn it off if I’m going to be away from the screen for any length of time.
  • There is no package for gkrellm themes. No biggie, really, but Mandriva has them :-)

Even though I cited one more not-so-good aspect to openSUSE than good, I am very impressed with it. It seems much more polished than Mandriva, thanks to the Folder View support in KDE 4 as well as the installer and YaST overall. If openSUSE could find some way to improve mouse support then I’ll even pay for my next version or donate or whatever is the done thing to show one’s appreciation. Like most distros, it’s always the video, sound, and peripherals that are still the major issues, so I hope for some improvement in this area overall (particularly getting rid of all those sound systems). But I’m not going to back to Windows. No way!

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