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It's that time of the year again. No, not Christmas -- it's the time of the year we get the latest versions of our favorite Linux distributions. Version 11.1 of openSUSE is being released today. Designated as a point release, there are enough new goodies to warrant a new install or upgrade.
The new release is available in multiple CD sets, as a single DVD, and as a live CD for the i586 or x86_64 architectures. I tested the single DVD for i586.
One of the first changes noticeable is the new license agreement. No longer considered an EULA, it's now referred to as an open source license agreement that requires no actual clicking to accept. However, the license does still contain references to openSUSE and Novell software not released under the GPL which are, in fact, copyrighted or trademarked. openSUSE hopes this change will increase good will and community acceptance after the uprising seen as a result of Mozilla's short-lived EULA in Ubuntu last fall. Summarizing the goal, openSUSE's community manager Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier says, "We now have a licence that presents no obstacle to redistribution, and no obstacle for modification."
The new look created for 11.0 has been further refined in 11.1 and includes some new graphics and updated tools. The redesigned partitioner now lists drives and partitions in a left pane for convenient navigation, and the working drive in a larger, easy-to-view right pane. During installation users are given a proposed configuration, but with the click of a button one can easily be taken to the new partitioner for customization.
During the install, users are given a choice for their desktop environment: either openSUSE's customized GNOME 2.24, KDE 4.1, or Other, which includes KDE 3 and Xfce 4. At the Summary screen users can select other software and additional desktops if they choose by clicking the Software heading. Other configuration elements, such as Booting or Runlevel, can be changed in the same manner, by clicking the heading.
One particularly noteable absence during the install is any network configuration. The network is automagically set up, including the machine name. Removing this step streamlines things for new or hurried users, but those who wish to customize their configuration must wait until first boot. But even this doesn't always work; I set my hostname through the YaST system management utility three different times, but with each reboot the awkward and unmemorable random combination of letters and numbers set by the installer returned. Other newly missing options are the ability to turn off the firewall and the AppArmor security framework.
My first real surprise appeared right after the install. I turned my back for just a minute as the install was finishing, and when I turned back around, I was at the desktop. The post-install configuration is now automated. This might be considered an improvement by some, but again, any personalizations will have to wait until you can use YaST. As it was, I was in a system that had no root password. It turns out that openSUSE, like Ubuntu, now employs sudo to allow users to control the advanced administrative tasks normally reserved for root. This might make using openSUSE easier for newcomers but, as an old-timer who appreciates the permissions system of security, I don't find it an improvement. The easiest way to revert to the old behavior is by seting a root password during the Summary phase of the initial install by clicking the User Settings heading.
With the change to using sudo, your user password is all that's required to install, remove, or update software on your machine. The package management system was completely rewritten for 11.0, and exhibited vast improvements in speed and reliability. Further enhancements are seen this release. The graphical software manager opens, updates, and searches faster than ever. Downloads from the repository and installs are much faster as well. In addition, some searches result in extra package suggestions that can improve their functionality.
Another new element to literally pop up onto the desktop is Smolt, a hardware profiler started by Fedora to collect a list of hardware in use on Linux systems to aid developers and pressure manufacturers. It is now present and open on openSUSE's desktops, and offers to send your hardware profile anonymously to smolt.org.
All of this release's desktop systems are the latest stable versions. Fans of KDE 4 won't be disappointed with the bundled KDE 4.1.3. One of the new features includes KWin compositing enabled by default if your hardware supports it. Alternatively, you can choose to use Compiz from the included Simple CompizConfig Settings Manager. You can also make the desktop behave like a folder. Referred to as Folder View, this feature allows icons, files, and links to have the different "views" we've seen in other folders for years.
GNOME 2.24 offers users an enhanced Nautilus file manager that features a tabbed interface, a new task management tool called Tasque, and improved integrated search. YaST has been more tightly integrated into GNOME in this release as well, with refined widgets.
openSUSE 11.1 will be the last release to include KDE 3.5. Packages for this older version will no longer be maintained or included on mirrors after 11.1 and only high priority security fixes will be implemented from here on out.
The newest stable Xfce 4.4.3 is also available, as are the latest and greatest versions of popular applications. Some of my favorites are OpenOffice.org 3.0 (Novell Edition), Firefox 3.0.4, the GIMP 2.6.2, Amarok 1.4 (2.0 also available), Totem 2.24, Evolution 2.24, FlashPlayer 10.0, Pidgin 2.5.1, and GnuCash 2.2.7. Under the hood is Linux kernel 2.6.27, GCC 4.3, and Xorg 7.4. Power users have access to the Xen hypervisor, Apache Web server, MySQL database, System Backup, and System Restoration. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg -- there is just too much great software to list.
I tested this release on two machines. The first was a desktop machine built especially for Linux. openSUSE had no problems with this combination of hardware at all, except that KWin wasn't enabled by default. This machine has Nvidia graphics and would require proprietary drivers for that capability. Otherwise, everything worked at first boot.
I also couldn't resist testing openSUSE 11.1 on my trusty old Hewlett-Packard laptop. Again Nvidia graphics prevented my seeing 3-D desktop effects and, in addition, I had to use Windows drivers for the wireless Ethernet chip through Ndiswrapper. Since NetworkManager was unable to utilize that hardware, I was forced to resort to the traditional method with ifup. This makes roaming a bit more difficult, but at least the configured connection is ready to use at boot.
As a whole, this release signifies another successful body of work. Still one of the most stable and complete systems available, openSUSE could answer just about anyone's computing needs. I experienced only a few small issues with the system during my testing, and was pleased overall.
Still, I found myself disappointed by openSUSE's jumping a bit too hard and fast onto the ease-of-use bandwagon. The tendencies of Linux distribution developers lately to make Linux easier and easier while sacrificing convenient customization is beginning to go too far. While Linux should be easy for new users, making it more difficult and less secure for experienced users isn't the answer. Hopefully, openSUSE and other distributions can find the happy medium and not slip too much further down that slope.