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Monday, April 12, 2004

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To SuSE or not to SuSE? Is there even a question?

Category: Operating System

If you haven't read my first entry, I would be much obliged if you did. It gives the setup for this series of articles. While you're at it, you might even go back and read the Mandrake review as well as the comments.

So here I am. A SuSE 9.0 boot CD in my hand, and a desire to find a Linux distro that works. I'll be damned if SuSE isn't off to a great start. They *only* allow Internet installs via a small boot ISO. And unlike the Fedora boot.iso, this thing has everything. Installation, Rescue CD, boot manager, etc. I might just have to keep this thing around for the next time an OS goes haywire.

The installation proceeded smoothly, right after I got over the initial confusion caused when the CD asked for the IP Address of the FTP server. It turns out that you can enter a hostname just fine. (A hint: Make sure you write down the name of your mirror server, as well as the directory SuSE is in before you start the installation. There's no predefined list of mirrors to choose from.)

The installation GUI was slick, with it autodetecting just about everything. I had to change a few setting (such as installing GRUB on
/dev/hdb instead of /dev/hda), but I can't say that I've ever seen an easier install process. It even chose ReiserFS as the default. If I had one complaint, it's that every operation takes it forever. But it's an install. You're supposed to do it once and be done with it.

Once installed, I rebooted only to see "GRUB" on the screen and nothing else. Thankfully this great install disk of SuSE's allows me to boot into an existing OS directly from the CD. Once I was in, I played with GRUB until I got it to work. It turns out that the BIOS informs GRUB that the drives are backwards when booting from the second drive. Thus (hd1,5) (where it was looking) was actually (hd0,5), and Windows was (hd1,0). I changed the menu.lst file and everything worked fine.

I suppose I should probably be annoyed by this problem, but I'm not. Given that I'm installing these OSes onto the second partition of a secondary slave drive, I'm willing to cut them some slack.

When the system came up, everything pretty much worked. All my NTFS drives were mounted, the sound worked, I could play MP3s, my TV card worked flawlessly, etc. Things that didn't work were the mouse wheel, and the video player. The mouse wheel was easily fixed by adding in the "ZAxisMapping" setting to the XF86Config file. The video player played sound, but there was no picture. This really didn't bother me too much as I was planning to install VLC.

Which brings me to my next point. Why does every Linux install have to involve RPM hell? I had to pull 15-20 RPMs from various sources in order to get VLC installed. Most home users won't know what "libtheora" is, where to get it, or how to install it. Not to mention scary names like "libart_gpl.0". Linux systems work fine for the software that's in their catalog, but anything even slightly "different" becomes a real pain in the ass for users. It's time to decide whether Linux wants to be a "hacker's system" where everything is compiled from source, or a "desktop system" where binary compatibility and simple installation is a must. So far, Linux has been targeting the "Workstation" market which just isn't good enough. FreeBSD, Windows, and Mac OS X will eat Linux for lunch in that market.

Anyway, after mucking around with half a billion RPMs, VLC installed and even put itself into the SuSE start menu. (A nice touch.) I then loaded one of the kids' cartoons off of the NTFS drive, and it played flawlessly.

I still have to set up the NVidia drivers, but otherwise the system is working beautifully. My only complaint is (wait for it) my mouse still locks up!!! Ok, it doesn't happen as much on SuSE. In fact, I thought that the problem didn't exist until I was mucking around in the hardware GUI trying to make the GUI install my mouse wheel. That was the first time it locked up, and I figured that as long as I didn't mess with any hardware, I'd be okay. Well, it eventually locks up anyway. This seems to be an epidemic with the Linux kernel.

Please! If anyone knows how to fix the mouse problem, tell me! This is the only major issue I'm having with SuSE!

Final Verdict: I think we have a winner. There's still a few areas that would be difficult for the average user (e.g. Setting up the mouse wheel, installing the NVidia drivers, and dealing with the installation of non-catalog software like VLC), but overall it was easy to set up, and the YaST2 software library made software installation a breeze. I'm very pleased with SuSE, and would recommend it to anyone looking to find an easy to use Linux system.

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