2008-06-24

24 hours with openSUSE 11.0


24 hours. Not 'a day'; not figuratively; I've spent 24 hours with the recently released update to my long-running favorite OS: openSUSE 11.0, and I've got some things to say...

OpenSUSE Linux 11.0 is revolutionary, but my enthusiasm is tempered by substantial regressions.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

This release brings some amazing new features, evidencing a great deal of creative problem-solving and innovative thought on the part of both the SuSE team in Germany, and the Novell folks on this side of the planet.

Installation is a breeze. The DVD installer performed a very effective upgrade of my 10.3 install, but the real show is on the Live CDs. I tried out the Gnome CD, and found myself in front of a Desktop in record time (I wish I'd actually timed it). Using an innovative imaging transfer instead of the typical package installation, I went from boot to live disc desktop, to an installed OS in under 20 minutes!

Package management that rocks. I've always been able to tout the package management provided by major Linux distributions as one of the big upsides of using a Linux desktop: despite whatever internal failings are dealt with, we've always had a centralized system for updating every piece of software in the distribution, be it YaST, yum, apt-get, packman, whatever: it blows the doors of the dozens of independent update sources you have to manage on a Windows desktop. OpenSUSE 11.0 takes it up a notch, posting extremely fast database management, super-lean memory use, broad compatibility, and a huge library of software enhanced by the OpenSUSE Build Service. Smarter than Smart, thanks to new math that I don't have to understand to appreciate. Smaller than yum. Faster than apt-get. Wee!

Aesthetics. From the animation on the boot menus to the complete desktop, openSUSE 11.0 is beautiful. A strong green & charcoal theme pervades the early experience, coloring the boot manager, the installers, login managers and splash screens. Its bright, clean, elegant, and decidedly non-orange! I would have liked to see the default Gnome theme bring it home with the new palette, but they've stuck with the equally elegant Gilouche style, which mixes some subtle, business-y blue & beige into an otherwise stark style. Darkilouche, with that strong green (instead of the default orange) makes for an amazingly stark desktop aesthetic, and will be my style-of-choice. Not to be left out, 11.0 is the first major distro release I've seen that works KDE4 into the mix. KDE4 is now the default KDE desktop, relegating 3.5 to its rightful role as a 'legacy' desktop. The theming for KDE trends stronger towards the blues, most likely to not clash with the Oxygen graphics. Thank you SUSE for finally showing a well-integrated KDE4 desktop.

Broken Laptop/Wireless Support. I run an HP Compaq 6710b laptop. Its Centrino, including the 3945ABG chipset. This isn't a toy: its a business laptop. Its built for stability & compatibility, not performance, style, or elegance. It is certified by Novell for SLED. It is certified by Red Hat. Back when the SDB meant something, it had a green check mark. And when I installed 10.3, everything worked out of the box. Everything: suspend/resume, sleep modes, wifi, brightness control, cpu scaling, all the Fn-buttons and soft-switches. Everything just worked, which is how it should be. 11.0, not so much. I thought wireless didn't work, turns out it does, but the killswitch doesn't. A search on Novell's bugzilla just turned up a big argument about whether the problem is with NetworkManager or HAL, but no solution. Oh yeah, and the wireless activity light doesn't do anything, not even when I am connected an working. Small issue? Maybe, but a big downer; especially since the light is under the soft-switch (which doesn't work in 11.0) making it hard to tell if its on/off/blocked/killed whatever. I've spent a year telling people that if you don't want to have a headache with wireless on Linux, get a Centrino laptop. Thanks, 11.o, for blowing that.
Firefox 3 doesn't respect me. Call me picky, call me a font nazi, whatever. I run my laptop with subpixel hinting enabled (in freetype2). Its the only way to use the screen without getting a migraine after an hour. I keep my dpi on target, and I'm very selective about the fonts I use, and it works well for me.
So, along comes Firefox 3, and its built-in rendering engine. And suddenly, the menus, the content, everything inside the window frame is rendered differently than the rest of my system. This is a one-way ticket to a migraine. Download day, I had a migrane. Next day, migaine. Thursday, migraine. Friday I had an epiphany, and switched to Epiphany.
The geniuses at Mozilla decided the best way to get stable rendering with all the goodies is to put everything under the hood, including their own copies of system libraries (*cough* cairo *cough*). But, like everything in the world of subpixel hinting, the goodies are turned off to avoid any liability with Microsoft/Apple patents in that area. Fine, whatever. Just tell me where the switch is to fix it myself.
It turns out there is a fix - the Ubuntu folks have been working on it since April; you can compile firefox with a flag called -enable-system-cairo, which enables firefox to use the system's font rendering, among other things, and allows the fonts in ff3 to look like the rest of your system. Too bad that the cairo library that SUSE is shipping is too old to work with ff3. So, your choices are: (1) live with ugly, non-subpixed-hinted fonts all around, or (2) have a browser that doesn't look like the rest of your system, or (3) downgrade back to ff2.

History Repeating

For anyone who has used SuSE Linux for a while, the mixed bag that comprises an x.0 release shouldn't be any suprise. For the unfamiliar, SuSE (and now openSUSE) follow the Windows upgrade rule: wait for SP1. In the case of openSUSE, that's the x.1 release. In my experience (which started with SuSE Linux 7.2) the release cycle is like this:
  • x.0: Big bang, big casualties.
  • x.1: Bugfix to x.0 to get back to x-1.3 quality/support/compatibility.
  • x.2: Incremental improvements since x.0 that were held up bugfixing for x.1.
  • x.3: A stable, polished, albeit aging release.
So, needless to say, I'll be doing my day-to-day work on openSUSE 10.3, for at least a few more months. 11.0 is installed on my laptop, too (thank you grub for making that easy), but I don't see myself touching it until I see some bugfixes come out of Novell.