In past years, I have only just tinkered with various Linux distributions. I didn’t stick with any one distro for long, as it was usually a passing interest. But I’ve decided to be a little more proactive in learning what I can about Linux in general, and try to seriously use some distros in particular.
There are some options for which installation media to use: live CDs containing either KDE or GNOME, or a full DVD containing everything. I decided to go for the DVD so I can have all the options available when installing. It was a big download, but BitTorrent was helpful.
In the past, I have used VMware Workstation to evaluate Linux distros. This time will be no different. I started by creating a new virtual machine. I won’t list every step of this process, but I will point out a few sections of the process and what I did with it.
There are some settings that need to be set, that are not available when using the Typical configuration. So I used the Custom option.
As my desktop has 2 GB of memory available, I can easily dedicate 512 MB to a single virtual machine. I set that option here. In my experience – for what it’s worth, considering my introduction – most distros work nicely with that much dedicated memory.
There are some options for networking the VM with other systems. The simplest one tends to be Network Address Translation (NAT), which allows the VM to use the host system’s IP address to directly access the network.
This is the primary reason I use the Advanced configuration option earlier in the process. openSUSE doesn’t seem to like virtual hard disks that are set up with a SCSI interface, which is the default setting. Unless the setting is changed to IDE, the openSUSE installer will claim to not be able to locate a hard disk to install on, early in the process.
One of the great things about open source software is that they don’t seem to be as bulky as their commercial/closed source counterparts. So a new Linux install, that is not fully loaded down, does not require more than several gigabytes of disk space. Because this is a VM I am working with, I am not terribly concerned with making a wrong choice here, so ten gigabytes seems to be a good starting point for the size of the virtual hard disk.
Hitting Next a couple more times gets me through the VM setup process. And I have an empty VM that is ready to go.
To install openSUSE (or any other software), one could burn the ISO to DVD and work off of that, but it’s little redundant as there are software solutions that can mount ISOs as virtual CDs. Daemon Tools is one such package, and it does the job well. The picture shows the ISO loaded with Daemon Tools.
Right at the start, I am impressed by the colour scheme of the startup screen. In previous releases, this screen was usually pretty bland. But I like the colours being used here.
The installer’s appearance has been really nicely redone. I recall from previous openSUSE installations that their installers were a pretty plain gray colour. I know it’s a little strange to get worked up about the appearance of an installer, but first impressions are important. I got a good first impression here.
I won’t cover every step of the installation process, but will highlight some of the more important ones below.
The installer checks the hardware (in this case, virtual hardware) to ensure that it is suitable for installation purposes.
Here the user needs to choose an initial desktop window manager. The typical ones, KDE (3.5 and 4) and Gnome, are available. This is an interesting point, as most other distros I have tried only provide one or the other. openSUSE is a rebel here! There are some alternative choices as well, which appear when choosing the Other radio button, as shown below.
Being that I don’t have any preference as to a windowing system, I decided to try KDE 4. KDE 4 has been in development for quite some time, and is a huge amount of work over KDE 3.5. KDE 4 was officially released in time to be included in the openSUSE 11 release. This was a controversial decision, as it is still rough around the edges, and is expected to be stable and usable at the 4.1 mark, which is expected later this year. Version 3.5 has been around a long time, and is considered quite stable, whereas version 4 is relatively new and untested. KDE 3.5 is an option for those who would prefer to use that version, and put off upgrading to KDE 4 until later.
Partitioning a hard disk can be tricky business, especially if you are trying to install Linux in a dual-boot setup alongside other operating systems. But again, because this is a virtual machine, I don’t have such worries. Since at the moment I am eager to start using openSUSE, I opted for a basic partition setup. I just used the recommended swap partition – always a good thing – and gave the rest of the disk space to the root partition.
One of the things that impressed me when I first tried Linux was the vast number of software packages that are available during the installation process – openSUSE does not disappoint. This is thanks to the nature of the open source ecosystem. It is a huge contrast to Windows, and in retrospect somewhat amazes me. Windows is considered the most used operating system in the world, and yet, it doesn’t include nearly the amount of software choices, out of the box, that Linux does. The screenshot shows an overview of the default selection of packages – likely dependent on the window manager chosen earlier. It also shows that the base selection only requires 2.1 gigabytes of space, which leaves 7.something to work with.
At this point, I spent some time picking through the package listing, choosing which ones should be installed initially. This can be done later, of course, but I wanted to get the most installation done in this initial process. So I selected quite a few development, multimedia, and productivity packages. That took my disk usage up to 5.2 GB – not bad! There are many more packages available on the web, but the ones provided in the DVD ISO make a great starting point.
With the window manager chosen, initial packages selected, and some settings set, the actual installation begins.
The installation starts with the deploying of images for the software being installed. The actual installation is then done from the images.
The process takes a while, but has been noticeably quicker than previous openSUSE releases. One of the new features trumpeted for openSUSE 11 was a new package installation system, which works in such a way that it is much faster than standard installation processes. My installation here only took about half an hour, much shorter than previous openSUSE installations. Impressive – I haven’t even started using it, and I like it already!
Once installation is complete, the new system boots for the first time.
Some initial housekeeping is needed, such as doing some configuration. The first thing that needed doing was changing the screen resolution – the default was 800×600, and my monitor supports 1280×1024!
KDE allows individual users to customize their profile to their tastes. The Personal Settings panel allows just that.
YAST is impressive – it centralizes all the administration and management of the system, within an easy-to-use control panel. There are groupings of related items on the left, which, when one is selected, updates the right hand side with appropriate control panels.
It is always a good idea to keep computer software up to date, regardless of the operating system. Yet another thing I like about the open source community is how packages are regularly updated with bug and security fixes, as well as new features. After having done initial setup and configuration, I ran the software update tool, which found some available updates. Amazing, considering this openSUSE release has only been out for a short time, and it is receiving updates already!
Seeing as openSUSE 11 was a recent release, there were not too many updates needed, so I let the updater do what it had to do. The process was quick and painless, and I am already more confident with this system knowing it is up to date and ready to go.
Now that the installation, configuration, and updates are done, it’s time to start using the new system!
Using the System
I’m going to run through some different software packages that were of interest to me. Obviously there is no way I can cover them all, so I just skim the most prevalent ones here.
A recent addition to KDE is a new file manager called Dolphin, shown on the left. I am not certain if it is meant to eventually replace Konqueror, or if it is there as a supplemental option. But I think it does look better than Konqueror, and is more intuitive to work with.
Aside from Linux itself, Firefox must be one of the more prolific open source projects these days. It is a great web browser, and I use it for my day-to-day surfing and web development. The available collection of add-ons simply cannot be beat. So I wasted no time getting Firefox loaded and configured the way I like it – not much else to say about it.
GIMP is a popular open source alternative to Adobe Photoshop. It has been dubbed by some as the Linux Photoshop, but I will need to judge that for myself. It would take a LOT for that to be the case. The starting screen is shown here.
The GIMP interface is definitely different from that of Photoshop, and took some adjusting. It didn’t take too long to pick up some common keystrokes to save reaching for the mouse. I should spend more time with this, figure out what else I can do with it. Oh yeah, and the screenshots of post-install openSUSE were processed using GIMP 😀
I am rather into digital photography, so photo-handling software would be important and was of interest to me when examining the bundled packages. I had not used digiKam before, so I thought to give it a try.
The image shown here is what happened when I plugged my camera into the computer via USB. KDE detected it right away, and prompted me for an action. I chose to download the photos using the digiKam option. The cord worked well enough, but I should try it with the card reader on the front of my PC – next time.
After the previous dialog, digiKam came up with this one, prompting me to choose a location to download my photos to, and which ones should be downloaded. Easy enough. Here, digiKam is in the process of downloading my photos.
Overall, digiKam was pleasing to use. I was able to select my camera model (Nikon D50), connect my camera, and download photos with ease. I will be spending more time with this one, for certain. As I mentioned before, a good photo-management tool would be an important factor for me if/when I decided to switch to Linux.
Another popular open-source-version-of-commercial-product (whew) is OpenOffice.org, which is an Office suite similar to Microsoft Office. I had not used OOo before, so this was an interesting experiment, as office software is an important part of a computer user’s workflow.
Much like Office, OpenOffice has several components, including Writer (=Word), Calc (=Excel), Impress (=Powerpoint), and Base (=Access). The matchups are not exact, but hopefully you get the idea.
Being that a word processor is a heavily used program, I decided to try out the Writer component, shown in the screenshot on the left. The interface is quite similar to Word, and much the same control and formatting functions are in place.
I decided to try Calc next, as spreadsheets are important in the business world, for such purposes as tracking time, income, and expenses. As I am used to doing in Excel, I was able to quickly insert and format data in a new spreadsheet. Curious about the file formats that OOo supports, I saved a copy of this new sheet, as shown right. The list is impressive, as it includes common the Microsoft formats as well as standard Open Document Format (ODF).
I got a good first impression with OpenOffice at this point. I will likely do a more thorough digging in to document similarities and differences between OOo and Office. Especially regarding file format compatibilities. I’ll make sure to report on my results.
So. I’ve covered the installation process, done some basic configuration, and tried out a few applications. After all that, I think I can safely say that openSUSE 11 is a very nice release. Both in the operating system itself, in the KDE4 window manager, and in the bundled applications. An 11.1 release is expected later this year. I will likely be trying that out to see what further improvements have been made!
Obviously this was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I enjoyed doing it, and think I will be spending more time inside openSUSE, tinkering with the system and trying out the different applications. It is likely that I will have more to write on the subject once I have managed to put some time into it.
So far, I like the current crop of applications. The beauty of open source is that these applications are constantly evolving and being updated, and the package manager makes updating system files and applications an easy process.