A Complete Newbie’s Review of Suse Linux 9.1 (and Applications)

By Aetre

May 18, 2004


I’m a college student who wanted to switch to Linux as a way of saving money. The decision was fairly simple, given that a lot of my favorite Windows programs (Office, Dreamweaver, etc.) were continually going up in price, and the breakdown of my Windows 2000 computer meant I was going to have to get a whole new desktop with more modern applications. I wasn’t willing to pay $400 for Office 2000, nor was I willing to shell out $500 for Macromedia’s Studio, and I wasn’t going to download these things illegally, so Linux seemed the way to go.

For Christmas 2003, my family gave me a brand new computer: a Compaq Presario model S5000CL with 512MB of DDR 2700, 80GB hard drive space, and of course, the default Windows XP with the standard array of programs (like the oxymoronically named Microsoft Works) installed. In my opinion—and granted, I know very little about computer hardware—I had a fairly middle-of-the-road computer; it was nothing a hardcore computer nerd would ever lay their hands on, especially those who believe the only worthwhile computer is the one you build yourself, but it wasn’t terrible, either. In other words, it was practically the perfect “newbie computer,” in the sense that it was a typical pre-made system with semi-decent specs.

My Failed Attempts at Switching to Linux: Mandrake, Gentoo, Red Hat, Yoper, Ark

First came Mandrake 9.0, with its newbie-friendly reputation. I used it for about a week before deciding it was not right for me. The reason? Well, it was really unstable. While the system itself never crashed, several of the programs I loaded onto it did. Even the games that came standard with the Gnome desktop sometimes crashed in the middle of play.

So I decided to go to the Linux community online and ask for advice on other distributions. Eventually I ran into a Gentoo user, who told me some of the more “difficult” distros (like Gentoo, Debian, and Slackware) are often the most stable. He warned me flat out that Gentoo was not the world’s most newbie-friendly Linux distro, but he offered to walk me through the entire setup, and hopefully I’d learn a lot about the operating system in the meantime.

Well, I did learn a lot, that’s true. And believe me, I was very, very grateful for all the help the Gentoo veteran gave me along the way. After about a month of just setting the thing up, I finally got to the point where I had a working Gnome desktop with applications. There was only one little problem: the resolution on the monitor was perpetually stuck on 600x480. I found out eventually that this was because no Gentoo-compatible driver existed for my monitor, the Compaq 7550 that came with the computer—or maybe it was the video card. I have no idea, really, being a noob and all, but the problem wasn’t going to be fixed any time soon. There were a few other problems with the hardware detection, too, and I was way too worn out at this point to go back into command line and spend a month tweaking and fixing. I thought to myself, This is not how an operating system should be. Everything should just work right off the bat. Why can’t it all just WORK?

So next came Red Hat. The Fedora Core was out by this time, but I wanted a “stable” distribution, so I selected the latest RH edition. It loaded fine, until it went to “automatically detect” my hardware settings. I guess it had trouble recognizing my monitor, too, because the screen just turned off at this point, went black, with the monitor going to its automatic standby as if there were a lack of signal input. I never even got the system up and running; it would do this every time I tried to install.

Yoper and Ark are two RH-based distributions that had the same exact problem, I’m guessing because they have the same available hardware support as Red Hat.

And Along Came Suse

So I downloaded what I thought was the boot for Suse 9.1. Of course, me being a total newbie, I accidentally got the “live” version of the thing, which apparently needed to install itself every time I turned the system on. It took me a week to figure out what I was doing wrong, and yeah, I smacked my forehead when I realized what was up. Then I downloaded the real thing.

It loaded up nicely, and thanks to my stint with Gentoo, I actually knew sorta what ReiserFS was when I saw it. In the end, I went with all the default settings (I think I told it to load every single available application, because I thought, hey, I’ve got 80GB here, so what the hay?) and booted.

Hardware: What Worked, What Didn’t

First things first: it detected the monitor just fine. Well, that’s nice, but even Mandrake did that part right, so I was still a bit skeptical. The default resolution on the monitor was 1600x1200. Now, I know a lot of people like huge resolutions like this, but to me, it actually made some of the things on the screen way too tiny. So I changed this to a more comfortable 1200x1080. There is one bug with the monitor: The system does not save my settings when I turn the computer off, so every time I reboot, I have to readjust the monitor’s resolution to 1200x1080. If somebody out there’d like to fix this, or tell me how to fix this, I’d appreciate it.

The mouse worked fine.

The keyboard worked fine.

I did a “test” of the speakers on the system panel of the KDE desktop. The speakers worked fine.

The CD-ROM worked, as far as I could tell, although some of the programs that work with that drive had bugs aplenty. More on that later.

The scanner would not work. I have a Hewlett Packard 2100c, and the computer just would not pick it up. Okay, so maybe it’s not plug-and-play, and I have to download a driver. I don’t use the scanner too often, so I have yet to try to tinker with the system to get this to work.

The printer, however, is something I care about a lot more, since I use it almost every day. Originally I had a Samsung laser printer, model ML-1410, plugged in via USB port. Apparently, the computer detected the port just fine, because the printer would sort of work... but there was a problem with the printer driver itself. Samsung’s Linux driver is to blame here, not Suse, which I reasoned because the printer had the same problems on Mandrake, as well: First, this is supposed to be a very fast laser printer, about 13 pages per minute. Instead, however, the printer would treat every single page of a multi-page document as though it were a separate document; i.e., the printer would “cool down” and “warm up” again between every page. This slowed the process considerably. In addition, once the printer had printed a document (from Open Office), the CUPS system would automatically switch its settings to “Printer unavailable,” so after printing one document, I would have to reboot the machine if I wanted to print another one.

Eventually, I traded printers with my dad, who now happily uses the Samsung with his own new XP machine. In the trade, I got another laser printer, a Brother HL-1440. Suse automatically detected the printer and used the appropriate driver, and this time, thankfully, it worked like a charm. I have yet to report a single printing problem with the Brother printer on Linux.

Software, Part One: Applications for Work

Open Office works fine for the most part, as far as I can tell. I switched some of the default settings so that it replaces the straight single quotation marks with the curved ones. At first I looked into how to get Windows fonts for the program, but after looking at the instructions on compiling the RPM file, I just said, “Screw it,” and went with the default Nimbus New Roman 9.

I have only two requests for the OO people, both regarding the Web Writer: 1. Please include PHP support for your webpage builder, and 2. Include a “code” view so that I can view the source code for the page and edit it where necessary. My current website runs on a “frames” system created in Dreamweaver, but I have no way of editing the code for those frames without something resembling Notepad or the like. (Yes, I’m aware KDE has an Editor program called Kate that works just like Notepad; I use it all the time, too. But it would be convenient to have these things available all in the same interface as OO.)

Along with these requests, I also have one complaint about OO. I ran this program on a Windows machine and saved a file as .sxw. This document had a header and a footer. When I opened the file on the Linux computer (via transportation by floppy disk), a message popped up saying the file was corrupt. It asked if I would like to “fix” the file, and I clicked “Yes.” The file opened from there, but the header and footer were gone. This has happened a couple times, with different files and different disks. Someone might want to look into that bug.

Konqueror isn’t the world’s best browser, and I like Mozilla anyway, so I downloaded the latest stable Firebird edition. The way I set it up was kind of haphazard... I didn’t do any compiling or “make” or whatever, but I just downloaded the program to a folder (read: directory) I created on the desktop called “Programs,” and placed shortcut links to the Firebird.exe file on the desktop and the shortcut bar at the bottom of the screen. It works pretty well. Of course, the only “plugin” that works is for Flash. My request to the Mozilla people: you need the following plugins: 1. a WORKING Java plugin (I’ve downloaded it several times for my computer, but only Java at a 2.0 or lower level seems to work on this machine), 2. a Quicktime plugin, 3. a Real Player plugin, 4. a Shockwave plugin, and 5. while I know it’s near-impossible, a plugin that can read Windows Media Player files would be nice.

For an FTP program to update my website, I at first downloaded Igloo FTP. It worked very well, but for some reason, only the trial version was free, and that disabled itself after thirty days. Well, I wasn’t willing to pay for it (me being all about the free-ness and whatnot), so I downloaded another program called TkFTP. It works just as well, and it’s totally free. Which is cool.

I don’t work with images much, so I have yet to try out stuff like the “GIMP” or whatever. If and when I ever get the scanner working, I’ll probably end up trying that out.

Included in the KDE desktop is a program called KMail for dealing with emails. I set up one of my accounts to this and tried it out; it works just peachy.

Software, Part Two: Applications for Play

KDE comes with something called “Kopete” that works much like Trillian in that it can manage several different instant messaging accounts at once. Well, I only really use a.i.m., so I could only report on that system, but it seems to work alright. I was struck by the novelty that there’s an automatic translator built into the system that can change your typing into CaSe WaVeS lIkE tHiS, or even 1337-5p34k. Why the heck anyone would ever use these is beyond me—except, of course, to make fun of people who use them... which is kind of ironic, if you think about it. Kopete has one major drawback: at least for a.i.m. accounts, it is impossible to send images or files to the person on the other end of the line. They can send me files, but I can’t send them anything. Directly connecting to the other computer usually results in a crash of the program. I had the exact same problem with AOL’s own Instant Messenger for Linux, which was independent from Kopete, so I suspect the problem is not the KDE software in and of itself. Still, someone should fix this.

Another problem with Kopete: whenever someone who is not on my contacts list tries to i.m. me, I can’t reply to them, because Kopete automatically detects them as being “offline” and won’t connect. When I try to write something to them, I get the error message, “This user is not available.”

I have had major problems with the media programs for Linux. As I said before, the speakers work fine on the system test. They also work fine when playing Flash movies online. However, when I put a music CD into the computer and the program KsCD automatically pops up, I cannot hear the CD when it plays. I chatted with a Slackware Linux user for hours trying to get this thing to work, but this was to no avail.

The program called XMMS is horrible. Though it plays all the mp3’s I download (from sites that provide free and legal mp3’s, like IUMA), it makes a weird buzzing noise every twenty seconds or so. I think there’s something wrong with the system’s timer; it runs just a little too slow for twenty seconds, and then it speeds up (I actually noticed the seconds on the play clock start ticking faster) to catch up with real time, and as a result, for the first twenty seconds, the recording is played too slowly and sounds a bit flat, while for the next five or so it goes faster and has that loud buzz in the background. I now avoid using this program altogether.

I downloaded Real Player for Linux, and while its capabilities are purely limited to playing mp3’s or other compatible files that are already on my computer, at least it doesn’t have any buzzing noises or timer problems. The startup sound it makes is kind of annoying; I don’t remember hearing that in Real Player for Windows. Oh well.

KDE has a movie player called Kaffeine, which I understand in the Gnome desktop would be known as “Totem” or something like that. This program can be used to play CD’s in the CD-ROM drive, so I tried playing my music CD here instead of in KsCD. This time, the disk played fine, and I heard the music! The program also has an option built in to play DVD’s, but when I tried this, the thing gave me a message that said, “This version of Xine does not support DVD’s.” I only have one question, then: why is the “Play DVD” button there, if the program does not support DVD’s? This makes no sense to me. Also, while I have gotten some .mpeg videos to work in this program, I have never gotten a .wmv file to play. Probably another Windows compatibility issue.

There’s a recording program called KRecord, which makes .wav files. Unlike the standard Windows sound recorder, it does not limit the amount of time you have to record. I was able to hook up my synthesizer to the microphone jack and record some random stuff I wrote; it worked fine, so this was cool. A command-line-based .wav-.mp3 converter named Blade Enc worked well, once the Slackware user from earlier helped me get it going.

The CD-Burner K3B does not automatically convert .mp3’s for making audio cd’s; it only accepts .wav files. Other than that, it works. Although I’d like to know how to get rid of that annoying two-second gap between audio tracks; I still haven’t figured that one out.

As for the games on Suse 9.1:

The ones that come pre-installed with the system are generally nice. Patience is an all-purpose Solitaire setup, and KMines is the Minesweeper of KDE. Perhaps the most enjoyable game installed (in my humble opinion) was Pingus, a side-scroller where you make cute little penguins dig, jump, and even explode (yes, that’s right, explode) to get a certain number of them to an exit point. I was born a few years after Lemmings, but I wonder if this is based on that game. Unfortunately, Pingus is an unfinished game, and only the first “Introductory” world is available. I’d like to see the finished product, frankly.

None of the games installed on Suse have ever crashed on me.

I tried downloading Unreal Tournament 2004, since it’s supposed to be available for Linux, but unfortunately, I can’t get it to work. I downloaded the program and unzipped the .exe file, but when I click it, nothing happens. I tried opening it from the command line, and this did not work, either. So... yeah, something’s off here.

Software, Part Three: General Notes about Installation of Applications

There are many file types for applications to be downloaded in Linux, and it’s unfortunate that not all Linux distributions can stick to a uniform model. In Gentoo, to download a program, one types in the command line, “Emerge [Program Name],” and supposedly it automatically sets itself up and installs. In Debian, there’s something similar, but it’s a different command. For Suse, there are .tar.gz files, and there are RPM’s. So far, all of the RPM’s I’ve tried work. The .tar.gz files, however, are about 50/50.

Some of these .tar.gz files, like Firefox, TkFTP, and the .wav-.mp3 converter, work simply by me unzipping them and pressing a .exe file (or running it in the command line) to run the program. Other programs must be “compiled” via a “make” command. I have never gotten the “make” command to work in Suse 9.0. The command line always tells me my compiler is not up to date. Message to the Suse staff: please update the compiler in your next release of the OS. Ordinary newbies like myself have no idea how to do this; heck, it’s hard enough just learning the basics of the command line. And even then, a lot of us don’t have time to mess around with updating the system ourselves if you haven’t already done it.

Message to the Linux community: Why can’t we all just use RPM’s? Or at least, one uniform system of installation? This is confusing.

Major NOOB Mistakes—Of Which I’m Not Proud

I have had to reinstall Suse twice, both times because I made a really, really dumb error that could have been avoided had I been warned.

The first time was when I was still trying to get the Samsung printer to work. Whenever I’d try to get the CUPS system to restart the printer, it would ask for Root permission. I found this annoying, so I asked the Slackware user how I could give the User the same permissions as Root. He told me one way of doing this was to put the User and the Root in the same “User Group.” Okay, so I had no idea how to do this, but the instinct of pure idiocy told me I should just move the entire “/usr” directory into the “/root” directory. So I logged in as Root and did this. And no, this was not smart. Five minutes later I was reinstalling Suse, grumbling to myself about all the files that were lost for good. I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned from this (beyond, “Don’t be a dumbass”), it’s that there are some things even a Root should not have permission to do.

The second time, however, did not happen in Root. It happened when I accidentally clicked a wrong button. See, when Suse downloads a file off the Internet, it automatically saves to the /home directory unless the user specifies otherwise. Well, at first I did not know how to specify another directory, so I downloaded my entire website’s files to this directory via FTP, and I wanted to move them from there to a folder I had created on the desktop just for the website files. Using the shift and control buttons, I was able to select every file I wanted to move from the home directory to the desktop folder. Here’s when I made the mistake: instead of clicking and dragging the files to the destination folder, I right clicked and selected an option that said, “Move To...” and used that, thinking it would only move the files I had selected. WRONG. It moved every file in the /home directory to the desktop folder. Once the /bin and the applications and every single thing that made the user interface work was in another place, none of the applications would work at all; not even the folders would open so that I could move the stray files back to their original destination. A reboot landed me in Root configuration, and nothing at all worked. Not even the command line. So I was back to grumbling and reinstalling the operating system.

Okay, so I can see where my first mistake was truly my own fault. But this last one had me wondering for a while, because it did not take a Root password to mess up the system beyond all repair. Anybody could have come on my computer and done this, and the damage would be irreversible. Suse people, I may be a newbie, but someone should really fix this.

In Summary

For Suse 9.1:

Hardware Support: 8/10

Plusses: Most of the hardware works fine right away.

Minuses: Scanner, and the Monitor’s settings won’t save. The printer problem was purely the fault of Samsung’s driver, not Suse.

Default Applications: 7/10

Plusses: Open Office, Kopete for the most part, KMail, the games, the sound recorder.

Minuses: most of the media programs, can’t send files in a.i.m.

Application Downloads: 7/10

Plusses: RPM’s, Linux versions of Mozilla Firebird, FTP.

Minuses: Compiler.

System Stability: 6/10

Plusses: generally doesn’t tend to crash in the middle of programs.

Minuses: prone to dumb mistakes crashing the whole system, with total loss of all information and files stored on the computer.


+0.1 for Pingus.

+0.5 for running more smoothly than any other Linux distribution I’ve tried so far. I haven’t tried many, given there are hundreds out there, but with my past experiences, this means a lot to me.

+0.3 for the help I’ve been able to get from the Linux community.

+0.5 for being free!

+0.1 for the option of automatically rotating the desktop picture every few hours. I’ve had a lot of fun with that...

-0.5 for lack of plugins and compatibility with common Windows media files.

-0.1 for short list of fonts in OpenOffice.

-0.2 for the default clock. It runs fast, and I had to set it back five minutes three times in the same month. Eventually, I took the clock off the desktop, because it was getting annoying.

-0.1 for having to “unmount” the floppy disk drive manually to let the computer know the disk has been ejected. Come on, people. This should be automatic.

TOTAL: 7.6/10

It may not be perfect, but it does beat paying for the Windows applications. If only the teams running the various parts of this Linux project would fix the bugs and problems I listed above, this would be an excellent operating system. There is definitely potential here.

UPDATES: (When I fix an error, or if I ever have something to add, I’ll put it here.)

6/1/04: Fixed one of the problems with XMMS. It no longer makes the buzzing sound. To make it stop, I had to change a setting in Options > Preferences. There, I changed the Output Plugin to “ALSA.” (It was on “OSS” before.) I have no idea what I’ve technically “done” to the thing, but apparently this tweak made all the difference. However: I still encounter a clicking sound in the background when I’m streaming music. This is a bit of an inconvenience, but at least the files on my computer work correctly now.