- Weak GNOME support
- attractive, logical KDE desktop
- automatically resizes partitions during installation
- good desktop organisation
- excellent configuration tool.
- Poor font management.
SuSE Linux 8.1 offers the best-looking desktop Linux distribution around. Easy to use and well organised, it also performs adequately. The installation process is so smooth and uncluttered, in fact, that this alone merits consideration by Windows die-hards. With two versions -- the £59 (inc. VAT) Professional package or the £39 (inc. VAT) Personal version -- SuSE 8.1 is far cheaper than Windows and is even more economical than the $129 (~£82) LindowsOS 3.0. We'd like to see better support for the GNOME desktop environment, but SuSE makes Linux palatable for any experienced Windows user and surpasses Red Hat 8.0 in both installation and interface. If you're ready to switch to Linux, switch to SuSE.
Installation and setup
From the start, you'll discover that SuSE Linux 8.1 Professional is designed precisely for the would-be Windows convert. Its ultra-smooth installation routine from either CD or DVD -- both of which are included in the package -- offers to automatically resize an existing Windows partition to make room for Linux as a dual boot. It's so well-behaved, in fact, that it doesn't even attempt to hog all the available disk space. Instead, SuSE calculates a reasonable percentage of your hard disk, plus a bit more to ensure room for future upgrades and downloads, and still manages to leave enough room for Windows to grow. Note, however, that SuSE can resize only single-partition FAT32 Windows installations. If you have only NTFS drives (which is likely if you're using Windows 2000 or NT), you'll have to use SuSE's manual-partitioning utility, available from the setup routine. On our test system, which contained multiple FAT32 and NTFS partitions, SuSE located the compatible free space, recommended a selection of Linux partitions, and started the installation procedure. From there, SuSE installed flawlessly. It stopped very few times for user input -- mostly to ask how many components we wanted -- and booted without incident into a fully functioning graphical user interface (GUI). Red Hat, by comparison, didn't fare nearly as well.
Interface and ease of use
Linux veterans know that the moment of truth with a Linux install is often the moment the X Window GUI starts up -- that's when you'll detect any initial video card difficulties. SuSE had no trouble detecting cards on either of our test machines -- a Compaq with a 1.1GHz Athlon and GeForce4 Ti 4200 card and an HP with a 500MHz Celeron and built-in video. In fact, it succeeded marvellously at detecting all of our hardware. The only glitch: the GeForce card wouldn't function in dual-display mode, even with newly downloaded drivers from nVidia’s site, but we had the same problem with Red Hat. Launch SuSE for the first time, and you'll arrive at its default desktop, KDE 3.0.3. Windows users will feel at home here, as SuSE sports a Start button, cascading menus for accessing programs, and desktop icons that open to reveal applications, hard drives and system configuration options. With its rich colours and stylised icons, the KDE desktop is little short of gorgeous. SuSE also lets you switch to GNOME, WindowManager (another GUI option) and a few other less full-featured GUIs, either by switching and then logging back in or by going to them directly from the initial login screen. In addition, SuSE's configuration dialogue is superb -- well organised and informative, with a wealth of options. If you routinely play around with the configuration menus in Windows, you'll enjoy the even greater control that SuSE offers. We wish Linux could finally rid itself of ugly screen fonts in word processing and Web browsing applications, but not even the super-friendly SuSE manages this. In fact, everybody's favourite Linux browser, Mozilla, is almost unreadable at times, so spindly, thin and jagged are its fonts. Thankfully, the Linux development community has created a Web browser – Konqueror -- that makes better use of font anti-aliasing and creates much crisper, more readable fonts. SuSE not only includes Konqueror, but also defaults to the browser on start-up -- an important decision if SuSE plans to attract Windows users accustomed to nice, clear text.
SuSE 8.1 runs on the 2.4.19 Linux kernel and includes support for USB 2.0 and FireWire devices. Plus, SuSE ships with a seemingly endless supply of programs, ranging from sophisticated graphics and video tools to utilities and servers galore. It also includes the OpenOffice 1.0.1 office suite. From a stability standpoint, SuSE is good but not great. In our casual tests, it crashed twice -- not unusual for any Linux distribution running on a PC with the latest hardware. The first, non-crucial crash occurred during a lengthy download from SuSE’s Web site. The cause of the second, however, is related to SuSE's only significant problem: its GNOME support. Specifically, GNOME's feature-rich email program, Ximian Evolution, crashed several times and once took the operating system down with it. We didn't have any similar problems with Red Hat 8.0 running precisely the same version of Evolution, so the conclusion is that SuSE doesn't work well with the GNOME environment. That's not too serious, since you can switch back to the KDE desktop, but you will miss out on Ximian and other powerful GNOME-only applications.
Service and support
It's easy to keep SuSE running smoothly. Its Web site offers numerous downloads and automatic updates. As for technical support, you'll get free installation support by email, fax or phone (11am to 5pm on weekdays) for 90 days after you register the support key (60 days for the Personal Edition), but you'll be limited to email and Web site support after that. Advanced support, covering post-installation issues, is available by phone at either 46 euros (~£30) per incident or £1.50 per minute.