One month with SLED 10

By Niall C. Brady, August 2006.
If you wish to re-publish this article (or parts of), then you are free to do so as long as it links back to here.

* the Gnome desktop and the 'computer' menu
** Search
** Show
** System
** Status
* Networking
* video/Xgl
* applications


The very phrase 'year of the Linux Desktop' has been stirring debates for years now and the pro-linux and anti-linux crowds have had their fair share of bashing each other about it. I initially wanted to call this article 'Linux on the Desktop with SLED 10' but as the days ticked by I realised that my focus on the Distro changed from what Novell wanted it to be. Naturally Novell want their latest Suse prodigy to be used by Enterprises who want to use linux (or want to move away from Windows) across their organisation (desktops and of course servers via SLES 10). And in fairness, that's a brave move by Novell considering that not too long ago their flagship Netware products were their bread and butter so to speak. The company really has re-invented itself with the purchase of Suse. They have put so much time, money and effort into pushing Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED 10) as the linux distro for the Enterprise Desktop that anyone who reads this that is in a position to 'switch' should seriously consider and evaluate SLED 10. Indeed, they have a very fancy Macromedia animation which spells out how cool they think SLED 10 actually is:-

"With SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, businesses can dramatically reduce costs, improve end-user security, and increase workforce productivity"

Quite a statement ! so let's see if Suse 10 really is as fantastic as Novell make it out to be. As I don't have an Enterprise close to hand, I decided that the fairest way (for me) to review this distro would be to install it on a handle of computers I have (fairly up to date) to see how it could cope. In addition, I decided that I would use SLED 10 as my primary linux 'box' for at least a month to see if it would grow on me. All three computers handled it well enough, but is it really ready for the desktop ?

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Installing SLED 10

Anyone who is familiar with the installation routines by Linux distros such as Fedora or Suse will know that you are given many choices during the setup, and indeed that one fact is why so many people love linux. They love having choice, and they love being in control of deciding what gets installed and what doesn't get installed.

Installing SLED 10 can be as easy as clicking next (many times) to get a pretty default install or if you are a more advanced user you can partition your hard disc(s) the way you want or install different software packages. SLED 10 also includes an option to 'clone' a system at the end of the installation process, thereby saving an answer file which can be used to deploy many desktops with the same hardware/software setup. The option appears right at the 'end of the installation procedure [Screenshot]' and could be very useful for medium to large rollouts of identical machines. What I'd like to know however, is if you can AutoYast a system that you have modified after the installation (ie: added DVD playback etc).

Dual booting is also supported in SLED 10 as you would expect, and I very easily got it working on my son's Windows XP gaming machine (I installed SLED 10 to a blank partition with a bit of configuration during the setup procedure). So that computer has Windows and SLED 10 side by side, cool.

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Novell spent a lot of money testing how people react to visual stimuli prior to releasing SLED 10. They wanted a desktop experience that was intuitive, easy to use, and more importantly easy to adapt to (think Windows users). In addition, Novell wanted to produce that 'wow' factor by using the relatively new Xgl. Xgl uses the power of your video card to produce some stunning visuals on your dekstop, and the way it's implemented in SLED 10 is very nice and relatively easy to enable/disable. I must confess to wanting to try out SLED 10 after seeing Novell's press release video which showed Xgl in action, it was very impressive (and very long and detailed) and the special effects in Xgl alone were enough to get me downloading the ISO's.

So how is the usability in SLED 10 ? I'll go into some details below.

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* The Gnome desktop and the 'computer' menu

My day to day linux distro (prior to spending a month with SLED 10) is Fedora Core Release 5, and anyone who is familiar with that distro will feel right at home with Novell's implementation of the Gnome Desktop, even though the application menu is now at the bottom of the desktop (as you would expect if you were a typical Windows user).

I did however, miss having a top and bottom Gnome panel, so I set about adding one to the top of my Gnome desktop by doing as follows:-

* right-click on the bottom Gnome panel in SLED 10
* choose 'New Panel'

Then simply drag and drop your chosen icons from the SLED 10 'computer' menu or the desktop up into the panel so that it now looks like this.

The computer menu provided in SLED 10 is quite revolutionary and does take some getting used to, but once you are familiar with it it's second nature. It is comprised of 4 main sections [Screenshot], Search, Show, System and Status, so let's go into each of those sections in a little bit more detail.

** Search

Novell's acquisition of Suse in November 2003 brought benefits that far outreached even what Novell had probably considered. Prior to purchasing Suse, Novell had acquired Ximian which was co-founded by Nat Friedman (the guy behind Beagle). Beagle is ever-present in SLED 10. Think of it as a realtime search engine for your desktop. If you want to find a document then click on the Computer Menu and type something in the 'search' box. You will be presented with a search results window that lists results from your documents, your online conversations (in Gaim for example) and even Websites that you have visited. The search results window will also get updated (like RSS) versions of the website(s) that you visited, and are in turn displayed in thumbnail form. Thumbs up from me, the beagle search engine is fantastic.

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** Show

Comprising most of the Computer Menu physical space, the 'show' section has a drop down menu which is further divided into three sub sections [Screenshot] which are

Favorite Applications
Recently Used Applications
Recent Documents

Selecting any of the three choices will leave your Computer Menu showing that particular option, which is a nice touch. Within each of these three sections you can move documents/programs around or delete/uninstall/rename them. You can even drag and drop these programs/documents to your desktop if you wish for even quicker access to them.

The Show menu also has a button in it called 'More Applications' and it's in there that the vast majority of Sled 10 goodies/tools/applications are stored. This button changes to 'All Documents...' if you happen to be browsing your 'Recent Documents' in the Show menu. The More applications button itself opens up a large window (Application Browser) containing groups of applications sorted into sub-sections such as 'audio and video/games/images/office/System and more. Clicking on any of the sub-sections gets you directly to that section in the right hand pane and from there you can launch any of the applications listed.

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** System

The system menu is a fixed menu (can't edit it) used to quickly get help, adjust settings via the control center, install software via the zenworks software installer [Screenshot] or to simply lock your desktop screen or logout of SLED 10. The Control Center opens another window which looks very like the application browser window, with sub-sections on the left comprising hardware, look and feel, personal, system and more. It's basically the SLED 10 equivalent of Windows XP's control Panel.

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** Status

The system section of the Computer menu, gives an 'at a glance' overview of your hard drive storage/capacity and current network status. Clicking on the hard drive icon, will bring up a 'system monitor' much akin to Windows XP's 'Task Manager'. It lists 4 tabs which are 'system', 'processes', 'resources' and 'devices'. If you are not in the mood for issuing a kill -9 pid command via CLI then you can point and click your way to 'Processes' locate the offending process and kill it with a right click. In addition you can change the priority of processes or stop/continue them. The resources tab gives you a realtime scrolling history of your CPU, Memory/Swap and Network history.

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* Networking

Networking in SLED 10 is a big step in the right direction for linux distros. My Intel pro 2200bg wireless minipci card was setup by SLED 10 with no need for me to do any mod-probing, firmware loading or iEEE configuration. It just worked, out of the box.
All I had to do was use the Network Manager Applet in the system tray to enter my SSID and WEP key. Not only did it have the drivers pre-installed for my Intel wireless card [Screenshot], but the Network Manager Applet allows me to quickly switch between wireless networks [Screenshot] and in addition, switch from wireless to wired, or back again.

In addition to the easy wireless setup in SLED 10 you can browse your Windows computers (and domains/active directory) using the 'Network Servers - File Browser' option in the System section of Application Browser. With a little bit of configuration I was happily copying files from my SLED 10 laptop to a Windows XP share [Screenshot] on another computer.

Bluetooth was also another surprise for me, and I easily got SLED 10 transferring a photo [Screenshot] direct from my notebook to my Sony Ericsson K600i bluetooth enabled phone by right clicking on the photo and choosing 'Send to..'.

All was not perfect though and I did encounter some issues of speed with TightVNC. I remotely manage linux boxes mostly via ssh but sometimes using vnc over ssh, and I was surprised when i launched vncviewer in SLED10 that 'tightvnc' popped up. When I connected to my target linux box the connection was very slow, and visual updating was a pain (like a 14k modem). I assumed that this was due to having Xgl enabled, so I disabled Xgl and restarted X. I tried vnc over ssh again and it was still slow as mollasses, so obviously something else is causing that issue.

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* video/Xgl

As I mentioned above, seeing an Xgl video from Novell inspired me to download the 60 day Evaluation version of SLED 10. I wanted to see Xgl first hand and to see what it was really like. For those of you who have not yet tried Xgl then perhaps now is a good time to see what you are missing out on [Screenshot].

Thankfully SLED 10 allowed me to enable 3D Acceleration and Xgl (Desktop Effects) on my Intel video powered notebook (Intel 915GM chipset) without having to download anything extra or compile this or that, even though it stated that 'your graphics card is not in Xgl's database'. All that I had to do was choose to enable it (search for 'desktop effects' in the beagle search menu), restart X when prompted and then when I tried it for the first time I just had to show others !! It was that cool :-) In addition to SLED 10's ability to get Xgl running on my onboard intel video, it correctly identified my laptop's LCD screen resolution (1400x1050) and also gives you a handy screen resolution icon in the system tray to quickly and easily switch between different resolutions. No need to reboot either, and no need to restart X.

Nvidia users on the other hand, won't have it so easy (as usual) and I daresay the same for ATI users (but I haven't tested an ATI card yet). In order to get Xgl working on an Nvidia Geforce 6800GT I had (my son's gaming box) I had to do the following:-

* start yast
* change the software installation source
* add nvidias ftp download site
* find out what kernel I was running via uname -r
* go into Software Management
* search for two separate Nvidia strings
* add them, install them
* restart X
* enable Xgl

Ok, the above isn't too bad if you are a reasonably experienced linux user but if you are a noob, then it might just be too much. For those of you who are linux-noobs I've put together an easy way to add Nvidia 3D acceleration to SLED 10 howto.

UPDATE: I've been informed by a few readers that If you register SLED 10 with Novell, the above howto is not necessary at all (I have not confirmed this yet). Here's the info (Thanks to Bart B. and Mark C.)

"If you are an NVIDIA user all you need to do is open the control panel, double click on the XGL icon, click on enable 3D desktop and SLED will walk you through the correct NVIDIA driver install, it does it all for you and then reboots the X server for you. Noob's don't even need to make it as complex as you are making it for them."

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* Applications

SLED 10 comes complete with a whole suite of applications designed to get your work done, including the OpenOffice Suite, Evolution for mail, Instant messaging with Gaim, IRC via xchat, Voice over IP (VOIP) via linphone and of course adding printers with CUPS. Firefox users won't be disappointed either as it's installed by default. Infact the list of pre-installed applications is (like most linux distros) way too extensive to detail here so i'll just mention a few.

I did some quick testing with OpenOffice by downloading some sample Microsoft Word documents and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets on the internet. First up, was OpenOffice Writer, it happily loaded a Microsoft Word document and displayed it beautifully [Screenshot] however when I tried to load a Office 2003 word document I was working on (complete with headers) it loaded it fine but completely ignored the fact that the headers were 'headers' and the document content was spilling over the pre-defined 'tables'. I wasn't in the mood to debug this so left it and next tried a simple Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet via OpenOffice Calc.

Calc asked me if I wanted to 'enable Macros' (standard security warning) to which I clicked on 'Enable Macros'. The resulting spreadsheet looked nice but as soon as I clicked on the one and only function, I got a basic runtime error [Screenshot].

File Management via nautilus also threw a wobbly when I tried to copy a bunch of screenshots to my USB key, I marked them, chose copy, and then when I tried to 'send to' nautilus crashed [Screenshot]. Printing via CUPS however pleasantly surprised me as for the first time in two years or so I was able to print to my color laser printer in color ! Kudos to Novell for that :)

No linux review would be complete without the usual mention of Mp3 playback, DVD playback and Windows Codecs, so i'll point you in the right direction to get those elements up and running, yes some work is involved but it's not overly complex and once you've added the additional Suse 10.1 installation sources plus some other infamous sources, you'll be playing DVD's in no time [Screenshot].

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I had the pleasure of spending slightly more than a month with SLED 10, and it's still installed on three computers here in my house. I'm writing this article on my notebook running SLED 10, in vi while ssh'd in to a Fedora server. Seeing and using Xgl for the first time was a mind blowing experience for me, and everyone I showed it to was going 'ooh and ahhh', very very nice indeed.

However, Xgl alone, is not enough to make a linux distro 'ready for the desktop', and that's why Novell has put so much work into their Computer Menu, beagle search, Windows networking via SMB, dual boot and making the whole distro 'feel professional and polished'. Sure I encountered some problems/bugs with certain applications in certain scenarious, but this is all part of the evolution of linux as a whole. Novell's weakness (and all linux vendors as far as I can see) is in integrating applications from 3rd parties with the hope that they'll work seamlessly in their OS, they don't have 100% control of those applications (think OpenOffice or Firefox) and therefore there will be problems along the way.

Novell's strengths are many however, and I'm delighted to see the excellent work they have done in usability tests, and making the whole desktop 'feel' like it's ready, ready to do business, and ready to serve it's users. The development they've done with Beagle and in particular the 'computer menu' are fantastic and hopefully are just the 'start' of better things to come.

Novell gets a 10/10 from me for this distro, and given the current environment in the OS world, I think SLED 10 is 'desktop ready'. Good work Novell/Suse, here's to the next release !

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(c) 2006.
Please send corrections/suggestions/spelling mistakes to anyweb First draft: August 24, 2006

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