Friday, November 28, 2008

OpenSUSE 11.1 RC and KDE 4.1

The release Thursday of OpenSUSE 11.1 RC 'incited' me to download the KDE-based Open CD version and give it a spin. I've been tracking KDE 4.1 across three distributions (Mandriva 2009, Fedora 10, and OpenSUSE). I tried Kubuntu 8.10 and immediately rebooted my system and threw the CD in the trash. Kubuntu in any version is one of the worst ways to experience KDE (version 3 or version 4).

Although I don't have any images of the boot process (and I never had) I can say that booting into OpenSUSE 11.1 is a smooth and polished experience. This is in stark contrast to booting into a current release of Ubuntu, in which the language selection menu is clumsily splashed across the screen. The Ubuntu first boot experience is crude and amateurish, while OpenSUSE (and Mandriva and Fedora and ... ) are far more polished and professional. The only first boot experience worse than Ubuntu is OpenSolaris and its several text menus.

As usual one of the first tasks I perform after booting to the desktop is to fire up an instance of Firefox and the shell. I also play around a bit with the desktop eye candy just to see if will work; for that simple test I bring up the Add Widgets dialog and add the Analog Clock. What you see below is the OpenSUSE KDE 4.1 default desktop with Firefox 3, Konsole, and the Analog Clock.

Two things I don't like right off the bat is the square size of the Desktop Folder widget and the default text theme in the Desktop Folder. I like to see the icons lined up down the left side of the desktop (ala the older KDE 3 way of showing the initial desktop icons). So after wrangling with the resize of Desktop Folder, I started to look for another theme that would produce a more readable font. One other thing I noticed, the swoosh icon is missing in the upper right corner of the screen. I have never liked the swoosh icon, and the fact you can now turn it off on OpenSUSE 11.1 as a nice feature.

Another nice feature is the growing maturity of Desktop Settings dialog. It may be at the same level of maturity in other current KDE 4.1 distributions, but I don't know and I need to go back and look for the sake of completeness and fairness. But it's nicer here than I've seen before, and it takes little time to select from a number of better themes than the default. The next six desktops were selected from a combination of the Desktop Theme and the Wallpaper.

The following theme is the default. The use of 'chrome' is jarring and produces widget decorations that detract from the overall theme.


The next theme I tried was Elegance. And it does indeed live up to its name. The clock in particular is toned down quite a bit and blends into the desktop enough that only the hands stand out, and then just enough to find them to read the time. Otherwise all the elements that make up the desktop seem much better balanced. Note also that the text in the Desktop Folder widget is much more readable.

The next two green themes (Oxygen and Slim Glow) give the same general effect while offering reasonable differentiation. They all offer (in my not-so-humble opinion) a better selection than the default. And that brings up another good feature of this latest spin of KDE 4.1. This is the first KDE desktop where I haven't been forced to go off to KDE Looks and spend too much time downloading themes to make the desktop look better than a bad version of the CDE desktop theme. Icons, colors, and controls all seem to look better and work better together thematically.




For those who don't like green, you can select the blue-themed Blue Curl desktop wallpaper, and then try out the various themes to see how they work. I will say this; don't select the Slim Glow theme and the Blue Curl wallpaper. The resultant treatment of the Analog Clock makes it disappear into the wallpaper.


And finally, for those who have to have the swoosh as well as the old school icons directly on the desktop, you can select that by bringing up the Desktop Settings dialog and then selecting the Folder View Desktop Activity. Just make sure that if you make that selection that you remove the Desktop Folder widget.



One problem I ran into (and continue to run into with every distribution I check out) is the inability to look in existing partitions any longer. I tried to look into one of my existing EXT3 partitions with Dolphin, only to be presented with the lovely but strange error message at the bottom of the application.


I would have liked to have tried to run some other tests using media files and movies, but I can't see any of my existing partitions (neither Linux, Windows XP (NTFS), nor the FAT32 partition created for the express purpose of sharing data between multiple OSes running on my machine). It's not just OpenSUSE; I've been seeing this inability to view existing partitions for the last 12 months. I have no idea if this is a 'feature' or a regression, but I do remember using both Ubuntu 7.04 Live CD as well as OpenSUSE 10.2 Live CD to read every partition on this machine. If this is a 'security' feature then it's a damn annoying feature that ranks right up with there with Vista's UAC.

Final Thoughts, Various Ramblings

If I were approaching OpenSUSE 11.1 as a first time user I'd have to admit that the initial look and feel is solid and professional. Whoever has worked on the desktop has done an excellent job of creating a usable environment.

In fact, what the latest spin of KDE 4.1 reminds me of isn't so much KDE as Gnome; yes, Gnome. Unlike KDE 3, there are no great gobs of desktop and application real estate taken over with wasted white space between controls, and none of the visible 3D lines that outlined nested panels and controls. The placement and organization of controls seems a lot more natural. In fact, it seems a lot more Mac-like, without looking like a poor rip-off of the Mac interface. KDE 4 has borrowed some design elements from the Mac, but it has taken those elements (such as transparency) and made it uniquely KDE 4-like. And the KDE 4.1 desktop's fit and finish make the existing Gnome desktop look crude and very old by comparison.

It's a shame that it took this long to reach this state, but KDE 4.1 finally delivers on the KDE 4 promise of a new desktop, a desktop that simultaneously invites users old and new to use it, while getting out of your way when you want to get down to work.

Some pundits, such as Béranger, want to continuously flog KDE 4.1 with such comments as; "Each and every time I am confronted with the awkward design and counter-usability of KDE 4.x.y, I wonder what kind of mushrooms are they eating." Perhaps, instead, Monsieur Béranger should check to see what type of mushroom he lives under. He's no longer a viable critic, he's a troll living deep in some dark Frenchie forest, continuously croaking out his dissatisfaction over all things Linux. Granted he was speaking of Fedora 10 rather than OpenSUSE 11.1, but I can't see how one strays so far from the other that Fedora deserves such a boot to the virtual head as he wants to deliver. Perhaps he should go back to Windows.

And then there are the conspiracy nuts led by Boycott Novell, who would have you believe that OpenSUSE's prime sponsor, Novell, is the Little Satan to Microsoft's Great Satan because of the business agreement Novell and Microsoft entered two years ago. Well, I have a few clues for Messieurs Coyle and Schestowitz; (1) Microsoft isn't going anywhere, and neither is Novell for that matter, and (2) OpenSUSE should be evaluated on technical merit, not some twisted ideological crusade based on distorted and contrived facts.

This is not to say that all is forgiven and that I embrace OpenSUSE once again. This admittedly small "review" just scratches the surface. I would have to install OpenSUSE 11.1 and perform a series of tests to determine its performance and stability under multiple tasks; something similar to what Phoronix has been doing lately. But if my impressions of running OpenSUSE 11.1 RC Live CD is any indication, then 11.1 certainly merits re-evaluation. And it certainly merits a good hard look from everyone else within and without.

Update

I decided to boot up Fedora 10's KDE Live CD just to do a quick compare. And it failed to boot into the desktop on aging europa. So I came out and used my Latitude D630. The big difference between the two systems are the display adapters; europa has the ATI X1950 Pro while the D630 comes equipped with an NVIDIA Quadro NVS 135M. Fedora 10 boots and displays just fine on the NVIDIA card, but fails on the ATI. Conversely, while OpenSUSE 11.1 boots on both, it will not boot into the full resolution of the D630. The D630 has a 1440 by 900 screen; OpenSUSE will only use 1024 by 768. Ah, the joys of 'choice' amongst the distributions. What follows is the Fedora 10 desktop using the default wallpaper and the Elegance theme.


I should point out that the Desktop Settings dialog is considerably lighter in functionality from the same dialog in OpenSUSE 11.1. I could speculate that this is due to the fact that the version of KDE that wound up in Fedora 10 is actually an earlier point release from the version in OpenSUSE 11.1, but I don't know for certain. If it is then it's a bit peculiar; not only is the Fedora 10 dialog deficient in functionality, but the dialog is organized differently (and more poorly in my not-so-humble opinion). And while the desktops appear to be (nearly) identical, there are enough subtle differences in look and feel between the two to make me select OpenSUSE 11.1 over Fedora 10. But just because I prefer OpenSUSE's desktop over Fedora 10's doesn't mean Fedora 10 is as horribly flawed as Monsieur Béranger would have the world believe.

Update 2

And so we have a screenshot of Mandriva 2009 One Live CD. I chose the Fields of Peace wallpaper with the Elegance Theme. I should note that the Desktop Settings dialog is just like Fedora 10's. I deliberately chose this nice green theme to point out that green is not bad. In fact I would have chosen this as the default desktop theme for OpenSUSE 11.1. But then, that's just me.


Remember when I babbled earlier about not being able to see any of my partitions with any current distribution? I was wrong. With Mandriva 2009 One Live CD I can see everything except directories under /home. But that's still an annoyance, especially if you want to use the Live CD as a rescue disk and you need to get into your home directory to fix the problem(s).


In the screen shot above, I'm able to look at files on an NTFS (Windows XP SP2) folder that contains some old QuickTime trailers. In this example I'm playing back an old Hellboy trailer. It plays back with full audio. This was a feat I could not accomplish with either OpenSUSE or Fedora 10. Based on my personal tastes and needs I'll stick with Mandriva.

The point of all of this; I've come to believe KDE 4.1 is truly ready for mass acceptance, and these three current distributions help to drive that point home.