The Great Netbook OS Face Off

Some background. Mandrake (Mandriva), Debian and now Ubuntu have been my desktop OS’s of choice for the last umpteen years. That is the context.

The HP Mini 2140 Netbook is my dream computer. For many years I have sought a device that was portable (as in I can take it tramping and not begrudge the extra 1 kg), usable and powerful enough to carry out all of my “knowledge worker” functions. The power to weight to usability ratios of this device is exceptional.

Due to an ordering botch up on my part I ended up with two HP Minis at my disposal, one with Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 pre-installedby HP  and on the other we installed Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope). The latter was an “out of the box” point and click installation. Thus armed I am able to compare and contrast.

Room for this on even the untidiest of desks

Room for this on even the untidiest of desks

Both systems are very good. Things that should work out of the box do work out of the box. Wifi, tick, ethernet, tick, USB wireless mouse, tick, you get the drift. Installed applications work well. A very decent baseline to work with.

Still, Ubuntu ended up a clear winner. In the rest of this review I will attempt to explain why.

It is not that SUSE was at all bad, it was just that there were a lot of little things that gradually built up to an overall level of dissatisfaction. This started with the initial boot up process.

Whilst Ubuntu has a nice gui install process the pre-installed SUSE took me straight into a configuration process and an admin tool called “YaST”. As well as being unreadable it was extremely hard to understand what I was being asked for. I was stumped at about question 2, and it was only by trying about 10 combinations that I managed to get through onto the next step. Then there were the EULAs to which I had to agree. Of course, having clicked “yes” on about three of these without reading them I cannot now find out what I have agreed to as I cannot find the licences. I believe one was a Novell specific EULA, another for RealPlayer and a third for Adobe PDF reader. It seems bizarre for a GNU/Linux distro to have such “agreements” in the first place and in the second to be offering Real and Adobe as default installs where the free alternatives are just as good.

Ubuntu is very clear about these sort of shackles. It doesn’t have them. If you want to install them you can and it lets you know what you are doing in a very straight forward manner.

Talking about applications, it seemed to take the SUSE system about two days to register against a Novell repository. I tried registering with Novell as I was asked to from the get go, but that seemed to hang, for two days anyway. Maybe this was a protest because I refused to purchase a new licence from Novell for another Entreprise edition, I don’t know.

Once the Novell repositories were available I was struck by the lack of applications that were available to me to install. No Gwibber, no Google Earth, no Skype. The Gimp and similar applications not installed by default.

Ubuntu on the other hand works out that there is an NZ Ubuntu mirror for updates and new applications and sets my repositories accordingly. From then on I can install and uninstall to my heart’s content.

Sticking to administrivia, did I mention how nasty YaST is? Uninstalling software (Real, Adobe) is not an obvious thing to do and as far as I can tell, does not work. Here is my cock-up story. I thought I would be smart and install Firefox 3.5. Unfortunately, due to Firefox only releasing a tarball (zip file) and my lack of technical prowess I stuffed up on SUSE and decided to use Google before updating Ubuntu. Result, no web browsing for me on SUSE.

“No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just uninstall Firefox” and reinstall from the Novell repository. But the “uninstall” did not work. Either as a “root” user or normal user. I had to manually find and delete files before the re-install worked. And then the re-install gave me an older version of Firefox than came pre-installed. To add insult to injury there were no alternate web browsers I could install from the repositories.

Other niggles with SUSE on this platform? Well, the default fonts are rather spidery and hard to read, the application menu system is less intuitive, there is no Māori  keyboard option (right Alt plus vowel invokes a macron on Ubuntu) and the application choices are limited.

It does seem as though Novell has left the SUSE community behind in a way that Ubuntu has not. Ubuntu gives me as a user many more freedoms and choices. There was a time three or four years ago that the Novell SUSE desktop was going to take the world by storm. But times have moved on. Ubuntu has a large following and very good community support. Novell does not seem to have harnessed this support, largely I suspect, because they are attempting to follow a blended business model. One where Open Source is seen as a hook into their “real” software offerings rather than as a core and essential part of their business.

Where to from here? I still have SUSE on one HP Mini and will continue using that for while. There is nothing quite so unfair as an initial review. So, if you can help me get more out of SUSE and correct my many beginner mistakes please do. SUSE is an important option for many enterprise clients so the more information we have on its inner workings the better. I should also give Mandriva a run. It has been a while.

On a positive note “suspend” worked automatically on SUSE when I closed the lid, on Ubuntu I have to invoke it manually. That’s all.

P.S. Thanks to ascent.co.nz for their constant and assiduous help in sourcing Linux based machines. They are cheaper.

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