SuSE Linux 8.2 offers the best-looking Linux desktop OS around. It's also easy to use and well organized, and it performs adequately. Its installation process is so smooth and uncluttered, in fact, that this alone merits a chance from Windows die-hards--although Red Hat Linux 9.0 comes close in this regard. With two versions--the $79.95 Professional package or the $39.95 Personal version--SuSE 8.2 is far cheaper than Windows and is even more economical than the $129 LindowsOS. Like version 8.1, SuSE 8.2 focuses its energies on support for the KDE desktop over the GNOME environment, but SuSE makes Linux palatable for any experienced Windows user and surpasses Red Hat Linux 9.0 and Mandrake Linux 9.1 in both installation and interface. If you're ready to switch to Linux, SuSE 8.2 should be a top consideration. SuSE Linux 8.1 offers the best-looking Linux desktop OS around. It's also easy to use and well organized, and it performs adequately. Its installation process is so smooth and uncluttered, in fact, that this alone merits a chance from Windows die-hards. With two versions--the $75 Professional package or the roughly $40 Personal version--SuSE 8.1 is far cheaper than Windows and is even more economical than the $129 LindowsOS. 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 get-go, you'll discover that SuSE Linux 8.2 Professional is designed precisely for the would-be Windows convert. Its ultrasmooth 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 or to find enough free space to perform the installation and automatically set up links to your existing Linux and Windows partitions (including NTFS). 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 it still manages to leave enough room for Windows to grow, as well. 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 it booted without incident into a fully functioning graphical user interface (GUI). Red Hat 9.0, by comparison, has improved its installation procedure dramatically but even so feels less smooth than SuSE's.
One negative point here: SuSE makes it more difficult than any other major Linux distro to download and install the free version. Unlike Red Hat, which lets you download ISO files of its three installation CDs, SuSE forces you either to install via FTP (after downloading a boot CD or floppies) or download the entire directory structure before installing. Either way, you'll find this process truly painful, with downloads taking many hours. SuSE obviously wants you to buy the shipping version rather than download, and while that's understandable, it flies in the face of Linux tradition.
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 8.2 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 marvelously at detecting all of our hardware. The only glitch: the GeForce card wouldn't function in dual-display mode (that is, using two monitors), even with newly downloaded drivers from the Nvidia site, but we had the same problem with Red Hat. In fact, dual-monitor mode support is a difficulty across the Linux spectrum.
Launch SuSE for the first time, and you'll arrive at its default desktop, KDE 3.1. 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 colors and stylized icons, the KDE desktop is nothing 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 dialog is superb--well organized 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.
As with Red Hat 9.0, SuSE 8.2 offers significantly improved font displays. Mozilla is actually readable (it wasn't in 8.1), and the increasingly important Konqueror browser is even more so. While fonts still don't match those in Windows--especially with WinXP's Clear Type option--it's now safe to say that the Linux desktop is functional for text-heavy applications. Before the current stream of distros, it was not.
SuSE 8.1 runs on the 2.4.19 Linux kernel and includes support for USB 2.0 and FireWire devices. As before, 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 1.0.2 office suite.
From a stability standpoint, SuSE improves on 8.1's somewhat spotty performance. In our casual tests, it crashed only once: during an extended download from the SuSE site. Earlier crashes with GNOME's feature-rich e-mail program, Ximian Evolution, disappeared with this version, although Ximian remains decidedly slow as an application. Oddly, we didn't have any similar problems with Red Hat 9.0 running precisely the same version of Evolution, so the conclusion is that SuSE doesn't play as well as Red Hat with the GNOME environment. GNOME support remains an area in which SuSE needs improvement.
While 8.2 operates primarily as a worthwhile system update rather than as an essential upgrade of features or inclusions, security has been improved in the form of directory and partition encryption, and VPN support has also received enhancement. Multimedia applications remain quite weak on the Linux platform, but 8.2 offers the very good MainActor for video production and a decent array of recording studio apps as well.
Service and support
It's easy to keep SuSE running smoothly. Its Web site offers numerous downloads and automatic updates. As for tech support, you'll get free installation support by e-mail, fax, or phone (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET on weekdays) for 90 days after you register the support key (60 days for the Personal Edition), but you'll be limited to e-mail and Web site support after that. Advanced support, covering post-installation issues, is available by phone for an additional, per-minute fee.