Friday, April 14, 2006

Changing from Xandros 3.02 to Suse 9.3 - My Linux Odyssey

Some people hop from one operating system to the next, always interested and excited about the next new thing. Others like to experiment for a while but, after finding the “right” OS, tend to stop looking around. Others won't change at all. In fact, they will fight change even if their current operating system locks up all the time, is difficult to use, and never seems to work right (OK, not all Windows systems are like that but you get my point). I am in the second group. Once I decided to try Linux, I spent a month or so trying out different flavors until I found the one I liked. So, for the last year or so, I have been a happy Xandros Linux user.

Then it happened. A few months ago, I was approved to replace my computer. Since HP is a supplier for work, I was able to get a nice Athlon 64 box without any hassle (very nice!). Not only that, but I was able to get it with Linux. Granted my only choice was Suse Linux 9.3 but it was nice not to pay the Windows tax and it did seem to make the machine cheaper (HP doesn't allow you to make a direct comparison but it was a $100 or so cheaper than the closest box I could spec with Windows). All in all, a very nice box and, although I am a big Xandros fan, I thought it would be interesting to try Suse out. After all, if I didn't like it, I could just format the hard drive and put Xandros on it.

When the computer came in, I found an interesting thing. Although it shipped with Suse 9.3, it didn't come pre-installed with it. They simply shipped the CDs with the box. So, instead of trying a new version of Linux, I was now picking which distribution I wanted to install. Although I do like to experiment, I decided that since this is my work computer, I should go with what I already know works well for me. So I decided to install Xandros. With the Xandros installer being the easiest installer I've ever seen, it should be super easy. Well, it wasn't.

Did I mention that I got an SATA hard drive on my new computer? Well, I did. It seemed like a good idea and, since IDE wasn't available, it was my only option. The only problem is that the Xandros installer couldn't detect the hard drive. I looked in the forums and everywhere else I could find but couldn't find any advice that actually helped. After a while, installing Suse started to get very tempting. “Well,” I thought, “although I'm accustomed to Xandros, Suse has a very good reputation and would probably make just as good a desktop”. So I decided to give it a try.

The install was pretty easy. Not as simple as Xandros but very straightforward. You do install a lot more software (4 CDs for Suse instead of 1 CD for Xandros) but I didn't have any issues. In about half an hour I had my Suse instance booting up. Easy as pie. The setup after that was a bit more complex. The network setup defaulted to DHCP but the firewall seemed to block the DHCP by default. I stumbled across this by pure accident but, once I opened the DHCP port, everything worked fine. Then I applied all the patches/security updates and I was ready to go. Well, sort of...

My next issue was file sharing. In Xandros I had my Active Directory shares mounted (like a hard drive or CD ROM). This was childishly easy to set up in the Xandros File Manager but gave me problems every now and then because it would lose the connection and hang trying to find them. I would have to manually unmount and remount them. With Suse, I found you could simply bookmark a link to the share and, although you have to log in more often, I haven't had it hang trying to access a disconnected mount point. The only problems I had were opening remote documents caused OpenOffice to freeze. No problem, just copy the document first and then open it. I have to say I like Suse's way better. Of course, I found out later that I could have done the same thing on Xandros but Suse makes it much easier.

Setting up printing was a nightmare. Our printers are also on an Active Directory network. In Xandros, all I had to do was tell it the print server and the printer. In Suse, it wasn't nearly as straightforward. I told it the printer server and the printer, played with a bunch of samba settings in 3 or 4 configuration panels, and finally rebooted. Rebooting seems to have done it though I don't know why it was necessary. Then the printing worked for a while until, while trying to print, it just put the job in the print queue and nothing happened. Kind of frustrating. Sure, I don't print very often and Xandros isn't perfect at printing either, but come on! However, I ended up feeling really stupid when I remembered that I had changed my AD password but hadn't updated my printer configuration. Printing works fine now.

Then there's rebooting. When I went to the shutdown menu and picked reboot, nothing happened. I tried again a couple more times with the same result. Finally I went into a console, changed to root and typed “reboot”. That worked just fine. So why doesn't the menu work? Really odd...

Then there was the issue of mounting my flash drive. I figured it would be the same as on Xandros. I stuck my flash drive into the usb port and ... nothing. So after an hour of poring over forums and help pages, I found that I wasn't the only one with issues. I did get the drive to mount though, and thought I had solved my problem. Well, a couple days ago, I tried it again. Once again, nothing. So now I'm pretty frustrated, but I search again. After a few hours I find another possible solution (something about disabling USB 2.0 support so USB 1.1 compatible drives work) that did the trick at first but after a couple of days it stopped working again. If I reboot, it works again for a while, then stops. Odd...

As for look and feel, I found that I like Suse better. Both Suse and Xandros are KDE based, but the Suse implementation is, in my opinion, a little bit better. It seems more polished or professional or something. I can't quite put my finger on it. I suppose it could be going from a 15 inch monitor to a 19 inch monitor and from a pentium 4 1.7 GHz to an AMD 3200+, but I simply liked it more. Konqueror (the file manager) is also set up differently. It's set to open files/directories on a single click. This took some getting used to but now I like it. The KDE control center is similar in look and feel but, with YAST integration, everything is in a different place. This isn't necessarily good or bad, just different. After a week or so of getting used to things, there weren't any issues other than the ones previously mentioned.

Although I miss Xandros, switching distributions was not as big a thing as I thought it would be. There were some surpises, but overall Xandros and Suse are not all that dissimilar. The issues I faced are not recurring problems but one-time setup headaches (except for the flash drive thing); frustrating at first but soon forgotten. Both distributions do their jobs well and, once again, I'm not really paying attention to my OS any more. I'm just working.

For me, it comes down to personal preference. I started with Xandos and still prefer it; I just use it at home now. However, if I had started with Suse, then it may very well have won my heart. Over all, I have to say that both distributions are quite good. I like the look and feel of Suse better but Xandros seems to have better hardware and network support out of the box (except for the SATA support) as well as a much more simplified setup and configuration. I guess my conclusion is that I like Suse but I miss Xandros. You can't use a distribution for a year and not become attached to it. Perhaps, after a few more months of using Suse, I'll get more attached to it. Who knows, I may actually end up liking it more.

No comments: