What has got seven CD-ROMs, one DVD, and three thick Linux books? What’s got a whack of commercial and shareware software for Linux? What’s got choices of the latest kernels and X setups? What just may be the most complete Linux release available today? The answer to all these questions is SuSE Linux 7.1

Before we dive into SuSE 7.1, I should in the interests of fair reviewing disclose a bias. For the last two years, my favorite Linux distributions for workstation and single-CPU servers has been either SuSE or Mandrake. I’ve tested every Linux distribution on the market, configured hundreds of machines, taught hundreds of people about Linux, and sold complete systems. In almost every case, either SuSE or Mandrake has been on the systems destined for end users. The reasons have been simple: I never had anyone complain about the SuSE or Mandrake packages, they are easy to install and configure, and they both offer a ton of software installed for you. So, it was with considerable expectation that I opened SuSE 7.1 Professional, waiting to see what had been packed into this latest release. As you can tell from the opening paragraph, I wasn’t disappointed.

I won’t bother with a background of SuSE, since most people know about it. They’ve been offering excellent packaged versions of Linux for a while now and have an excellent reputation. The SuSE 7.1 package is about as complete as any Linux package I’ve encountered. As mentioned, the software is contained on seven CD-ROMs or one DVD, all enclosed in a convenient cardboard folder with a FAQ printed on the inner leaves. Before you get worried, you don’t need to load all seven CD-ROMs. Most users will find a complete setup for a workstation (and many servers) is loaded off the first CD-ROM. The other disks are full of support material, shareware packages, and many commercial packages (more on this later). The alternative of a DVD full of this material is a welcome one, even though many people have still not moved to a DVD drive. Two diskettes are included too, for older systems that cannot boot off a CD or DVD drive.

Installation is simple: insert the first CD-ROM (or the boot floppy and CD) and start the system. The Yast2 (yet another setup tool) installer is fully graphical and requires not configuration for the vast majority of systems. For those few systems with trouble under Yast2, there’s the older character-based Yast available, too. Follow the prompts, choose the software or default packages, and let the system load Linux for you. If you are working from a DVD, the process is the same but you are never asked to swap CDs! For users who are newcomers to Linux or those who must read the manual before getting started, SuSE has bundled an excellent Quick Install booklet with the package. It offers a step-by-step guide to installing and configuring, using copious screen shots and notes. Newcomers to Linux couldn’t find a better primer for the installation routine. SuSE is to be commended for this guide!

Part of the basic software load is to select either predetermined packages for installation, or custom choose some packages yourself. You have a whack of commercial software (many packages requiring activation keys prior to use) that can be loaded from the install menus. The only real gripe about this routine is the lack of clear explanations of what each package does. Still, experience Linux users will recognize the names of many of the packages.

A few installation niceties: a graphical interface to the partitioning tool and automatic repartitioning for users who don’t want manual control; automatic detection of existing SuSE versions and easy upgrade to 7.1; choices of kernels (2.2.18 or the new 2.4); KDE and GNOME (including KDE2); and simplified LILO setup. SuSE 7.1 can now exceed the 1024 cylinder limit for boot partitions, which helps when setting up a dual-boot system. Large File Support and support for the ReiserFS filesystem are included and welcome. (ReiserFS is a journaling filesystem that allows for rollback to a previous state in case of problems: there’s a performance hit for this feature, but it’s small.)

We installed SuSE 7.1 on four different systems with a wide range of hardware, and on each system the installation routine went silkily smooth and caused nary a hiccup. The changes to Yast2 are excellent, and make any user’s experience with SuSE 7.1 excellent right from the start. A typical workstation configuration tops out at about 400MB of disk space (including KDE) while full server setups with some optional software exceeds a couple of gigabytes! The Yast2 autodetect utility did a great job of finding video and network cards, as well as soundcards and one video card. One older machine with an esoteric video card did cause the detection routine a minor problem, but we chose a generic SVGA installation and it proceeded without problem. A few cards in some machines were not detected, primarily because they were either older multiport ISA cards or very recent video processing cards (Matrox DigiSuite DTV, to be specific, which has no Linux driver to date). We didn’t have to resort to the Yast character-based system for any of the installations we performed but we did have to manually install one Ethernet card’s drivers, and one soundcard. There is a list of devices on the SuSE web site that shows what can be detected by the installation routine, but most users are not going to look prior to starting.

The documentation that accompanies the software is just as good as the installation routine. The thickest manual is the Handbook, which includes installation and networking information, as well as lots of configuration and basic setup details. The Configuration manual is, as the name suggests, intended to help you set up all aspects of the included software, including multimedia and gaming equipment. It’s one of the best configuration guides I’ve seen. Finally, the thinner Applications manual is a guide to many of the simple applications included, showing step-by-step how to use KDE and applications under it, such as media players. While experienced users will probably not touch the documentation most of the time, newcomers will find it welcome.

We wanted to see how a newcomer to Linux would react to the SuSE 7.1 package, so we gave a coworker who had Windows only experience the entire package, and asked her to install and configure Linux. Although overwhelmed at first by the mass of documentation and software, an hour later she had a dual-boot SuSE system running, a smile on her face, and was reading through the GIMP documentation! Favorite parts were the Quick Install Guide and the Yast2 interface. Least liked parts? No games to play while the system loaded (she’d seen our Mandrake setup, which gives you PacMan or other games to play while the software loads). If that’s the worst that could be said by a total newcomer, we think SuSE 7.1 is a hit!

SuSE 7.1 is available in two versions, the Professional release we tested, and Personal edition. The personal edition has only three CD-ROMs and no DVD, but costs only $29.95. The Professional edition costs $69.95 and adds some extras to the Personal edition. What does your extra $40 buy you? Mostly server configuration software. The Personal edition is more targeted at workstations, and lacks some of the server components. The Professional edition can be configured as server or workstation, and includes support for LDAP Server as well. There’s more, but it will likely appeal to programmers and heavy system users, such as built-in support for Cups and clustering in the Professional edition. There are many fewer development tools in the Personal edition, too, and no KDevelop package at all (although this is available free from the Web). The Professional edition also includes IP Video telephony software. From our point of view, the price difference between the two editions is small, and the extra software packages the $40 buys you are worth the investment. The documentation is the same for both editions.

We won’t bother going through a long list of the included packages, as they are fairly standard and the list can be obtained from the SuSE web site. One of the choices you have during the installation is between the standard 2.2.18 kernel or the newly released 2.4 kernel. The 2.4 kernel is positioned as an enterprise kernel and includes multiprocessor support. There is also support for up to 64GB RAM (although we haven’t encountered a machine with that much yet!) and the 64-bit filesystem. The 2.4 kernel also adds better support for USB peripherals and better plug-and-play ISA and CPI support. The other kernel, 2.2.18, is better known and has been stable for a while, for those who do not want to risk problems with the new kernel release. The 2.2.18 update to the 2.2 kernel includes improved USB support and integrated support for the Pentium 4’s enhanced instructions. Which kernel should you choose? If you are setting up a workstation with a single CPU, it won’t matter. If you are configuring a server, the 2.4 release is better.

Everything sounds rosy so far. But like most things in life, too much of a good thing can be a problem. Many users new to Linux will have decisions to make about which software to install. Do they want StarOffice or WordPerfect for Linux? Which backup software package? Multimedia tools like Gnapster and a ton of others quickly end up with many gigabytes of disk space used up. There’s just too much for many users to absorb, and hard disks are sure to swell because of the surfeit. Whether most of these programs are ever used (or even found on the filesystem) is questionable. There are over 700 applications on the disks (over 100 just for multimedia)! But, we suppose, better to have too much than too little.

The last edition of SuSE Linux (7.0) got blasted in some reviews for a lack of live updating (using the Web to download and install software updates). SuSE corrected this lack with 7.1, even though the fuss over the missing update feature was blown out of proportion. Still, the live update works well and quickly.

Do you get the impression we’re stretching a little to find things to complain about? We are. There’s a whole lot to like, and very little to dislike about SuSE 7.1. The Personal edition of SuSE 7.1 comes with 60 days free technical support, while the Professional edition comes with 90 days. We made several calls to the technical support center, some with basic questions (partitioning, LILO, adding items to KMenu, and so on) and some far more complicated (adding NFS support for a shared Jaz drive, incorporating LDAP into a server setup, and others). In all cases, the technical support line was answered reasonably quickly and the person answering either found answers quickly, or got back to us within an hour. Impressive support, and it is far better than most vendors offer. I started this review mentioning SuSE was one of my favorite distros. SuSE 7.1 has just become my single favorite. You won’t regret this purchase.

SuSE 7.1
SuSE, Inc.
580 Second Street Suite 210
Oakland, CA 94607
(888) 875-4689
(510)-628-3381 fax

Summary: The best Linux distro on the market, with a heck of an installer and impressive bundle. Nothing to complain about. Excellent buy!