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openSUSE Leap 42.1 Review

openSUSE's regular release this year, now given the name "Leap" has some major changes designed to increase stability, while providing up-to-date, if not leading edge, software. This change is accomplished by basing the core of Leap on the SUSE Linux Enterprise product, on top of which the openSUSE community can add components that it desires and will maintain.

This change allows the openSUSE product offerings to better complement each other, while meeting the priorities of users. Those who want stability overall can choose Leap, while those who want newer software can choose the rolling release -- Tumbleweed. This doesn't mean that the software included in Leap will be out-of-date, as Leap includes kernel version 4.1.12 (an LTS series), GNOME 3.16.4, and KDE Plasma 5.4.2, but I suspect software such as these may not be updated to newer versions until Leap 42.2, except for security fixes.

In addition, the lifetime of the releases has been increased by aligning the minor version's of Leap with SLE service packs.

Leap-SLE Alignment Leap Minor Version Support Lifetime
Leap SLE until 6 months after new minor version release
Leap 42.1 SLE 12 SP1 18 Months expected
Leap 42.2 SLE 12 SP2 18 Months expected
Leap 42.3 SLE 12 SP3 18 Months expected

This alignment and the fact that the Evergreen long term release is being phased out would seem to indicate that SUSE/openSUSE wants each major version of Leap to be perceived as an LTS edition release.

Journalists covering SUSE have speculated that this change to the regular release is a competitive move on SUSE's part to provide a free but stable version suitable for servers in the same way that Red Hat provides CentOS for the same use case. (I myself recently chose Debian 8 and Ubuntu 14.04 LTS for servers). This recent change seems to be the culmination of an ongoing repositioning in openSUSE offerings that began with the promotion of Tumbleweed to a real rolling (snapshotted) release. For most regular desktop users, I expect this change to not make a difference in practice. I also think that most users, like me, will choose Tumbleweed over Leap for regular desktop use, especially considering a problem I found with a certain important package in Leap.

Review

In addition to the under the hood changes, there are the usual updates to artworks and themes, this time including new separate logos for Leap and Tumbleweed, (although the new Tumbleweed artwork hasn't been incorporated into current Tumbleweed snapshots). As usual, when first starting openSUSE the user is presented with striking -- depending on taste -- artwork, both in the GRUB theme and the Plymouth boot animation. This release's GRUB and Plymouth themes seem to be inspired by SLE in their "green-ness" and "boldness", from what I have seen of recent SLE artwork. The last change to Plymouth in 13.2 featured what could be imagined as a stylized representation of the openSUSE gecko's skin animated as the boot progressed to increase brightness radiating from a point. In this release the animation is not as unique, but it is striking nonetheless.

openSUSE Leap 42.1 new GRUB theme
The new Leap GRUB theme.
The new GRUB theme seems to be inspired by SUSE.
openSUSE Leap 42.1 new Plymouth boot animation
The new Leap Plymouth animation.
The Plymouth animation seems very bold to me. It features the new Leap logo.

There is also an interesting desktop background that is used as the SDDM greeter background, which unfortunately doesn't seem to work with the rest of the SDDM greeter theme, which is the standard SDDM theme with a change to a white fill color. The Plasma splash is very nice with just the new background and the gecko logo and a minimal progress bar. After arriving at the Plasma desktop, the inconsistencies that start with the SDDM theme continue, with a clash between SUSE green and KDE/Plasma/Breeze blue.

the default KDE Plasma 5 Desktop features an intersting background and the default KDE Breeze color scheme
The default KDE Plasma 5 Desktop features an interesting background and the default KDE Breeze color scheme.
I thought the background was very interesting, featuring the openSUSE gecko in a unique presentation. Unfortunately it was not scaled properly, requiring a change in the desktop background settings.
the default Breeze color scheme used in the openSUSE Plasma Workspace Theme and Application Appearance seem to clash with the green themed desktop background
The default Breeze color scheme used in the openSUSE Plasma Workspace Theme and Application Appearance seem to clash with the green themed desktop background.
openSUSE hasn't had a cohesive KDE desktop theme since 12.3 and it currently pales in comparison with what a distribution like Manjaro does, not only providing a custom cohesive theme with a desktop environment but among all desktops they offer, including a customized icon set.
the GNOME shell overview showing the new desktop background and the standard Adwaita theme
The default GNOME shell overview showing the new desktop background and the standard Adwaita theme.
The GNOME appearance doesn't seem as disjointed, but Adwaita seems old fashioned and dull.

This is one of the things I thought was lacking with openSUSE Leap 42.1 -- the cohesiveness of the artwork and theming. Since openSUSE 12.3, there hasn't been a good cohesive theme. Even a relatively small distribution like Manjaro provides a nice consistent default theme within and across the various desktop environments, including a nice icon set adapted from popular icon sets developed externally.

openSUSE has nicely customized the Firefox start page
openSUSE has nicely customized the Firefox start page.
There are convenient links to openSUSE resources including the software portal and the OBS. The search box also includes an openSUSE search engine, allowing search for software which includes more sources than the software portal.

But these criticisms are inconsequential as they can be changed by the user and the substance of openSUSE is great, if not the best as I mentioned in my review of 13.2. This begins with the best installer (actually it begins with download options, described below), in my opinion, of any Linux distribution. Like the distribution as a whole, it is very flexible and powerful, allowing a very complete configuration of the installed system, including specifying options to be written to /etc/fstab, specifying kernel options like the io scheduler to be used, advanced disk set up like RAID, LVM, and encryption, complete advanced configuration of networking, and more. In my opinion, it seems to offer very close to, if not the same level of control as Arch in configuring the installed system, but in a graphical environment.

It is also capable of complex enterprise type installations, which the unique graphical information available such as the "Device Map" and the ability ti save the YaST installation configuration for reuse would seem to indicate, as this would be useful for a complex large-scale installation.

Despite this advanced capability, it is fairly intuitive and offers a "Help" button on every screen linking to useful help content appropriate for the context. Users who want a simple "next, next, next" installation will also be happy if they don't investigate the options accessible through some of the buttons and tabs on each screen. It makes very intelligent default suggestions, not interfering with existing installations, appropriately recognizing unallocated space and offering to create the necessary partitions there, also recognizing the EFI and swap partitions mounting them appropriately.

Unfortunately, one of the changes with the new strategy is that a live ISO environment is no longer available, and only the previously available options of the full DVD graphical installer and the Net graphical installer are available, each offering their own benefits. The full DVD includes a large collection of packages including all of the supported desktop environments, but it is a huge download. The Net installer is a tiny initial download that will download selected packages during installation. In both installation media, the software to be installed can be completely configured, including choosing to install multiple desktop environments, a capability I used to additionally install GNOME after my initial selection of KDE.

Users who want a live ISO can build a completely custom one at SUSE Studio. Besides specifying the packages to be included in the live ISO, users can be configured for the environment, the built ISO can be specified for use on any of several virtual platforms, and even external files can be included in the image.

Besides the major change in the maintenance of the core packages, and the other changes, openSUSE Leap 42.1 is still the same great openSUSE; it still has:

  • the fantastic modular command line and GUI YaST system configuration suite, which includes the excellent YaST Software Management and Software Repositories modules for package management

    The main YaST window in the foreground and the Software Management module window in the background.
    The main YaST window in the foreground and the Software Management module window in the background.
    YaST Software Management module running in Plasma 5 with the default theme. The main YaST window is in the foregroung and the YaST Software Management module is in the background showing the progress of an installation operation.
    The main YaST window in the foreground and the <samp>/etc/sysconfig</samp> editor module window in the foreground prompting for confirmation of a change.
    The main YaST window in the background and the /etc/sysconfig editor module window in the foreground prompting for confirmation of a change.
    The YaST /etc/sysconfig module is shown being used to change the display manager from SDDM to GDM. This operation can be performed in a terminal instead. The desktop environment is Plasma 5 using the openSUSE Dark desktop theme.
  • the powerful, flexible, and intuitive zypper command line program for package management

    Using <samp>zypper</samp> to search for the filezilla package in each of four enabled repositories.
    Using zypper to list repositories and to search for the filezilla package in each of four enabled repositories.
    In this case when searching a specific repository, the repository number in the output of the "list repo" operation is used. The alias, name, or URI of the repository could also have been used. The information shown in the "list repo" output can also be configured, either as an option to the command for a one time change or by editing a configuration file for a permanent change.
  • the mature and complete infrastructure that was built over SUSE's long history, especially during the period of Novell control of SuSE and oversight of openSuSE, including the openSUSE Build Service -- similar to the Arch AUR but more user friendly -- that SUSE kindly provides even for other distributions, which most openSUSE users will interact with through the software portal when searching for software not available in official repositories
  • excellent security, through the default installation of SuSE firewall and AppArmor, both manageable with YaST components, which offers the same protections as SELinux but with less complexity for the user
  • excellent patching, customizations, and integration of upstream software for openSUSE
  • a very straightforward package management format -- rpm --that allows users to easily build packages using rpmbuild
  • some small but nice touches like "Super User" profiles for the Konsole terminal emulator and the Dolphin file browser
  • incorporation of cutting technology before most other distributions, in the past with the capability to handle UEFI and Secure Boot, and recently with the adoption of btrfs allowing the creation of automatic system snapshots

Another strong point has traditionally been the stability and reliability of the system. Even when incorporating new technology openSUSE has always been reliable. For example, the btrfs filesystem has proved to be reliable as I have used it. (Note if using btrfs, certain precutions are necessary: be sure to allow a much larger partition -- at least double your typical allocation -- for the btrfs root partition, ensure that the hardware clock is set to UTC in all installed OSes, including Windows, and become familiar with btrfs specific commands such as btrfs filesystem show /.) Now there is a promise of increased stability and reliability with the changes in Leap.

The only real drawbacks to openSUSE as a whole that some users might see are still there, although they can be very easily corrected. One of these is that proprietary software, codecs, and drivers are not available from openSUSE. But it's trivial to change this by using a couple of commands to add and prioritize the PackMan repositories. (This is actually a necessary fix for most users' needs in order to make openSUSE usable in practice.) The other issue with the main openSUSE release is that installed and available software tends to get stale some time after release before the next regular release. If this is indeed a drawback for a user, the way to avoid this is by using Tumbleweed, openSUSE's rolling release (stabilized by using a snapshot release scheme, instead of a pure rolling release like Arch), or alternatively -- although this is not recommended, by using the non-default OBS repositories used to serve software from openSUSE concentrating on specific areas and upstream contributors. (I was able to do this method to install Plasma 5 immediately after it was released by KDE in July 2014, months before Arch, although it was unstable.)

Unfortunately, at lease in this first release of Leap, the improvements are only a promise, as hinted above. An important program, at least to me -- Filezilla, was not available from the default release repositories as of 17 November 2015. A search in the software portal shows an unstable version available for Leap 42.1 from the Network OBS, among other user OBS repositories. Filezilla, installed from this repository, would not start, even after switching system packages to the versions in this repository, as shown in the following screenshot.

filezilla installed from the network repository can't start because of library and program version mismatch
A stable build of Filezilla is not available in the default release repository.
An unstable build is available from the network repository, however, this installation can't start because of a library and program version mismatch as indicated by the output when starting filezilla from a terminal.

It seems, at least in this first release of the hybrid development model, that one of the ways openSUSE chose to improve stability, besides by getting core system packages from SLE, by simply excluding software, even important ones, from the release instead of fixing the issues and including them. Ironically, a stable official release version is available in Tumbleweed.

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