Ubuntu 9.10 vs. Mandriva 2010 and openSUSE 11.2

Intro

Since my last review of Ubuntu 7.04 I have used each new release of Ubuntu, along with Windows XP and occasionally trying out Mandriva, Fedora and openSUSE.  Each time I find some things improved, some things worse and mostly things that haven’t changed a whole lot.  In the end I always find some reason I have to go back to Windows XP, even as that OS slowly reaches its end with the release of Windows 7.  Unlike the release of Vista, 7 has truly heralded Microsoft’s return to form as well as making Linux developers work that much harder to offer a viable alternative.  While this article will focus on Ubuntu, I will also include my impressions of the latest releases of Mandriva and openSUSE.

Installation

Unfortunately installation is an area that Ubuntu has not improved since my last review.  The last few releases I’ve been able to use the graphical installer, but with the release of 9.10 I wasn’t able to get it to start at all.  The image file was fine as well as the burned disc, but every time I tried to start the installer the screen would flash rapidly and the system would freeze.  I had no choice but to use the text-based installer, which worked fine.  I had no qualms with using it since I knew I was going to be installing instead of just trying it out.  I hope Ubuntu continues to offer this option in the future.  In comparison both Mandriva and openSUSE’s graphical installers worked just fine and would be very easy for anyone to understand.

Initial boot-up and login

The new release of Ubuntu has a very slick startup screen as well as log-in interface.  Most releases of Ubuntu have seen new graphics in this area, but I will give them a tip of the hat for their work in this release.  The darker colors with the glowing white icons and text are very easy on the eyes and are a nice change from past designs.

Default setup and packages

Just like all past releases, the user logs into Ubuntu and is greeted with a very clean desktop with top and bottom bars.  The default background is as always nice but pretty unremarkable.  I will say the new icons are much improved and not as glossy which was nice.

Ubuntu continues to offer Firefox, OpenOffice and Rhythmbox, although there had been talk of replacing the latter with Banshee.  Since Ubuntu already uses Mono for the Tomboy application, it wouldn’t be as big a deal for this change, although die-hard Linux users don’t like Mono due to its ties to Microsoft.

One big change GNOME in general and Ubuntu has followed is to offer Empathy instead of Pidgin for instant messaging.  While I like the simple interface, typical of GNOME applications, the options were very slim, and I couldn’t even get MSN nor Yahoo accounts to connect.   Once I installed and ran Pidgin, the past default application, I was able to use any protocol just fine.  This was also a problem in Mandriva and openSUSE, so it’s definitely a GNOME 2.28 problem.

When I tried to play MP3 and AAC (iTunes) files in Rhythmbox in Ubuntu, it immediately notified me which plug-ins I would need and automatically set it up for me.  Both Mandriva and openSUSE had problems with this.  openSUSE does include MP3 support, but for anything else it’s up to the user to find 3rd-party repositories.  The Mandriva utility, Codeina, was extremely slow and would often become non-responsive.  I was never able to play AAC files in Mandriva, which was a crucial requirement for me.

A big change in all current releases is the implementation of the ext4 filesystem.  Compared to ext3 there is a noticeable performance improvement, but I think it’s still a little early to be using this filesystem by default.  Several times I had problems opening certain folders, and only on a complete restart was I granted access.  Having a few problems is one thing, but problems with the filesystem simply are not tolerated and inexcusable in an official release.  Until further work and time have gone by I would highly recommend sticking with ext3.  Also, several tools have yet to be updated to support this filesystem.

Package Management and Updating

Ubuntu, based on Debian’s .deb packaging, is extremely fast, especially compared to .rpm-based systems.  Over the years I had hoped for this performance gap to be lessened or even eliminated, but unfortunately nothing has changed.  openSUSE’s utilities have improved a little bit in the last few releases, but it still takes awhile to update and search for specific packages.  Mandriva’s performance was even worse.  It took forever for the package list to update.  Also, Mandriva would never notify me of any updates, and yet when I search for updates in the main package manager there was always a few to come up.  Why so many distros continue to use .rpm instead of .deb is beyond me.

3D graphics Driver

Since my last review every Ubuntu release has been good about including an Nvidia driver that worked great with my 6600GT.  While I don’t play any games in Linux, I’ve had to install this driver in order to get the correct resolution for my monitor.  I used to be able to edit xorg.conf, but the past few releases have not used a config file at all.  The screen control panel only lists certain resolutions, and it’s not possible to add any more.  I don’t know if this is a limitation with the software driver installed by default, or not having my monitor’s info on-hand to know the native resolution.

When the Nvidia driver is installed Compiz is enabled by default.  This does improve performance a little bit, and the few effects I enable are nice and do actually improve productivity.  By this time most applications work well with Compiz.  Mandriva offers the Metisse compositor as another option, but it’s simply under-developed and I feel it’s un-needed.  I know KDE4 has its own, and from my limited time with it it’s a decent alternative to Compiz, but in GNOME I feel Compiz is just fine.

Community and Support

Ubuntu continues to have the best designed web-site and forums.  There are plenty of sub-sections, and I’ve never encountered a rude post.  Whether this is mostly the community or the hard work of the moderators I couldn’t tell you, but when help is needed when using Ubuntu, the forums are always the first place I go to.  I do think there should be a front page link to these forums; currently it takes 4(!) clicks to even get there if you didn’t know its address.

I have limited experience with Mandriva’s and openSUSE’s sites, but I have found the navigation of both to be a little confusing compared to Ubuntu’s.  While Ubuntu’s site is clearly designed primarily for home users, Mandriva’s seems to focus more on enterprise users, while openSUSE’s looks more like a developer’s site, with more links to documentation and wikis than anything else.  Again, as a new user I would definitely find Ubuntu’s site much easier to navigate.

Mandriva’s support is abysmal.  On their web-site I clicked Support, and then where listed by product I chose Mandriva Linux, which simply returned me to the overview page.  I finally found the Mandriva Expert page, but there’s hardly anything on that page and little help on where to start.  openSUSE’s is a little better, but again it seems to simply offer options for help instead of offering that help itself.

Summary

Ubuntu continues to be the most popular Linux distro, and for the most part it’s easy to see why.  They continue to have problems mostly stemming from their rapid 6-month release schedule, and new problems with the installer may stop potentials new users from even trying it out.  But its performance and ease of use is still top notch, and their website is almost better than Apple’s.  Mandriva has slowly improved with each release, but it needs to spend some more time working on their website.  openSUSE has improved quite a bit, but also needs to clean up and simplify their website.

Final Thoughts and Rating

For years people have been trying to say that Linux is ready for public use, and that it’s a great alternative to Windows.  In some ways it is: it has great hardware support and the software (included and to choose from) has something for everyone.  Ubuntu continues to lead the way, but its rapid pace has continued to hurt its reputation with more and more bugs, and recent installer and filesystem problems are serious enough to not use it at all.  Mandriva and openSUSE have slowly improved in most areas, and while their performance isn’t as great and there are still problems with some patent-encumbered formats, they are also great options for those wanting to start using Linux.  Hopefully after a few more release we’ll see even better results.

Ubuntu 9.10: **

Mandriva: ***

openSUSE: ***