The Greatest KDE Distro Ever: An Early Look at openSUSE 11.3

This week the first milestone release of openSUSE was made available. Together with the KDE 4.4 release candidate and excellent integration of GTK applications such as Firefox, openSUSE simply provides the greatest KDE experience available to date. Here's why.

This version of KDE will see the introduction of a long awaited custom Plasma interface for netbooks, which is available in this build of openSUSE.

Under the Desktop settings in Personal Settings one can set the Workspace to be either a Desktop or Netbook form factor. Changing these will instantly re-arrange the desktop, removing the task bar and replacing the desktop with buttons to load various applications. These are grouped by category, similar to traditional programs menu style. Hovers provide detailed information about each application or category. It looks very sleek however, with smooth hovering and scrolling when needed.

The netbook desktop consists of the default interface for launching applications, aptly named “Search and launch,” which allows users to load programs and search for items. Here all the applications currently running are available via the top right hand corner switcher (or via Alt+Tab, of course).

Plasma Netbook Search and Launch
Plasma Netbook Search and Launch

In addition to this is Page one, an extra desktop which by default is dedicated to life online. It includes things like news and weather, as well as opendesktop and knowledge base. These plasmoids are completely configurable, of course.

Unfortunately, these items do take up a lot of room, far more than would be available on a small screen. The desktop scrolls down to show all other widgets, but part of the point of this style of interface is to be able to see everything at a glance. Perhaps these should automatically shrink down to bar essentials and expand when the users hovers over them instead. That would make far better use of the space and still allow the user to see what’s happening elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is an interesting set up and no doubt this too will be improved over time.

Plasma Netbook Page one
Plasma Netbook Page one

The netbook interface is really neat, however it does seem somewhat clunky when switching between things quickly. It is still a technology preview however and will no doubt improve over time. Nevertheless, it is a great addition to the KDE desktop environment to have.

Fitting into a Qt World

Unfortunately, Konqueror and its ageing KHTML engine simply don’t make the grade any more and so the biggest hole in the KDE desktop is a solid, well integrated web browser. There are a few options however, such as experimental support for webkit in Konqueror (although some developers argue it’s a waste of time) and several other native browsers such as Arora.

Unfortunately, none of these have the same popularity as Firefox, which remains the browser of choice for the Linux desktop. For too long KDE users have had to suffer through an ugly browsing experience, one of the most common tasks performed on a modern computer. Fortunately, while we wait for Konqueror to catch up or another browser to catch on, openSUSE users can already have a simply beautiful experience using Firefox under KDE. The patches have not yet been adopted up stream, but there are plans to make it so.

Introduced in version 11.2, openSUSE’s modified version of Firefox actually looks and feels like a Qt application. The interface itself, configuration settings and all other windows use Qt styling. Even the file picker is KDE’s native Dolphin rather than the built in default, which really helps Firefox fit into the desktop.

openSUSE's Firefox integration
openSUSE’s Firefox integration

All in all, this makes for one great experience browsing the web under KDE. Finally, someone has plugged the missing hole! Users put off by KDE due to poor GTK integration for applications such as Firefox will now need to find some other excuse, because today, the experience on openSUSE is pretty neat.

It doesn’t stop there however. OpenOffice.org feels like a native Qt app, as does GIMP. Like Firefox, the interface looks Qt in appearance and the office suite also uses the default Dolphin file manager, instead of its own. Hopefully the same can be done for GIMP and other GTK applications down the track.

openSUSE's OpenOffice.org integration
openSUSE’s OpenOffice.org integration

Even so, the difference between these GTK applications on openSUSE and other KDE based distros is truly remarkable. Finally, GTK applications feel at home on a Qt environment!

Other Goodies

The KDE Live CD includes a “KDE Quick Start” guide for assisting users find their way around the desktop. It’s an excellent, easy to read document which explains the ins and outs of KDE, providing lots of advice along the way. It’s also available under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The other improvements to openSUSE with this milestone release are what we would come to expect, updated versions of major applications and components. These include:

  • Linux kernel 2.6.32
  • Firefox 3.6
  • OpenOffice.org 3.2-beta4
  • K3b 1.69, the KDE optical burning application (en route to 2.0 stable Qt4 release)
  • Amarok 2.2.2, the KDE music player
  • Digikam 1.0.0, the KDE Photo Manager digikam

There are some other major benefits to this release, including an update of Zypper, openSUSE’s package manager. Like Ubuntu’s Personal Package Archive, the openSUSE community has access to a wide range of additional repositories. These often include official packages for the latest versions of major applications such as OpenOffice.org and even KDE itself. openSUSE also offers One Click Installs, the online build service and even the graphical configuration tool YaST (if you like that sort of thing).

With these latest improvements, the upcoming KDE 4.4, and the integration of GTK apps in a Qt environment, openSUSE makes for one persuasive distribution.

Full steam ahead

This first milestone of openSUSE certainly has a few rough edges, but all in all it actually feels very good for what it is. The final version is not due until June, but if this is a sign of things to come, then it’s going to be one killer release. The current stable version of openSUSE 11.2 is already an outstanding product in its own right.

Finally, we have a distribution which has a universal feel, looks great from start to end, integrates seamlessly with every component. There’s really only one word to describe this, “sleek.” No other distro integrates GTK applications into KDE4 like openSUSE does out of the box. Of course, this is nothing new, openSUSE had already achieved this in their previous release. Thanks to the polish of KDE 4.4 however, this release is even better. Make no mistake, openSUSE is the benchmark for KDE distributions. Nothing else even comes close.

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