Which of these Linux desktops is superior? That may depend on who’s using them.
Relying on one desktop distribution without exploring the alternatives every once in a while can leave the casual Linux enthusiast feeling out of touch.
In the spirit of this realization, this article compares the new openSUSE 12.2 release to Ubuntu 12.10. Realize that at the time of this article, the 12.10 release of Ubuntu hasn't been released yet and is still in beta. Despite the beta status, I was still able to successfully run through the existing features and functionality in the beta release.
During my comparison of the two distributions, I was careful to take into account the different audiences each distribution is targeting.
The openSUSE installation was very smooth. The advanced options provided by default in the partition manager during the installation were a nice touch. Not only did openSUSE offer the ability to import existing partition layout options, this distro even went so far as to suggesting the option of a dedicated home directory!
This option alone is a welcome change of pace from what I have experienced in Ubuntu. While it's possible with both distributions, only openSUSE went so far as to provide me with a "clickable" radio box to make it happen without doing so manually.
Installing Ubuntu 12.10 on the other hand, felt much like it did with Ubuntu 12.04. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it wasn't anything all that exciting, either. And based on the direction Ubuntu 12.10 is headed, I didn't see any indications of openSUSE-themed partition options being offered later on.
With both distributions, the installation went along smoothly and I was able to get everything setup without any major drama.
For openSUSE, both the GNOME and KDE desktops reflected all the features one would expect from each desktop environment camp. The same goes for Ubuntu 12.10, in that its Unity desktop felt familiar to anyone who has used Unity in the past.
Both distributions were very fast. I would go so far as to point out that openSUSE felt substantially quicker to me, running btrfs.
However, Ubuntu is dealing with a Unity performance issue that is expected to be ironed out before Ubuntu 12.10 is actually released. So we shouldn't hold this as a strike against Ubuntu as this issue isn't officially a problem until 12.10 is released.
In either case, the performance issue wasn't noticeable on my hardware. And under the hood, openSUSE came with the GRUB2 bootloader as its default, which is something earlier releases of Ubuntu were already offering.
Both openSUSE and Ubuntu were bundled with the latest and greatest versions of our favorite programs. With regard to the Linux kernel offered with each distribution, openSUSE comes with 3.4 while the Ubuntu beta came with 3.5.3. I give openSUSE the advantage in this space, as 3.4 is a more stable kernel in my opinion.
One other substantial difference I noted between the two distributions was how they each handled Pulseaudio. Ubuntu comes with Pulseaudio running in the background, out of the box. By contrast, openSUSE offers Pulseaudio as a "to be enabled" option only. You must go into the control panel to run your sound card settings, decide on your default settings and if you wish, enable Pulseaudio.
With openSUSE, I decided to enable Pulseaudio and then found that it worked just as well as it does in Ubuntu. On the control front, openSUSE wins this one. Yet for newbies, this win would go to Ubuntu instead. Coming from other operating systems, newbies would never think to tweak audio settings to enable something that works out of the box on Windows or OS X.
I realize I will get some heat for this statement – but I stand by it.
Features and functionality
When I think of the features offered by openSUSE, I immediately consider the fact that the best this distribution has to offer happens behind the scenes from openSUSE's stability down to the benefits of using systemd.
The decision to include systemd basically comes down to providing the best performance and stability possible, in the eyes of the openSUSE developers. By contrast, Ubuntu uses an alternative event handling tool known as Upstart.
There are various opinions here as to which tool is best in the long run, however it has become clear that most distributions are moving toward systemd. Ubuntu, on the other hand, has stated that their development plans will remain in the Upstart camp.
On the desktop front, the differences between openSUSE and Ubuntu really come down to the desktop environments.
The overall feel of the two desktop options, really seem to center around who they're trying to target. In my opinion, openSUSE is working very hard to appeal to the enterprise user. Ubuntu is targeting newbies by offering lots of glitz and glamour with additional Unity lenses and their new web apps integration.
With the bulk of openSUSE's features described above, let's look at Ubuntu's new feature set.
- Unity previews: Now right clicking on an icon within the Unity dash provides you with additional preview information on the selected item.
- Photo lens: This gives the end user access to image previews of photos stored locally, in addition to those stored through cloud-based accounts.
- Ubuntu One offers sharable links: Taking a page from Dropbox, Ubuntu One now allows you to share files from within its cloud space.
- Install software from the dash: Despite being fairly cynical myself, I was rather taken by the option to install software via the dash in Unity. While I prefer using a terminal for speed, I can see this as being a neat feature to show off to people.
Long story short, unless you spend a lot of time in the Unity dash or enjoy integrated web apps, these features offered by Ubuntu 12.10 may be considered mere window dressing when held against the behind the scenes features offered by openSUSE.
Software and updates
Overall, both distributions offer something unique to their individual audiences. Ubuntu is offering a lot of glamour and neat GUI functionality with its latest changes to the Unity dash, lenses and Ubuntu One features. On the other side, we have openSUSE with its focus on polish, speed and stability.
But how do the two distributions compare when it comes down to software availability and smooth updates?
Sadly with openSUSE, my efforts to update my system took three attempts. By the third try, the errors stopped and the updates went through. Compare this to Ubuntu's beta release, the updates I ran went smooth as butter and at no time was I given an error called "Failed: Failed."
Had openSUSE 12.2 also been a beta release, this might not have been such a big deal. Unfortunately, though, this wasn't the case.
The next item on my list was to see what kind of software availability was out there between a brand new openSUSE and the still-in-beta Ubuntu 12.10.
I tested a couple of random software titles, just to see how things would turn out. First I went to openSUSE's awesome package repository found at software.opensuse.org. I searched for Kazam, located it and was able to install it easily with the one-click installation.
I then did the same for Parcellite, and OpenShot. The next step was to do the same via Ubuntu's software center.
When I compared the results of the two tests, I was surprised. The only thing openSUSE was missing that I was able to find in Ubuntu was OpenShot. All the other applications were readily accessible. My only gripe is that I would like to see software.opensuse.org integrated into openSUSE somehow. It's such a great resource, I'd hate to see users unaware of the fact that there are great software titles in this repository.
And the winner is...?
Now it comes down to the big question – which distribution is the best of the two? In all honesty, my answer might seem a bit cryptic.
I found that openSUSE is, without any question, a clear winner with regard to the best installer options. And the control panel options are on par with that of other popular distributions.
The downside to openSUSE, is that I feel YaST largely holds back this distribution. It's dated in its performance, entirely too complex out of the box for the casual user, and generally lacks the speed found in alternative package management tools.
For those who are willing to handle their package management outside of YaST, then it's not so bad. Granted, YaST does offer the enterprise user some useful tools. But overall, I think it needs a refresh.
The other issue I have with this release of openSUSE is that running updates can be hit and miss. Sure, running alternative methods yields success. But running the provided GUI update tool failed two out of the three times I tested it. And yes, I tested the connection first to make sure there wasn't an obvious issue on my end.
In a perfect world I would borrow Ubuntu's use of dpkg and toss it over to openSUSE's awesome installer with its great partition tools. Since both distros were virtually on par for software availability, the biggest differences between them occurred based on how easily I was able to use each distribution.
I really enjoyed openSUSE's speed. Unfortunately, I am really bothered by how poorly the package management was handled with this release of openSUSE. That said, I am also bothered by the current Unity bug in the Ubuntu beta as well.
So, when the dust settles and everything is fully considered which release would I crown the winner? Well, the Unity bug is said to be addressed by Ubuntu's actual release date and the issues with openSUSE's package management aren't the end of the world. After all, I do have other methods available to me for running updates.
I would recommend openSUSE to any intermediate to advanced Linux enthusiast. It's a solid distribution worth some serious consideration.
But for the newer user, my recommendation would remain with Ubuntu. Despite any potential for flaws it may have, the basics all work pretty well and even though Ubuntu 12.10 is still in beta, I was shocked at how stable it was despite its current status. It's definitely worth checking out.