openSUSE Leap 15.4: The best desktop on the RPM side of the Linux world

The Reg FOSS desk takes the latest stable distro for a spin

Review The Reg FOSS desk took the latest update to openSUSE's stable distro for a spin around the block and returned pleasantly impressed.

As we reported earlier this week, SUSE said it was preparing version 15 SP4 of its SUSE Linux Enterprise distribution at the company's annual conference, and a day later, openSUSE Leap version 15.4 followed.

The relationship between SUSE and the openSUSE project is comparable to that of Red Hat and Fedora. SUSE, with its range of enterprise Linux tools, is the commercial backer, among other sponsors.

The picture is complicated by the fact that there are two different openSUSE distributions: Leap and Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed is a rolling-release distro, akin to Arch Linux; there's no stable version, and new packages emerge from the project's Factory every day.

In contrast, Leap is one of the most stable distros available. Major releases appear approximately every few years, with a new minor or point release annually. Since the last point release, 15.3, the project has synchronized its codebase with the enterprise distro. This makes it possible to migrate an installation of openSUSE Leap to the paid SLE product and receive commercial support.

As such, openSUSE Leap is more conservative technically, in part because it has a common codebase with a slow-moving enterprise distro. So while Ubuntu's latest LTS release has GNOME 42 and kernel 5.15, the latest Leap has GNOME 41 and kernel 5.14. Although SUSE Linux Enterprise does focus on servers, there is a desktop edition – but openSUSE Leap has a much broader selection of components.

Unlike the Ubuntu and Fedora model of live CDs, with different installation images for different desktop environments, the openSUSE installation image is just an installer.

Two versions are available: a 3.8GB offline image, which doesn't need a network connection, and a 173MB online installer, which fetches the source packages over the network. Both boot straight into the installation program, and there's no option to switch to a graphical desktop.

If you want to try before you buy install, the project also offers live images with KDE, GNOME, and Xfce, but the download page explicitly says: "They should not be used to install or upgrade. Please use the installation media instead."

The installer offers the same choice of three desktop environments as the live images, but that's not all. You can also install a text-only server, or an immutable server image with transactional updates, which is also available separately as Leap Micro 5.2.

There is also an option for a minimal graphical environment (which includes IceWM) onto which you can install one of the widest selection of desktops around: GNOME (basic, Wayland or X.11), KDE (basic or full), Xfce, Cinnamon, LXDE, LXQt, Enlightenment, MATE, Deepin, or Budgie, and also the Sway tiling Wayland compositor. The Deepin desktop is a new option for 15.4, and it still has some issues. Enlightenment isn't the author's favorite desktop, but still, it's good to see it included in a mainstream distro: 15.4 includes version 0.25.3, and it offers immense potential for customization as well as eye candy.

New in openSUSE Leap 15.4 is the Deepin desktop, but it still has a few rough spots

New in openSUSE Leap 15.4 is the Deepin desktop, but it still has a few rough spots

We tried KDE, as well as taking a look at Deepin and Enlightenment. As Scott Gilbertson said way back in 2015: "openSUSE's KDE desktop is one of the slickest KDE implementations around" – and we'd still agree with that. It uses the sensibly mainstream Firefox and LibreOffice, but most of the other components are KDE-specific apps, such as Kmail, Konversation, and Akregator.

There are also a few tricks in openSUSE's repertoire that few other distros do out of the box. The YaST2 system-administration tool is a huge boon. It's a point of pride among Linux illuminati to know where to find every obscure config file, what contents it should have, and which arcane text editor to use that allows them to accrue the most kudos from other geeks.

YaST lets you bypass almost all of that, using an easy menu-driven interface to configure just about every aspect of the system, from installing and updating software, the firewall, printers, the bootloader, to disk partitioning, including RAID and LVM.

In the bad old days, most distros had tools like this, but the handful of other survivors from the early 1990s have dispensed with them. It's to SUSE's credit that it still maintains this, and it works in text mode and over SSH. (Sadly, the WebYaST online version is deprecated. We'd like to see it get some TLC.)

Secondly, there's its snapshot support. By default, openSUSE formats your hard disk as a single large Btrfs volume, and enables the Snapper tool for system snapshots. This is more important if you use Tumbleweed with its frantic pace of updates, but even on Leap, if an update causes problems, the ability to simply boot back into a working snapshot is very useful in a crisis.

It has only one snag in the author's experience: snapshots can use a lot of disk space. If you use Btrfs, it needs a big root partition, far more than other distros. Older versions of openSUSE used a separate /home partition, formatted with XFS, but no longer. Now, by default, you get one big volume. That's both good and bad.

The problem is that the "perpetually unfinished" Btrfs readily gets corrupted in the event of a power failure or the disk filling up. The latter is a particular danger for two reasons. Firstly, because it can't give a straight answer to how much free space is available, and secondly, because repairing a corrupted volume is difficult and dangerous.

So having one big partition is good because it won't fill up so easily. It's bad because if it does, it will likely get corrupted, and then your files are at risk. I'm a traditionalist: I advocate going with the old way and keeping a separate home partition. But make the root partition big: as in, give it hundreds of gigabytes, rather than tens.

Alternatively, you can dispense with Snapper, format your root partition with ext4, and treat it like any other distro.

These days, openSUSE ships with Flatpak pre-installed, but the project also has a very useful repository of additional software, which saves the Ubuntu PPA and Fedora COPR faff. There's also the external Packman repo with lots of useful tools such as multimedia codecs.

openSUSE also has the blingtastic Enlightenment desktop, with a wide selection of visual effects

openSUSE also has the blingtastic Enlightenment desktop, with a wide selection of visual effects

You can download openSUSE Leap from the project's website. There are versions for x86-64, Arm AArch64, POWER ppc64le, and IBM z Series and LinuxOne. There are also ready-rolled minimal VM "JeOS" images for KVM and Xen, Hyper-V, VMware and OpenStack Cloud.

openSUSE Leap offers a good balance between the short life cycle of Fedora and the slow one of Ubuntu LTS releases. Between the Zypper package manager and YaST front end, and the additional repos available online, we rate its software packaging offerings as noticeably better than anything Red Hat or the various Mandriva descendants have to offer.

For servers and their stressed sysadmins, YaST is a fantastic tool, and there's also deployment using AutoYAST, SaltStack, and the Uyuni management tool. And of course there's the ability to migrate to the paid SLES and enterprise support without reinstalling.

Red Hat is higher-profile: it sponsors lots of conferences and events, and works hard to foster a large, enthusiastic and even evangelistic community. SUSE isn't as big or as loud, but it's slightly older – founded in 1992, it's in its third decade. openSUSE is a more polished and mature distro, and it's just about the best on the RPM side of the Linux world. ®


Disclaimer: the author worked for SUSE until last year, although not on the openSUSE project. He retains no connection or links with the company. (And some years before that, he also worked for Red Hat.)

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