openSUSE 15.3openSUSE Leap 15.3 is the latest release in the distribution's series of stable versions. For the most part, openSUSE 15.3 is a minor update to the 15.x series which brings the community-focused, freely available openSUSE distribution closer in its technology to the business-oriented SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE).
There is one huge change from the previous Leap versions. openSUSE Leap 15.3 is built not just from SUSE Linux Enterprise source code like in previous versions, but built with the exact same binary packages, which strengthens the flow between Leap and SLE.
There are a few other new features and upgrades. Most of these focus on containers and small improvements to development tools. For the most part major packages have stayed at the same versions they were earlier in the 15.x series. The KDE Plasma desktop is still shipping version 5.18 and GNOME remains at version 3.34. The Xfce desktop though received a major update, moving from version 4.14 to 4.16 which introduces a number of improvements.
openSUSE 15.3 offers 18 months of security updates and support. People upgrading from previous versions should first upgrade to 15.2 as upgrading from earlier releases isn't supported.
Users upgrading to openSUSE Leap 15.3 need to be aware that upgrading directly from versions before openSUSE Leap 15.2 is not recommended. Due to the upgrade path, it is highly recommended to upgrade to Leap 15.2 before upgrading to Leap 15.3.
There are several editions of openSUSE, built for multiple hardware architectures. openSUSE's installation media is available in both net-install and off-line installer flavours for x86_64, AArch64, IBM Z, and PowerPC systems. The full install images are about 4.4GB in size while the network installers tend to be about 150MB in size. There are also live desktop editions of the distribution which are available in GNOME, KDE Plasma, Xfce, and Rescue flavours. These range in size from about 600MB up to about 950MB. For the purposes of this trial I installed openSUSE using the full install 4.4GB ISO for x86_64 machines. I also tried out the live desktop media with Xfce for the same architecture.
openSUSE 15.3 -- The Xfce desktop and application menu (full image size: 299kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Booting from the install media offers to perform a media check for us, start a new install, or upgrade from a previous version of openSUSE. The boot menu also offers to provide rescue tools for recovering a broken system. Taking the Install option loads a graphical environment and presents us with the distribution's custom installer.
openSUSE's installer begins by showing us its license. We can select our preferred language and keyboard layout from drop-down menus located at the top of the window. We are next asked if we would like to connect to on-line repositories in order to gain access to additional (and more up to date) packages. I agreed to enable on-line repositories, but the installer failed to connect with them, despite having an active Internet connection.
The following screen asks us to select one role from a list. We can set up openSUSE with the KDE Plasma desktop, GNOME, Xfce, or a generic minimal set of desktop packages. We also have the option of selecting a server role or openSUSE's transactional server, which uses a read-only filesystem. We can only enable one role, preventing us from choosing to install multiple desktop environments. I decided to go with the Xfce role as I was curious about openSUSE's implementation of Xfce 4.16.
The installer offers to automatically set up the distribution on a Btrfs root filesystem alongside a swap partition. Directories such as /home and /var are set up on sub-volumes of the main Btrfs partition. We can override these settings with a manual layout if we like. Though for most single-boot machines this default layout is probably well suited for most people. openSUSE's manual partition manager is a bit on the complex side. It's powerful and flexible, but offers so many tools on one page that it's likely to overwhelm less experienced users.
After that we select our time zone from a map of the world and optionally create a user account. This account can be assigned administrative access. The installer shows us a list of actions it will take and provides hyperlinks we can click to visit other pages where we can tweak specific options. I like this summary page as the links make it easier to customize settings than having us browse backward through the installer the way some distributions do. The installer then copies its files to the hard drive and automatically reboots the system when it is finished.
My new copy of openSUSE booted to a graphical login screen with a green theme. Signing into my account brought up the Xfce 4.16 desktop. Along the bottom of the screen is a panel holding the application menu, task switcher, and system tray. On the desktop are icons which open the Thunar file manager.
Shortly after signing in a welcome screen appears. This screen provides links to on-line documentation and support. There is also a link to a local document which includes links to an on-line wiki and instructions for gaining access to third-party package repositories and media codecs. There are also instructions for acquiring the Chrome web browser.
The welcome window further provides access to a web-based software store, which I'll talk about later, and a link to the upstream Xfce documentation.
Apart from the welcome window, the desktop has a quiet, classic feel to it. The theme is relatively dull and grey. The application menu has a fairly standard two-pane layout with categories displayed on the left and program launchers on the right. The application menu has a search bar to help us find specific items.
As with many Linux distributions, openSUSE locks the desktop after just five minutes of idle time. This can be adjusted in the desktop settings panel.
I began by testing openSUSE in VirtualBox. The distribution ran smoothly in the virtual environment. Xfce was responsive and I found it would dynamically resize to fit the dimensions of the VirtualBox window.
When I tried openSUSE on my laptop I found it would boot in both UEFI and Legacy BIOS modes. The distribution was quite snappy on my laptop and Xfce was responsive. All of my laptop's hardware, including wireless card, screen resolution, and media keys were properly detected.
The operating system used about 530MB of memory to sign into the Xfce desktop. This memory usage sometimes spiked shortly after I logged in, up to about 640MB, before settling down again. I'm not sure, but I suspect this spike in RAM consumption was due to a background check for package updates. Even at the lower amount (530MB) this is still quite heavy for a distribution running Xfce. This is about twice the amount of RAM EndeavourOS uses when running Xfce and more than twice the memory consumed by Void with the same desktop environment.
A fresh install of the distribution used 5GB of disk space for the operating system, plus any space we set aside for swap space. In terms of disk consumption openSUSE is fairly average for a mainstream Linux distribution.
Browsing through the application menu we find a fairly standard collection of open source software. The Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client are available. LibreOffice and the Transmission bittorrent software are installed for us. Pidgin is present for instant messaging and TigerVNC can be used to connect to remote desktop machines. The Evince document viewer, the GNU Image manipulation Program, and Shotwell are present. I found Java is installed by default. There are simple image viewers, an archive manager, and a text editor.
openSUSE ships with the Parole media player and the Pragha audio player. Some audio codecs, including MP3, are provided by default. However video codecs are not and I will talk about this more in a moment. The distribution uses the systemd init software and runs version 5.3 of the Linux kernel.
The distribution includes the man command and manual pages, but presents unusual behaviour. Whenever I wanted to look up a manual page the man command would list any pages with similar names and ask which one I wanted. If I didn't respond for a handful of seconds, the page I'd originally requested would be shown. The man command mentions, when it shows us the list of similar commands, that we can set an environment variable to skip this unwanted and unhelpful pause before displaying the requested page.
To me this sort of behaviour seems entirely backward. New users, the ones most likely to rely on documentation, may not even know how to set an environment variable or how to make it permanent. Meanwhile more experienced users like myself don't want a long delay and a prompt effectively asking if we're sure we want to look at the page we just requested. I'm curious who this feature is supposed to help and why it was added to openSUSE as no other distributions do this. Luckily it can be disabled.
Earlier I mentioned some audio codecs ship with openSUSE, but video codecs are missing. When trying to watch a video in the Parole media player an error comes up saying the required codec is missing. We are then asked to click one button to ignore the warning or another to install the missing codec. Clicking either button does nothing other than return us to the blank Parole window.
There are a few ways a person can address this gap in functionality - varying from enabling repositories through the YaST configuration panel to trying the 1-click install method. I decided to follow the documentation provided through the welcome window as it seems likely to be the option new users, who haven't explored openSUSE before, will try.
The documentation provides instructions for enabling codecs on Tumbleweed (openSUSE's rolling branch) as well a Leap (the static branch). The instructions involve long command lines which most people will probably want to copy/paste from the website. We then need to refresh the package database, accept the new package signing key, and then we can access codecs or media players with enabled codecs.
openSUSE 15.3 -- LibreOffice and the Pragha music player (full image size: 130kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I tried opening a video file in Parole again and it once more reported codecs were missing and offered to install them. Once more, accepting this offer does nothing. I next used the package manager to install the VLC media player from the Packman community repository. Trying to open the video in VLC immediately caused the whole desktop to lock-up. Xfce and the open applications become entirely unresponsive to mouse and keyboard input. I had to switch to a terminal and force a reboot to get the machine working again. Later on, trying to play videos in VLC worked without further problems.
Settings and options
There are two setting panels. One is part of Xfce which controls the look and behaviour of the desktop. The Xfce modules work well and can be searched. This settings panel functions the same as on other distros. There were no surprises with the Xfce panel. It is fairy well laid out and worked without any problems. The other settings panel is called YaST.
openSUSE 15.3 -- The Xfce and YaST settings panels (full image size: 196kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
YaST is the key stone to openSUSE, the central piece that links all the other pieces. YaST provides configuration modules for a great range of options and functionality. Through YaST we can manage packages and repositories, user accounts, security options, browse and compare filesystem snapshots, set up network services, manage background daemons, and handle user accounts. The list is quite extensive and, during my trial, all of these modules worked as expected.
There are some weak points in the YaST collection. Many of the tools are more geared towards experienced or advanced users than beginners. While the Mageia family has a control panel which provides easy access and beginner-friendly features, openSUSE's YaST is focused on providing many options to power users and administrators. The firewall tool is possibly the best example of this focus as it has many options, profiles, and screens, but no clear way to just enable an always-on firewall that blocks incoming traffic the way Gufw does.
Many of YaST's modules fit into this same pattern where we can browse through many powerful features, filters, and options, but it's sometimes an overwhelming amount of options many people probably won't use. The package management options were another good example of this pattern of offering a lot of features while making simple tasks more complicated, which brings me to...
There are a few approaches we can take for package management. The one most readily available to new users is the on-line application store which is accessible through the welcome window. The on-line repository opens in Firefox and displays a text list of categories we can browse. The page also offers a search function we can use. We can click on an entry for an application and the store shows us available download links. Typically download options for recent versions of openSUSE Leap, along with Tumbleweed, are shown.
Search results can be a bit of a mess as packages with related names, debug information, dependency data, and alternative versions are shown. For instance, searching for the Okular PDF viewer brings up over a dozen results, including: Okular5, Okular-git, Okular-dev, Okular-dbg, and Okular5-dev. I know the "-dbg" suffix is a debug package, and I suspect "-dev" is a development package. This still leaves me unsure of what Okular-git is. This seems like a mess and even if I choose the right package, then I need to select the right version of openSUSE to match it. This is likely to be a confusing mess for less experienced users.
To make matters worse, the application store kept giving me HTTPS errors due to being unable to verify the ownership of the website. Some elements on the page are not transmitted securely either, making matters worse.
openSUSE's primary local package manager is available through YaST. The software management module will assist us in browsing through available repositories and categories of software as well as listing updates. The easiest way I found to find new software was to use the package manager's search function to locate programs by name.
The package manager takes a low-level approach and tends to deliver a lot of results when performing searches so it can take a while to browse through available packages. The package manager works quickly and it has some powerful features. However, there doesn't appear to be any more modern, application-focused software centre.
openSUSE's command line package manager is called zypper. I like zypper as it is fast, has a plain, English-based syntax, shows nicely formatted output, and will optionally let us know when we need to restart programs which have been upgraded. I have no complaints when it comes to working with zypper directly. The release notes for openSUSE mention DNF, which is a Python-based package manager used by Fedora, and a C-based implementation of DNF called Micro DNF. DNF is not installed by default, but may be acquired through the distribution's repositories.
I checked for portable package support. Neither Snap or Flatpak is installed by default. However, Flatpak is available in openSUSE's repositories. We can install it and use the command line to add new Flatpak repositories.
Btrfs and snapshots
openSUSE uses Btrfs as the default filesystem. This is one of the few distributions I am aware of to really embrace Btrfs and what it can do. Not only does it properly set up sub-volumes to make managing data easier, it also does a lot with the Btrfs snapshot feature. There are two main features openSUSE provides through Btrfs. The first is automated snapshots of the main filesystem. Whenever we make a configuration change through YaST, install a package, or download security updates, the system automatically takes a snapshot of the root filesystem. This allows us to revert changes at any time or compare differences between snapshots to see what changed and when. We can do this from the command line or through a nice, point-and-click graphical tool in the YaST panel. This means we can quickly detect and revert any configuration change, package upgrade, or file deletion. The processes involved, both the automated snapshots and working with them, happen practically instantly.
The other tool openSUSE provides is the option to access Btrfs snapshots from the boot menu. We can access any past snapshot at boot time, effectively rolling back any change to the operating system by selecting an older snapshot. This makes openSUSE nearly bulletproof, short of hardware failure or someone erasing the boot loader. openSUSE is one of the only open source operating systems which offers boot time snapshot access (FreeBSD is another) and it is an unusually powerful tool which other Linux distributions have been slow to adopt.
I had mostly positive experiences while running openSUSE 15.3. The distribution does a lot of things well. The installer is both fairly straight forward to use and yet, under the surface, offers a lot of advanced options. This started me off with a good first impression, as did the initial welcome screen.
I deeply appreciate that openSUSE is one of the only Linux distributions to entirely embrace advanced filesystems. Its administrative tools automatically take snapshots of changes and we can rollback to previous snapshots from the boot menu. Apart from FreeBSD, I don't know of any other commonly used open source operating system which makes proper use of advanced filesystems such as Btrfs and ZFS.
Speaking of the administration tools, YaST is quite powerful. We can manipulate most aspects of the underlying operating system through YaST and, while some modules are overly complex (for less experienced users), more advanced users will find a lot of useful tools in the YaST panel.
There are some weak points in openSUSE's armour. The web-based application store, promoted by the welcome window, is really rough and overly complicated. It shows far too many package options for simple searches and depends on the user clicking on the proper link to download for the right edition of openSUSE. It will even show packages and download links for packages which haven't been built for openSUSE 15.3 yet.
The distribution offers a short support cycle. openSUSE Leap claims to be a long-term support (LTS) release, but only gets 18 months of updates. This is roughly the same as Fedora and much less than Ubuntu's community editions (which receive 36 months of support) or Ubuntu, Debian, and FreeBSD - each of which offer 60 months of support. Despite its rapid upgrade pace, the provided packages are mostly over a year old. This means openSUSE gives us the upgrade pace of Fedora along with the software age of more conservative distributions.
Not having multimedia codecs available out of the box is rare these days. This, combined with the complex command line steps outlined in the documentation and the failure of applications like Parole to find missing codecs after offering to install them (even after community repositories have been enabled), means new users have an overly complicated and confusing path ahead of them, compared against the experience offered by other distributions, if they want to watch videos.
One thing which I kept coming back to while using openSUSE is that it feels like a distribution for administrators and developers, not for regular home users. Some really complex tasks, like setting up Btrfs, working with complex firewalls, setting up network shares, comparing snapshots, and so on are quite easy (thanks to YaST). However, some basic actions such as playing video files, downloading desktop applications, or reading manual pages are unusually complex on openSUSE. It is a distribution which makes complex tasks easy and simple tasks harder than most other mainstream distributions.
The user interface is fairly polished and the newly upgraded Xfce desktop works well. The system is responsive and worked well with my test environments. I think this fairly smooth experience will entice people, particularly more experienced users, to run openSUSE. openSUSE is a little on the heavy side in terms of memory usage, but the array of convenient features that accompany it more than makes up for the difference in my opinion.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast