openSUSE Tumbleweed (2018)openSUSE is a general purpose, community maintained distribution sponsored by SUSE. The distribution is available in two editions: Leap (a fixed release) and Tumbleweed (a rolling release). The Tumbleweed edition provides the latest available upstream packages, or as the openSUSE website states:
Any user who wishes to have the newest packages that include, but are not limited to, the Linux kernel, Samba, git, desktops, office applications and many other packages, will want Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed appeals to power users, software developers and openSUSE contributors.
openSUSE's Tumbleweed edition is available in 32-bit and 64-bit builds for x86 computers. There are also builds for the ppc64, ppc64le, and aarch64 architectures. There are live discs available in GNOME and KDE editions as well as a full sized DVD with more packages, and a minimal net-install CD. This gives us lots of options for running Tumbleweed in many environments. I decided to download the full DVD build for 64-bit computers. The download was 4.1GB in size.
Going into this test drive of Tumbleweed I had a slightly different focus than I did when I reviewed openSUSE Leap 15 earlier in the year. I was less interested in specific features or problems and more interested in how the distribution would perform over time. A fixed release platform, such as Leap, tends to remain the same for years - once you get the general feel of the operating system it doesn't change. But Tumbleweed, like other rolling releases, may change rapidly and may quickly become better or worse, and may have different requirements over a longer time-line. I was curious to see how maintaining Tumbleweed would feel compared to Leap: Would packages break? What resources would it take to keep up with new updates? Would applications visibly change over the course of a few months? With this in mind, I installed Tumbleweed in early October 2018 and kept using it occasionally, keeping up with new packages, to see what the overall experience would be like.
Booting from the Tumbleweed DVD brings up a graphical system installer. The installer shows us the project's license agreement and gives us a chance to select our preferred language and keyboard layout. Next we re asked to select the computer's role, which means we can choose to install the KDE Plasma desktop, GNOME, another desktop, set up a server (with no desktop) or a Transactional Server which is basically a server with a read-only root file system. I decided to stick with the default option and installed the Plasma desktop. The installer then offers to set up partitions for us, defaulting to using Btrfs as the root file system. We have the option to customize partitions or use another file system, but I accepted the default Btrfs option.
The installer then asks us to select our time zone from a map of the world and gives us the chance to create a user account for ourselves. The installer then shows us a summary of the actions it will take and gives us a chance to change these actions. Once we confirm the actions the installer copies its packages to the hard drive and automatically restarts the computer, booting into openSUSE.
When we first boot into Tumbleweed it brings up a login screen where we are invited to sign into the Plasma desktop or the IceWM window manager. Plasma is the default and the interface I chose to use during my experiment. openSUSE gives us the further option of running Plasma on a X11 session or on a Wayland session. I started out with the Wayland session and quickly found it to be impractical. The screen was often plagued by drawing artefacts and tearing windows. I also found new windows, especially confirmation boxes and file selection dialogs, appeared either off screen or half off the edge of the screen. When using the mouse pointer to navigate menus, the highlighted item was not the one the pointer was hovering over. Some programs, such as the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) were not even visible on Wayland. The program would run, but its window was invisible in the Wayland session. I quickly switched over to the Plasma on X11 session which did not present any of these issues.
openSUSE ships with a fairly standard set of open source software, including Firefox, LibreOffice, the VLC media player, and GIMP. Since I installed the KDE Plasma desktop many applications were members of the KDE family, including the KOrganizer planner, KAddressBook, Kmail and the Dolphin file manager. TigerVNC was included for remote desktop sessions and Kleopatra was installed for managing certificates and security keys. The distribution ships with systemd as the init software and runs on version 4.18 of the Linux kernel. When I first installed Tumbleweed the default kernel was 4.18.12, but a month later I had been updated to 4.18.15 - the version gradually increases over time.
I found that, out of the box, openSUSE would play my audio files, including MP3s. However, I could not play video files due to the codecs not being included. There are a few ways to attempt to resolve this and I decided to try the easiest first. I went on-line and did a search for openSUSE's "1-click" media support, which took me to a community website where I could indeed click a button to set up community repositories, install third-party media support and some media players. The 1-click install failed and aborted due to missing package dependencies.
openSUSE Tumbleweed 2018 -- Trying to play a video file (full image size: 538kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I then opened the distribution's software manager and made sure the necessary community repositories were enabled. I then tried to manually install the codecs and media players I wanted. These also failed to download because of missing or broken dependencies. I was unable to install the new VLC beta, MPlayer and gstreamer codecs, as all were missing dependencies. I was able to install the mpv player, but it crashed whenever I tried to play a video file. In the end, after a handful of attempts, I gave up on being able to play videos on Tumbleweed. Broken media support did not resolve itself during the span of my trial.
Having talked about struggling with media packages, I think this is a good time to talk more about software management on Tumbleweed. When we first sign into the Plasma desktop a widget checks for new updates and will leave an icon in the system tray letting us know when new packages are available. The first day I was running Tumbleweed there were 88 updates. The desktop widget does not handle installing these new packages for us, instead it advises us to open a terminal and run "sudo zypper dup" to grab the latest versions of packages. The "zypper dup" command performs a distribution upgrade, installing new packages, removing stale ones and trying to fix any dependency issues.
By the end of the first month I had installed about 1,100 updates, totalling over 700MB in size. In other words, I'd basically downloaded a whole new distribution's worth of software in four weeks.
Apart from the update widget and the zypper command line package manager, there are two graphical software managers. The first is Discover, which handles desktop software. On the left side of the Discover window there are links for opening a list of available software, checking updates and browsing settings. On the right we see programs in the selected software category or search results. We can click a button next to an application's entry to install it, or click on the package to bring up more information about it.
openSUSE Tumbleweed 2018 -- Text fields in settings panel undefined (full image size: 274kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I first started using Discover it worked fairly well, except that all the text entries in the Settings panel were missing. Every option and checkbox had the word "undefined" next to it, making it impossible to know what the user was selecting. This was fixed in a future update.
One of the options in Discover is to enable the Flathub Flatpak repository which gives us access to portable packages. Installing Flatpaks worked for me. Something which did not work was the Launch button on each program's information page. Clicking the Launch button failed to open the selected program, whether it had been installed through a Flatpak or RPM archive.
The final software manager is built into the YaST control panel, which I'll get to in a moment. The software manager offers several different views and methods of filtering software and can be used to enable or disable access to repositories. The YaST software manager is highly flexible, and makes it possible to find items through all sorts of ways (searching for key words, browsing categories, browsing alphabetically, and so on). However, it is also complex enough that it is likely to put off a lot of users who just want to quickly find and install a package.
openSUSE Tumbleweed 2018 -- One of the many package views in YaST (full image size: 431kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
openSUSE offered me two settings panels: the KDE System Settings panel and YaST. The former is mostly used to adjust the look and behaviour of the desktop. We can adjust the theme, change fonts, enable visual effects and workspace behaviour. Generally speaking the KDE panel does not deal with the underlying components of the operating system, but there are modules for working with printers and user accounts. I found the user account manager worked and I was ale to create a new user. The printer module did not perform as well. I was asked for my password at each screen and, ultimately, the KDE printer module failed to set up a printer. At one point I created a virtual printer in YaST, and then found the KDE module could not adjust its settings.
YaST, on the other hand, deals with the lower levels of the operating system. Through YaST we can control software packages, adjust administrator access, read logs, manage file system snapshots, set up printers, manager users and adjust the firewall. Managing printers through YaST worked - in fact virtually everything worked well. I think most people will find the firewall, with its many zones, overly complicated. Though it can be useful if we want different rules for different locations, but for most people the firewall configuration tool adds extra levels of complexity.
Updates and snapshots
One of my favourite YaST modules is called Snapper and works with file system snapshots. When we change a setting in YaST, or install new packages, openSUSE takes a snapshot of the system. The Snapper tool lets us see what changes were made between snapshots and compare individual files across time. It is a handy tool for catching problems and reverting changes which break functionality.From openSUSE's boot menu we can select older snapshots to boot into. This allows us to temporarily revert changes to the operating system, to run an older kernel or desktop environment. I like having file system snapshots I can boot into for when the system breaks. It makes the operating system more robust. I especially like having this feature with Tumbleweed as the rapid changes are more likely to introduce new behaviour or problems. Being able to revert the system back to yesterday's configuration was occasionally helpful.
There were some side effects of using older snapshots. One of them is that programs that have been installed are added to the user's application menu. When we boot into an older snapshot the application may no longer be there, but its icon remains in the menu. This means the user can still see the program's menu entry, but can no longer run it.
Speaking of odd behaviour, once I installed updates, closed the software manager and restarted the computer. When I signed back into my account the Discover software manager opened and immediately asked for my password so it could install waiting updates. This only happened once, but took me by surprise. Discover's actions were all the more unusual because, when I checked, there were no new updates available.
Finally, on the subject of Tumbleweed's ever-changing nature, I feel resource usage should be mentioned. Tumbleweed running Plasma used about 480MB of memory, and this memory consumption stayed fairly level during my trial. Disk usage though started at around 6GB and steadily grew, due mostly to the stream of updates and file system snapshots. Within a month Tumbleweed was using over 9GB of disk space. After five weeks it was consuming 10GB.
As I mentioned before, I was pulling in over 1,000 updates a month and seemingly installing enough new packages to replace an entire operating system. This uses up a lot of bandwidth (over 700MB in four weeks in my case) and I had a fairly modest collection of applications installed. Potential Tumbleweed users should plan to consume a lot more disk space and bandwidth than they would with most fixed release distributions.
My experiment with openSUSE's Tumbleweed was a mixed experience. On the positive side, Tumbleweed stays constantly up to date, providing the latest packages of software all the time. For people who regularly want to stay on the cutting edge, but who do not want to re-install or perform a major version-to-version upgrade every six months, Tumbleweed provides an attractive option. I also really like that file system snapshots are automated and we can revert most problems simply by restarting the computer and choosing an older snapshot from the boot menu.
On the negative side, a number of things didn't work during my time with the distribution. Media support was broken, the Discover software manager had a number of issues and some configuration modules caused me headaches. These rough edges sometimes get fixed, but may be traded out for other problems since the operating system is ever in flux.
In the long term, a bigger issue may be the amount of network bandwidth and disk space Tumbleweed consumes. Just to keep up with updates we need set aside around 1GB of downloads per month and (when Btrfs snapshots are used) even more disk space. In a few weeks Tumbleweed consumed more disk space with far fewer programs installed as my installation of MX Linux. Unless we keep on top of house cleaning and constantly remove old snapshots we need to be prepared to use significantly more storage space than most other distributions require.
Tumbleweed changes frequently and uses more resources to keep up with the latest software developments. I would not recommend it for newer Linux users or for people who want predictability in the lives. But for people who want to live on the cutting edge and don't mind a little trouble-shooting, Tumbleweed provides a way to keep up with new versions of applications while providing a safety net through Btrfs snapshots.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: