A month with SUSE Linux

After I cram in spare clothes, relevant documents from the paper war, spanners and sandwiches there is never much room for my 15in laptop in my cycle pannier. This tight squeeze, the hefty weight to lug up Brooklyn Hill and a nagging worry that constant vibration is shortening the life of my computer started me thinking.

What say I get a smaller, more portable device?

After reading an interminable number of reviews about netbooks, I settled on the HP Mini 5101 netbook. The sleek, black gadget has a 160 GB hard-drive, 2 GB ram and 92% keyboard.

Rather than opting for a machine with Windows pre-installed (which would have made a lot of sense given my need to test websites using Internet Explorer), I chose the model with FreeDos from Ascent Computers. When the netbook arrived it actually came with Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop operating software.

Although familiar with free, open source software (FOSS) I’d never spent much time using a computer with a FOSS operating system. Using Firefox, Thunderbird for email and OpenOffice on proprietary operating systems was the extent of my experience.

When I fired up the wee HP brute I was in familiar territory. My initial impression was an interface that mixed the best of both Mac OS 10.x and Windows. The keyboard shortcuts are the same, there is a Windows Explorer style file navigator and even easy switching between between multiple windows. SUSE is designed to slip into corporate environments where people are happy using Windows.

Pre-loaded software includes familiar productivity tools as well as more exotic vector graphics and diagram editors, the slick Banshee music player and T-spot for organising photos.

At the click of a button a webpage will magically expand to take up the whole screen (sans any browser bars). The 1366 x 768 resolution and high level of brightness mean that even with a 10.1in screen it’s an ideal for reading while lounging on the couch with a cuppa.

When I want to reconfigure any system settings (including allowing for a wobbly effect when windows minimise) there is lots even a regular user can do. I imagine there is much more configurability under the hood. I’m pleased virtually everything has worked out of the box, including the built in webcam.

A few bumps along the way have meant my first experience with FOSS has not been without some aggravation.

At first I couldn’t connect to my home wireless network. Calling in a techy provided a pretty speedy answer. SUSE didn’t like the jolly green giant, the name of my multiple word SSID, or the password with funny characters. It took a reset of my router’s account details to connect.

Installing new programmes has not been encouraging. I’m not actually sure I’ve got the right version of software as there are open source variants for the many FOSS operating systems, and you need to find the right one. As I haven’t figured out how this works I’ve tried downloading a few files that won’t unpack. I must have the wrong version of Skype as the one I’ve got doesn’t work.

There have been a few other niggles:

  • Using some Flash based software, including Adobe Connect Pro which I’ve written about before, can crash the computer. Some customisations to system settings are lost in the process.
  • Not all the messages that should appear from my IMAP email server actually appear in the inbox of Evolution (the email programme). There is often a handful missing.
  • A few icons for applications have disappeared. Hardly important in themselves, but it makes me wonder what else is happening under the skin.
  • Separate keyboard layouts are used for login screens and when I’m actually logged in. It was my mistake to select the UK keyboard when I was setting up (the ampersand key is where the quote marks are on US keyboard) and later try to change keyboard layouts. Repeated attempts at a fix have not worked.
  • Ejecting my JungleDisk WebDav folder bring up an error message – permission denied even though I’m administrator numero uno.

I admit some of the problems are because I’m lazy: I haven’t read the manual. I think I’ve been spoilt, with software on other systems working with a minimum of fuss and a maximal amount of intuition.

With three months of phone support, I better call HP before time runs out. I’m also going to try using an alternative to SUSE Linux. When I get usb drive with more than 4GB storage, I’ll try running Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a slim version of the popular desktop distribution.

As the open source fraternity is a sharing bunch I’ll try to tap into some local expertise. Going to an ‘installfest’ is not only a way of learning useful stuff but as you can lug your own computer around, you do some fine-tuning settings on the day. What a great way to get some help from a wise Linux techie.

In good time I’ll get everything sorted, but I’ve become a bit more realistic about what it would take to change a whole organisation over the an open source software. Rather than the haphazard approach I’ve taken, good planning and support are a must.

It’s comforting to find out I’m not the only one grappling with how to carry a laptop on a bike, as Pashley from Lovely Bicycle writes in her post about “Laptop Transport: Trusting your bicycle with your precious machine”. If all else fails, Anonymous suggests in a follow-up comment:

A few layers of bubble wrap is a cheap and very effective shock absorber. I don’t carry a laptop, but bubble wrap is great for groceries like eggs and tomatoes in the pannier.

With my little HP brute I’m confident throwing (not literally!) the netbook in my pannier, and I’ve now got room for an orange.