For the forthcoming SLED (Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10, Novell went back to the drawing board to rethink what makes a good desktop. The result is extremely impressive.
I installed the beta of SLED 10 on a Fujitsu LifeBook P5010 notebook, my stock torture test for new desktop Linux distributions. The P5010's Intel-based hardware is standard enough to warrant support, yet funky enough that it throws Linux a few curves. No Linux install on this machine has ever passed with flying colors -- until now, that is.
In the past, Linux distributions have always needed a special patch to support the full resolution of the P5010's wide-aspect LCD screen. Not SLED; it accepted my custom screen resolution without complaint and booted to full widescreen glory.
Wireless networking was similarly painless. After I had selected my access point from a convenient GUI menu, SLED prompted me for my network passphrase and I was online, my connection secured with full WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) encryption.
SLED's Gnome desktop environment offered easy plug-and-play access to removable media. New volumes appear and disappear on the desktop as they are connected and removed, just as users expect from Windows or Mac OS systems.
The desktop environment itself is clean, attractive, and free of clutter. Novell claims to have done extensive user testing to refine SLED's UI, and it shows. This is not your average, stock Gnome system.
The first difference you'll notice is the new Computer menu, which organizes the most popular applications in one menu. Less often-used applications can be found on a larger dialog box, which somewhat resembles Mac OS X's Control Panel. Although it takes some getting used to, this approach is a welcome change from the dizzying layers of some distributions' more Windows-like hierarchical menus.
Novell takes pains to emphasize SLED's enterprise-readiness, but all work and no play makes a dull distribution. In addition to the expected productivity apps and Novell add-ons such as Beagle desktop search and Tomboy notes, SLED includes fun additions such as the F-Spot photo management software and Banshee media player.
Novell has tweaked the look and feel of many of the apps, such as OpenOffice.org, to give them a uniform polish. Moreover, fans of GUI glitter will appreciate the new, Mac OS-like Xgl (http://www.novell.com/linux/xglrelease/) desktop effects. Although disabled by default and officially unsupported on my card, they worked fine and provided fun eye candy (if not practical use).
SLED 10 isn't perfect. Power management is still an issue for Linux. My laptop appeared to run hotter and drain the battery faster than when running Windows, despite Novell's claims of improvement in this area. What's more, neither Suspend nor Hibernate had the desired effect on my hardware, with the latter rendering the session unusable, forcing a reboot.
Some bugs and software glitches were present in the beta that I expect to see resolved in the final release. More dubious, however, was its multimedia support. MP3s played fine in Banshee but double-clicking AVI or MPEG files yielded an annoying buzz and an error message from the Totem media player.
Users who are completely new to Linux will be put off by SLED's Help facility. Searching by keyword returns a hodgepodge of arcane results that are more useful for administrators than end-users. I'd like to see Novell concentrate more on this area for future releases.
These gripes aside, however, Novell should be proud of this latest release. SLED 10 is hands down the most polished desktop Linux distribution I've ever used -- and that includes Ubuntu. If Novell can sustain the level of effort it put into this release for future versions, SLED will rapidly become a serious contender for enterprise workstation use.
Bottom Line: Novell's revamped desktop Linux distribution combines professional fit and finish with unique usability features not available from other vendors. Its hardware support is excellent, albeit hampered by lack of Linux support from hardware vendors. A class act, SLED 10 gives business users new reason to consider Linux for enterprise desktops.