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I'm among the first to admit that when I find a Linux distribution that I like, it takes a lot for me to be impressed with any of the alternatives. I've looked into countless distros, such as Arch, Fedora and Linux Mint, among others. Yet at the end of the day, I kept finding myself coming back to Ubuntu. And in many ways, I find this comical since I was one of the early naysayers about their use of Unity and other controversial decisions. But something happened over time – I found myself growing comfortable with the way Ubuntu does things. With my busy schedule, a distro that "just works" appeals to me.
Then something unexpected happened. I decided to take a leap of faith and gave OpenSUSE 12.3 a spin. Considering my disappointment with various package breakages in 12.2, I must admit I went into my OpenSUSE testing wearing a skeptical hat.
Flash forward to now. I'm utterly stunned at how smooth this release of OpenSUSE actually is. To put it bluntly – if I had to switch, I would switch to OpenSUSE 12.3 without a second thought.
In this article, I'll compare the various features and functionality of the two distributions, examine which one is best suited for which type of user and explain why I feel OpenSUSE has evolved into such a great distribution.
Different User Types
One of the biggest differences I've found between OpenSUSE and Ubuntu over the years is their target audience. OpenSUSE has always remained squarely aimed at system admins, software developers and other various technology professionals. By contrast, Ubuntu has always focused on the casual user.
But this isn't to say that new users can't find a home with OpenSUSE. Truthfully, it actually has handy features that might lend itself to newbies, like a user-friendly means of creating a dedicated home directory, more granular control over your desktop settings from a GUI and easy-to-understand dialogs that pop-up when needed.
With Ubuntu, you're presented with the Unity desktop environment by default. You are free to install other desktop environments yourself if you like using the terminal or have already installed a package manager like Synaptic. However, tools like Synaptic aren't installed by default any longer. And unfortunately, the Ubuntu Software Manager isn't well suited for installing entire desktop environments.
On the flip side, with OpenSUSE, you can install your choice of desktop environment during the initial installation. Unlike Ubuntu, which leaves alternative desktop environments to its derivatives, you'll find OpenSUSE gives you desktop choices right out of the box.
Many people have very little love for PulseAudio. For myself, I actually prefer it simply because it provides me with smooth functionality for handling multiple sound devices on a single machine. Sure, if I enjoy playing with my ALSA config, I could do this by hand. But I enjoy using pavucontrol instead, as it simply works with minimum hassle.
Ubuntu has always taken a flawed approach to PulseAudio, in my opinion. Worse, their implementation has left a lot of people wondering why the default volume control doesn't help with multiple audio input functionality. The problem is that Ubuntu's default volume controls offer input and output setting only. On the other hand, pavucontrol offers those in addition to playback and recording settings dedicated to application-specific presets.
OpenSUSE takes an interesting stance on PulseAudio. They provide it disabled by default. This means if you don't want it, no problem, you don't have to enable it. However if you decide you want PulseAudio, you can easily enable it from the sound settings within YaST. With both Ubuntu and OpenSUSE, you'll want to install pavucontrol from the repositories, as it won't be provided otherwise.
Drivers and Restricted Codecs
Ubuntu users have long enjoyed the benefits of the restricted driver manager. In later releases of Ubuntu, this shifted to the Software and Updates tool, under Additional Drivers. What's nice about this feature is that if you're missing a proprietary networking driver or a proprietary video driver, this tool will provide you with the option of installing it with ease. As for installing restricted media codecs such as MP3 playback or MP4 video playback, you would need to visit the Software and Updates tool to enable "Software restricted by copyright," then close the dialog and refresh the repositories. Once this is completed, the next step is to visit the Ubuntu Software Center and do a query for media codecs. There you will see a short list of GStreamer codec options to choose from.
In OpenSUSE, you only need visit the software portal and search for codecs, select opensuse-codecs-installer and install it via OpenSUSE's one-click technology. It's really just that simple. However, when it comes to installing proprietary video drivers, you're best off avoiding this software resource and simply browsing over to OpenSUSE's NVIDIA or ATI documentation instead. In both instances, you can install these proprietary drivers through the one-click system.
When it comes to software availability, it's fair to say that Ubuntu wins. Thanks to their Software Center, they have a number of proprietary titles not found in the repositories of other Linux distributions. However, OpenSUSE wins when it comes to later software versions thanks to their software portal. You might think of it as OpenSUSE's hassle-free alternative to Ubuntu PPAs. If you can't find a software title in YaST, even after enabling additional repositories, you'll find what you're looking for in the software portal.
Now here's where things become blurry for me. Ubuntu does a better job with software discovery, thanks to the new and featured software in the Ubuntu Software Center. I'll be the first to admit that because of the slide scroller and featured applications, I've made new discoveries. OpenSUSE misses out in this space since they're more hierarchy-based with their software management. But if I have a general idea what I'm looking for, this works out well enough.
YaST Is Awesome
What draws me to OpenSUSE over other distributions is YaST. It's a way of using a GUI to manage my system without feeling like I'm being treated like a newbie. The out-of-the-box features, such as YaST patterns for the role of your machine, system hardening, simple firewall setup, user management tools, plus oodles of additional functionality, have left me speechless. Best of all, I can go "rolling release" easily thanks to OpenSUSE Tumbleweed.
To be honest, I appreciate how YaST frees me both from spending extra time setting up my system the way I want and from the hassles of an RPM-based distribution (I hate RPMs with a passion). My only wish would be to see the software portal better integrated into YaST, along with an easier means of discovery for new software.
For newer users, Ubuntu is still the best distribution choice overall. There's less stuff to get lost with, discovering new software is easier, and keeping the system in good working order is a no-brainer. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Unity Dash, Amazon search results, and the various Web services integrated into the desktop. For newbies, this can be seen as another tool for discovery. However, I think for advanced users, it may be best to simply remove these functions altogether – which is easy enough to do.
If you're an advanced user, you'll want OpenSUSE. For anyone who has a firm understanding of how the Linux desktop works, wants to get things done quickly and wants a ton of GUI control over their desktop, OpenSUSE is the distribution you will want to use. I can't state this enough. Version 12.3 changes everything I've ever known about this distribution. It's simply a fantastic choice.