Previous to writing this comparison, I have only ever used Ubuntu and Fedora. Considering Ubuntu's popularity and reputation for being easy to use, I was expecting openSUSE to be nowhere near as good. From the moment I was greeted with "Welcome" as the LiveCD booted, I knew I was going to be proven wrong.
An install for all.
The installation was quick and painless. The installer correctly detected the existing Linux partitions, and also proposed that I did not format my home partition (for the uninitiated, this is more or less the "My Documents" of Linux). At first glance the partition editor itself was not very easy to use, but after a few minutes of exploring it cautiously it made sense. As a whole the impression I got from it was that it is mainly there for advanced users, as the automatic detection seemed very good. Something I particularly liked was that it clearly highlighted which partitions would be formatted. It's a small point, but it made me feel certain it wasn't going to wipe my Windows install.
In general, the install seemed to be aimed at both new and advanced users, providing enough options to satisfy the Linux guru, while not presenting it in a way that would scare off someone who is installing Linux for the first time. The install itself was quick and upon reboot I was presented with a colourful boot loader which continued to add to the professional presentation that I had experienced so far throughout booting the LiveCD and while installing openSUSE.
The biggest disappointment...
The biggest disappointment is that only the root user can write to an NTFS partition or drive. I can only assume this is done to prevent people from deleting the Windows folder, although if someone does that they probably shouldn't be using a computer in the first place. A quick search of the openSUSE wiki told me that I could modify a file to enable write support for everyone, although I feel there should be something in the control centre to make changing this easier.
...and the second biggest disappointment.
Codecs and drivers are nowhere as near as easy as they are on Ubuntu, although I sort of expected them not to be. I was not offered any video drivers, however the relevant page in the wiki has links for a "1-Click Install" of the drivers for openSUSE 11.0. As I am using openSUSE 11.1 RC1, none of the "1-Click Install" options will work. Unfortunately, this means I would need to compile my own drivers, something I am not confident doing.
The experience with codecs was somewhat similar. Some video codecs have to be purchased from an online store, although fortunately, the MP3 codec is free.
Once installed, I had some issues with audio playback stuttering, due to it using a third of my processing power - the only noticeable performance issue I experienced in openSUSE. However, this is an issue that I have had with older versions of Ubuntu as well, and one that I did eventually find a fix for.
What makes up for it?
Even though I am using the GNOME version of openSUSE, it doesn't feel like it. Gone is the bar along the top, taking the simple menus in the top left with it. Instead the interface is much the same as Windows, with a "Computer" button in the bottom left which produces a menu called "Slab". Slab is similar to the menu found in Windows Vista, and it makes openSUSE feel more like a professional operating system than Ubuntu.
Slab is what makes openSUSE stand out from the crowd.
As Slab can only display a limited number of applications (as well as documents), a button in the bottom right is included, which launches the "Application Browser" - a simple list of applications, organised according to category.
The Application Browser makes finding applications quick and easy.
Slab, and the Application Browser, may not be to everyone's taste, but I personally found them to be considerably quicker and easier to use than the simple menus usually found in GNOME. If you don't like it though, you can easily remove Slab and replace it with the traditional menus.
Yet another Setup Tool
Commonly referred to as YasT, "Yet another Setup Tool" is what openSUSE uses for installing new applications and configuring the system. Like the application browser, it is a simple list of applications, organised by their category.
YaST is not all that different from the Application Browser.
In addition to YaST, there is also a "Control Centre". This is a little confusing, as some settings are accessible from both YaST and Control Centre. After looking carefully though, it becomes apparent that only the more advanced settings are found in YaST, while the less advanced settings are in Control Centre as well as YaST. It is a strange way of doing things and I can't help but feel that there is a better way of doing it, like having an "advanced" tab in the Control Centre window.
What applications are included?
As usual, openSUSE comes with the latest versions of Open Office, Firefox and Pidgin IM. For audio playback, openSUSE includes Banshee as opposed to Rhythmbox, which is included in Ubuntu. I personally can't see much of a difference between the two, however you can of course install Rhythmbox, or anything else for that matter, should you prefer something other than Banshee.
Perhaps it is a symptom of using the Application Browser, but the selection of applications found in openSUSE seem like they have been thought about a bit more than Ubuntu's. Not a lot of them are different, but those that are feel like they belong to the system, as opposed to being included simply because of their popularity.
A soothing theme...
If there was a contest for the most relaxing theme, openSUSE would win my vote. From the boot screens to the desktop, the choice of colours feels quite soothing. As I haven't installed any video drivers, I can't give the desktop effects a go. However, there are several settings available for effects, as well as the utility for configuring Compiz in it's entirety, so it should be easy to get them exactly as you like. Unlike Ubuntu though, the theme does not feel dull without them.
openSUSE isn't quite as easy to use as Ubuntu, so it is probably not for the newest of new users. While it probably isn't for everyone, what makes openSUSE stand out is the unique way in which it handles basic aspects such as navigating to applications. There were a few disappointments, however these mostly appear to be down to me using the release candidate, so I am keen to give openSUSE 11.1 another go when the final version is released later this month.
I will be taking a look at Fedora 10 in the third and final part of my comparison, which you can expect to see within the next few days.