Perhaps my idea of taking a SUSE Linux Enterprise netbook and seeing how effective it can be as an open-source creative workstation wasn’t such a good one. But, to be honest, it’s going fairly well.
When I first got my HP Mini 1503, I was appalled by the tiny text, choppy internet video playback, lack of any available software, and general uselessness.
That was three days ago. Since then, I’ve learned a lot.
1) To avoid the feeling of going blind when I used the default display settings on the 10.1″ screen, I changed two things: the font size (under Control Center – Appearance – Fonts – set all to 13 point), and the display brightness (Screensaver – Power Management – On Battery Power – Reduce Backlight Brightness – uncheck the check box). Websites still have to be manually magnified with ctrl++, and I’m sure the brighter display setting drains the battery faster, but at least the OS interface is comfortable now.
2) The seeming lack of available applications stemmed from the fact that, during initial setup, the computer had prompted me to sync with Novell Customer Center. Since the wireless internet hadn’t been set up yet, this process failed. Once I did this step manually, I gained access to a bunch of useful apps.
In Linux, programs aren’t installed the way they are under Mac or Windows: first, you find a “repository” that contains the software you want, and install that, and then you can go into the repository (which acts sort of like a catalog or index), and select the applications you want to actually install on your system. Linux SUSE Enterprise is a close cousin of OpenSUSE (another flavor of Linux), so the repositories for OpenSUSE work fairly well with it. Unfortunately, as I learned about this process, I wound up installing so much garbage that my system started crashing, and I had to do a system recovery. About five times.
3) The biggest obstacle I encountered was dealing with “restricted formats.” Linux is open-source, and in order to stay free, it can’t contain any copyrighted intellectual property: such as the code required to play common video files. In theory, installing a media player and associated codec libraries would be easy. It isn’t.
After spending about two days following directions from various forums, and struggling to install the interdependent bits of code that would allow me to do something as simple as play an MP4 file, I stumbled across the work of Mr. Petersen, who has thoughtfully compiled a repository specifically for SLED machines. He has spent a lot of time on this, and (quite reasonably) requests a $20 donation to access the fruits of his labors. It is absolutely worth it!
Within 5 minutes of the Paypal transaction, I successfully installed the full version of ffmpeg (the software that most media players use to code and decode video, which I had previously only been able to get to play the audio portion of MP4 video), and a hassle-free VLC media player, along with the Cinelerra video editor that I had been looking for, the Scribus page layout app, and Blender 3D, all of which worked perfectly. Finally, I was able to work with conventional video files!
While I was vainly trying to get multimedia working, I did have some fun working with one of the most distinctive features of Linux: the command line interface. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about this, but the power and granular control of a good old-fashioned terminal interface appeals to me greatly.
My next challenge will be getting GIMP – the open-source equivalent to Photoshop – to work. I’ve tried to install it twice, and both times it’s loaded but fails to open. I’ll also be test-driving some HTML editors and an FTP program or two. My goal is to be able to do as much work as possible on this little computer, using exclusively open-source software. So far, so good!