If you have experience with various Linux distros, it’s hard to be excited about openSUSE, as on the surface it doesn’t seem to have changed that much in recent years. Of course, open source development doesn’t stand still, so you’ll find a lot of major version bumps in the distribution’s software when you upgrade from openSUSE 11.3 to 11.4, especially if you choose the KDE desktop environment. OpenSUSE 11.4 gives you the newest KDE 4.6, LibreOffice 3.3.1 and even beta 12 of Firefox 4. Under the hood the developers have also integrated the newest components, including Linux kernel 2.6.37 (the 32-bit kernel supports 4 GB of RAM, no need to install a PAE kernel), X.Org 1.9 and Mesa 7.9.
Most of the new features you’ll encounter in daily use are due to the KDE project. KDE 4.6 has made its Activities system more easy-to-use and the file manager Dolphin has added ‘faceted browsing’: you can search through your files using their metadata as filters. A new sidebar shows these filters you can select, e.g. the rating you gave to your music files. KDE 4.6 also includes smarter power management preferences and a new Bluetooth back end. A couple of KDE applications have gained support for social networks: the image viewer Gwenview has a Share button to export pictures to popular photo sharing and social networking websites, and the screenshot program KSnapshot has received the same functionality. Of course you’re not obliged to run KDE: the openSUSE 11.4 DVD also offers GNOME, Xfce and LXDE to choose from, although KDE is still the distribution’s focus.
The notable distribution-specific improvements are not that numerous in openSUSE 11.4: most of them are tiny but still noticeable. For instance, package management with zypper or YaST is noticeably faster and the update applet has been replaced by KDE’s KPackageKit. Moreover, KSynaptiks is now configured by default to recognize touchpad clicks and to disable the touchpad while you’re typing, so you’ll never accidentally type your sentence in a completely different window because your palm is rubbing on the touchpad. And if you want to experiment with the newest technologies, openSUSE offers the new init daemon systemd and the new boot manager GRUB2, though neither are enabled by default.
One game-changing new feature is Tumbleweed, a “rolling updates” version of the distribution. If you don’t have the patience to wait until the next openSUSE release (which has a eight-month release cycle) to use newer versions of the software, but if you don’t want to try the bleeding edge Factory repository (which is the openSUSE development release), Tumbleweed could be right the thing you need: it provides you with the latest stable releases of software. This all depends on openSUSE’s package maintainers: they choose which version of their package is ‘stable’ enough to be packaged in Tumbleweed. Just add the Tumbleweed repository and upgrade your system to the Tumbleweed versions, after which you’ll never have to upgrade to a newer openSUSE release. However, there’s one caveat: if you need proprietary graphics drivers, Tumbleweed can give you some headaches because it frequently updates the kernel, after which you’ll have to reinstall the drivers. But in most circumstances, Tumbleweed looks like the right balance between stability and new software.
Advanced users will also love that they can spin their own customized openSUSE 11.4 image with SUSE Studio. Inexperienced Linux users, on the other hand, will still have some problems with openSUSE: the default repository lacks a number of high-profile packages, such as OpenShot, Dropbox or WordPress. Many of these are available in Packman or other popular repositories or in the openSUSE Build Service, but new users won’t find their way to these software sources easily.
OpenSUSE 11.4 is much like its predecessor, so it’s not easy to pinpoint specific reasons for why you should upgrade. It mostly boils down to newer software releases, which is not irrelevant with openSUSE’s eight-month release cycle. And if you find this release cycle too long, Tumbleweed can definitely help you out, with a relatively low chance that things might go wrong…