openSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling release Linux distro, one that is something of a two-edged sword in terms of its features and usability.
openSUSE Tumbleweed is a well-engineered Linux distro and is often brought up as an alternative to Arch, the best-known rolling distro.
For the uninitiated, a rolling release distro is one that has no major or minor versions but is updated constantly as new packages become available. For example, Ubuntu is currently on version 22.10, with 23.04 right around the corner. Similarly, Fedora is on version 37, with 38 soon to be released. In contrast, a rolling release updates packages as they become available, eliminating the need to do a major upgrade or reinstall every couple of years.
Given how complicated a product openSUSE Tumbleweed is, this review will be broken into two parts. In this first part, we’ll provide an overview of some of openSUSE Tumbleweed’s hallmark features.
openSUSE Tumbleweed is the upstream distro for SUSE Enterprise Linux (SLE), much like Fedora is upstream to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This means that Tumbleweed essentially serves as a testing ground for what will eventually become SLE.
In contrast, openSUSE Leap is a point-release distro that is functionally identical to SLE, just without the paid support.
microOS, on the other hand, is openSUSE’s equivalent of Fedora Silverblue, an immutable distro where the root file system is protected from tampering.
‘Rolling Done Right,’ Thanks to openQA
One of the most common things said about Tumbleweed is that it’s “rolling done right.” Much of this is the result of openSUSE’s reliance on openQA, an automated quality control tool that runs packages and updates through their paces before pushing them out to users.
openQA allows openSUSE to accomplish one of the most reliable and rock-solid rolling releases with a much smaller team than some other distros have.
Despite the extra QA that goes into Tumbleweed, the distro still manages to roll at an impressive pace. In fact, it usually runs neck-and-neck with Arch. On any given day, Tumbleweed may get a package first, Arch may get it first, or they may get it at the same time.
However, the big difference between Tumbleweed and Arch is that the former generally manages to avoid some of the bigger issues that Arch users sometimes face.
The openSUSE installer is often maligned for being overly complicated, but that is an extremely unfair assessment. Calamares is the installer that most distros use and compared to it, openSUSE’s installer is a lot more complex.
It’s important to note, however, that complex doesn’t equal bad. The openSUSE installer is certainly more complex than Calamares, but it offers a level of control that is unrivaled by virtually any other graphical installer on any platform.
The installer gives you the option of choosing your partitioning scheme, setting up your network, and choosing the individual packages you want installed.
While some distributions focus on a single desktop environment (DE), openSUSE has options to install KDE, Gnome, and Xfce. With a little effort, users can install almost any other DE.
What makes openSUSE unique when it comes to DEs is that no single DE ever feels like a second-class citizen. In fact, thanks to the quality of openSUSE and its openQA, every DE is rock-solid and feels like it’s the only DE on the distro.
It should be noted, however, that contrary to popular opinion, KDE is not the default desktop environment. While that certainly may have been the case at one time, when Novell bought openSUSE, the focus for SLE shifted to Gnome, according to Richard Brown, Linux Distribution Engineer at SUSE. Therefore, it can be argued that openSUSE Tumbleweed does not have a default desktop, treating Gnome, KDE, and Xfce equally. If there was such a thing as a default, it would actually be Gnome, not KDE.
Another area where openSUSE shines is in the area of security. Tumbleweed is built with a number of hardening options enabled that are not usually enabled. This results in one of the most secure Linux distros available.
In fact, using the Lynis security auditing tool — where 70 is considered a passing score — Tumbleweed routinely scores in the upper 80s. In contrast, the next best score I’ve gotten out of the-box is Fedora, which only comes in right at 70.
In Part 2 of this review, we’ll look at openSUSE Patterns, Yast, and how everything comes together.