Some of the big-name distros have lots of downstream projects. Debian has been around for decades so has umpteen, including Ubuntu, which has dozens of its own, including Linux Mint, which is arguably more popular a desktop than its parent. Some have only a few, such as Fedora. As far as we know, openSUSE has just the one – GeckoLinux.
The SUSE-sponsored community distro has two main editions, the stable Leap, which has a slow-moving release cycle synched with the commercial SUSE Linux Enterprise; and Tumbleweed, its rolling-release distro, which gets substantial updates pretty much every day. GeckoLinux does its own editions of both: its remix of Leap is called “GeckoLinux Static”, and its remix of Tumbleweed is called “GeckoLinux Rolling”.
In some ways, GeckoLinux is to openSUSE as Mint is to Ubuntu. They take the upstream distro and change a few things around to give what they feel is a better desktop experience. So, while openSUSE has a unified installation disk image, which lets you pick which desktop you want, GeckoLinux uses a more Ubuntu-like model. Each disk image is a Live image, so you boot right into the desktop, give it a try, and only then install if you like what you see. That means that GeckoLinux offers multiple different disk images, one per desktop. It uses the Calamares cross-distro installation program.
SUSE has long been fond of less common Linux filesystems. When your author first used it, around version 5 or 6, it had ReiserFS when everyone else was on ext2. Later it used SGI’s XFS, and later still, Btrfs for the root partition and XFS for home. These days, it’s Btrfs and nothing but.
Not everyone is such an admirer. Even after 12 years, if you want to know how much free space you have, Btrfs doesn’t give a straight answer to the
df command. It does have a
btrfsck tool to repair damaged filesystems, but the developers recommend you don’t use it.
With GeckoLinux, these worries disappear because it replaces Btrfs with plain old ext4. There are some nice cosmetic touches, such as reorganised panel layouts, some quite nicely clean and restrained desktop themes, and better font rendering. Unlike Mint, though, GeckoLinux doesn’t add its own software: the final installed OS contains only standard openSUSE components from the standard openSUSE software repositories, plus some from the third-party Packman repository – which is where most openSUSE users get their multimedia codecs and things from.
We tried the new Cinnamon Rolling edition on our trusty Thinkpad T420, and it worked well. Because openSUSE doesn’t include any proprietary drivers or firmware, the machine’s Wi-Fi controller didn’t work right. (Oddly, it was detected and could see networks, but not connect to them.) So we had to use an Ethernet cable – but after an update and installing the kernel firmware package, all was well.
GeckoLinux did have problems with the machine’s hybrid Intel/Nvidia graphics once the Nvidia proprietary driver was installed. That’s not uncommon, too – Deepin and Ubuntu DDE had issues too.
This does reveal a small Gecko gotcha. Tumbleweed changes fast, and although it gets a lot of automated testing, sometimes stuff breaks. All rolling-release distros do. Component A depends on a specific version of Component B, but B just got updated and now A won’t work until it gets an update too, a day or two later.
This is where upstream Tumbleweed’s use of Btrfs can be handy. Btrfs supports copy-on-write snapshots, and openSUSE bundles a tool called Snapper which makes it easy to roll back breaking changes. This is a pivotal feature of SUSE’s MicroOS. In time, thanks to ZFS, this will come to Ubuntu too.
GeckoLinux doesn’t use Btrfs so doesn’t have snapshots, meaning when things break, you have to troubleshoot and fix it the old-fashioned way. If only for that reason, we’d recommend the GeckoLinux Static release channel.
Saying that, until we broke it by playing with GPU drivers, it worked well. Notably, it could mount the test box’s Windows partition using the new in-kernel ntfs3 driver just fine. Fedora 35 failed to boot when we tried that so that’s a definite win for GeckoLinux.
For Ubuntu or Fedora users who want to give openSUSE a go, GeckoLinux gives a slightly more familiar and straightforward installation experience. The author is especially fond of the Xfce edition and ran it for several years. The system-wide all-in-one YaST config tool in particular is a big win. ®