When you first try Linux, SUSE provides some welcome reassurance: the £40 boxed set includes 200 pages of printed documentation, six CDs and a double-sided DVD, containing both 32-bit and 64-bit installers.

Not only does this feel like excellent value for money if you're migrating from the Windows world, but it's always good to have something you can hold, consult and trust - not everyone has a local Linux expert around to fix any problems that crop up.

But SUSE's packaging isn't all that differentiates it from other distros: with such a massive number of developers in its staff, SUSE's releases are well-known for integrating the latest software and ushering in the latest desktop designs.

This release falls down a little on the version numbers, with OpenOffice.org 2.0 rather than 2.1, Mono 1.1.18 rather than 1.2, and other such missing pieces. But there's been a strong focus on the desktop, with both Gnome and KDE getting much-needed redesigns that keep them looking fresh.

In the previous release of its enterprise desktop, SLED, SUSE introduced a redesigned Gnome menu that lists only your favourite applications, along with a few system functions such as software installation, help and the control centre.

In fact, if you've ever used Windows XP, you'll recognise it immediately - for a start, it has the More Applications button like XP does. Well, this is present in SUSE 10.2, but now KDE's menu has also been redesigned.

The new applications menu - known as Kickoff - is, perhaps inevitably, much more complicated than Gnome's. Along the bottom are five tabs: Favourites, History, Computer, Applications and Leave, with a list of application categories in the middle, and a search tab along the top.

As you click on a software category, the whole middle pane slides to the left to show all the subcategories, and clicking again will usually show you some programs. This is unnecessarily painful, but at least it stores your favourite applications in the Favourites tab.

Very cleverly, the search tool is based on Beagle, using the special Kerry port designed for KDE. This is the kind of integration we've been waiting for a long time - if you use both KDE and Gnome, you'll find your file system search index is shared across both.

This is part of a larger movement from SUSE: Gnome applications now do an excellent Qt impression when running under KDE, which gives the whole desktop a unified look and feel. That doesn't quite extend to KDE apps running under Gnome, but perhaps that's coming in SUSE 10.3 or 11? We'll have to wait and see...

Control centre confusion

Software installation was one of the biggest confusions in SUSE 10.1, and unfortunately this has only partially been cleared up in this release. YaST is still here, unchanged and as ugly as ever, but there's a new Install Software app that, cunningly, looks and works nothing like YaST - they don't even seem to share software repositories.

SUSE 10.1 was awful in this regard, and 10.2 is improved but still poor - this is one area where even Fedora is able to cream SUSE, and Ubuntu is in a league of its own.

One other area of increasing confusion is the Gnome Control Centre. Previously this used to contain a handful of user preferences, such as themes, fonts and desktop wallpapers. But now this has been cluttered with a selection of options from YaST that require administrator privileges, and it's not clear from the window exactly which you can use.

This list is also very long, so it's hard to find what you're looking for without using one of the filters on the left. Curiously, there's a link in the Control Centre that loads YaST properly, where you'll find many of the same options.

We've no idea why this approach was taken, but it's really shoddy: it's no easier for administrators, it's much harder for end users, and really SUSE should be spending its time focusing on more important problems.

No Vista killer

The slick new desktops are welcome, but the general lack of features means that this distro doesn't do enough. With Vista released at the start of this year, SUSE needs to get back on the ball and realise that its distro needs more than just a lick of paint. In our opinion it's much better to hold off a distro release for a month and get the latest software, than stick tightly to a schedule and release a damp squib.

It might sound harsh after six months of work, but SUSE 10.2 just doesn't do enough to justify spending £40 on it. Even the free version is hard to recommend as it ships on six CDs. If you're looking to switch to Linux, that's great - we're glad to welcome you. But our advice is: wait for Ubuntu 7.04.