Linux for the rest of us

By   |  March 30, 2005

Product: Linspire OS 4.5
Minimum hardware: 800MHz, 128MB, 4GB, CD-ROM
Available from: Phoenix Global Software (www.phoenixsoftware.co.za), R500.00

News flash
At the time of writing Linspire Five-0 had just been released, sporting significant new features such as Kernel 2.6.10, KDE 3.3, Reiser 4 filing, X.org 6.8.2, built in Bittorrent and OpenOffice 1.1.3. Check it out here: http://www.linspire.com/newfeature.php


I like Windows. There I said it. Although, politics aside, what I probably meant to say was that I like the idea of Windows: a versatile, highly-compatible computing product that allows most people to use their computer most of the time.

What I don\’t like is that Windows users have been deprived of the opportunity to learn computing. Rather they\’ve been relegated to learning only how to operate Windows. It has, in some respects, made them computer illiterate. At least as far as having a deeper understanding of computing is concerned.

Even if Microsoft has conspired to dominate the software market, it should be treated as water under the bridge. Especially if Linux advocates are to gain credibility for their technicaly superior operating system. Fragmented and confusing product branding and a lack of brand visibility has dogged the mass adoption of Linux.

Linspire (which was called Lindows until they got sued by Microsoft for using something approximating the Windows trademark) seeks to change all that. Linspire has pushed into the retail market, where people can buy the product off the shelf in a cling wrapped box for around R500.00. In the US you can buy a PC from Walmart and other stores with Linspire pre-installed. You can also download it, at a price, at www.linspire.com.

Linspire is not available as a free download. However a version called LinspireLive! which runs on the CD only, has been made available for download and Live! version 5-0 will be released shortly. This is also useful for checking your hardware compatibility before you open your wallet. In compliance with the GPL licence Linspire source code is available for download by opening a free MyLinspire account online.

Conceived by Michael Robertson, pop culture personality and founder of the once infamous MP3.com, Linspire looks to deliver the benefits of Debian GNU/Linux with the ease-of-use of Windows, and without any of the technical tripwires often associated with Linux.

Perhaps the single biggest innovation in Linspire is the Click-n-Run tool. This functions as an online software library where users can browse over 2000 titles and install them with a single click. In one click, Linspire eliminates all the fuss and heartbreak associated with getting Linux add-on applications installed.

Annual subscriptions to CNR must be purchased seperately (US$50), although the prudent will make full use of the free 15 day trial period included with the purchase of Linspire.

Hardware specification
I tested this on a machine that probably represents the typical market for this product: users wishing to move up from Windows 2000.

AMD Athlon 1GHz
500 MB RAM
20GB HDD
64MB AGP graphics card
Basic multimedia
DVD-ROM drive

Installation
By both Linux and Windows standards, installing Linspire was truly simple. Insert the CD and reboot the PC to kick off. Only two user interventions were necessary: once to pick a drive to install to, and once to create the PC name and user password (not required).

Installation took around 30 minutes, which is typical for a machine with this spec. On completion the user is presented with a customised KDE desktop with a limited group of utilities and applications (OpenOffice, Mozilla etc) pre-installed.

In contrast with my previous Linspire installations some core hardware components were not correctly recognised, including my generic four-year old graphics card (a Diamond Viper) and stock standard Intel network card. As a result I was unable to get full 24-bit colour at 1024×768 although TCP/IP networking worked fine.

All the basics for network configuration and Internet connectivity are covered in the five page booklet included in the box, although it is somewhat Americanised. With little additional effort South African distributors could include a page covering local broadband setups.

Windows network shares and shared printers are accessed in the normal way, by joining a workgroup or domain and setting up Samba.

Interface
The desktop, icons and menu systems are a slight improvement on the dated Windows XP but fall well short of the slick and sexy Apple OSX. Although they appear a little chunky, icon sizes and colours, toolbars and screen fonts are easily altered using the slightly convoluted \”look and feel\” panel in the control panel. The standard KDE desktop themes are also available.

Somewhat disturbing was the universally sluggish performance of menu flyouts and dialogue boxes (low hardware spec notwithstanding).

Dialogue boxes is one area in which I believe all Linux desktops and most applications still need some work. Due obviously to the unregulated nature of OSS development, most applications have implemented disparate dialogue box styles, which is off putting and confusing to novice users.

This one area in which Linspire could invest some R&D, to get a more uniform and professional feel across the GUI. Dialogue boxes attempting to display lenghty (and frankly unnecessary) paths for files may be technically correct, but are impractical for most users.

Applications
Linspire includes a useful, but basic, suite of applications. These include the ubiquitous OpenOffice.org suite, Mozilla and Thunderbird.

Linspire\’s secret weapon is the the Click-N-Run system described earlier. This online software library includes hundreds of hot favourites such as Evolution, Firefox, Skype and Limewire. As well as the top-notch multimedia apps Lphoto and Lsongs which are Linspire-sponsored projects. A bit like a kid in a sweet shop, it is indescribably pleasing to click and choose applications from one location without concern for dependancies, conflicts and version controls.

Of course, with Debian Linux under the hood, hackers can still install their favourite apps the traditional way, using .debs. Apt-get (and Synaptic) can also be used but are not recommended since they may wipe out Linspire-specific stuff.

Support
Linspire has made a virtue out of online support, including a desktop icon linking to extensive web FAQs, a searchable knowledge base and moderated user forums. Which is problematic is you only have dialup access or, even worse, encounter technical problems getting online. South African distributors have included no contact information on the box, and are thus made invisible to consumers. This is a potential achilles heel for a product marketed to PC novices and Linux newbies.

Linspire behaved well overall and performed to our expectations. It succeeds in that vital area where Windows currently holds sway, and where traditional Linux has fallen down: managing to satisfy 80 percent of users 80 percent of the time.

But it has some distinct advantages too, like the somewhat virus-free, somewhat hacker-proof environment and the addictive Click-N-Run warehouse for souping up your installation.

Linspire is not for hardcore hackers, and doesn\’t pretend to be, although to give credit where it is due, Linspire contributes significantly to the open source community, releasing source code and funding some significant OSS projects (CodeWeavers, Mozdev.org, gaim and Debian to name a few).

To shamelessly quote the Linspire web site: \”Linux needs more contributions than just lines of code … if it is to succeed, it will also need leadership, vision, marketing, etc.\”.

Bringing Linux to the attention of ordinary consumers and following through with a solid, affordable, easily-accessible product is exactly what Linspire sets out to achieve. And does.

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