Review: Freespire 1.0

In the midst of the busy semester here at school, my fiancee’s laptop, running Windows XP SP2, picked up some friends – adware, trojans, etc. It was a pretty nasty sight. I worked on it for at least two hours every couple of days, wiping it clean, doing my best to lock it down, and so on. Avast! and Ad-Aware had their limits it seemed, for only a day or so after I cleaned it, pop-ups and weird stuff would show up again. She was getting sick of it. I was getting sick of cleaning it, so I suggested, offhand, installing a different operating system that is a bit more impervious to those nasties. To my surprise, she agreed.

Choosing Freespire

My first choice to install on her Averatec laptop ended up being FreeSpire. I liked the possibilities of the OS — based on a secure, tested, open source system but with Windows compatibility, multimedia capabilities, and some user friendliness. Plus, it’s free. I didn’t want to stray too far away from basic Windows-like capabilities. By keeping it somewhat familiar, she probably wouldn’t get too frustrated from the change. She could also, theoretically, run some of her key Windows applications if needed.

I downloaded the ISO, burned a copy, and slapped it in the Averatec’s tray-loading slot. And, we were off and running.

I started off by running the disk in LiveCD mode, just to get a feel for the OS and make sure it would boot up even. The Averatec laptops are not always well supported in some versions of Linux – I didn’t want to install everything first and witness the dreaded hang. But, it seemed to work, although the wireless drivers didn’t work (a sign of trouble to come). I was able to make a backup of some my fiancee’s files in this mode, and the overall feel of the OS gave me some hope that this might work.

However, as I began to install, problems became apparent.

The installation process was fairly easy. It was straightforward and required a few clicks. Unfortunately though, there were moments that frustrated me. For one, the instructions for the process of setting up your hard disk were lacking. I ended up having to search for a guide of some sort before I tried to resize the main partition (the Windows XP partition). Once I did finally resize it, the application told me that the operation had failed, although when I rebooted to witness the damage I had wrought, it turned out it had actually succeeded. Okay.

I continued on with the installation, which was rather quick and painless. I rebooted and crossed my fingers. Sure, enough, the OS booted fine, although there was a very long hang before KDE fully loaded up. On subsequent boots, this problem went away. We were up and running.

My fiancee was excited about the look and feel of FreeSpire’s eye-candy. (Frankly, it is a pretty nice interface.) I showed her some basic things – how to change settings, where the applications were, and so on. She especially was interested in the selection of games.

The problems at this stage though were still daunting — her wireless card worked but barely. The signal was erratic. My Powerbook, sitting feet away from her laptop, had a rock solid signal. Second, Microsoft Office would not run. I was faced with having to reinstall it to get it to run with Wine. Third, there was no built-in Korean language support. Many of her documents and emails are in Korean — it was a must.

Tackling these issues took up a good chunk of time. I managed to get the wireless card working a little bit better, but it was never fully resolved. Downloading files was shaky because of the bad connections. Help and tips from FreeSpire’s wiki were pretty much non-existent, so I just did my best to live with the whacky signal.

I decided to ignore the Microsoft Office issue, instead showing her how to use OpenOffice for the time being. This wasn’t supposed to take up this much time.

The Korean input turned out to be the killer issue. Language support for FreeSpire (and possibly for Linux as a whole) is downright abysmal. I searched FreeSpire’s CNR repository for language files and input systems, but there was nothing there. I can’t tell you how frustrating that experience was, since it was built to be a user-friendly search experience. I found help on other sites, but the instructions for installing an alternate input manager were vague or incomplete. Once I did get one installed, it didn’t even seem to work.

At this point, my experiment was over. I admitted defeat.

The lacks

  • Korean language support: What would have worked here? An input language system that you didn’t have to download, install, and configure. Just make the damn OS come with one and all the language files out of the box. Alternately, make it one nice download – the Korean language pack, for instance. (I later discovered that some of this stuff is a Linux-wide problem. Ubuntu has similar challenges.)
  • User-Friendly Help: Make your website and wiki overflow with great tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and helpful tips. I know, I know — you are a volunteer community. It makes it hard. Still, I had to resort to the command line a lot to get things working with the wireless card, input manager, and other little things. That simply would not work for an average user.
  • CNR: Click-N-Run apps seem like a way to make installing software more user-friendly, but there are let downs. It’s hard to search for anything useful. Furthermore, many of the apps are the same ol’ open source stuff. Sure, they are free, but many of them don’t have the same style of interface of the OS. Maybe some quality control here? Also, in the basic distro, there are some things that I had to download that come standard in other distros (like Ubuntu). Overall, CNR is simply overrated.
  • Installation: Admit it – installation doesn’t end after installing the files to the hard drive. Approach installation in a new way and provide automated processes to troubleshoot, detect hardware problems, and correct them after the basic system setup is over. Wouldn’t it be a nice new feature?

    The likes

  • FreeSpire Looks Good: I like the custom look and feel of FreeSpire. It’s a great start and certainly makes someone (like my fiancee) a little more curious to see how everything works.
  • Multimedia: I like the fact that FreeSpire uses non-open source technologies. It makes it a user-friendly possibility for average users who are migrating from a mainstream system. You get to keep those mp3 files and watch DVDs. However, I didn’t even get to use it much because of the other critical problems above.
  • Installation: Yeah, it was pretty simple and cloaked in a good GUI. I like that, and think they are on the right track, especially if they can fix the few bugs I mentioned above.


    In the end, FreeSpire 1.0 did not make the grade for my fiancee’s laptop. Sure, it was a good effort — there were many things that seemed pretty promising. And let’s face it — my fiancee had some very specific needs for her computing experience. This means that other users may find those annoyances not so lacking. I encourage you to try.

    I have a degree in Computer Science, and I love tinkering around on the command line and downloading interesting open source applications to mess with. My fiancee doesn’t. Keeping this in mind, I find it difficult to recommend any operating system that requires that level of maintenance or modification to get it to run properly. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Mac OS X, which just works out of the box, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask, even of an open source operating system.

    In the end, we tried Ubuntu for a brief while on her laptop. It worked better (still with some silly bugs and annoyances, including a Korean input manager that worked half the time). Finally giving up, we went to the local AppleStore and got her a MacBook. Since then, she’s put up her first webpage, organized her photos, and caught back up on her work. So, maybe there is a happy ending here after all.

    About the author:
    Nathan J. Hill is the author of Eldritch Ass Kicking, the roleplaying game of arcane action and old men with sticks. He is a writer and student in Washington, DC. You can find out more about Nathan’s work on his website.

    If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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