LindowsOS 4.0 Examined

What sets LindowsOS 4.0 apart from the crowd is not what is shares with standard Linux approach, but what it doesn’t. LindowsOS has been reviewed many times over, mostly with favorable results – but this is not just another review. This piece will tell you not only about my experience with LindowsOS 4.0, but also what you need to know to arm yourself with the knowledge to make the decision whether LindowsOS is right for you.

LindowsOS (hereafter, casually, “Lindows”) is a project aimed a users of Microsoft Windows. Unlike other Linux distributions, Lindows assumes no previous experience with Linux, no experience with installing alternative OSes, and little knowledge of computers. Lindows is based on Debian Linux, and under the hood, is still exactly that. Familiar users will be able to edit /etc/apt/sources.list and use apt-get to install and manage their packages. You can still go to the command line and administer your system like any Linux box. But why would you want to? This is no ordinary Linux, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Lindows is much, much more, and at the same time – much, much less.

Click for a larger version I’ve installed various Linux and BSD systems close to 100 times, and Lindows installation is the easiest I’ve ever experienced. It’s blazingly fast, about 7 minutes on my system, and requires very little attention. In fact, to a seasoned Linux user, or even one with casual experience, it’s nearly disconcerting. There’s very little in the way of options – even if you chose not to “TAKE OVER ENTIRE DISK,” you simply select a partition, give the computer a name and a “system password” (which is the root password, but never referred to as such), and choose continue. Since my test system contains other OS’es, I admit that even though I knew I chose the right partition, I worried that Lindows might somehow decide to install somewhere on its own. While I see this as a negative, the truth is that to someone investigating Linux for the first time, this might be the only way to go without confusing them. I am quite positive that virtually no one I knew who isn’t in the IT field knows anything about partitioning their hard disk(s), and I am confident that such an option would end with a phone call to me. So to summarize installation without getting into the details covered a hundred times over elsewhere, it’d dead simple for a newbie and possibly scary in its lack of interactivity for anyone else.

Booting into Lindows for the first time is fairly standard. Assuming you are dual booting, you’ll find it will present you with a somewhat boring graphical LiLo boot menu asking you which OS to boot. Selecting LindowsOS, you’ll see no kernel messages, just a progress bar a la Windows, and shortly thereafter, receive a login box and login as root. Behind the attractive Lindows splash screen you’ll find a crowded KDE desktop reminiscent of Mandrake in the 7.x and 8.x days. Within a few seconds, you’ll see a popup of a license agreement and a first time wizard. By accepting the Lindows license, you’ll have an “Advanced” button that will present a configuration menu that will allow you to add a new user.

A few versions ago, had some impressions about running as root by default. However, a lot has changed in the last year, and I no longer feel this is acceptable or appropriate. Lindows is now competing with Windows XP, which is a multiuser system, and even the XP install prompts you for user creation. Computer users are becoming smarter and are capable of understanding the difference between an administrator and a regular user. Further, security is growing ever more important and the user savvy enough to venture into Linux territory is arguably even more willing to learn and possibly make concessions like su’ing or logging in as root for configuration changes. Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, and the like all prompt you to create a new user during the install process. Lindows should do the same, regardless of aim. That said, I’ve already explained that Lindows is set apart from other distributions, and this is a large part of that. They have made a judgment call, and sacrificed what they believe is a minimal security risk for simplicity. I respect their aim, but disagree.

Click for a larger version The heart of what sets Lindows apart from other distros is the attempt to be simple and user friendly. In my opinion, they have succeeded in places and fallen short in others. It’s very easy, while reviewing OSes, to say “So-and-so found this correctly and this one didn’t!” Unfortunately, hardware detection in Linux is a huge stepping stone, as every hardware configuration tool is eons behind its Windows counterpart. My test system has the GeForce Quadro 4, which is admittedly a semi-obscure card that many distros have had problems detecting properly. That said, Mandrake 9.1 and Fedora Core had no problems, but Lindows did. While TuxRacer, a free download played effortlessly, I was unable, without digging into the config files, to change the resolution from 1024×768. I have a 17″ viewable monitor, so my default display resolution is generally 1280×1024, but Lindows kept me locked at 1024×768.

While this is an issue, it’s also the resolution of most monitors, and so it’s a fair evaluation point. Focusing less on my particular issue with my video card, my experience at this resolution was less than enjoyable. Strangely, nearly everything, even the core application “Click-N-Run,” which I’ll cover shortly, required sideways scrolling. Working on the basis that the standard Lindows user is not downloading and installing nVidia drivers (and probably doesn’t know what drivers are), this is a problem. It’s fair for, say, Slackware developers to expect their users to dig around in X11 configuration files, but this is not a realistic goal for a Lindows user. So hardware detection is dead important and earned at least one check minus.

Click for a larger version Lindows removes a lot of choice from the user, and this, I’ll agree is not always a bad thing. I’ve long felt that each distribution should only include one application per task and let the user install others if they need it. This would reduce bloat and help give each distribution a better identity. Lindows has clearly done this. However, while removing some of the duplicate apps, they’ve once again been “too generous with the scalpel” and removed too many core pieces of the OS. There are simply too few applications. “Killer apps” that have been key to defining Linux’s coming of age on the desktop are conspicuously absent. There doesn’t appear to be a CD Ripper, an office suite, or a way to watch video files by default. There also doesn’t seem to be a screenshot tool, an FTP program, any servers, a compiler, or any development tools. This seems a little too slim in the default offerings – while the target Lindows user may not need any of the latter, certainly the first group is now considered essential.

With LindowsOS, however, is clearly expecting you to become a Click-N-Run
member. They’ve reserved literally hundreds of applications (some free, others not) for the CNR warehouse, and to be frank, without a membership or Linux know-how, Lindows is virtually unusable. Assuming, however, that you’ve purchased a CNR membership, what you’ll find is that CNR is the ultimate software repository. CNR is literally a masterpiece. Choose an application from the very logical and well thought out categories. Simple descriptions will help you find exactly what you’re looking for. Navigate to it in the warehouse, click install, and it does. That’s it. It’s preferable to executable downloads, rpms, or even apt-get’ting files from the command line. It’s easier than synaptic and yum. In keeping with the goal of Lindows to provide the easiest experience to the user, CNR receives an “A.” Little has changed with CNR since the last time I used it visibly and architecture-wise, it’s still a great program.

As you can see from the screenshot, Lindows uses a directory structure different from most distributions. They’ve ported the idea of My Documents and My Music from Windows, presumably to ease transition, and put a series of symlinks throughout the tree to make you more comfortable. Personally, I found the entire thing confusing. It seems to me that the smart thing to do is train a new user how the tree works rather than shielding them from it. I would imagine too much symlinking would become confusing as the user becomes more comfortable with Linux. In addition, the concept of “My Documents” being at the drive root is a holdover from the Windows9x days. Perhaps Lindows expects the majority of their customers to be those outgrowing Windows 98 and Me who are not going to XP. I, however, see this as an extension of the “run as root” issue – if a user can learn how it works in XP, they can figure it out in Linux.

It should also be pointed out that Lindows found my XP installation, mounted the NTFS drive read-only and the FAT32 crossover partition as writable, and placed them under /disks. I found this to be a fairly logical placement, as a newbie might not find /mnt to be logical. While the notion of /windows seems to be a common one, /disks is arguably a better terminology for all Linux distros to use, since there’s no assumption that it will always be Windows Linux is replacing.

Lindows is not aimed at Linux users. If it were, it would fail miserably. It’s not just run-as-root issue, the blatant relabelling, or disguising free software as their own work. It’s the lack of control. It’s the lack of…Linux about it. Of course, that’s just what is so appealing about it to the real target audience. Lindows is Linux without all the Linux. Let’s face it, there really is no distribution that doesn’t require some know-how. To this day, even Mandrake, widely considered “the desktop distro,” still needs command line tools to get the job done right. Lindows fixed this by simply removing the parts that would require that configuration. There’s so little included in terms of system tools, but only in comparison to other Linux distributions. It’s more comparable to XP Home Edition than anything else.

What makes Lindows so unique though is that it’s backed by the dynamic Michael Robertson.

Click for a larger version He has a propensity to cause trouble and, seemingly, doesn’t care. He’s the only person to take on Bill Gates and have people listen. He’s speaks more pointedly than other alternative OS advocates, is taken more seriously than free software extremists, and takes more direct shots at Microsoft than anyone else, including the gutsy free PC offer. He also supports many open source projects and even commisions his own. Think he’s got an ego? Worried that he’s a madman? Think he’s evil for ripping off programs and replacing their “About” boxes with Lindows information? Rest easy. He’s still doing more for Linux than almost anyone else with the exception of Linus and his round table.

In the end, despite ease of use, I’m not overly impressed with Lindows. Perhaps it was all the good press that had my expectations so high. Maybe it’s the fact that it really hasn’t evolved all that much since version 2.0, two major versions ago (note: there have not been any point releases, possibly a good thing, since the terminology is actually pointless, and it’s all marketing anyway). Maybe it’s because it just looks enough like any old distro. Or maybe
it’s because my Click-N-Run trial expired and I’m not willing to pay for something I could figure out how to get for free.

Put bluntly, LindowsOS is not for everyone. After using it on and off for a few months, I’m probably going to replace it with Fedora Core or Slackware 9.1. But I respect Lindows for what it is, the Linux I’d turn to if I needed my mother to run it. Or my collegues at work. If you are familiar with Linux and are not turned off by the lack of certain manual configurations, you should probably stick with your distribution. If you are seeking polish and a unified system, this isn’t that solution either. Lindows is not desktop Linux made perfect, it’s desktop Linux made simple. That’s what set out to do, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Installation: 8/10
Hardware Support: 8/10 (missed an nVidia video card)
Ease of use: 9/10 (incredibly easy)
Features: 5/10 (needs more default software)
Credibility: 8/10 (no major OS “point” releases or clear-cut upgrade method)
Speed: 8/10

Overall: 7.66


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