Linux Desktop Distro Shootout Part IV: LindowsOS 4.5

So far this series has checked out Lindows 4.0, Libranet 2.8.1 and MEPIS 2003.10. Meanwhile both and Xandros have been busy little beavers and spat out new versions of their software, each on the same day. Since I am trying to find the best bang for my buck in a Debian based commercial distro, and since I am already a registered user of LindowsOS, I felt compelled to download a free copy of Lindows 4.5 to have a second look at this thing.

Hardware note: Main system = P3 1 gig, 384 meg RAM, 56K USR internal faxmodem, onboard i810 video disabled in BIOS, 32 meg Radeon 7200 PCI video card. I took the fan out and worked on it a little, but it is still too noisy. Secondary system = P3 450, 128 meg RAM, 4 meg ATI Rage agp, Lucent winmodem.

I am still on dialup, so I was forced to humbly beseech my main broadband equipped contact again. They came through for me once more and a week later I had a copy in my hand. Lindows users who either can’t afford or don’t have broadband available are pretty well screwed when it comes to downloading their ISOs. I have read that the issue with being able to resume a download had been fixed. I am afraid it still doesn’t work for me. I am getting quite tired of this issue.

In this series I have been looking at things that most reviewers either seem to ignore or skim past. I want to know how a distro *feels* in daily use. I want to know if you are forced to spend more time working on the distro than actually producing some productive work. I want to know how convenient things are. I want to know if it is worth the trouble.

But in the interest of balancing things out, I have also decided to utterly ignore most of the things that a standard review homes in on. For example, I just don’t care whether a particular distro uses kernel 2.4 or kernel 2.4.2 or kernel I only care about whether it boots up and recognizes my hardware.

Eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. After three years of jumping from one Linux distro to another, the main thing that strikes me about all these many distros is their absolute similarity to each other. It takes a little bit of time to catch onto this, but sooner or later anyone will see it.

Sure, at first glance they *look* different. But most of the distinguishing points are superficial and cosmetic. One of the nice things about Linux is the fact that appearances can be adjusted. When I used Lycoris I liked the appearance of their desktop. But I could easily take the same wallpaper and icons and make my Debian system look identical. The same thing holds true for RedHat’s Bluecurve, or Knoppix’s eyeball wallpaper, and any other theme or style. If you want Windows desktop similarity all you have to do is make a folder named ‘My Documents’ and plop it on your desktop. If you want a ‘My System’ folder just make one and drop in some shortcuts to your disks, printers, control panel and anything else that suits you. You can even make your own icons from scratch if you want, which is kinda fun.

But there isn’t much reason to prefer one distro over another in terms of appearance, basic functions and applications. Most of the Linux distros that I have tried seem to spend their time chasing each other and keeping up with the Jones’s. Ultimately they all use (more or less) the same kernel, and roughly equivalent versions of XFree86, KDE, Gnome, Gaim, Tuxracer, PPP, Mozilla, etc., etc. et-endless-cetera.

Same basic kernel. Same basic desktops, with only nitpicking differences between different versions. Each new DE version release sparks a renewal of the holy war to make sure that *their* distro is the first to incorporate the latest (and therefore greatest) version of KDE or Gnome or whatever. To me it is all rather mysterious and puzzling. I hear hardcore geeks ranting about the differences between KDE 3.0 and 3.1. No doubt there are some differences, but I have not noticed any of them in my daily use. Nor do I really and truly care.

Judging from the evidence of my own eyes, I have concluded that Linux distro developers regard their end users as either being capable of writing their own device drivers in assembly language, or being too stupid to live. One or the other. Either you have to know the undocumented tricks of the trade that only years of experience will bring, or you need to be blocked away from anything that might “burn da widdy baby’s handsie”. Neither extreme is an accurate assessment of the average end user. So I decided to write some reviews for what I consider the average end user.

For convenience I mentally subdivide Linux distros into three groups. RPM-based, Debian-based, and Slack-type. I have chosen Debian for my needs because RPM is a pain to use and I am not smart enough to cope with Slackware.

What else am I actually looking for?

1) Stability (please don’t try to tell me Linux is uncrashable.)
2) Package selection (free) and how well packages are integrated into the coherent whole
3) Flexibility in updating (free or cheap)
4) A paranoid obsession with security
5) Anal retentive focus on hardware recognition
6) Good community forums, full of spirited debate
7) Prompt technical support (free)
8) Documentation (I would say “good” documentation but I have yet to see a distro that provides it.)
9) Lots of pleasant GUI tools to get things done with (Yes, I can cope with the command line. I have been using the command line in first DOS, and now Linux, for twenty years. But why should I have to do it in this day and age? I could use a drain snake to clean out my own sewer line too, but I prefer to let a plumber do it.)

No distro offers all of this. But some offer more than others.

One thing that doesn’t really concern me is whether or not a Linux distro gives away their product for free. Perhaps I have been coarsened and hardened by my years of proprietary software serfdom, but I don’t have a problem in principle if people want to sell their product instead of giving it away. As long as a company complies with the legal requirements under which the GPL portion of the software was first released, I do not object if they want to get paid for their work on the non-GPL parts. That alone marks me as a non-purist I suppose, but there it is. Besides, I could get a bootleg copy of any distro on the planet if I went looking for it.

On the other hand, if a release is fully compatible with the free Debian repositories (like Libranet and MEPIS) then you have the security of knowing that you will never be left high and dry because the developer went out of business. That sort of thing must be considered when you are calculating which basket to put all your eggs into.

For instance: Lycoris, Mandrake, and RedHat all use RPM-type package management. Yet RPMs from Lycoris will not work on Mandrake, and RPMs from Mandrake will not (consistently) work in RedHat, and RPMs from RedHat cannot be depended on to work in Lycoris. That is not acceptable to me. Part of my objection to the Microsoft monopoly was the way they have used proprietary file formats and lock-in to make it difficult/impossible to use anything outside the Microsoft realm. I did NOT finally throw off the Yoke Of Microsoft so that I could go straight to a proprietary Linux variant and buckle myself into a different type of harness. I am willing to settle down with one particular distro that suits me best, but I am not going to give up my option to access other sources. Thus, another reason for me to select a Debian-based distro.

Lindows is fully compatible with the Debian repositories of course, but the Click-N-Run (CNR) warehouse is not. You can use either one, but don’t try to use both apt-get and CNR on the same system. (*CRUNCH* goes the dependencies…..) I don’t know yet if Xandros 2.0 is fully compatible with the Debian repositories. I have heard people claim both sides of the question. It will be one of the first things I check when my copy gets here. At least with Lindows, I know that if I choose to do so I can abandon the CNR altogether and switch over to the standard Debian repositories at any time. This is very important to me.

Lindows makes lofty claims about version 4.5 being vastly superior in terms of hardware recognition. Hardware recognition was one of my main problems with 4.0. So lets see if things are really improved that much.

I got a total of four ISO files for the Lindows 4.5 update. The standard installation CD, the OEM version installation CD, the typical Click-N-Run warehouse CD and an extra one called Lindows for Laptops. I suspect that the Lindows for Laptops was a preliminary release candidate or something, since it lacks a few things that the other two CDs have, and the other two CDs include everything that is in the Laptop edition. Or maybe they just wanted the Laptop edition to be lean and mean. The CNR disk provides a bunch of programs from the CNR warehouse to speed things up for the the dialup losers like me. Of course, it is encoded so that you can’t get at them without using the CNR software. It would indeed be disgraceful if bootleg copies of Tuxracer started circulating around the internet.

I noticed a few improvements right away. One thing should make a lot of Linux purists very happy. Lindows has changed their installation routine to strongly suggest the use of a security (root) password. The installation program declares that while a security password is not absolutely necessary, it is strongly recommended. For my purposes, it doesn’t matter but it is good to see that Lindows is listening to the constant stream of bitching & moaning & cursing & gnashing of teeth that has been going on concerning this issue since their first release. As usual, they were slow to respond. But respond they eventually did. That deserves a +1.

The online tutorial animations are slicker and appear to work faster. I don’t know if the speed increase is due to the upgrade to XFree86 4.3, or if they optimized the tutorials. They look and sound quite professional. I always like to see this kind of online help system. I am beginning to truly believe that this type of approach is the only real substitute for documentation that we end users are going to get. The chances of the programmers writing documentation, or even producing a sufficiently detailed description of their work to allow someone else to write it, appears woefully small. But they are apparently willing to work on animations. Maybe they are considered “kewl”, I don’t know. At least there is SOME kind of help for the newcomer. Give them a +1 for the improved tutorials. Running score is now +1 +1 = +2.

At this point I ran into trouble. One of the biggest problems that I had with Lindows 4.0 was the failure to recognize or cope with my video on the primary system. The motherboad on my main system includes an onboard i810 video. For my purposes this onboard video was slow and crappy. So I switched the BIOS to use PCI video as the primary and plugged in a Radeon 7200 card.

I know, I know. Please don’t berate me. When you are using three year old hardware, and two of the most common brands of video on the planet, a person must expect a brand new, ultra modern, fresh off the compiler operating system to have trouble dealing with it.

But my feelings were hurt when I realized the Lindows 4.5 had not fixed this problem. Did that mean that I had gone onto the Lindows user forums because of 4.0 to rant & rave and make an obsessive pain in the backside of myself for nothing? Was my cursing and screaming in vain? Apparently so.

I did the same thing with version 4.5 that I had done with 4.0. I reset the BIOS to use the onboard video, switched over the monitor plug, and I immediately had no more problems. I am confident that I could also have gone ahead and modified my /etc/XFconfig-4 file, just like I did with version 4.0, and make it work with my Radeon card. I could have done that. But I refuse to do that.

This system is three years old. It uses an onboard i810 and a PCI Radeon. Three years ago Mandrake was able to cope with this hardware configuration. Libranet never made me jump through these hoops just to get my video running. Knoppix had no problems with it. Lycoris had no problems with it. MEPIS recognized what was going on and offered me a VESA option. Only 2 distros have refused to even try to adjust to this hardware configuration. RedHat and Lindows. Oddly enough these two are probably the most generally well-known distros on the market today.

I don’t know if this coincidence signifies anything or not, and I don’t give a care. I refuse to contort myself under that desk one-more-time because an operating system is incapable of coping with my three year old mainstream hardware. I also refuse to believe that I am on the only person on the planet who disabled their onboard video so they could use a better card. Enough is enough. Lindows is out of the running as far as I am concerned when it comes to my primary computer. MEPIS is too raw for right now, so it looks like Libranet is the current front runner for the primary system. Libranet had no difficulties with my primary system’s video, and it is the only distro to properly recognize my USR modem. So Libranet is looking good for the final stretch on my primary system.

Give Lindows a -1 (again) for failing to recognize my video, and a second -1 for failing to fix a problem that I know for a fact they were aware of. I know they were aware of the problem because I complained about it myself. I complained extensively. You might even say that I……never mind. They were aware of it.

Current score +2 -1 -1 = 0.

When it comes to my secondary system however, the whole situation does a complete 180 degree flip. Of all the distros that I have tried in this series, only Lindows had no difficulties at all with my secondary system. Only Lindows was able to recognize and auto configure all of the hardware on this system and have all of it work out of the box. Libranet had issues with my Lucent winmodem and the version of Grub that Libranet installed tried to eat my MBR. MEPIS had issues with automount.

But Lindows is in love with it. Lindows installed without a hiccup. Lindows recognized and auto configured my Lucent winmodem. Lindows even knows and loves my network card, the one that I don’t even use because I don’t bother with a LAN. The video on my secondary system holds no terrors for Lindows. My CD drive purrs with satisfaction and does the automount thing with ease and grace. NO hardware issues of any kind whatsoever. Give them a +1 just for the relief of finally settling on a distro that works. Current score +1.

One new thing I am not going to rate is the SIPphone software that Lindows now includes. It works, I set up a new account as an experiement. Since I am on dialup and the SIPphone software requires a broadband connection it does me no good, but I am sure a lot of business travelers will get a great benefit from it. Let them rate it, for me it is a neutral aspect.

One more new thing in Lindows 4.5 does help me. A lot. Lindows 4.5 now includes the software to allow use of the free version of NetZero on Linux. This is a huge deal for us dialup users. Even if we have a good ISp, it helps a LOT to have a backup option for emergency use. Give Lindows a big +1 and a pat on the back.

I am going to mention something that I should have mentioned before. Both MEPIS and Lindows offer free upgrades. Libranet and Xandros both charge for upgrades. I am giving Lindows a +1 for this and I wish I had thought to give MEPIS one as well. It matters. It matters very much to a destitute tightwad like me.

Unless a new distro offers some kind of significant advantage, it appears that my choice for the secondary system has been made. I am going to stick with the only distro (so far at least) that has both installed properly and refrained from trying to eat my secondary computer. Unless Xandros 2.0 shows itself to be significantly better, Lindows 4.5 is going to be the final choice for my secondary system.

This is all tentative until Xandros gets here. I retain the option of a last minute switch. But for now, Lindows is on my secondary system. And it will stay there unless some other distro proves itself to be drastically better. I am getting tired of this switching.

Final score +1 +1 +1 = +3 for Lindows 4.5. Status is finalist for the secondary system, pending evaluation of Xandros 2.0. Lindows is completely out of the running for my primary system. Finalist for the primary system is Libranet 2.8.1 pending review of Xandros 2.0. Stay tuned.

Next & Final Victim – Xandros 2.0 Deluxe.


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