This past week, Linspire showed the first public demo of Linspire Five-0. I was lucky enough to play with it for the last week, and within, you’ll find a detailed walkthrough of what’s new with Linspire.
I’ve had the chance to use each version of Linspire (which, until recently, was known as LindowsOS) since version 2. My reviews of each version have been published here on osnews.com, and with each one, I pointed out the strengths and weaknesses I saw. Before I go into detail, I like to point out that the version we were provided for review was Beta IV, and therefore may contain some bugs that will be ironed out before general release.
Linspire Five-0 boots to a simple prompt that asks if you want to install to the hard drive or run “Linspire Live!” from CD. The installation is extremely straightforward, and I’m happy to say that this time around, Linspire offers advanced disk configuration options. Like in Linspire 4.0, you have to prep a partition ahead of time or take over the entire disk at install. I experienced a problem here – the Linspire installer didn’t see the undefined space in the extended partition on my primary hard drive, and consequently, I ended up nuking one of my valid Windows partitions. While this was clearly my oversight and my fault, I do want to point out that after selecting the partition in the install, the installer never once confirmed which partition I had selected. Since this is not the place one should be messing around, I’d recommend the Linspire developers make the confirmations a little more verbose.
Let’s dig right into it, shall we? These days, many people have “distribution fever,” constantly upgrading and trying new distros every month or week. In time, the experiences begin to bleed together – they all have similar look and feel, and other than a signature application or a custom wallpaper, too many are identified by their window manager, theme, and package manager. Linspire Five-0 throws a fork into that notion.
Linspire Five-0 comes with a new custom theme, Linspire Clear, designed with the assistance of Everaldo Coehlo of Crystal fame. Upon first use, you’re greeted with a Flash tutorial that helps guide you through general Linspire use. Unfortunately, at least in this beta version, most of the Flash tutorials refer to the OS as LindowsOS and show the LindowsOS 4 desktop. Linspire’s desktop is based on KDE 3.3.2 on Xorg 6.8.1, several GTK+ apps, and Mozilla. The desktop, while fairly cluttered, is very nice looking and immediately, you’ll see that the “L” button has been replaced with an attractive, clickable Launch button.
I was upset to see that not only did sound not work on either of my test systems, my home system’s Nvidia Quaddro 4 was not properly detected, and therefore, I was stuck at 1024×768 on my 17″ flat panel. All other hardware appeared to work. The two systems I tested Linspire Five-0 on were: PIII 600, 256MB SD RAM, Riva TNT2 16MB video, Soundblaster Live Value; and Dell Precision, Dual PIII 1.8Ghz Xeons, 1GB DDR SDRAM, Nvidia Quaddro 4 video, Soundblaster Live! sound.
One notices, after just a minute or two of clicking around, that not only are menus semi-transparent, but they all cast dropshadows for a very cool effect. One strange behavior I found with menu transparency is that sometimes, in some applications, moving from menu to menu leaves a residual effect from the previous menu as illustrated. I hope this behavior is ultimately remedied, understanding that pulling off this effect is likely the work of several programs between Linspire, KDE, Xorg, and more. Dropshadowing in Linux is still pretty rare, and is not always very effective. Here, the shadows under windows temporarily disappear as the window is dragged and are instantly replaced when the windows is dropped or docked for a fairly convincing effort. I was impressed, as this is the first distro I’ve used to pull off dropshadowing believably.
Aside from the custom theme, Linspire is packed with new applications, chief among them, Lphoto, Lsongs, Nvu, and Ltorrent. Lsongs, put bluntly, is an iTunes-like music manager for Linux. While some apps already exist to pull this function off, Ltunes is a fairly familiar-seeming interface. After importing my music into my “Media Library,” I was able to skim through my music with great ease. There are still some tripping points. For example, in true Linux fashion, it thought that “Alice in Chains” was a different band than “Alice In Chains” (note the capital I.) Overall, Lsongs is a very cool application that, with the rise of the iPod, is necessary for a true Linux desktop, however, clearly has a few kinks to work out.
Lphoto is a great application too. Lphoto feels almost exactly like Google’s recently released Picasa 2. Importing photos is dead simple, there are touch-up tools including a red eye remover. There’s a slideshow preview, an HTML generator, and an album organizer, all of which can be exported to a CD, but as far as I saw, not to DVD through Lphoto yet (note that K3b, which is included, can write DVDs.) Lphoto is really a nice looking application withh nearly all of the features I’d want from a photo management application.
Now, burning a DVD was fairly easy using K3b. While burning a DVD, however, the system was fairly slow. I’m told that there is a lot of extra debugger scripts running in the beta versions, and so much of the hit is in system speed. I’m hoping the slowness was the result of this.
On the subject of DVDs, I could not find a way to play any DVDs on my Linspire system. I later discovered that in order to download the Linspire DVD Player, one must cough up another 4.95. This price goes up to 9.95 on previous versions of Linspire, and $39.95 for a standalone download (yes, apt-get works when configured and therefore, plenty of questionable codecs are available, but for the sake of review, there is no other way to play DVDs.) Now, loading your DVD into the drive, manually opening Konqueror, drilling into the VIDEO_TS folder, and double-clicking a .vob file (or dragging it into Kplayer), you’ll find it will play provided it’s not encrypted (most discs are). Of course, we can all agree that this is a ridiculous way for a DVD to work, and of course, it will only play the .vob file you click on. How can this be that a commercial OS doesn’t include DVD playback?
Nvu is the so-called rival of Microsoft’s Front Page and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver. While it may certainly be a groundbreaking application for Linux, its benefit is truly for those that are comfortable with Front Page. I am much more comfortable in Bluefish, which is geared towards more technical coders. While Bluefish, as well as the popular Quanta+, is understandably absent from Linspire, they are both available via Click-N-Run, as well as many other web authoring applications. Nvu is a huge step, however, towards user friendly applications that don’t presume that the user is technically proficient. While this is sure to offend some, I believe it to be a good thing for desktop Linux in general.
Ltorrent is a very cool new application for managing BitTorrent downloads. As far as I can tell, it’s based on the console only btqueue, and is currently a Linspire only application. With the rise of BitTorrent, it’s a nice inclusion. However, since there is no FTP client installed by default, I think it’s odd that this application is included. Seems strange to me that one would assume a Linspire user would need a torrent tracker but not an FTP client. This seems to be a poor choice. Since the app, which is a nice app, by the way, was developed in house, they bundled it. My feeling is that it doesn’t quite fit. Linspire suffers from an identity crisis here. They can choose to be slimmed down and provide an experience akin to that of Windows, or they can bundle some more advanced applications. However, they can’t bundle just a select few advanced applications and expect people not to complain that fairly standard Linux apps are missing.
On that front though, Linspire has improved over their previous versions. This version includes OpenOffice.org, the screenshot tool, the standard proprietary tools (Flash, MP3, Real Player) preinstalled, and gaim for IM’ing amongst others. However, again, and this has been a complaint for many versions now – Linspire is still light on software when compared to other Linux distributions. Although clearly the goal is to lure people away from Windows, Linspire is not established enough to not view projects/products like Fedora, Mandrake, and SUSE as competitors. In this sense, the value is simply not realized. It’s not fair to only consider, say, Xandros and Lycoris as viable desktop Linux alternatives. Here’s my proposed solution: If the goal for Linspire was to keep it slim to improve install time and disc weight, there should be an obvious portion of Click-N-Run that stores a number of free applications. There’s no room for another OS that doesn’t offer the basics. OS X comes with iLife now. To compete with Windows, you’ll need to offer not just more, but better and easier.
One thing that I found strange was the choice as Mozilla proper (Seamonkey) as the default web browser. It has been rebranded “Linspire Internet Suite.” While Firefox is available in the Click-N-Run store (along with Opera, Galeon, and others), I find it plain annoying that Mozilla is present as the default. Nearly everyone I know uses Firefox, even people on Windows, and I would think Windows users contemplating a switch to Linux would be more at home with Firefox, which they may well be running already, versus Mozilla, which, truth be told, feels like a mess. I haven’t actually used Mozilla since Firefox was still Phoenix, but going back makes me remember why I ditched it in the first place.
Of course, no Linspire review is complete without mention of Click-N-Run. These days, the CNR method, pioneered, or least least first delivered, by Linspire, is more common. Xandros Networks is pretty much the same concept. However, the way Linspire has chosen to split software into subcategories and organize the menus similarly into “aisles” is a pretty good idea. Though not new to Linspire Five-0, it is a good holdover concept that I think it great. The only problem I see is that there is no obvious way to uninstall software, which seems like something many users would one day want. In addition to there not being any visible menu editor, and the right-click disabled on the “Launch” menu, there’s no way to get unwanted programs out of the menu. If one were to go crazy one night in the Click-N-Run warehouse, they might find themselves stuck with a fairly bloated menu.
Continuing that thought though, it’s not very hard to turn Linspire into a fully functioning Debian Sid machine. By simply opening /etc/apt/sources.list in KWrite and uncommenting two lines, you unlock quite a bit of power. A few minutes later I had Firefox, gFTP, Bluefish, and Synaptic running with no effort and no subscription. Installing them via apt-get from the terminal, they showed up with no effort in the Launch menu. A simple apt-get remove xmms removed it from my system as expected and from the Launch menu. Of course, once you have resorted to using raw apt-get, what’s the point of Click-N-Run?
I’d like to note that while Linspire attempts to mount NTFS partitions, it did not properly mount my largest NTFS partition on a second hard drive, yet strangely, Linspire Live!, the fully functional if not slower live CD portion, did. Very frustrating, as a minute or two of tinkering with mount and umount still left me with an apparently “blank” drive.
One can’t use or review Linspire without a little knowledge of the company itself and what it does. There’s a strong community around Linspire, there are active forums, and there is even support line you can call (which I did and I reached a recording with several useful tips on the weekend). Linspire has contributed to Wineconf, and this just last week was a sponsor of the Linux Desktop Summit. Linspire is doing a lot to push desktop Linux, and I think it’s important for many to realize that recently, Linspire has probably delivered more via new desktop applications than most other distributions.
To sum up: Linspire Five-0 is definitely a good base from which to build. The lack of well rounded applications when compared to other OSes in its class leave me wanting more, however, a slick look, some powerful Linspire specific apps, and a non-crippled undercarriage remain appealing.
Linspire Five-0 is definitely an exciting distribution. While this beta version has plenty of snags, it’s one of the most exciting distributions out there, because it delivers so many unique experiences. A custom theme, several new and powerful apps, a solid Debian base, and ready and friendly support should make Linspire an attractive option to new Linux converts. For the seasoned, Linspire brings an easy and familiar desktop and great new apps, and should be worth the value if you forgo the CNR membership in favor of apt-get and the Debian repositories.
Hardware Support: 6/10
Ease of use: 9/10