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Freespire RC1

Date: August 1, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams

Linspire recently announced a free version of their popular distribution, appropriately called Freespire. Though early in testing, we take a hard look to see if this will be a distro you should be considering.



Introduction

Linspire told us back in April that they were working on a free version of their popular distro, so all eyebrows raised. This was not really that much of a surprise though, considering there have been countless offers in the past to get Linspire for free. I will admit something straight out though… I have never much cared for either Lindows or Linspire. The reasons I dislike it are the same reasons new users love it, more than likely. This is certainly not a distro you would want to use to ‘learn’ Linux, but rather one you just want to use to get things done. After all, that’s what is important.

I think the goals of Michael Robertson and his crew are obvious. To deliver a completely free operating system that’s incredibly easy to learn and maintain. In reality, if you set a complete novice down in front of a Windows and Linspire machine, they would no doubt pick up on the latter much quicker. So you may ask, “Why a free version?” Well, the package management system, CNR, will still cost $20 or $50 a year, depending on what version you prefer. That’s where they will continue to make money, and it’s hardly a bad game plan. In some ways, CNR is well worth the cash. Without further ado though, let’s hop into the installation.

Installation

To give the latest release a try, I downloaded the RC1, essentially the third out the door. Like most distros I test out, I use my Intel 820 D, with a clean hard drive. Though I was unable to grab screenshots from early steps in the installer, I will just guide you through the process. The first option you find yourself on is an agreement, followed by partitioning information. If you are interested in dual-booting with Windows, Freespire will support that option.

Then it’s time to choose your username and password. By default, the root account is not activated on the system, but you are free to use sudo for simple tasks. After you accept the installation, within 10 – 15 minutes the entire process will be completed. Once done, you remove the disc and reboot. It really is the easiest Linux installation I’ve ever seen.

After the reboot, you will be greeted with a license agreement, and sound card setup.

As you can see in the above picture, I was unable to select my USB audio, which happens to be the main source of sound on the PC. Even with my onboard HDA Intel Audio selected, it would also not function. Freespire chose to include the JACK sound system, which turns out to be rather quirky. Installing on my other computer, I had no problems. There are apparent issues with the sound system working on my Intel, which could be due to the i975x chipset. However, this is the first distro used on this PC that has had this issue. The USB audio module is not loaded, and cannot be loaded because it doesn’t exist. Regardless, the next screens you will see is for finalizing the installation.


Landing on the Desktop

As we can see from the first shot of the desktop, Freespire is based on a modified version of KDE. It includes a special K menu button, and also quick access to lock mode or system shutdown. Apparently it’s such a heavily modified environment, that they wanted to stick to a version that’s over a year and a half old.

One thing you will notice though, is that Freespire automounted my OCZ thumb drive, and threw an icon for quick access on the desktop. You can double click the icon to copy files over, with ease. The OS will auto umount the drive so you are good to go.

One thing I did want to do, since my NIC and USB sound were not working, was recompile the kernel. I quickly found out that the kernel source is not included though, which makes sense to a degree as most people should never need to touch it. But, if I wanted to recompile with those modules, I would have to download new source code and recompile everything manually.

I have to wonder why they have chosen to use outdated software here, but at least it’s stable. The kernel we have is 2.6.14, and X is 6.9. Both of these are 9+ months old. I suppose the mind set is that Freespire is not meant for a strong Linux user, so nobody should need updated software?

The entire theme included is well done, except for that foolish looking replacement K menu logo :)

All of the menus are translucent and add a modern feel. As you can see, the menu has been simplified a great deal, but the bases are still here. Catering to the Windows crowd, all of the programs installed are listed through the Run Programs submenu. Here, everything is categorized for easy finding. If you are connected to the internet, there will be a CNR submenu under each of the categories, which lists recommended applications.

If you run dial-up, Freespire includes many tools to get you started. If you don’t use one of the listed services, KPPP is there to get you connected.

I had figured that since Freespire catered to Windows users for the most part, that double clicking “My Computer” would reveal something similar to SUSE 10, but not so. Here you will have quick access to your documents, mounted drives and your network.


Control Center

The KDE control center has had an overhaul, and offers a ton of functionality. Under the system administration, you can view all of the information you would ever need regarding your hardware.

Though some of the backend software is outdated, they did not hold back with the software users will use everyday. Included is Firefox 1.5.0.4, GAIM 2.0 and k3b 0.12.7.

Michael Robertsons other pet project, Gizmo, is also included and up to date. For those unaware, Gizmo is a Skype replacement that promises free calls, and more features than it’s competition. In fact, they state that you get features that Skype will charge you extra for. Though feature packed, it’s closed source so it is available for only a select number of Distros including SUSE and Debian of course.


Likes & Dislikes

Before jumping into Freespire, I had a grudge towards it for reasons mentioned in the intro. I have to admit though, it is indeed getting better, and is a good beginner OS. The installation was one of the fastest ever… taking only 8 minutes total. The hardware detection is mostly great, so I don’t have any immediate issues there. One thing I enjoyed seeing, was the fact that the NVIDIA driver was already installed and ready to go. Not the stripped nv module, but the full fledge NVIDIA driver so that you can jump into OpenGL games or view the cool KDE screensavers.

I have to say that I found it odd that Freespire did not pick up on either the USB sound or my NICs on my Intel system, which consists of an ASUS P5WD2-E Premium board and 820 D processor. I can’t explain the USB audio problem, but I can the NIC. I had assumed that because the kernel used was older than the motherboard, it could be the culprit. So I downloaded the source for that same kernel version, and had a quick look.

Support for the NIC on this motherboard, and other newer models, is known as SysKonnect Yukon2 support (Experimental) in newer kernel versions. Obviously, this is not present in this specific kernel version, and is the reason my NIC would not function. I tried other modules to see if any would work, but they would not. While the installation went awry on the Intel, I had no problems at all on my other PC (AMD, DFI Ultra-D).

Freespire is meant to be a base OS. It’s up to the users to go online to the CNR service to get the other applications they want installed. That’s fine for the most part, but there are a few things I have to question. vim is the only CLI text editor on the system… which is strange because it’s hardly a novices tool. nano is my personal favorite as it’s quick and simple, but it’s listed under the CNR submenu in the program list. Needing to go onto CNR for such a small program seems silly to me, really.

Luckily though, nothing really stops people from downloading the programs themselves and compiling them. Since apt-get failed me, I did just that. However, I was lucky to want a simple program, but wanting a larger one will just bring on some good problems. I tried to sign up for a CNR trial in order to get Kaffeine, because I wanted to test out DVD playback. However, after signing up, I had an abrupt error that stated a ‘problem has occurred’. So I tried a different e-mail address and ran into the same error again.

I then tried apt-get, but quickly found out that there are issues here also. It downloaded the base files for Kaffeine, but it seems that’s all it did. I was unable to download and compile the program myself, because Freespire does not include the KDE header files that it requires.

One weird problem I ran into was the fact that whenever I tried to execute a program that required sound, and even some that didn’t, they would not begin due to a JACK error. In the below picture, Firefox was the program that should have started, though I had the same problem with the AIM icon. Disabling the sound system entirely fixed this up though. JACK is definitely not a great sound system to include here, because problems seem to be frequent, and not only by me.

One thing that I find Freespire lacks is customization. When you head on into your Control Center, the only theme listed is for the base system. Though Windows is no better in this way, it would have been nice to see the default ones that are included with KDE anyway. Users are still able to change the color scheme, but the stock skin we have to start with isn’t exactly a visual treat. Besides the main theme, the rest of the OS looks great… especially the wallpaper and icons.

Even with all these problems right now, this is still beta software, so I am hoping to see these problems fixed as it evolves. Up to now, I have been complaining about things that experienced users may complain about, however, for an operating system for novice Linux users, this could be great choice. My hardware problems are likely due to my specific motherboard, since it worked in my other computer.

This is an OS that anyone can just sit down and understand. CNR makes it incredibly easy to install new applications, and to some people, that will be well worth the $20 annual fee. The reason is beats the pants off apt-get/yum/emerge is because it’s all website based, and users have the ability to view screenshots, information and more about programs before they decide to give anything a try.

If I had to choose what I’d like to see changed in upcoming releases of Freespire, it would have to be more updated software and the option for more customization. As it stands, Freespire is a great OS for people who are looking for an alternative, but do not want to learn Linux to a good extent. It’s so well catered to novices, that I can’t immediately think of why any new user would need to use the command prompt, unless they have run into a problem that forces it. The way the system is designed, it’s almost hard to break. In the end though, if you are a user who wants to learn Linux at all, you’d be better off going with any other distro out there, such as SUSE or Ubuntu (Or Kubuntu if you want KDE).

I look forward to seeing how Freespire evolves, and plan to take another look in a few months.

You can learn even more about Freespire, and grab the download, on the official website.

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