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Sofware in Review → Operating systems → BSD →

Freespire 1.0 review

By Jem Matzan

Linspire Inc. claims that the recently released Freespire is the development version of Linspire, much like Fedora Core is the freely available development version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. During the several days that I used it, I found this to be true in both a good and a bad way. It's good in the sense that the software that comprises Freespire is a bit more modern, but bad in that it has a few problems that make it unsuitable for a production release.

Freespire introduction

In short, Freespire is a desktop GNU/Linux distribution that is free to download, and easy to install and use. Aside from being a desktop operating system, it is also the development version of Linspire. That means that all of the latest available software is used in Freespire, whereas Linspire only uses older, more thoroughly tested programs. Often this means that the current Linspire version can be almost a year old, and be incompatible with recently-designed hardware. The idea is that software will be tested and evaluated in Freespire, then if all goes well, it will be included as part of the next Linspire release. If you want to know more about Linspire's relationship with Freespire, your questions can be answered in this Freespire FAQ entry.

On every level, Freespire is identical to what you would expect to see in Linspire, but there are a few extras included as well. To start off with, the APT package tools come with a correctly populated sources.list file. That means if you're opposed to Linspire's Click N Run (CNR) software subscription service (which is fully interoperable with Freespire), you can use APT from the command line to install software not included with the distribution. That also means that you could install the Synaptic package manager and install further programs from there instead of APT.

Freespire is designed for software developers, so GCC, GDB, Emacs, Vim, Python, and Perl are all installed as part of the base distribution. The Java Development Kit and other languages and SDKs as well as IDEs like Eclipse, KDevelop, and Netbeans are available both through APT and CNR.

There are two different Freespire distributions: the standard edition, which includes proprietary video drivers (ATI, Nvidia, Intel) and Web browser plugins (Java 5.0, RealPlayer, Flash, Windows Media, QuickTime); and the OSS edition, which is the same operating system without any proprietary extras. Obviously the standard edition provides a much more complete desktop experience -- so much so that Freespire can easily stand up to any other GNU/Linux distribution on the market.

Freespire uses a heavily customized KDE desktop environment, the Firefox Web browser (rebranded as Lbrowser), Thunderbird for email, and includes such desktop standards as GAIM, OpenOffice.org, and the Linspire-authored Lsongs for music and Nvu for Web design.

Putting it to the test

Freespire 1.0
Freespire: good, but not perfect

The installation CD is small, and doubles as a Freespire live CD, so you can use the operating system to a limited degree from the CD before you commit to it. The sound driver on my Acer TravelMate 2300 was not properly detected and installed on the live CD even though it worked perfectly after I'd installed Freespire to my hard drive.

Freespire's installation routine is oversimplified. There is only one option you can change from the default: the partition scheme and filesystem type. Freespire lumps the entire operating system onto a single ReiserFS partition, a choice that I find to be messy and inefficient.

Linspire is notorious for making users run as root by default. This invites security problems because if the system is compromised, an intruder or attacker will instantly have complete control over the operating system. Freespire has an interesting workaround for this problem. You have to set up a user account during the installation process, and once Freespire is installed the root account will be disabled. You don't need to type in the root password to install software through Click N Run, and most system settings can be changed with the default user permission level. When you do need to type in the root password, it's the same as your user password, so root is completely unnecessary for all but high-level command line work (using APT, for instance).

The Freespire developers claim that you can use APT to install programs from Debian repositories. While APT does indeed work without any extra configuration, on one of my test machines APT destroyed Click N Run in a variety of unfixable ways, and I couldn't install any programs anyway because APT kept choking on a gigantic list of missing Freespire-specific dependencies. After a complete reinstall I tried it again, and APT seemed to work as intended without messing up CNR. I'm not really sure what happened, but I don't trust APT on Freespire.

If decide to use CNR, you'll have an exceptionally easy time installing and managing software. Unfortunately it's going to cost you U.S. $20 per year. Realistically that is not a lot of money to pay for software, especially considering what you're getting. Linspire graciously makes a "free aisle" of software available for Freespire users, but it consists of only a half-dozen programs, all of them games or KDE applets. Existing Linspire CNR members can use their CNR account with Freespire without any problems.

The proprietary video drivers work wonderfully -- the Intel Extreme Graphics on my TravelMate had direct rendering enabled by default, as did the ATI Radeon X700 on my desktop test machine. What really blew me away wasn't the graphics drivers, though -- it was the wireless network drivers. Freespire includes not only the Atheros (madwifi) drivers, but also Centrino wireless drivers and the NDISwrapper utility, pre-stocked with 26 Windows wireless network drivers. Freespire 1.0 was the first operating system I have ever installed -- Windows included -- on this Acer machine without having to go to great lengths to get the integrated wireless card working. I had wireless Internet access by default. The only consistent problem I had with wireless connectivity was the crappy Connection Manager applet. If I closed the lid on the Acer laptop (this only shuts the screen off -- ACPI isn't fully supported on the TravelMate 2300 yet) and put it on the floor next to my chair, I would come back to it later and find that the wireless connection had gone away. Nothing I could do from Connection Manager or the command line could bring the network up again. The best I could do was shut the computer down, wait a few minutes, then start up again.

The first major problem I had with Freespire 1.0 was the quality of the sound drivers. On both the TravelMate and the desktop test machine with a PCI SoundBlaster Audigy, the sound either refused to work at all, or emitted a high-pitched static noise. No other operating systems I've tested on these machines have had sound problems like this. Although I didn't look too deeply into the matter, I believe it may have been related to the Jack sound server, which I have never used before (it's been all EsounD and aRts for me).

The second major problem I had with Freespire was the Adobe Flash plugin, which constantly crashed my Web browser. Instead of removing the plugin, I installed the Flashblock, Adblock, and Filterset.G Updater plugins for Firefox, which disabled Flash animations by default and blocked all of the ads that were causing the crashes. This problem is not intrinsic to Freespire -- it's a problem with the old, outdated, poorly programmed, proprietary Flash plugin. Still, the Freespire developers should have been able to find and address this bug before shipping the product.

I also initially had a bad crash when trying to connect to a WEP-enabled wireless network. I couldn't repeat the problem, so I can't say much more about it.

After all of the initial issues were dealt with, I installed a bunch of programs through both CNR and APT and had absolutely no trouble with any part of the process (except the APT problem I mentioned before). The one program I thought would throw a wrench in CNR for sure was Eclipse; on most operating systems there is some trouble with installing the Java Development Kit, and since I didn't see the JDK listed in CNR, I thought for sure Eclipse would fail. Though it did take almost a half hour to install, Eclipse did install properly, and it brought the JDK version 5.0 with it. No further work was necessary to start building and running Java programs.

Another little gem that I discovered in Freespire was the Synaptics touchpad utility. This program enables Synaptics users to disable the intensely annoying "scroll" feature. Usually the distribution programmers overlook little things like this, and users are forced to download and install KSynaptics on their own.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

For years now I've thought that Linspire should be free to download, especially since users are practically forced to buy into the Click N Run service to get a reasonably complete desktop experience. I'm not a fan of hidden costs; as a software user, I want to know the total price upfront. Linspire makes an effort to hide the CNR dependency until after you've purchased and installed the operating system. Freespire, on the other hand, gives you a usable and mostly complete operating system as-is, and allows you to buy into CNR if you want extra programs, or use APT if you're willing to learn how to work with the command line interface.

Speaking of CNR, it's greatly improved over the past two years, and is definitely the most easy-to-use software installation and maintenance framework in the operating system world today, primarily because of its tight integration with the Freespire interface. Other package managers on other desktop operating systems seem like hacks or modules that are hastily plugged into KDE or GNOME, but with Click N Run it's hard to tell where the package manager ends and the desktop environment begins. It's worth the $20 subscription price if you are decided on Freespire as your desktop operating system.

The OSS edition of Freespire is predictably light and very frustrating for desktop users who expect full Web browser and video card functionality. If you're adamant about avoiding proprietary programs, however, Freespire may be your best choice for a totally free-as-in-rights desktop operating system. Previously, people concerned with software freedom had to either endure a few proprietary programs, or build their desktop OS from a metadistribution like Debian or Gentoo. Although I'm not sure of the licensing status of every single line of code that comprises Freespire OSS, I'll take the project leadership's word that it's all free, and say that this distribution represents a huge leap forward for software freedom on the desktop.

  • Update the documentation. The online Linspire documentation and FAQs, which Freespire points to in various places, does not have any Freespire-specific information. Aside from being confusing, some of the Linspire-specific information may not be applicable to Freespire.
  • More Linux-like drive partitioning. What's the deal with the one gigantic partition for everything -- including swap space? I can think of a few good reasons why this is not a good idea, chief among them the fact that this could make it very difficult to reinstall or upgrade the operating system in the future.
  • Implement a better wireless networking tool. The Freespire/Linspire Network Connection Manager is terrible. What exactly are "profiles" and how are they used? I set up my computer for a WEP-enabled access point, then I had to have a profile for it, and although I wanted it to connect automatically, I had to select "Manually," then it stopped working and wouldn't connect to the Web, showed a connection when there was none and showed no connection when there was one... this thing is full of bugs and usability problems. Coming from SUSE Linux 10 and 10.1 with their superior NetApplet and Network Manager programs, it's hard to accept the Network Connection Manager in Freespire. It's the weakest part of the operating environment.
  • Fix or remove Flash. The version of Flash included with Freespire causes frequent browser crashes. Isn't there anything that can be done about this? Perhaps some sort of resource separation between Firefox and its plugins, or the funding/development and inclusion of GNU Gnash? I'd rather not have it at all than have it crash Firefox repeatedly.
  • Include the Acrobat PDF plugin. If you're going to go so far as to include Adobe Flash, you may as well toss in the Acrobat Reader plugin too.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer The Freespire Project
Architectures x86
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but many individual parts are under proprietary licenses, such as the video drivers and Web browser plugins. There is a totally free-as-in-rights version of Freespire available, if you have a particular aversion to proprietary software.
Market Home desktop users, software developers
Price (retail) Free of charge
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here