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Sofware in Review → Operating systems → Linux →

Linspire 5.0 review

By Jem Matzan

Linspire (formerly known as LindowsOS) has consistently made an attractive, easy-to-install and easy-to-use GNU/Linux distribution. With the 2.6.10 Linux kernel and a recent build of X.org, Linspire has fixed some of the video driver problems I had with the 4.0 and 4.5 versions. As in previous releases, Linspire includes many proprietary add-ons "mainstream" desktop users enjoy, but in return it comes with proprietary strings attached.

Linspire Five-0 is a mildly improved edition of Debian-based Linspire. The interface and desktop are a little prettier than they were, CNR (Linspire's Click N Run "software warehouse") has a few more entries, and hardware support has gotten better. From a technical standpoint, there isn't much wrong with Linspire 5.0 -- it works well and as expected.

What's new in 5.0

Here are some of the improvements that have been made over version 4.5:

  • KDE, Mozilla, and OpenOffice.org are all updated to more recent editions
  • Linspire-authored programs Lsongs, Lphoto, Ltorrent, Lassist, and Nvu are now included in the base distribution
  • X.org 6.8.2 replaces the old XFree86 4.3
  • Linux kernel 2.6.10
  • ReiserFS v4 is the new standard filesystem
  • The install CD doubles as a LiveCD so you can see Linspire work before you install it

The LiveCD accurately represents a Linspire desktop with the same programs you'd get by installing to your hard drive. During my tests the LiveCD gave some errors on bootup regarding missing files, but everything seemed to work fine despite that glitch.

Included software

Linspire includes very little software with the base distribution, at least in comparison to other popular desktop distros. It doesn't come with a graphics editing program, a dedicated FTP client, or a DVD player. If you want to be able to have that kind of functionality without using the command line to work around it, you'll have to pay U.S. $50 per year for a CNR membership. In fact, it often seems that Linspire as a distribution is not so much meant to be an operating system, but is intended as a vehicle for the CNR software subscription.

The desktop environment is KDE, so you'll have a select few of the usual KDE desktop applications like KMix and KPPP. In addition to that, you'll find the "Linspire Internet Suite," a.k.a. a modified Mozilla 1.6; K3b; OpenOffice.org 1.1.3 (this was not included with the download edition previously); a small handful of simple games; RealPlayer 10; and Gaim.

Linspire's only Mozilla modification of note is the Hot Words feature. Move the mouse over a word in a Web page and after two seconds it will highlight yellow. Right-click while the word is highlighted and a popup menu will appear, giving you options to search auctions and Web sites for that term. You can also look the word up in a dictionary, and automatic spell-checking is enabled for Linspire's rebranded Mozilla Mail. Right-click on a red-underlined misspelled word, and you'll be presented with a suggested correction. While Hot Words might be revolutionary for Internet Explorer refugees, GNU/Linux users may find that this feature gets in the way -- some of us are used to highlighting, copying, and pasting with the mouse, and Hot Words interferes with that routine.

Click to enlarge
I explored the Linspire-authored programs briefly during the testing period. Lsongs is a decent program for playing and ripping music, but it's not different enough from Rhythmbox and Grip to be a must-have application. The only music you'll find in the MP3store that Lsongs connects to are unknown or little-known artists who are not signed by major recording labels, and the tracks sell for U.S. $0.88 each. I didn't find anything I thought was worth buying, especially considering the flexibility, freedom, and quality of the competition.

Nvu is a Mozilla Composer-based knock-off of the more mature and versatile Macromedia Dreamweaver. While it works reasonably well as a WYSIWYG Web page creation tool (and certainly better than any similar applications currently available for GNU/Linux), it does not have the wide array of features and language support that Dreamweaver has.

Ltorrent was the most useful Linspire program of the bunch, but I didn't find it as nice as Azureus.

Lassist is mostly the calendar and address book from Mozilla, rebranded for Linspire.

Lphoto was the least useful of all of the Linspire programs, mostly because I wanted it to do more. It provided no unique photo manipulation functions over The GIMP, but since it's the only photo program included in the distribution, it's all you've got unless you pay for the Click N Run membership. It resizes, it rotates, it organizes into albums, and lastly, it sends directories of digitized photos to a CD-writing Python script... and that's more or less all it does. I'd rather just have The GIMP.

Licensing

I won't go into detail about Linspire's proprietary licensing scheme. Instead, you can read it for yourself. Keep in mind that this license governs the distribution as one whole work, and does not affect the free software portions of the distribution.

As a final note on licensing, Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, recently said of Linspire, "No other GNU/Linux distribution has backslided so far away from freedom. Switching from MS Windows to Linspire does not bring you to freedom, it just gets you a different master." Take that as you will.

Click N Run away from software subscriptions

The CNR database has fewer programs than other desktop distributions such as Mandrake and Xandros, and a number of the categories in CNR are empty or have only a handful of entries. The DVD player, Win4Lin, proprietary Bitstream fonts, and StarOffice were the only commercial software applications that I saw in CNR. There may be some others, but I didn't look at every entry in every category. CNR is poorly organized, offering StarOffice 6 in one area and StarOffice 7 in another. A search for "win4lin" turned up no entries, yet it was indeed available for purchase somewhere deep within the recesses of CNR.

After a while I wanted to disable and remove CNR, as it routinely annoyed me. Inserting a DVD brought up a browser window that said I could only play commercial DVDs with Linspire's $40 proprietary commercial DVD player. Inserting a program CD, like my StarOffice 7 or Unreal Tournament 2004 discs, resulted in CNR trying to convince me that it's better to pay for CNR and install these programs through Linspire. Although Unreal Tournament 2004 is not available through CNR, so Linspire didn't know what to do with it -- except bring up a browser window that told me other games were available through Click N Run.

Pricing

Linspire costs U.S. $50 upfront for the download edition, or $60 if you want a retail box edition. If you want access to the Click N Run service, you'll have to shell out another $50 per year with a minimum one year commitment. There's a $10 discount if you buy the base operating system and CNR together as a single package. If you let your subscription expire, you will no longer be able to download new software or software updates from CNR.

Linspire repeatedly asserts that it is a "highly affordable" solution. Let's see if that's true:

Operating system Software Total cost
Linspire Five-0 $50 subscription fee for access to "nearly 2000" programs in CNR $90 for one year, $50 each additional year
Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition Little significant desktop software included; all additional software is purchased or downloaded separately $200, usually a five-year upgrade cycle
SUSE Linux 9.2 Professional 2500+ software packages included $90, 6 month release cycle
Mandrakelinux 10.1 PowerPack Edition 3000+ software packages included $85, yearly releases
Xandros Desktop 3.0 Deluxe Edition More than 12,000 packages available, software subscription is free to registered users. Includes Crossover Office for Windows binary compatibility $90

Security, or lack thereof

Linspire Five-0 sets up the primary user with root privileges and does not prompt to set up a restricted user for everyday computing. Linspire Five-0 does not require a password for the root (or "Administrator") user. In the first configuration screen after you boot Linspire for the first time, you're told that you can add regular users with KUser, which is not as easy to use for neophytes as the rest of Linspire. The only advantage to running as root is that the user is never prompted for a password when accessing programs and resources that affect the important parts of the system.

To its credit, Linspire does at least run an iptables-based firewall by default. Unfortunately I couldn't find any graphical utilities to configure it.

Book 'em, Dan-o

It looks pretty, installs quickly, and it's easy to use if you have limited and simple software needs. It detected all the hardware I threw at it, including some state-of-the-art desktop and workstation hardware from Intel and AMD. It comes with proprietary browser plug-ins and video drivers with hardware acceleration, which makes it easier on inexperienced users who don't know how to download and install things like that. It's also easy to update and install CNR software -- if you're willing to pay for the service. In fact, out of the box, all Linspire is missing for basic desktop functionality is the ability to play DVDs and edit graphics. On the other hand, it's also highly restrictive in its licensing, potentially expensive compared to most other desktop GNU/Linux solutions, it's not terribly secure, and unless you know enough about GNU/Linux to use apt-get and add Debian packages to your Linspire box, you're limited to the software that Linspire deems worthy of being added to Click N Run.

When it first hit the market -- as LindowsOS -- Linspire was special because it was easier to install, use, and maintain than most other GNU/Linux distributions. While Linspire Five-0 still retains its ease of use, it has lost its specialness. With the current state of desktop GNU/Linux operating systems, Linspire Five-0 offers few avantages over other, cheaper, less restrictive commercial distributions such as Mandrakelinux, MEPIS Linux, and SUSE Linux. In addition, a growing number of free, community-developed distros -- Fedora and Ubuntu are prime examples -- have become nearly as easy to use as their commercial competition.