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Editor's Note: Does Freespire Inspire?

Sep 08, 2006, 22:30 (30 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

During last week's column, I made mention that for reasons seemingly beyond my control, I needed to install a new Linux distro on my main production machine. Since it was literally lying on my desk in the pile of stuff brought back from LinuxWorld, I chose to try Freespire. You may recall that I'd also mentioned I had a Fedora Core 5 disk in the same pile and that I had wished I'd installed that, instead of trying for a new learning experience.

Things have sort of tempered out a bit and I am not as eager to ditch Freespire 1.0 from this machine. But, I am saddened to say, that when the next free moment comes, I will be choosing another distro to run. What stymies me is the reason for the desire to shift away from Freespire: is it because Freespire is not a good distribution, or is it simply a matter of personal preference--is Freespire just too easy for a battle-hardened geek like me to comfortably use? If it's the latter, then maybe this distro does meet the needs of its target audience: the casual or slightly powered Windows user.

Without a doubt, this was one of the easy installation routines I have seen for quite some time in a Linux distro. I'd heard that this was a very quick install so I decided to time it to verify those claims. I booted the disk at 11:43 p.m., and by 12:11 a.m., I was logged in and looking at a rather pretty KDE desktop. 28 minutes from start to finish ain't too bad.

The quality of the installation worried me, though. I am used to getting asked a lot of questions by GUI installations (and text-based ones, too), and even choosing the Advanced Install option, it really didn't ask for much, beyond keyboard, mouse, and time zone questions. It did ask for which partition I wanted to drop the OS upon (which is why I chose Advanced to begin with), but I got a bit nervous when it seemed to take forever for the partition configuration information to even appear. I have a separate partition for /home, and I like to keep it that way.

My worries about hardware detection were unfounded--Freespire knew exactly which on-board video system my Dell Precision 340 has, and even though it didn't recognized my monitor type, it correctly interpreted the resolutions and sync rates it needed.

In short, this was a smooth installation geared for the casual user, who apparently should not worry about what the new OS is doing. I can see where that would be a good thing, but in all honesty, it made my teeth itch.

What, then, of the operating system itself? In case you didn't know, this is a KDE-centric distribution, and if you are into GNOME, you won't care for Freespire--at least, not right away. I came over from Kubuntu, so the interface was fine. Icons and menu settings were extraordinarily clear and concise, and it's been a while since I have seen such excellent font appearance without tweaking some configuration file. There were a great number of apps available, including a working version of Google Earth--an app that I could not get configured correctly on Kubuntu. What apps you don't have you are supposed to be able to download via Freespire's Click N' Run (CNR) package management tool--there are even menu commands on the main Launch menu to get you more app choices in each application category.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a bit of a hit or a miss. The first time I tried to bring in a new app, I was told I had to create a CNR account. Fair enough. When I did so, and waited for the account to become active, I was able to click on a menu option to download a new app, which showed up on my system after the obigatory "Click" in the opened CNR tool.

But when I used my CNR tool directly, as a standalone application, things went awry. The CNR application stalled, or crashed altogether. When I tried to check for updates (assuming this meant check for updates on my system's existing software), all I kept getting was an upgrade to CNR v6. Repeatedly. It didn't even know I'd previously upgraded it.

Knowing full well that there were a lot of security updates for Debian-based applications (since I post them every night), I wondered where the updates for Freespire were. On a hunch, I ran apt-get update and apt-get upgrade. Sure enough, there were new versions of quite a few of my installed apps ready for installation. It seems CNR only manages the applications that it has installed. If a security upgrade comes through on an application it hasn't dealt with (which in my case is all but two of the applications on my system), CNR won't see it. It doesn't care.

To me, this is an egregious problem. As an advanced user, I know about apt-get. A casual user would not, and might blithely go on for days or weeks without updating potentially security holes.

Since CNR is the biggest add-on Freespire and its commercial maker Linspire brings to the Linux table, I was very disappointed with this lack of simple common-sense package management. The fact that the tool itself is slow and apparently crash-prone makes it far worse.

This whole thing about the default user being root is an old myth that Linspire has tried to kill for years. And, admittedly, the default user is not root. But it is an administrative account, which means it has more power than a normal user. You can tell this by going into the command line in the default account and typing sudo... You won't get a password prompt. Ever. Try to run the same command without sudo, and you will be blocked for not having root access--which proves that this account is not root. This is a very fine legalistic distinction, and one that shouts security problems to me. Freespire does warn new users during the installation to create a general user account for themselves, but I wonder if their warnings could be more strongly made. This could be fixed, for example, by adding a new login screen that says, okay, you've made your administrator account, now please make one for everyday use."

Applications are generally running okay in this machine. I am having some troubles with Lbrowser (Freespire's re-labeled Firefox) locking up when I enter large amounts of text in online fields, so I am thinking a change to the real Firefox would be in order--if I were planning on sticking around with this distro. The version of gedit I use appears to be an older version, which bugs me a bit. One thing that I noted was when I created a document in OpenOffice Writer, the default format in the Save As dialog box was not OpenDocument, but Microsoft Word--clearly an effort to smooth the transition for Windows/Mac users.

Should a veteran Linux user try Freespire? No. While it is kind of nice to see my CD and DVD players used to their fullest capabilities, there is not enough control in this distribution to feel comfortable using it for very long.

Is Freespire usable for the casual user? Yes, it is. It integrates well with hardware, and there enough multimedia apps to keep most users happy. But the lack of security updates in CNR is very worrisome to me, as is the lack of stability in the tool itself. That alone is reason enough not to recommend Freespire to casual users, at least until CNR's issues are dealt with.