Editor’s Note: Does Freespire Inspire?

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

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

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.

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