August 20, 2007

Freespire aspires, but fails to inspire

Author: Susan Linton

Freespire, the free as in beer version of the Linspire Linux distribution, this month released Freespire 2.0, the first version of the operating system based on the popular Ubuntu distribution, and the first to contain proprietary codecs and drivers. Despite its attractive appearance, it left me with mixed feelings.

You can boot the Freespire image as a live CD or go straight into the install. It's always advisable to try the live CD option first to test hardware compatability. When you do, the tasteful and professional silent boot splash whisks you into a short setup setup routine. A full-screen framebuffered dialog first presents a long and involved license agreement that would require a lawyer to decipher. Then you are asked to confirm, adjust, or troubleshoot the volume of your sound system. I raised the volume on my Hewlett-Packard dv2105 notebook test machine, and the test music confirmed my sound was working. The KDE 3.5.6 desktop briefly appears before a configuration window opens that contains buttons to set various system settings, including screen resolution, networking, dial-up, timezone, language, and keyboard. Once finished, you have a lovely KDE desktop dressed up with pretty wallpaper and slick icons. Freespire looks good.

I couldn't tell Freespire is built upon Ubuntu until I used the command line or the native package management system. Under Ubuntu, many commands required the use of sudo to gain superuser privilege. I find it easier to use su to become root once than to use sudo for every command, so the first thing I do in a Ubuntu-based distro is set a root password.

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On the desktop is an icon for starting the hard drive installer. The installer walks you through the usual steps, such as choosing your keyboard, naming the root partition, and setting up a user account. It gives you the option of allowing it to take over the remaining portion of disk that Windows is not occupying. My partitions aren't numbered in disk order, so it took me a few minutes to decipher which partition I wished to use with Freespire's atypical naming conventions. For example, the partitions are referred to such as Primary 1 or Logical 8, and it ignores the swap partition, so all partitions beyond the swap are pushed back one number. I still wasn't really sure I'd chosen the right one until the first of two confirmation screens, which use the traditional /dev/sdXx or /dev/hdXx names.

Another thing I found inconvenient was Freespire's method of making or editing partitions. According to the information stanza on the partition step page, after all the previous configuration, if you needed to make partitions for the install you would have to stop the install, reboot the machine, and choose the third boot option, CREATE or MODIFY partitions on this computer's hard drive. However, the real third option is Start Freespire in safe graphics mode, which indicates that the information in the installer hasn't been updated for the new release. The 2.0 live CD comes with the GNOME Partition Editor, so I could have used that if I needed to manually manipulate my partitions.

The install procedure offers no package selection options; it installs the same set of software for everyone. Any customizations you make in the live CD environment are lost in the hard drive install. I chose to have Freespire install the GRUB boot loader, and it discovered and included most, if not all, of the other operating systems installed on the machine.

The same boot splash as seen on the live CD gives way to an understated and attractive login screen. The first time the KDE 3.5.6 desktop starts, Firefox tries to open the user login page for Linspire's Click-N-Run (CNR) software warehouse, which offers one-click software installation.

One of the new additions in this release is the inclusion of proprietary hardware drivers, including more than a dozen for wireless Ethernet chips. Unfortunately, none worked with mine. I still had to resort to Ndiswrapper, but that functioned well, installing and utilizing the Windows driver. The KDE Network Manager wouldn't connect to my router with Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) enabled, but I could connect to WEP at the command line. WPA wouldn't work at all.

I found some quirks with my graphics configuration as well. By default, I had my desired 1280x800 resolution using the "nv" Xorg driver. Since the Nvidia accelerated driver is available in Freespire 2.0, I wanted to use that. When I changed to "nvidia" in the Screen Resolution startup configuration screen, I was offered only a 1024x768 desktop, but I was able to edit the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file manually to achieve the optimal resolution. Also X-related, my touchpad worked acceptably but with a lag sometimes, and many times holding my finger steady caused the cursor to inch right on its own.

The advanced power-saving features of CPU scaling and suspend to RAM worked well out of the box, but suspend to disk didn't. That option would start the screensaver and require a password to return to the desktop instead of putting the laptop to sleep.

Sound worked well for all applications out of the box. Another addition in this release is proprietary multimedia code and codecs. I tested KPlayer with several video and audio formats and all played well -- clear video and crisp sound with no lag or dropped frames. I was able to use Firefox to watch Google and YouTube videos, enjoy Gamespot and Apple trailers, and utilize other Flash- and Java-coded sites.

Freespire doesn't come with a large selection of applications, but it has enough to get started. They include NVU, Lphoto, Gizmo, Pidgin, Lsongs, OpenOffice.org, Firestarter, Kiosk Admin Tool, K3b, several other KDE apps, and a few KDE games (such as KSmileTris and KBattleship). The OS ships with a low-latency preemptive 2.6.20-16 kernel and Xorg 7.2.0. In addition to KDE, the ION/PWM2 window manager is available as well. Many users will have to spend time installing their favorite applications, but that shouldn't be too difficult using either apt-get or CNR.

When I updated the apt-get package database at the command line, I could see the Ubuntu Feisty repositories being updated in the standard output. Unlike Freespire 1.0, 2.0 lacks the Synaptic front end, but apt-get at the command line works fine. In fact, I installed Synaptic using apt-get, as I like it for searches.

I speculate Synaptic's absence is probably due to the presence of CNR. I wasn't able to test the service, as it is still not operational because it's currently being updated, but generally speaking it lists software you can browse under various categories. If you find an application of interest, the utility downloads and installs it, and places an entry in the menu. Basic service is free; a Gold subscription costs $50. I can't personally see any reason to pay the fee and use the service when I can use Synaptic or apt-get, but perhaps someone coming from Windows who doesn't know about apt-get might use it.

After working with the distribution for a while I had mixed feelings about Freespire. It has a pretty boot splash, lovely wallpaper, and modern colorful icons. The installer is a bit confusing and a little less user-friendly than some of its competition. Hardware support was acceptable, even if I had to drop to the command line to configure or tweak some of the settings myself. Power-saving features were also acceptable, though some users may miss the suspend to disk option. Included software is a bit sparse, but it includes something for most common tasks. Some of the application versions were a bit older than those in other distros released recently, but both they and the OS itself were stable and had acceptable performance.

I personally liked Freespire, but it may not be the best choice for a person coming straight from Windows, as I found some previous Linux experience necessary in order to fully enjoy it. For those users, I recommend giving SimplyMEPIS, PCLinuxOS, or Stux Linux a look. I can run any of these without ever opening a terminal thanks to their graphical configurations and package management systems.

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