March 23, 2006

Koobox/Linspire value PC: You get what you pay for

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Linspire reached a deal earlier this year with Mirus Innovations to offer a line of OEM computers with Linux preinstalled, under the brand name Koobox. We're all in favor of the concept of desktop PCs with Linux preinstalled, but how does the Koobox measure up in practice? The end result is less than stellar.

Linspire is offering three configurations of the Koobox, ranging in price from $299 to $499. Linspire shipped me the middle-of-the-road Multimedia configuration, which is priced at $399.

I expected that the Koobox would use relatively cheap or no-name components, given its $399 price, but that turned out not to be the case. The system includes an ASUS K8V-MX motherboard with integrated video and sound. The motherboard accepts AMD socket 754 CPUs. The multimedia configuration ships with an AMD Sempron 3000+ CPU. The hard drive in the system is a 7200 RPM 160GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 ATA drive.

It includes two slots for RAM, one of which is occupied by a Kingston 512MB DDR DIMM chip, leaving one slot open for expansion. (It'd be nice if motherboard manufacturers would give users three or four expansion slots, rather than just the one or two that seem to be the norm these days.) The system is capable of handling up to 2GB of RAM, according to the motherboard specs.

The mid-tower case is a nice-looking silver and black design. It includes front access to USB ports and a headphone and microphone jack. I'm not crazy about the design for the DVD+RW drive included with the system. It includes a face cover that slides down to obscure the eject button, so the user will either need to try to reach under the cover to hit the button, or press the tray until it retracts -- which probably isn't the best thing for the drive. (I always cringe when I see users do this, and I don't want to have to do it with my own computer.)

My main complaint with the hardware is the fact that the video chipset is using shared memory rather than dedicated video RAM. If you purchase a Koobox with 512MB of RAM, you're only getting 448MB of RAM for the system, by default -- though you can reduce the amount of RAM used for the video card in the BIOS. I'm sure a lot of budget systems also use shared RAM, but I think this fact should be mentioned upfront; if you're buying a system advertised as having 512MB of system RAM, it should have 512MB of system RAM available. I checked the Koobox product page, and I didn't see any mention that the video RAM was shared with system RAM.

The Koobox is not a quiet machine. My workroom has several computers running at any given time, and I could distinctly hear the Koobox's fans over the noise of the other computers.

Overall, though, I think the Koobox hardware is pretty decent for the price range.

The Linspire OS

The Koobox is pre-loaded with Linspire 5.0, which is not a distro for experienced Linux users. I am horrified at the concept of a Linux distro that is configured, by default, for the user to run as root.

[Update] Just to be clear, when you first install Linspire, or run the first run wizard on the Koobox, you're given the option to create users -- but the user is not specifically directed to do so.

Having said that, I can see the appeal of Linspire for inexperienced users who have used only Windows or, perhaps, not used computers at all. Linspire is configured to look and act a lot like Windows, and inexperienced users shouldn't have much trouble finding their way around the system. It includes a good selection of software for basic productivity tasks and for normal desktop use. Users have a full office suite, media player, instant messenger, CD and DVD burning, and so on.

Unfortunately, I think Linspire throws too much advertising at the user. Click on the instant messenger for the first time and you'll receive a come-on for Linspire's VoIP offering. The default home page for the Linspire-modified Mozilla Suite is the "What is CNR?" page that describes Linspire's Click and Run (CNR) software delivery service that lets users download free and proprietary software. Virus Safe and Surf Safe icons blink at you from the system tray, and when you click on them you receive a CNR page to buy those products. Windows users might be used to this sort of thing, but it would drive most Linux users nuts in no time at all.

Since I was playing the role of a "typical" user for this review, and Linspire had shipped me its Multimedia configuration, I decided to take the multimedia apps for a spin. I had a little support adventure with sound that I'll describe shortly, and then I started with Linspire's LSongs -- which is sort of an answer to iTunes for Linux, and which was fine after I managed to get the sound issues smoothed out.

Next, I decided to see how well Linspire supported QuickTime, Flash, and Windows Media, since many users are going to want to watch videos in those formats. Flash movies and Windows Media files played fine, but I didn't have much luck playing QuickTime movies at first. I went to Apple's movie trailer page and tried loading a number of QuickTime movies. Every one that I tried stopped at 99% and failed to play. It appears the problem is that the trailers I was viewing initially were encoded with a later version of QuickTime, so Linspire 5.0 didn't have the proper codec for newer QuickTime files. However, I was able to view older QuickTime movies.

Once you register with Linspire, you can download a DVD player for your Koobox. Since it's usually a hassle to set up DVD playback, much less finding a "legal" DVD player for Linux, this is a pretty nifty feature. After I installed Linspire's DVD player, I popped in a DVD and found that Linspire is using Xine for DVDs.

Playback of DVDs was okay in windowed mode, but choppy in full-screen mode. After a minute or two of choppy DVD playback, Xine popped up a warning that indicated it had detected excessive dropped frames, and popped open Mozilla with a page of troubleshooting options -- including ways to use hdparm to try to improve performance. I'm glad that Xine offers the tips, but I think they may be too technical for the average user.

Just to see what kind of errors Xine was encountering, I ran the xine-check script that the Xine FAQ recommends. The first warning it gave me was, surprise, that running Xine as root is a bad idea. It also went on to say that my X server didn't support overlays, and gave a few additional hints. This leads me to believe that Linspire could do a better job of configuring the system for new users. I also think the system is a tad underpowered for a true multimedia machine.

Next up, I decided to download a few apps using CNR. CNR is relatively user-friendly, though I prefer Synaptic for GUI package management. The apps are organized well into categories that any user will grok -- certainly better organized than the default categories for Ubuntu Breezy -- but the actual CNR interface seems clunky to me.

The Koobox comes with a one-year subscription to CNR, and it's $50 per year after that for the Gold CNR account, and $20 per year for the basic. I'm not crazy about having to pay for access to what's mostly a free software repository, particularly when CNR offers little that I can't get from Ubuntu repositories for free. I understand that Linspire needs to make money to survive, but users have already paid for the distro by buying the computer or paying for the boxed version of Linspire. Adding an additional fee on top of that seems a little much. Linspire does say that it makes security updates available at no charge, to its credit.

I didn't have a chance to test them, but Linspire also includes dialers for several ISPs, which is a nifty feature for home users who still connect to the Internet through Earthlink, AOL, or other dialup service providers.

Though I've pointed out a number of rough patches, I think Linspire is within striking distance of being a user-friendly distro. The modified KDE interface that Linspire uses is nice enough, and Windows users should feel more or less at home with Linspire in a short time. The developers need to polish the multimedia apps a bit, smooth over a few other rough patches, and stop letting the user run as root by default. If Mac OS X can require an admin password for installing software and system configuration without freaking out Mac users, Linspire can certainly do the same for Linux users and Windows refugees.

Koobox support

One of the reasons to buy a prebuilt PC rather than doing it yourself is to be able to get support when things go awry. Unfortunately, I found the support that comes with the Koobox to be subpar.

When I fired up Linspire's music player, I noticed a distinct absence of sound. Since I wasn't listening to John Cage, I figured something was amiss. I went to the toolbar to check the sound volume, thinking it might just be muted or something, and found that there was no volume control available at all.

I checked the Linspire control center and found that the system sound card had been detected, but still no sound. Rather than trying to troubleshoot it any further, I decided to give the support folks a call. I was put on hold for about nine minutes before I was dumped to voicemail and asked to leave a message for support to call me back. After a few hours, I did indeed receive a call back from support.

The support person I spoke to initially seemed surprised to hear that I was using a Linspire box, and asked if he could have someone else call me back because he wasn't familiar with Linux. After a shorter interval, I received a call back from another Mirus support person, who knew a bit more about the distribution, but didn't seem terribly familiar with sound issues. To make a long story short, I had a couple of conversations with the same support person, but failed to resolve the problem.

I also called Linspire to see if they were aware of any sound problems with the Koobox machines. While waiting for the Koobox support people to call back, I'd checked the machine to make sure there were no loose connections, and I'd booted into a Klax live CD to see if sound worked with that distro. Sound did work with Klax.

After speaking with Linspire, we identified the source of the problem and resolved it. The review unit I was using had been used prior to my receiving the unit, so it's likely that something was accidentally tweaked from the default install that caused the sound to be misconfigured. Re-running the initial configuration routine solved the sound issue. If I'd been presented with the initial system setup routine, it's likely I'd not have encountered the sound issue in the first place.

Still, I wasn't overwhelmed with the Mirus support folks' ability to diagnose problems with Linspire. They were polite and seemed determined to help me, but they could use more training when it comes to Linux.

Is the Koobox worth the money?

If you're looking for an inexpensive Linux-compatible PC, the Koobox is worth consideration. The system uses high-quality components, and performance is decent for normal desktop use -- though, as I mentioned, I am hesitant to call this a multimedia PC. At $399 for the system, you're paying a fair price for what you get, though determined bargain shoppers might be able to find better. For example, I checked on Dell's site, and they're selling a starter system for $399 that comes with a 15-inch LCD, but a smaller hard drive and no DVD recording capability.

I don't think Linspire is a suitable distro for experienced Linux users, and Linspire's rough spots make me wonder how well-suited it is for newbies as well. However, I did test drive a few live CDs on the Koobox, and it didn't have any problem with other Linux distros, so it might be a good option for users who want to find a preassembled Linux compatible machine without paying the "Microsoft tax" to Dell or another manufacturer.

Click Here!