July 3, 2002

Review: LindowsOS computer from WalMart.com

- By Russell C. Pavlicek -
It was with great anticipation that I began looking at Wal-Mart's latest
offering: a Microtel PC with LindowsOS preloaded. I had reviewed the
OS-less Microtel computer from Wal-Mart a few weeks ago and I hoped that
this, the first consumer-focused Linux-based PC to appear from a major U.S.
retailer, would be a great product for Linux newbies. Unfortunately, no matter how much I try to like this system, I am not comfortable recommending it to novice users.
The hardware

For this review, Microtel provided us with a AMD Duron 850 MHz system,
with 10 GB Maxtor hard drive, 128 MB of memory, and 52x Samsung CDROM
drive. Sound and video are integrated on the motherboard. Sound is
supported through the VIA chipset, while the Trident Cyber Blade
video shares main memory to do its tasks. The modem is a 56K Lucent
software modem, but LindowsOS already has the appropriate driver
installed. Absent from the system is a floppy drive, which I suppose is
less than useful for a system that will upgrade its software from the Internet.

The entire package is enclosed in a typical clone case, which is virtually
identical to that of the OS-less Wal-Mart PC we reviewed earlier.

This is the system you find on the Wal-Mart web page for $299. At
such a low price, this machine is sure to draw interest from home users
who want to surf the net, send email, write documents, and manage the home
finances. It certainly has enough power to get the job done. This
low-end box will not excite hardcore gamers or heavy-duty software
developers, but for the average home user it should do very well.

The software

The software is LindowsOS, a Linux-based operating system from the Lindows
company. The splash screen during boot up includes the phrase "Powered by
Xandros," which is the company that now owns the rights to the defunct
Corel Linux distribution. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that a
great deal of the LindowsOS software is Debian-based, which was the root
of Corel's efforts as well.

Surprisingly, the basic LindowsOS fits in a mere 450 MB on the disk.
It features a KDE desktop with a selection of icons and menus which should
make most Windows users feel right at home. Icons are activated via a
double-click, which was peculiar to me as a Linux user, but this action
should feel comfortable for most of the intended buyers of this system.

There is even an icon labelled "C:", which is actually equivalent to the
/home directory in a normal Linux installation.

The system includes basic functionality such as a nice browser
(Konqueror), a dialup utility (KPPP) for establishing dialup
connections, and an email client (Kmail).

The experience

The machine assembles the same as almost any other clone system. The
minitower has colored-coded jacks in the rear for connecting the various
peripherals. The PC as ordered includes a keyboard, mouse, and
inexpensive speakers. All you need to do is add a monitor and you can
begin using the system.

Upon power-up, you are confronted with a graphical lilo boot menu.
Selecting "LindowsOS" or just waiting a few seconds will cause the
system to boot up. The initial splash screens are somewhat reminiscent of
the Corel style of booting. There are no technical messages to frighten a
non-technical user, only a few lines which note the progress of the boot
process.

So far, very nice. But then X Windows came up. Unfortunately, the
monitor I normally use for testing is not a multisync monitor. This
apparently was a problem for the system as configured. As a result, the
screen became entirely unreadable. Faced with this, I decided to do what
any novice user would do: I powered the machine off. Yes, I could have
gone to one of the text consoles, logged in as root, and issued the shutdown
command, but very few Wal-Mart buyers would know about that.

I attached a multisync monitor and rebooted. To its credit, the system
now started up quickly without a hitch. Without any user interaction or
configuration, I found myself looking at a KDE desktop. Now that's good.
Very good. No configuration dialogue, no installation, no work at all.

The desktop is very pleasing to the eye. It has the appearance one would
want for replacing a Windows system. Any Windows user would probably feel
comfortable with the desktop in very short order. There is even a
"Welcome" icon on the desktop which takes the user through a short
introduction to LindowsOS. So far, so good.

Connecting to the Internet

There was another icon entitled "For Windows Users," but I quickly
discovered that I needed to be connected to the Internet to use it, so I
invoked "Internet Dial-Up Tool," which proved to be another name for KPPP.
KPPP has a wizard, but it doesn't work for the USA, so you need to
configure the dial up connection yourself. While this is often fairly
straightforward, it is not the type of thing you would want a Linux
novice to do without even providing so much as a simple HOWTO.

Once the dial-up information was entered, the machine connected
effortlessly to the Internet. The fact that the Lucent modem simply
worked without any effort at all was definitely a plus. To this point, the
user experience had been very good. Not perfect, but impressive.

The descent into Click-N-Run

Then things got dicey. As I investigated the menus on the system, I
found that most were unpopulated. Most software needed to be downloaded
from the Lindows Web site. Finding the Web site was no problem, as there
were a few icons and menu entries that brought you there. Once there, you
are given the opportunity to sign up for a free test of "Click-N-Run", the
Lindows way of doing a download and install.

So I sign up for the test Click-N-Run service and quickly receive a test
key in my email. Wonderful.

I try to download Evolution, the Gnome email client. Unfortunately, it
gives a complex error, beginning with "Couldn't stat source package list."
This is not good. So I try the "AOL Instant Messenger" client. That
turns out to be Kinkatta, one of the KDE-based IM clients. Then I try
Xine, the multimedia player. Like Evolution, this fails as well.

I try a fourth package, only to find that my Click-N-Run test has now
expired. I have had my three free test downloads (even though two
failed) and now I will have to pay $99 to get full access to the
Click-N-Run software warehouse.

Support

I try the Microtel PC toll-free technical support number mentioned in
the "Welcome" screens. The enthusiastic technical support person quickly
answers my questions. He verifies that powering off the PC when the
wrong monitor is attached should not affect the condition of the
system thereafter. He also refers me to the Lindows support Web site to
deal with the Click-N-Run failures. He says that the Lindows folks
are highly motivated and will correct errors quickly. Fair enough.

Oh no ... a rescue CD

A plague from the Windows world has now apparently made its way into
Lindows: a rescue CD. If you have a problem, pop in the disk and return your machine to
fresh-from-the-factory perfection. And, by the way, all your data will
be gone.

This apparently fits into the Lindows mindset. Since most of your
software is downloaded, and the Click-N-Run Web site records what you've
downloaded, you can reconstruct your current software situation by
employing the rescue CD and redownloading the same packages as before.

Thankfully, though, normal Linux tools like the Linuxcare bootable
business card, LNX-BBC, and Tom's Root Boot can all be employed to
remove your data from a damaged system prior to reinstallation. And, of
course, because LindowsOS is Linux-based, you hopefully will never need to
reload software for any reason short of a hardware failure.

The real problems

To my way of thinking, there are two real problems here. First is the
downside of Click-N-Run. Even if they get it working properly sometime
soon, it is still a time-consuming way to get larger pieces of software,
especially if the user is stuck with dial-up speeds. I, for one, would
not be thrilled to download a beefy package like the 60 MB OpenOffice at
modem speeds -- especially when normal Linux distributions include it in
their standard package lists.

The second and larger issue is the $99 fee for using the Lindows
Click-N-Run archive. Because the distribution is so stripped down, and
average consumers won't know about their ability to apt-get software for
free, most home users will feel stuck with the fee after the fact. On a
$300 box, I am not comfortable with an effort to obfuscate a nearly
mandatory fee which amounts to one third of the price paid for the box.
If the archive represented real added value in commercial software, then
perhaps it would be fair. But charging so much just so the user can get
things like Evolution and OpenOffice, which other Linux systems include for
free, does not sit well with me. It is clear that the lack of these things
in the Lindows base install is an effort to strong-arm users into paying
for the Click-N-Run service.

I understand that Lindows needs to make a profit. But, in this case, I
wish they would simply add the cost to the system up front and give people
a really useful platform out of the box.

Frankly, if I had been a novice user, I would have returned this machine
in disgust when it was clear that I would have to part with another
hundred bucks just to use a slow, malfunctioning mechanism to get
software that other people called "free." My opinion of Linux and
Open Source would probably have been very low as a result.

The lurking terror of Root

So far I haven't addressed the questionable design decision to make the
user run as root. This opens the door for viruses and
insecurities like the ones that have plagued Windows for years. The Unix system of
limited privileges has been an effective means of restricting viral code.
To throw all that away now seems very foolish.

Conclusion

As I said earlier, I wish I could heartily recommend this box. The
hardware seems reasonable. The minimal amount of configuration necessary
is wonderful. But the business of hiding a large part of the system cost
in a "required option" just doesn't play well with me. And the business
of running as root is just too dangerous to ignore.

There are rumors afoot of a Mandrake-based offering coming to Wal-Mart.com
in the future. If that is the case, it would be best to see how that works
before spending money on the Lindows-based unit.

Category:

  • Linux
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