January 7, 2004

Spawn of Debian faceoff: LindowsOS 4.5

Author: Joe Barr

DistroWatch, which tracks more than 200 different flavors of Linux, lists 47 distros based on Debian. Debian's rep for being a tough install is belied by the fact that distributions based on Debian are often the easiest of Linux distributions to use and maintain. In the coming weeks, we're going to take a look at several of the most interesting of Debian's descendants, evaluating them on installation, connectivity, software maintenance, security, and support. We'll begin the series with a look at LindowsOS 4.5.

The buzz about LindowsOS

I've heard a lot of negatives about LindowsOS since its debut. I've heard the installation procedure encourages users to run as root, and worse, to do so without a password. I've heard the company doesn't adhere to the GPL by providing access to the source code for LindowsOS. I've also heard the company didn't play nice with others at a desktop Linux trade show last year. From personal experience I know company reps are a lot more eager to talk to the Windows trade press than to the Linux press.

I mention these negatives as a preface to this review because I want it to be known I did not start my review of LindowsOS 4.5 free of bias. In fact, I did not expect to like what I found.

The test environment

I am using a low-cost desktop box I purchased from Fry's Electronics for $199.99 for the review. It came with an 800MHz VIA processor, 128MB DRAM, 30GB hard drive, 52X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, and mainboard with built-in AC97 Codec sound, 3D Graphics Accelerator video, SiS630E chipset, and a 10BaseT/100BaseTX NIC.

The box is connected to the Internet through my home LAN. A Belkin Wi-Fi router sits next to my office desktop, and the test machine connects to it via Cat 5 cable. Connected to my desktop box is an HP printer which is configured to allow sharing with others on the LAN.

Installation

When booting from the installation CD, you are given the choice of installing LindowsOS or simply running diagnostics. When I chose the former the screen went dark for about 2 minutes as the installer unpacked itself and began musing over the hardware.

The next screen offered me two choices. I could take over the entire disk or I could do an "advanced" installation. Throughout this entire series, I will be taking the entire disk for the install.

Next, I was asked to name the computer and provide a system password. The password is recommended, but the computer name is required. Being the creative type, I named it GQ-3051, the Fry's model I was installing Lindows on.

We hadn't gone far, but already the installation procedure asked me to verify my choices for the type of install (full disk), the computer name, and the system password. I did, and it immediately asked me again to verify the data. I did that too.

About 15 or 20 minutes later the installer told me to "Press return to continue." I did so, the CD drive opened, I removed the boot CD, and the system rebooted.

LindowsOS's opening screen looked very much like the one presented by the installer, but with more choices. I could choose to boot LindowsOS, redetect hardware, or run diagnostics. I selected the first option.

After providing the system password, the LindowsOS desktop appeared, and so did a "First Time Setup" wizard. The first thing the wizard wanted to do was set the system time. That done, the screen went dark again for about 30 seconds, then the desktop reappeared with a little more guidance from the wizard.

The wizard informed me that LindowsOS has set up a "strict" firewall, and that there are "advanced" settings I may wish to tinker with. Those include changing the system password, changing the resolution of the display, adding users, or changing the name of the system.

By this time I realized I was running as root, and that the "system password" was in fact the root password. I added a normal user. It was incredibly easy. All I had to do was enter the user name and password. Then, after reading and accepting the license, the wizard ended and LindowsOS launched a Desktop Tutorial.

While the tutorial is running every icon on the desktop and panel over which you pass the mouse cursor pops up an information window explaining what it is and what it does. One item on the screen caught my eye. It looked like a link to "Licensing and Source Code Information."
When I passed the cursor over the link, it told me where to go on the LindowsOS site to download "most" of the LindowsOS source code, or if I preferred, where to order the source code on a CD.

After ending the tutorial, the "real" desktop reappeared. Without thinking I clicked on the browser, curious to see if the install had properly set up my Internet access. It had, and then I remembered I was still logged in as the superuser, so I logged out and then back in as the new user I had added.

Post-install landscape

On the left side of the desktop Lindows put a tall column of icons, including My Computer, My Documents, Network Browser, CD ROM, Floppy, Printers, Trash, Internet Connection Tools, Mail, and Web Browser.
Along the bottom of the screen was a horizontal panel that contained icons for Lindows, Help, File Manager, Click-N-Run, Web Browser, Mail, and IM. The Lindows icon, a large letter L, serves the same purpose as a Gnome foot or KDE gear. Clicking on it reveals a menu of menus.

I had expected to find OpenOffice.org on the desktop, but it wasn't there. A Lindows spokesperson told me it is included and present after installation from the CD but not in the downloadable version. Fair enough -- that gave me the opportunity to try Lindows' Click-N-Run service a little bit later.

More on page 2...Connectivity

When installation was complete, I had connectivity to the Internet without having lifted a finger. The box got an IP address from the DHCP server in my Belkin router. Looking in the Internet Connectivity folder mentioned above, I found scripts for dial-up connectivity to ISPs, including AOL, NetZero, Juno, EarthLink, and SpeakEasy.

Next it was time to see if I could configure Lindows to use the HP printer on the desktop box. I never got the chance -- it was already done. I opened up a text editor, typed a paragraph or two, and selected the HP DeskJet 842C in the office -- the one I had never had a chance to tell it about -- and printed. I didn't have to lift a finger.

It just so happened that I had spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to help a friend do the same thing on their Windows home LAN the weekend before, but their Windows 98 and Windows XP boxes seemed to be talking different languages. Neither of them recognized the other. LindowsOS deserves credit for the ease with which it got printing working.

Software maintenance

Clicking on the CNR icon starts Lindows's Click-N-Run application. It took one click to install OpenOffice.org, another for Mplayer, and the same for any other application in the company's warehouse. The CNR inventory contains more than 1,800 items and they seem to be kept up-to-date. As with the installation, some granularity is lost. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on you.

When I install Mplayer on Mandrake 9.2 using urpmi, for example, I have to install both mplayer and mplayer-gui in order to get a GUI front-end for the popular video player. That's a good thing if you are a command-line kind of geek, but it's extra work if you're not. With CNR, you're not given the option. One click installs both, period. This is not the best distro for the CLI-oriented.

Security

As far as security issues go, the negative "buzz" is wrong. A firewall is installed by default. Users are not encouraged to run as root, but you can see how many will simply because they are not urged strongly enough not to do so. The use of a password is encouraged. LindowsOS does an OK job of keeping a system secure, but not a great one.

Lindows PR person Cheryl Schwarzman told me by email that "the system does not automatically update unless it is critical." If Lindows has not deemed a security issue to be critical (the last such update was for the Open SSH buffer overflow problem in September of 2003), a user has to look under "Updates -> Recommended" on a regular basis to keep his box secure. Considering the work put into ease of use during installation, in the desktop tutorial, and in CNR, I would say security is still not given a top priority.

Support

LindowsOS offers several types of support on its Web site. These include searchable FAQs, community forums, and "Ask Us" email tech support. While there is a community of enthusiastic LindowsOS users, there is not a lot of IRC presence to provide real time community-based support. In fact, I didn't find any IRC channels dedicated to LindowsOS. That's not to say that there aren't some out there, but if they are they aren't as visible in my usual online haunts as those of other distributions.

The final score

As you can see from the chart below, I graded LindowsOS 4.5 as a B+. Lindows is not your OG's (Original Geek's) Linux, but it is far and away the best Linux distribution for the mythical Mr. Joe Sixpack I've seen yet.

Installation is a breeze and CNR completely de-geekifies software maintenance chores. Applications can be added or updated as easily as the name suggests. The next time a non-technical user asks what version of Linux he should try, I won't hesitate to recommend LindowsOS. Note: The final grade originally showed 89. I corrected it after checking the math.

Category LindowsOS 4.5
Installation 90
Connectivity 95
Security 85
Software maintenance 95
Free/Included Support 75
Final Grade 88

Category:

  • Linux
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