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An early look at Freespire
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Aug. 2, 2006)

In two weeks, Linspire Inc. will release Freespire, its community Linux distribution. This new distribution isn't just another Linux distro. It will represent the first Linux to include most of the legally licensed and available, third-party proprietary codecs, drivers, and software.

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To say this is a bit controversial in Linux and free software circles is like saying the dog days of August are somewhat hot. Nevertheless, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony bit the bullet in April, and the first release candidate of Freespire is now available.

The operating system is available for free from its main Web site as a BitTorrent download.

What comes with Freespire?

What do you get with it? A lot.

First, Freespire legally supports -- or has one-click access to legal support for -- MP3, DVD, Windows Media, QuickTime, Java, Flash, Real, ATI graphic drivers, NVIDA graphic drivers, Win-modem drivers, proprietary WiFi drivers, Bitstream fonts, and more.

Many versions of Linux have built-in support for one or more of these. RealPlayer 10, via its open-source clone Helix, for instance, is supported in Xandros 4. Other Linuxes, for example openSUSE 10, have supported proprietary programs, such as Acrobat and the Atheros WiFi drivers (madwifi), in the past. However, Novell's latest releases -- openSUSE 10.1 and SLED 10 (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10) -- no longer include proprietary software.

As a result, to get the most from their systems, users either have to track down and install the proprietary device drivers or programs, or rely upon experts to walk them through the process. For example, SUSE expert Jem Matzan gives directions on how to make openSUSE 10.1 the perfect desktop operating system.

The problem with this "perfection," according to some Linux users, is that it comes at the cost of discouraging vendors and developers from making open-source software. Many users, the ones that Linspire is counting on becoming its customers, just want a Linux system that will let them watch Windows Media files, play DVDs, and connect with their WiFi -- all without any fuss or muss.

Freespire doesn't incorporate all proprietary software that can run on Linux, though. For example, if you want to play music you purchased from Apple's iTunes store, which is protected by Apple's DRM (digital rights management) software, and play it unchanged, you'll need to use WINE or CodeWeavers Inc.'s CrossOver Office to install the Windows version of iTunes on the system.

You also can, if you want -- although it's hard for me to see why you'd want to if you're going to use this distribution -- pick a licensing option in which you do not get the proprietary bits.

Beyond the commercial additions, Freespire has a minimal number of installed applications. Still, with Firefox 1.504, Thunderbird 1.504, 2.0.1, and Gaim 1.50, most users will be able to go to work immediately.

At first glance, you may not recognize some of your old application buddies.

If you need more, Linspire's CNR (Click-and-Run) service is completely integrated into the Freespire OS.

When you bring up the Launch menu (read Start menu, if you're a Windows user), you have your usual list of installed applications and a link called "CNR More." A click on that reveals a listing of programs that can be automatically downloaded and installed by CNR. For instance, under the "Business & Finance's CNR More" link you'll find GnuCash, Ximian Evolution, and other of the more popular Linux business programs.

"CNR More" is your ticket to Linspire's CNR apps repository
(Click to enlarge)

Or, if that doesn't suit you, you can use the CNR client to browse through the virtual aisles of Linspire's program store. Although it costs $20 a year to use CNR, a 30-day free trial comes with Freespire.

The CNR store includes both the familiar regulars of the Linux application world. These include open-source programs, such as the GIMP graphics editor; free proprietary programs, such as Adobe Acrobat 7; and commercial proprietary software, such as Win4Lin Pro, which enables users to run Windows 2000 and XP as virtual machines with Freespire.

CNR includes lots of easily-installed free and non-free apps
(Click to enlarge)

Linspire has worked long and hard on making CNR as easy as possible to use. The fit and polish shows. I found installing software with CNR from Freespire to be easier than installing most Windows applications from Windows.

Of course, you don't need to use CNR. Freespire is a Debian-based distribution. To be exact, it's based on Debian with some DCC Alliance 3.0 and Ubuntu elements. That means any DEB-compliant installer program, such as apt-get or Synaptic, will work.

The Freespire's game, though, is to be easy-to-use to the point of being completely non-threatening. While Xandros 4 goes out of its way to be Windows-user friendly, Freespire bends over backwards in pursuit of that goal.

You can really tell it from a quick look at its KDE-based interface. Not only does the default interface look like Windows XP, some of the icons look like their Windows equivalents. The IM icon for Gaim, for example, has more than a passing resemblance to the AOL AIM icon.

Freespire's Windows-like KDE desktop, with the author's customized look and feel
(Click to enlarge)

The KDE desktop is a modified interface based on KDE 3.3.2. It's not all KDE software behind the front-end. Freespire has a "best of breed" philosophy, which is why its single, default IM client is Gaim instead of Kopete.

If you look under some of the menus, you'll also find links to Internet companies such as AOL, NetZero, and EarthLink. Linspire has made a point of trying to get its operating systems on computer vendor's systems. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see Freespire running in store windows with a set of ISP icons shining on its ready-to-buy systems' displays.

Road test

But, now for the critical question: how does it run? To find out, I took the release candidate and placed it on two systems.

The first system was a tried and true HP Pavilion a250n. This system has a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor with 800MHz bus speed, and 1GB of PC2700 DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. For graphics, it uses a low-end NVIDIA GeForce 4 MX.

The second test system was my Toshiba Satellite A35-S159. It has 512MB of RAM, a 2.3 GHz Pentium 4 M, and a 60GB hard drive. It also has an Atheros AR5001X+ wireless network adapter, which supports the whole WiFi gamut of 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g, in Centrino-style packaging.

You can see where this is going already. Both of these systems use devices -- the NVIDIA card on the a250n, and the AR5001x+ WiFi on the laptop -- that don't have native open-source support.

Would Freespire find and install the proper drivers for both? The answer was yes in both cases. That's not to say, however, that it was perfect sailing.

While Freespire supports the KDE network Samba share manager, I was unable to get the system to browse my Active Directory, NT-Domain style, or even my XP Home workgroup network resources. I could, and did, mount the network drives by specifying the user id, password, and resource names on a drive-by-drive basis.

While Freespire will let you attach Windows and Samba directories to your desktop, it won't let you browse the network
(Click to enlarge)

Installing the operating system to co-exist with another OS is still a bit tricky. When you first install Freespire on a PC that already has an operating system on its hard drive that you want to keep, you'll run into a message telling you that you'll need to restart and first run the disk partitioning tool, and then install Freespire.

After that, installing the system was smooth sailing. The installation program said it would take about ten minutes, and that's what it took. Everything on a PC should be so easy!

After installing Freespire on both of my test systems, the operating system and its applications worked well. It gave very solid performance.

In particular, as you'd expect from its codec support, it's easy to watch DVDs, QuickTime, and Windows media audio and video.

A fine Windows replacement desktop

In short, I found it to be a fine Windows replacement desktop for home users. Without better network support, however, I still must recommend Xandros for business users who want a Windows-like experience, and SLED 10 for Linux friendly or heavy-duty office users.

Freespire is a fine Windows replacement
(Click to enlarge)

Unlike its commercial cousin, Linspire, Freespire is a free ("as in beer") operating system. CNR does cost money, although it's well worth the expense for users who just want to run applications and don't want to know anything else about a computer. Linux users who just want proprietary software already installed and know their way around apt-get, however, will be able to use Freespire without CNR and its associated annual fee.

While I still have my doubts about the long-term wisdom of using proprietary software and drivers with Linux, I must say that if you feel you need to use such programs, Freespire makes it much easier than any other Linux distribution.

And, when is all said and done, that's really what Freespire is all about -- making Linux as easy as possible for users.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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