Linspire has never been popular among Linux users. Their releases are not available for free (the digital download costs $50) and they use a lot of proprietary software. In fact, I never tried Linspire. Not only wasn't I willing to pay for something which didn't look as good as other distributions, but I was quite certain I wouldn't like it.
Recently, a community driven project, sponsored by Linspire, announced their first release: Freespire 1.0. Not only does the project make its releases available for free, it is driven by the community and it even offers an OSS version of the distribution which does not contain proprietary or restricted technology.
I downloaded the default version of Freespire 1.0 from here and decided to have a look at it.
The Live system and the installer
Like many distributions, Freespire fits on a single CD. However, instead of providing a live system which features an installer, Freespire provides a live system and a separate installer on the same CD. At boot time, you simply choose between the live system and the installer.
The installer doesn't feature any partitioner, but an item in the CD boot menu allows the user to launch GParted. Why was the graphical installer not merged with the live system? Why couldn't the installer include the partitioner? I really don't know. This is only a detail though and once the distribution is installed it doesn't really matter anymore.
The installer itself is very pleasant. It looks really good and polished, it's fast (the whole installation took me about 10 to 15 minutes) and it doesn't ask too many questions (it welcomes you, asks for your keyboard layout, the partition you want to install Freespire on, your hostname, root password and default user, and that's it.).
Upon reboot, you're asked a few other things. You have to agree with an "End User License" and set your sound volume. You're then presented a screen which allows you to do some additional settings.
The system then launches KDM and you're ready to log in.
Performance is fine compared to other distributions on the same machine. I didn't think it was as fast or responsive as Debian or even Ubuntu, but I didn't find it slow either. It's reasonably ok. The boot time on my machine was 2 min 40.
Freespire is very polished with good attention to details. The look and feel is consistent in the boot menu, the bootsplash screens, the default desktop and the KDM theme. I don't know much about Linspire, but it seems to have inherited its default blue/green theme and colors. The icons are nice two, and the menus were made semi-transparent.
Here's what the default Freespire 1.0 desktop looks like:
Overall, the look and feel is pleasant and gives a nice impression. However it's not as polished nor professional looking as SUSE 10.1 or even Ubuntu 6.06.
The desktop is full of nice surprises. Although most ideas were taken from Microsoft Windows operating systems, they are good and handy for the user. For instance, the Freespire desktop features "My Documents" and "My Computer" within the home folder of the user. In "My Computer" the user can access other partitions and devices. When I tested Freespire, I was happy to see that Freespire automatically mounted my ext3 and fat32 partitions in there, and I was able to access their content without any configuration.
The K menu is semi transparent. It shows both recently opened documents and recently used applications by default. To make more space for the help and search features it doesn't put the applications directly at the first level, but within a menu item called "Run Programs". Once I got used to it I though it was a good idea.
The file manager is also very useful and well designed. Access to files and devices is easy and fast.
The terminal is easy to launch. It was placed by default in the panel, next to the file manager, the web browser, the email reader, the messenger and a "show desktop" button which minimizes all windows on the desktop.
If you choose the default version of Freespire, chances are that your hardware will work fine with it. Freespire comes with a lot of drivers for ATI and NVidia cards, but also winmodems and wifi cards (Madwifi and Ralink drivers).
On my Sony T2XP which is a Centrino laptop, the wifi card (ipw2200) was detected automatically. My Intel i855 graphic card was also detected and the i915resolution package was installed by default. However, it didn't support 1280x768 resolutions by default so I had to do some configuration for Freespire to use my widescreen resolution.
Everything else worked out of the box.
Default set of Applications
Freespire 1.0 includes customized versions of Firefox 184.108.40.206, Thunderbird 220.127.116.11 and Gaim 1.5.0. They come pre-installed with spell checking and translators. OpenOffice 2.0.3 is also included. The customizations made to these software applications are quite nice and they make the use of email and web browsing very pleasant.
Freespire also comes with software developed by Linspire, such as NVU, LSongs and LPhoto.
Freespire is available in two versions: a clean OSS version which does not contain proprietary or restricted technologies, and a default version which includes all the ¨dirty¨ codecs and extended multimedia support which makes our life easier: http://wiki.freespire.org/index.php/Summary_of_Proprietary_Components
If you install the default version it will be "file friendly" (as Freespire says) and it will support these formats without any problem: MP3, Windows Media, Real, QuickTime, Java, Flash.
Freespire comes in it default version with the Madwifi and Ralink drivers for wireless cards. It also comes with HSF and HCF drivers for winmodems. With no landline at home and only an Intel ipw2200bg wifi card and a basic Ethernet card I couldn't test these drivers. I have no doubt they work fine though and they will make things easier for people who are stuck with this kind of hardware.
In Freespire, there is a little applet which is included by default in the system tray. It's called the "network connection manager". It basically monitors your network devices and shows their connection status. You can use that tool to quickly join a wireless network, switch between two network devices or even manage network profiles. Through network profiles you can configure which devices you want to use and how they get configured depending on the profile. For instance, you may want to use both wifi and Ethernet cards through static addressing at home, but only the Ethernet card through DHCP at work. The Network Connection Manager allows you to define these profiles and it can even switch automatically between profiles for you. It's a very handy tool.
Another great tool is the Network Share Manager. It scans the samba/windows shares on the network and allows you to connect to them. If a share becomes unavailable, the tool remembers it but simply changes its status to offline. With this Network Share Manager you can define shares to be connected at startup and they automatically appear in the "Network Shares" within "My Computer".
Bluetooth isn't supported by default in Freespire. I though this is was quite disappointing considering the fact that most PDAs and mobile phones now come with that technology.
The default way to install and update software in Freespire is called CNR (Click and Run). It's a great invention by Linspire which allows the user to browse catalogs of software and install them by simply clicking on them. I had a look at CNR and it looked very good and easy to use. However when I tried to install my first program, I realized that CNR was not free. You can get a trial period for it by registering some details and if you like it you can pay an annual fee to have the privilege to use it. Although it looked quite nice it didn't convince me one bit and I decided to go away from it.
Most Linux distributions decided to give everything they could to the community. By becoming popular and by attracting users they could then provide paid support to the companies. This is a business model however in which companies like Mandriva or Linspire didn't truly believe. It is probably their lack of faith and their fear of that model that convinced a lot of people not to use their distribution.
I am a firm believer in the fact that APT is the greatest package manager of all. And since Freespire is based on Debian, it came with APT. Of course, tools such as synaptic, adept or aptitude are not installed by default, by they are easily added through the use of apt-get.
Within the K Menu, a little detail caught my attention. Under each software category (Internet, Multimedia...etc) a little sub-menu called "CNR More" shows you the applications that you could install through CNR in that category. For instance, in the "Web Authoring" menu, NVU (which is installed by default) appears... and next to it a "CNR More" sub-menu shows "Amaya", "Bluefish", "Quanta Plus"... etc. I thought this was a great idea, as it shows the user what tools he could install when he needs them. However, if you decided not to use CNR, the fact that you're constantly reminded that it is there for you to use can be a little bit annoying.
I was very pleased and impressed by the quality of this distribution. It is a pity that Freespire isn't completely "free" though, as you have to pay to use its preferred package manager. I really liked the fact that the distribution released an OSS version which didn't include the proprietary and restricted pieces of software. This should help Freespire in getting a better reputation among Linux users. Freespire is a nice distribution with a lot of handy tools and great ideas. It is comfortable and easy to use. In its non-OSS version it comes pre-installed with Java and flash plugins, multimedia support and even spell checkers within its web and email applications.