Wednesday 30th August 2006
Around the Desktop
The first thing that hits you about Freespire is that, just like Linspire, it is slow. It is still usable, but everything seems to take just that little bit longer compared to other distributions. This is apart from the boot up of Freespire, which takes significantly longer than most other distributions. The upside is that an improved boot time has already been penned as something to be implemented in the next version.
In Freespire, you don't get Firefox or Thunderbird - instead, you get Lbrowser and Email, which are based upon Firefox and Thunderbird respectively. To me, it would have made much more sense to just use Firefox and Thunderbird themselves, seeing as the changes by Freespire are minimal - even the icon for Lbrowser looks suspiciously like Firefox's icon. Also, I believe it would pull in more people - if you're looking for your first distribution, you're probably more likely to use the one with a familiar browser. This theme continues with other applications - for example, Instant Messenger being powered by GAIM. Still, this is a relatively minor criticism, and the software still works reliably.
Other applications include the OpenOffice.org suite, the usual KDE applications, such as Kate, and Nvu. For torrents, you get the BitTorrent client. Personally, I would have preferred Azureus. I would also prefer an FTP client to be present in the Internet section of the menu, but alas, I could not see one. Also curiously missing is the GIMP, with no other application really filling its place.
A constant criticism of Linspire is that you're always logged in as root by default. Freespire does not do this - instead, it locks out the root account and gives sudo privileges to the first user. While more secure, it never requests your password when you use sudo, meaning that there is still room for improvement in my opinion.
CDs are automagically mounted, and can be both accessed and ejected using the icon on the desktop. The same is almost true using my USB stick. Automounting and accessing the drive is perfect, but after unmounting the drive, the icon remains on the desktop. You can then try to eject the drive, but this only ended in failure. The other partitions on the hard drive were detected and mounted, and are easily reached through My Computer on the desktop.
Browsing the network is slightly unusual in Freespire, at least for a user friendly distribution. Whereas most distributions simply allow you to browse the network and its shares as if they were just another part of the filesystem, Freespire seems to encourage you to mount the network shares - as evidenced by the presence of the Network Share Manager on the desktop. Although it does work smoothly, I wonder why Freespire has this considering Konqureror can browse shares in the same fashion as Windows does. For Freespire's target audience, I can't really see an advantage to mounting the shares manually, rather than just browsing them Konqueror, which would be more intuitive for prior Windows users.
There's no SSH or VNC to speak of on Freespire - servers or clients, aside from the SSH client. However, that's no great shame since I doubt there's a huge demand for either from the new GNU/Linux user. Still, a VNC client would have been nice to include if only to appeal to a wider audience, especially considering their somewhat small profile.
So far, then, Freespire has done pretty well, but nothing truly outstanding. The area where Freespire starts to shine is the area that open source purists won't like very much - proprietary software. For whatever reason, this is where Ubuntu and other popular distributions can suffer. Although this difficulty can be overcome with relative ease, it never is a difficulty with Freespire. By default, and assuming you don't download the edition that strips Freespire of its proprietary components, Freespire has Java, Flash and Realplayer all installed, along with proprietary graphics drivers from ATi and nVidia. Not only that, but it contains the codecs for WMVs (Windows Media), Quicktime, and MP3s. There are also other Proprietary Components, among which DVD playback appears to be absent. I couldn't test this due to the lack of a DVD drive being handy, but DVD playback isn't on the list, and I could not find any application that is dedicated to DVD playback. Looking around, it appears that this is an application to be gotten from CNR. Also, there are some codecs missing that might be wanted, most notably DivX. However, Freespire's support is greater than most, if not all, other distributions currently available, and this truly is its ace card.
On the whole, Freespire seems stable, although Kmix crashes every time I shut Freespire down. Some of the packages in the repositories seem very out of date - for example, the version of GNOME included, if the version number is to be believed, is older than the GNOME package included in Debian Sarge. The theme itself also appears a little dated, with most other distributions, in my opinion, looking a little more polished and professional.
Settings are tweaked mainly in the Control Center [see Images]. Down the left hand side is the collection of categories, such as Look and Feel. Clicking on one brings up options such as Background and Colors. Nothing revolutionary, but that means its not exactly difficult to get your head round. Sometimes, the plethora of categories in front of you is a little confusing and difficult to navigate. You can normally find what you want in a couple of minutes, but I'm sure there's a more logical arrangement than at present.
Adding printers is very straightforward. Having said that, Freespire did surprise me a little - when I went to the Printers dialog (once again, just double click the relevant icon on the desktop), I found that the printer on my network had already been added. Presumably, this means that a locally attached printer would be installed automatically, which is a bonus. Even if you don't have it attached during installation, adding it yourself isn't all that hard - it is much the same as with most other distributions.
Creating shares for the network is extremely straightforward - simply right click the folder you want to share, select Share from the menu, and tick the checkbox 'Share with other computers in your Network Neighborhood (Samba)'. It couldn't be simpler, and there are plenty of Samba options you can play with, such whether the share is writable. The only disadvantage of this method, compared to setting up shares from a dedicated application such as Shared Folders in GNOME, is that you can't view all of your shares from a single location.
One annoyance I had was that Freespire did not detect my monitor resolution correctly, so I was stuck at 1024x768 rather than my usual 1280x1024. Attempting to use Screen Resize and Rotate was no use since the maximum resolution was still 1024x768, while clicking Configure Display brought up an application with no options - just a few buttons, such as Help (which didn't work), Defaults, OK and Cancel. I encountered similar problems when going through the Control Center. The fact that I couldn't find a way to increase the resolution is a bit disappointing. Although I could go digging through configuration files, it is something that Freespire's users should not have to do.