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Freespire 1.0

Wednesday 30th August 2006


So, what is Freespire? It is essentially the free (as in beer) counterpart to Linspire, which, in turn, is based on Debian and will cost you at least about fifty American Dollars. Freespire aims to be to Linspire what Fedora is to Red Hat - a free, community project.

Before we really get going, we must consider Freespire's target audience. I don't really think it is the experienced power GNU/Linux user, but instead at the opposite end of the spectrum - those either unable or unwilling to spend time getting their system working. This means that Freespire needs to work well out of the box, with minimum configuration required.

So, let's get started with the first order of business. As ever, that means installation.


Since Freespire arrives on one CD, you don't really expect installation to take very long, and it doesn't - it took around thirty minutes, including the setup post-installation. The procedure is relatively simple - select your keyboard layout, name, username, password, and computer name. The only slightly more complex thing, as ever, is to do with where to install Freespire. Note that, unless you choose to delete an entire hard drive, you must do the partitioning of Freespire in a separate utility included on the CD. For an 'easy' distribution, Freespire is not making life particularly easy. It also uses a designation for hard drives that I'll admit I have never seen before except in Linspire. Instead of the usual /dev/hda, it uses /dev/ide/host0/bus0/target0/lun0/disc.

After a reboot, Freespire then launches into the post-installation setup. That means you can change your time zone, and date and time, along with display settings, users, network (including firewall), your password, dial up settings and your computer name - all much as you'd expect.

Freespire's installation is quite unremarkable, but it does its job well for the most part. I would say it was pretty close to the perfect installation for a newcomer to Linux, but the fact that partitioning is done separately means there's still work to be done.

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 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.

Changing Settings

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.

Package Management

Linspire users normally have a paid subscription to CNR (Click and Run), which is Linspire's way to install new packages. Even though Freespire is supposed to be free (it's even in the name!), CNR is everywhere - it's the default tool for adding new applications, there are dozens of entrys for CNR in the menus (which can be somewhat annoying if you do not use CNR), and there are icons in the taskbar. Of course, if you chose Freespire because it was free, you probably wouldn't be willing to pay for CNR. Okay, you get a free trial for a month, but what about after that?

The problem is that without CNR, Freespire's package management is just apt, a command line tool which Freespire's target users probably won't want to touch. Yes, you can install Synaptic to get around this problem, but how the heck is the newcomer supposed to know that? Or about apt for that matter? Freespire could benefit greatly by including Ubuntu's package management utilities, or something similar - that is, Synaptic for the more advanced users, an update notifier and installer, and Add/Remove Applications for most people that just want to install something. As it stands, the only way to really make use of Freespire's package management is to pay something.

There is an update notifier on the panel, but this is for CNR - if you choose not to use CNR, this notifier becomes far less useful.

A quick side note: some people will probably point out the presence of GNOME Apt in the menus. There's two problems with this: first of all, it doesn't work - it asks for the root password, which you can't give since you don't know it. Although it can be used from the command line, the new user wouldn't know this, and Freespire is supposed to be making things easy anyway. Secondly, GNOME Apt is not particularly pleasant for the new user to use, especially considering that Ubuntu's utilities are available and much nicer to use, as well as Synaptic for the more advanced users.


So, what can we say about Freespire? While there are some small problems, such as ejecting USB disks and setting the resolution, the major disappointment is package management. If you don't feel like paying for CNR, then Freespire's package management suddenly becomes rather lacklustre, especially considering that other utilities already exist that fit the bill perfectly. Of course, another alternative is to make CNR free!

Freespire's real strength on the other hand is the proprietary components which are not only included but installed seamlessly. This makes the migration from Windows to GNU/Linux all the more simple. Some may claim that Freespire is user friendly. Well, yes, it is relatively user friendly, but Ubuntu and other distributions are at the very least on a par with Freespire, if not even easier to use. My opinion? Freespire's only real advantage is the proprietary components. If you don't mind a little work and adding these yourself, then Ubuntu or similar would be a better choice. Other distributions might well be less work in the long run, with only a small amount of work to get proprietary components working. If you absolutely must have the proprietary components pre-installed then I'm still not sure Freespire is quite the cat you're looking for - another distribution, in my opinion, has it beaten in that respect. It's name is SimplyMEPIS 6.0 (review coming soon).

The only other case I can think of where Freespire might be useful is where the proprietary drivers are needed, although I cannot comment upon this since I have never had any driver problems with any distribution of GNU/Linux.

Thus far, I've been pretty negative, but that's not really all that fair. You see, what Freespire (well, Linspire) has recognised is that GNU/Linux is a decent platform for an operating system, but that we cannot cling to being completely open source and appeal to the mass market at the same time. The fact is if we want GNU/Linux to be used by more people, we need a distribution that can play MP3s and Flash videos without having to poke around first. The only problem is that, in my opinion, Freespire has failed to create a watertight, solid distribution to base everything else on. Until Freespire can create that reliable base system, Freespire has limited appeal.

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