A new version of
LindowsOS) was released
last week. Unlike the previous versions, which were being produced and
marketed at a furious pace, the Linspire developers and beta testers took
their time with version 5.0 - it came out exactly 15 months after the
distribution's previous stable release - Linspire 4.5. This would indicate
that the company's strategy has undergone some changes - there seems to be
less emphasis on marketing and hype, and more focus on true usability and
feature enhancements to make the product accessible to non-technical users.
And indeed, Linspire 5.0 is an excellent, user-friendly distribution with
many new features and intriguing enhancements.
The release is available for instant purchase and download from Linspire's
online store for $49.95.
Current active members of the $5/month Click-N-Run (CNR) application
warehouse can get it free of charge - either from one of the company's
FTP/HTTP servers, or via BitTorrent. Interestingly, the CD image serves
both as an installation medium and a live CD, and users have an opportunity
to choose one or the other from the initial GRUB boot menu. GRUB makes its
first appearance in Linspire 5.0 and it gives an early indication that the
distribution now comes with a brand new installer - a more powerful one
than any of the installers in previous versions. Naturally, the
ultra-simple "take over the hard disk" installation method is still
available, but the "advanced" installation option now lives up to its name;
it not only allows users to choose a hard disk partition to install
Linspire on, it also gives a choice between ReiserFS (default) and Reiser4
(experimental) file systems. Various boot options can also be configured
here. Once done, the installer will simply copy the files from the CD onto
the hard disk before prompting the user to reboot the system.
After rebooting we found ourselves looking at a long GRUB menu listing
several operating systems (the installer is capable of detecting and
setting up other installed operating systems, both Windows and Linux), as
well as two other menu items: "Redetect" and "Diagnostics". The former is
useful in case a new piece of hardware has been added to the computer,
while the latter allows users to boot into a single-user mode for any
troubleshooting, and even provides a diagnostics output that can be
forwarded to the Linspire support personnel. The default option will boot
into "ldm", a graphical login screen with entries for "Administrator", as
well as any available user accounts. The only desktop on the Linspire 5.0
installation CD is a heavily beautified and customized KDE 3.3.2.
But underneath the pretty user interface it is still Linux (or Debian
GNU/Linux, to be more precise), so what exactly differentiates Linspire from
other major Linux distributions on the market? As one would expect from a
beginner-friendly operating system, Linspire comes with some exciting
usability enhancements. The "Linspire Web Suite" is one of the applications
with added functionality compared to the stock Mozilla browser; these
include a check-as-you-type spell-checking application (with suggested
replacement words), as well as "Hot Words". Hot Words is an interesting
technology that auto-highlights words on a web page and brings up a
customizable context menu with quick links to search, news, dictionary,
thesaurus and other relevant web sites. This feature is turned off by
default, but once you get used to the concept, you might find that web
browsing is suddenly an altogether different and more pleasant experience.
Disappointingly, this feature is not available in Firefox or Konqueror.
Linspire has been developing its own set of applications to overcome some
obvious difficulties in adoption of Linux on the desktop. The range of
these L* applications now includes Lphoto, Lsongs, Lassist and LTorrent,
complemented by a web authoring application called Nvu. Some of these have
been nicely integrated into Linspire - as an example, Lphoto detects a
digital camera storage device in the USB port and offers to import all
images into the application. It also provides the ability to organize
images into virtual photo albums, launch a slide show, or email images.
Lsongs is a media player and a budding competition to iTunes, with options
to buy MP3 music files from MP3tunes.com - a new business venture launched
recently by Linspire's founder Michael Robertson. Some of these
applications still need work before they mature, but as a general rule,
they are easy-to-use and add to the overall desktop usability of Linspire.
As far as Linspire's view of computer security is concerned, not much has
changed since earlier releases, and the default state is still "run as
passwordless root". That said, a superuser password can be optionally
entered during installation and new user accounts can be created from a
configuration screen, right after the first boot. I had a lengthy email
exchange about these issues with Linspire's president Kevin Carmony. He
insisted that enforcement of passwords and user accounts is an annoying and
inconvenient "hoop", similar to enforcing strict airport security or
placing 12 extra locks on one's house. More interestingly, he also
disclosed that Linspire was sponsoring work "at the file system level
that will make the OS more secure than it has ever been before, and all
without expecting grandma to jump through complicated hoops." And
while on the subject of security, it is worth noting that encryption of
users' home directories, a concept so nicely implemented in Xandros Desktop
OS 3, is not available in Linspire 5.0.
There are many other small ideas that make Linspire 5.0 a truly great
operating system for non-technical users. A set of Flash-based audio-visual
tutorials guide new users through the very basics of computer usage. File
extensions have been properly associated with default applications. Flash,
Java, and media playback support are integrated into the default browser.
Supermount for removable devices works reliably. The hardware detection and
configuration is quite possibly the best in the industry - now also with
support for wireless networking, 802.11g, and WiFi profiles. The CNR
warehouse, with thousands of Debian packages available at a click of a
mouse, nicely compliments the entire package. Even experienced Linux users
would surely appreciate all these conveniences that greatly contribute
towards more productive use of their computers.
Overall, Linspire gets a top mark for their effort at bringing Linux to the
masses. Their latest release is not the fastest operating system on earth,
but it is beautiful, well-designed, has excellent hardware support, and
many small improvements that make computers so much more fun. Highly
recommended - not only to grandmas, but also to users who value their time.
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