Linspire 5 review

£43
Price when reviewed
Back in 2003, we reviewed one of the first incarnations of an operating system aimed at novice to intermediate-level users, based around Linux but designed to be as easy to use as possible. At the time, it was still labouring under the name of Lindows, but worldwide legal action from Microsoft has brought about the change to the name Linspire.

The Linspire Corporation claims Linspire 5 is ‘The World’s Easiest Desktop Linux!’, with simple installation, a good-looking interface and plenty of integrated assistance. So to give it a good acid test, we installed it on a Sony VAIO notebook: the esoteric and non-standard hardware of notebooks is often enough to trip up an operating system. We were amazed at the speed and ease of the process; from popping the installation CD in the drive to the first complete boot into the Linspire Desktop took just 19 minutes, and that included repartitioning and reformatting the hard disk. The process is far more hands-off than Windows XP’s installation, with only a computer name and password to enter, plus the time zone.

Once the OS is installed, you’re not immediately greeted with the Desktop. Instead, the system launches a full-screen audio introduction, complete with exceptionally cheesy voice-overs taking you step-by-step through the OS. In reality, it’s more of a comfort blanket to convince you that Linspire will do everything Windows can, and only total beginners will learn anything they didn’t know or couldn’t have worked out themselves in a few minutes.

Linspire is based on a Debian distribution of Linux, with kernel 2.6.10, the KDE Desktop environment and X.Org windowing system. But the look and feel is a custom affair and the Desktop itself, you may not be surprised to learn, is modelled on the XP Desktop even more closely than standard Linux distributions, with a hint of Mac OS X too. The Launch button on the bottom left sails very close to the wind, looking more than slightly similar to the XP equivalent. You’ll also see an icon labelled My Computer.

There’s a saying, popular among some XP users, that life’s too short for Linux. But Linspire does what it can to avoid you having to spend months learning the black art of the command line. This extends to committing a sin considered a cardinal error among Linux die-hards: by default the system logs you in as an administrator. This avoids the tedium of opening a shell and issuing the su root command every time you need to tweak a system setting or install an application, but it also means the system is fundamentally more vulnerable to both user error and (less likely) hackers leaving it in a non-working state. It may look fluffy on the outside, but Linux is far less forgiving than Windows when it comes to doing things that damage other things.

The most amazing thing about the 19-minute install time is that this includes not just the base operating system, but a plethora of open-source and customised Linspire applications too. Among them is the OpenOffice suite, instant messaging (based on the GAIM client), Lsongs (a competent iTunes-alike), CD and DVD burning, Lassist (a calendar/PIM), LTorrent (a BitTorrent client), the free RealPlayer 10 client, Lphoto (a fair photo organisation tool), Ghost PDF viewer and stacks of other tools, games and utilities. It’s a hotch-potch collection but does feel a little more cohesive than some other distributions, with less replication and application crossover. And if that’s not enough, you can turn to the main weapon in Linspire’s armoury that differentiates it from competitors – CNR, the click ‘n’ run system. This takes you to Linspire’s web-based software warehouse, comprising a mix of popular open-source applications and pay-to-download offerings. The big advantage is that it really is a click-and-run affair: literally one click downloads and installs the application you want, saving once again the spectre of the command line, the usual installation route under Linux. The downside is that you’ll need to pay a subscription charge even for downloading open-source software, but the purchase price includes one year’s access.

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