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Freespire 2.0: Better than you might expect


When I downloaded Freespire 2.03 for review, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The company behind it, Linspire, was in disarray, it had shifted from Debian to Ubuntu for its foundation, and the development of its key feature—CNR (Click ‘N Run) download and install—seemed to have stalled out.

What I found was a solid, fast Ubuntu-based desktop Linux with an extremely easy-to-use KDE interface. However, I also found it to have more than its fair share of quirks.

When the core idea behind Freespire, a Linux that included all the legal proprietary bits that Linux could hold, first came out in 2006, people either hated it or loved it. By 2007, though, the idea of open source and proprietary programs in one Linux distribution had become commonplace.

If you want Windows Media codices, proprietary video drivers and other proprietary programs, there are several distributions, the Ubuntu-based Mint being the best known, which come with all those extra fixings. If you’d rather pick and choose, most popular distributions, including Ubuntu and openSUSE now make it easy to find and install proprietary software.

Still, with the exception of Mint, no one makes marrying private and open-source programs easier than Freespire. They’re baked in and they just work. Freespire, with its out-of-the-box hardware, file type and multimedia support, such as MP3, Real, QuickTime, Java, Flash, ATI, NVIDIA, fonts, Wi-Fi, and Win-modems and one-click access to legally licensed DVD playback software, games, Sun’s StarOffice, Win4Lin, CodeWeaver’s Crossover Office, TransGaming’s Cedega, and dozens of other commercial products also offers the greatest range of proprietary software of any Linux.

Freespire, thanks to parent company’s Linspire’s deals with vendors, including Microsoft, is also one of the few Linux distributions that goes out of its way to offer legal access to proprietary software. No, I’m not talking here about Linspire’s Microsoft patent deal or Microsoft’s endless IP (intellectual property) FUD. Linspire took the time and trouble to dot the i’s and cross the t’s for all of its incorporated proprietary software.

In short, if you find yourself always running proprietary programs, drivers and media codices on Linux, Freespire is the distribution for you.

It also runs all this software, as well as the usual Linux goodies, extremely efficiently. To put Freespire through its paces I ran it on an inexpensive and rather minimal system: Koobox’s Mini koolbox. Koobox, a PC vendor, is silently owned by Linspire. Needless to say, its systems are meant to work with Linspire and Freespire.

This particular model was an older one, which originally ran Linspire 5.0. Since Koobox hasn’t updated it, you can still purchase the one I used. My test Mini koolbox came with a Pentium M725 1.6GHz CPU, 512MBs of RAM, a front slot-loading DVD/CD-RW drive, two USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) port, a 60GB hard drive, DVI video out, and 10/100 Ethernet.

For video, it uses a build-in Intel 915GM chipset. This graphics chipset comes with no RAM of its own so it uses 8MBs of shared memory. The net-result is you really only have 504MB of dedicated system memory. As you can probably guess from that graphics support, you can forget right now about doing anything fancy with Compviz or another 3-D compositing Windows manager. The entire PC is approximately the same size as a Mac, making it ideal for squeezing into tight spaces.

The installation, which I did as a fresh install rather than try to update Linspire, went without a hitch. From start to finish, the process took half an hour. Ironically, at the same time I was doing this, I was trying to upgrade a Vista Home Premium PC to Vista Ultimate on a Gateway GT5622 with its 1.8GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160 processor and 3GBs of RAM. This much faster system, after an hour, refused to perform the Vista upgrade, and the fresh Vista install took approximately 75 minutes.

Once in place, Freespire worked quite smoothly on its limited hardware. The slightly modified KDE 3.5.6 desktop was downright snappy. No one was more amazed than I was. The earlier Linspire had left no doubt that it was running on slow hardware. The switch from an older version of Debian to Ubuntu 7.04 as the distribution’s engine has clearly given Freespire a real performance kick in the pants.

Freespire also comes with a minimal assortment of applications. However, it does come with all the basics that most Linux desktop users seem to prefer. For example, it includes OpenOffice 2.2, Firefox, and Thunderbird

If you need more, you can always turn to CNR to easily download and install other applications. CNR makes software installation pretty much idiot proof.

Unfortunately, this is also where Freespire showed problems. Yes, you can certainly install anything in the CNR repositories with a simple mouse click, but the programs on CNR can be surprisingly dated. For example, you’d think the upgrade to OpenOffice 2.3 would be available. Wrong.

Instead, CNR gives you an “upgrade,” read downgrade, to OpenOffice 2.0 as your only choice. Say what?

After wandering about CNR, I found that this was true of many programs. In fact, it appears as if work has pretty much come to an end in maintaining the CNR program library sometime in late July. It just so happens that’s about the same time when a flood of executives and developers, including Brian Thomason who had been lead engineer in charge of Linspire’s CNR Warehouse, left Linspire.

The CNR Warehouse itself is in some disorder. The idea of program categories is an excellent one, especially since Freespire is meant for new Linux users, but when you find a shoot-em-up game in desktop publishing, something has really gone wrong.

The CNR Warehouse, which is still in alpha, also locks up from time to time. On some days, I’ve found that the service simply isn’t available. When it works, while the content may be fouled up, the process itself is great; it’s just that it often doesn’t work at all.

So it is that I find myself in something of a quandary about Freespire. On the one hand, it really is easy to use and can probably run on just about any PC you’re likely to have sitting around the house. It also does such a fine job with proprietary programs and hardware.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the company behind it, Linspire, really does seem to be in a state of disarray. CNR, in particular, could be great, but as it is I couldn’t recommend a new Linux user getting anywhere close to it. Heck, even Linspire’s former CEO has turned to pure Ubuntu for his desktop of choice.

If Linspire stabilizes, if the company gets Freespire’s CNR software working smoothly, and if they can get the CNR Warehouse up to date and in order, then Freespire, and its commercial big brother Linspire 6.0, will be worth owning. As it is, I find it gratingly great. In other words, it’s close to being wonderful, but its flaws prevent me from recommending it.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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