What happens when you blend one of the most popular Linux desktop distributions, Ubuntu, with commercial software and codecs available right out of the box? You get Linspire, an interesting take on Linux desktop distributions. Unlike a number of desktop Linux distributions, Linspire does charge for the software. Once you register on https://linspire.com, you can purchase the latest distribution and get access to an ISO you can download from the site. Linspire is based on the Ubuntu Linux distributions, but has made arrangements with a number of companies to include commercial software. With most distributions, once the initial OS is installed, you must dig around on forums or wikis to find out the secret series of steps to follow so you can have hardware-accelerated drivers and multimedia codecs, but Linspire’s arrangements mean that multimedia codecs, third-party 3D video drivers, and a number of other interesting pieces of software like RealPlayer are all made available out of the box.
As you use Linspire, you can tell that this distribution has definitely set its sights on new Linux users, particularly those who are familiar with Windows. The user interface follows pretty standard conventions, and with all of the available software, new Linspire users might not even be faced with the issue of commercial versus open source software as it is all blended together, for better or worse. The end result is a cohesive blend of popular open source software like Firefox, with proprietary multimedia codecs ready to use without any legal gray areas.
Installation & Setup (5 out of 5)
This is probably the easiest Linux install out there. When you boot the CD, the most difficult question you have to answer is whether to stick with the default install, which overwrites your current hard drive, or go with the advanced install. If you choose the default, you then fill out your name, choose a password, and then the install begins. The next thing you know you are ready to reboot into your new desktop with no further questions asked. Linspire takes care of all of the package choices, configures your hardware (and installs the proprietary video drivers, if necessary, for 3D acceleration), and even installs proprietary audio and video codecs for you.
User Interface (4 out of 5)
Linspire has standardized on KDE for its desktop environment, so if you come from a KDE background or even a Windows background you will be in familiar territory. The menu has been streamlined and simplified, however, which is a needed improvement over the clutter you often find in a default KDE menu. The panel along the bottom provides one-click access to launch the most common applications, and when you search through the menu system for other applications, you’ll find Linspire hasn’t included five different applications that all do the same thing; for the most part, each need is represented by an application that serves it best.
While the interface is pretty simple to use, the overall KDE Control Center, which KDE uses for all of its configuration, does have a steep learning curve and can be overwhelming for new users.
Product Features (5 out of 5)
Linspire has a number of features that are pretty unique when compared to other distributions. Probably what stands out the most is the merging of commercial and open source software in the default install. Linspire has arranged things and paid licensing fees so that it can include codecs and other commercial software in the default install and also make additional commercial software available in the Click N Run (CNR) package manager. New Linux users can be assured that they aren’t delving into any legal gray areas with software Linspire provides. In addition to third-party software, Linspire has not only modified Firefox and Thunderbird to suit its interface better, but has also added a number of unique applications such as Lsoungs for music playback and ripping and Lphoto for photo management and touch-ups.
There are some Linux users who insist on a completely open source distribution. These users will probably want to look for a different distribution.
Package Management (4 out of 5)
Even though Linspire is based on Ubuntu, it has its own answer to package management in Click N Run. CNR works through a web interface. The CNR site lists all of the available software sorted into different categories. To install a program you find there, just click the install button next to it. CNR takes over at that point and downloads the package along with any dependencies. In addition, this site provides a number of commercial applications that you often have to jump through hoops to install in other distributions. It’s just about the easiest and fastest package installation tool currently available under Linux. There are even commercial applications you can purchase via CNR.
While CNR is certainly easy to use, it’s hard to tell whether you already have a program from the CNR site installed, or whether you have the latest version. Also, the system doesn’t prompt you for a password as an extra level of security before installing any programs from the CNR site.
Price to Value (4 out of 5)
While it is hard to compete with free Linux distributions when you charge, Linspire offers a lot to make up for its initial cost. There is certainly a market for a user who wants an experience similar to what they have had on Windows with third-party software and drivers without worrying about commercial versus open source software. For those people, not having to search around for documentation on how to install this extra software could be worth the money.
Even with all of the available default proprietary software, these days it isn’t too difficult to get much of the same software in other popular desktop distributions, even if it takes an extra step. Some people might prefer to spend the extra effort to get similar functionality in a free distribution.
It would be nice for the CNR software to make it more apparent which software was already on the system and what needed updates. A live CD option on the install CD would make it easy for a user to try Linspire without committing to a full install.
Linspire strikes an interesting balance in the world of desktop Linux distributions. I don’t think I’ve seen a non-free distribution do such a good job at justifying the extra cost. While you do save a lot of hassle, there still is some room for improvement, both in the overall interface and in package installation and updates. Still, if you are interested in Linux, particularly if you have a strong Windows background, Linspire would provide you with a good stepping stone to see how easy a Linux desktop really can be.