Review: Freespire 2.0.3
Freespire is one of those distros that I'm always being recommended to try, so this week instead of reviewing a brand new release I'm stepping back to try Freespire 2.0.3 and see how it measures up.
The single most annoying thing about Freespire is that I've only just stumbled upon it's greatness. If someone dresses up the menus and the folder icons then this has the potential to be the best release in the world - and I genuinely believe that.
Freespire is a community involved release, touted as being Linspire but free (hence the name). This version (2.0.3) started life as Ubuntu 7.04 (nearly a year old now) and that's a pretty decent release to start with. However extra features are added including KDE for a more intuitive interface, CNR Plugin for one-click installs to thousands of applications, proprietary codecs and drivers... So you can see the idea is to take a good foundation and build everything a user could need ontop of it. Freespire fits on a CD too, which is good.
I have to give Freespire some serious credit here, the installation is among the best I've ever used (across any platform). Not only does it look lovely but it's really intuitive - confirming settings with you yet asking questions in terms even the technologically shy would feel comfortable with.
It's a simple case of clicking "continue" and there's nothing here to scare the user and that's excellent. There's no where to go wrong - if you opt to "Use entire hard drive" it checks whether that's okay and explains the implications of doing so:
Some distros can take a lifetime to install, Freespire managed it in under 10 minutes which is nice - not that it makes any difference to system adoption, it's just nice not having to sit on your hands for an hour waiting for it to finish installing. Top marks for installation Freespire, an excellent start.
The Set-Up Wizard
This suddenly feels awfully Windows... Once the installation has completed and you've restarted you're asked to agree to an "End User License Agreement" before starting a set-up wizard. I'm amazed by this wizard because it not only helps you configure some basic settings for the system but it's done in a really user-friendly way. Take the first step for example: setting the sound volume:
In case you can't quite see that (you can click on the image for a full size view) it's asking me to slide the slider to make the background music louder or softer; setting up the default volume level for the system. After that you can set up your time-zone (in a similar way to Ubuntu) and modify your resolution.
Once you've done that you're just about done, my next step was subscribing to CNR and getting that up and running. Let's discuss CNR for a minute shall we.
This is a one-click install client that allows you to find applications on the CNR website (cnr.com) and opt to install them. Because Freespire has been out for a while you do need to update your CNR client but the website prompts you to do this anyway. Once updated you click on the piece of software you wish to install and it downloads it, installs it and you're done!
CNR is awesome, there's not much more I can say about it. I think I personally prefer the Synaptic way of managing apt but I think gateway applications like CNR are much better for usability. You're just browsing a website and shopping for software at the end of the day - with the bonus of community ratings for apps (so if you don't know what media player you want, you can simply opt for the most popular). I'm impressed. Incidentily CNR also manages the updating of your system too which is convenient.
This is a great application that they've bundled in with Freespire - it saves your passwords for you. While this may seem like a silly thing to praise I think it's really good for the 'average' user who won't want to enter their password at every turn.
I can't comment on the wireless driver support because I'm using a wired connection but I believe that proprietary driver support is excellent. Freespire picked up my network without hassle and the "Network Share Manager" that sits on the desktop allowed me to access my Samba shares without issue. This application might not be the most usable thing on the planet but it's okay. I could happily browse the shares and access media files.
This leads me on to the next item on my agenda, media playback. I decided to open my "South Park" directory and try to play the file remotely...
Amazingly Freespire seems happy enough to play the episode of South Park remotely (using Kplayer). Whether this is a trait of the application or the O/S itself it's still impressive (when other releases of late haven't managed this). The other point to raise is that the video played fine using the codecs supplied during the install - meaning the user doesn't need to digg around trying to find the right ones (as they would in XP). I tried a few other files but it coped with them all fine. It's fair to see Freespire has excellent media support.
Freespire on the whole is a good looking release - the default artwork and logos are especially attractive; the only thing that bothers me is the menu and application-bar that sits at the bottom of the screen. Because Freespire offers you quick-launch functionality for a series of popular applications (Firefox, Pidgin, Console, etc) you're left with very little space to manage open applications. In the above screenshot I only had 4-5 items open and that's getting awkward. True I was only running at 1024x768, life would be much happier at 1280x1024 and above but it's still an issue.
On the whole Freespire looks good, I can't fault it.
Freespire comes with the KDE Control Center that you see in so many releases and that's not a bad thing - it's usable, intuitive and powerful in equal measures. There's nothing more for me to say about it, it's an excellent utility.
You're quite light on default software in Freespire but that's not a problem considering the relative ease of CNR; although it seems odd to leave off staples like GIMP when most other basic requirements are met (media players, Office apps etc). But like I said I don't think it's a problem because CNR allows you to cherry pick applications without actually needing a knowledge of what they are. This was my biggest gripe of Conary when I reviewed Foresight Linux recently; you had to know specifically what application you needed before you could find it. Fully online catalogue systems allow inexperienced users to essentially shop for the item they want and download it. This is why I don't consider the lack of depth of default software an issue.
I genuinely cannot fault Freespire and that's hard for an overly critical person like me to admit. The only complaint I have is the slightly cluttered start-bar but that's customisable - functionality wise the whole system just works. The single most annoying thing about Freespire is that I've only just stumbled upon it's greatness. If someone dresses up the menus and the folder icons then this has the potential to be the best release in the world - and I genuinely believe that.
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