Friday, 4 April 2008

FreeSpire 2.0.8 - First Impressions

Regular readers may remember my quest to find the perfect GNU/Linux for my elderly HP OmniBook XE (40 gb hard drive, 156 meg RAM, running at a cracking 450mhz). I have tried a few different distros with varying levels of success - Green OS being the closest so far.

I've been playing with XP on the beast too - which worked surprisingly well on the limited hardware and memory.

Recently I went back to try a current version of Freespire, which like Green OS is based on Ubuntu. I've had limited success with Ubuntu itself, but strangely enough distros based on it seem to work well.

Freespire is no exception. I'd decided to set the laptop to dual boot between XP and Freespire in case everything went tits up. I'd given Freespire a dry run on an old Dell PC which I'd had lying around.

If you do a default install (and take over the entire disk) then the install is entirely painless, and slightly easier than installing Windows XP.

Setting up a dual boot on FreeSpire through was less straight forward. Choosing an "Advanced" install gave me a list of the current partitions, but no way to resize them. It recommended rebooting and choosing the third option to amend the partitions.

The third option turned out to be the graphical safe mode - nothing to do with resizing the disk. In the end I turned to an old Ubuntu CD and used that to resize the Windows XP partition. Returning to Freespire with 20 gig of free space I tried the advanced install again - even with free space on the drive there was no way of creating partitions.


Back into Ubuntu and I created a large main partition and smaller swap one. Returning to FreeSpire and this time I was able to select my new partition ready for the install. But wait, even though the partition was available and selected there was still no option to continue the install. Yes folks, we have hit the curse of the 800x600 screen resolution.

The "next" button was hidden off the bottom of the screen. Hitting "Tab" a couple of times then pressing "Enter" got me onto the next stage of the install and after that it was plain sailing. Right up to the point where I re-booted.

Grub came up, but no option for my Windows installation.


Luckily there was an option to redetect and after running that and rebooting again an option for Windows XP did appear.

But enough about the install. Once I had Freespire up and running it actually works rather well. My wireless card was detected and easily runs as well as it does on Windows XP. Connecting to my wireless network was a snap using the provided tools. The onboard sound card runs well, everything feels nice and snappy.

A real bonus is the CNR (Click 'n' Run) service. You don't need to register to run it (although it is free to do so if you wish), and installing additional software is as simple as choosing it from the list and clicking "Install". I've already added "The Gimp" and "Amarok" onto the laptop and I've got to say it was entirely painless.

Another "good thing" is that MP3s work from the outset. Flash is also pre-installed (so YouTube works out of the box). In fact, as far as multimedia goes Freespire is as good as it gets. All the codecs are legally licensed versions and I can safely say that this is a Linux distro that is squarely aimed at giving as good a user experience out of the box as you are likely to find.

Freespire looks good, is nippy enough to install on low-end hardware (P2 class and above) and feels like a modern operating system should.

Overall I've got to say that I've been pleasantly surprised at just how well it works. Yes, the install was a bit quirky (if you want to install alongside Windows that is) but once it is on the whole thing runs really well.

I'm going to stick with it for a while and see if it holds up to prolonged usage. But so far, so good!

Update (11/4/2008)

In the interests of fairness, I'm going to admit something. The install instructions were correct. If you boot into the "Live CD" environment then the partition manager is right there on the desktop.


I've stuck with FreeSpire for a couple of weeks now - and it really does work like a charm. In fact, I'm currently playing with an old Toshiba Satellite 4600, which also works really well with FreeSpire. High resolution graphics, decent performance, the built in wireless card also works out of the box too.

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