Review: Which Free Linux Desktop Is Best?

Interest in Linux on the desktop is on the rise and that spells opportunity for solution providers looking to hang out their Linux shingle. CRN's Test Center puts three free

August 24, 2006

11 Min Read
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Some solution providers are wondering if it is O.K. to shout Linux desktop in a Microsoft shop.

Just a short time ago, that word would have been met with disparaging remarks or worse yet, the speaker would have been escorted from the premises. But, the times are a changing and many businesses are starting to become open to the idea of a desktop powered by something other than Windows. What has sparked that change? Perhaps it is ongoing security concerns or the delays behind Windows Vista. It could also be related to hardware upgrade costs or software costs. Any way you slice it, the interest in Linux on the desktop is on the rise and that spells opportunity for solution providers looking to hang out their Linux shingle.

Arguably, the biggest challenge a solution provider faces when entertaining a Linux-focused business plan is what Linux distribution to choose. There are hundreds of commercial and open source distributions available, all vying for attention. One of the first choices to make is whether to go with an open source version or with a commercial version of Linux. For arguments sake, and to keep costs as low as possible, let's say an open source version is best to cut your teeth on. There are no up front costs and several to choose from.

CRN Test Center set out to locate good examples of free Linux distributions that still have some channel focus and offer robust features, along with upgrades to commercial support. The field was narrowed down to three familiar names in the Linux world, Ubuntu, OpenSuse and the new Freespire, the free version of Linspire. Each of these distributions are free to download and free to play around with and pretty much free to redistribute, with some caveats.

Comparing these distributions head to head is no easy task. Each has its own idiosyncrasies and each is aimed at a slightly different audience, ranging from the corporate Linux diehard to the neophyte user. With that in mind, Test Center engineers focused on what aspects of a Linux desktop would most benefit system builders, including installation, setup, support, feature set and usability. The CRN Test Center ranked each distribution in five categories: installation, setup/configuration, support, feature set and usability to compose a final winner.

INSTALLATION
The best installation procedure is a balance of many items, ranging from automation to hardware detection to information provided to the installer. With those factors in mind, Freespire was able to edge out the other players, but by a very slim margin. The installation of Freespire consists of little more than booting off of the Freespire CD. Installers will be asked very basic questions, such as primary user name to be assigned and whether or not Freespire should take over the hard drive and erase any previous operating systems. The installation process provided an attractive graphical status screen, which touts the products primary features and provides a progress bar to determine how long the installation will take.

Ubuntu proves to be just as easy to work with as Freespire, but does require a little more installer interaction. One nifty feature with Ubuntu is the ability to run the operating system directly from the installation CD.

OpenSuse offers a more traditional approach to a Linux install. Installation still proves to be simple, but there is significant installer interaction required compared to the other two distributions. While installation may prove to be more complex with OpenSuse, installers do have much more control over the process and can quickly change defaults or access advanced options. When looking at installation of these three distributions, most solution providers are going to find picking what's best for them will be a matter of taste.

Installation
Freespire: 3 points
Ubuntu: 2 points
OpenSuse: 1 point

SETUP / CONFIGURATION
Once a basic install is completed, installers will have to finalize the configuration and set up the operating system for the users' preferences. In some cases, such as with Freespire and Ubuntu, all of the primary aspects of the operating system are ready for use immediately after installation. With OpenSuse, there are a few additional tasks to accomplish after installation, but those tasks are wizard-driven and also ensure that the system is set up properly and not left to chance.

While Ubuntu is ready to use after the basic install, several settings can enhance the end-user experience, ranging from installing updates to adding software to defining preferences. All of those elements are easy to locate and change, but Ubuntu does not provide something along the lines of a "personality wizard," which could step installers through all of the major preferences.

Freespire proves to be very easy to configure and set up, but some elements are buried or follow a confusing path through the interface. Setting up wireless access proved to be one of those glitchy procedures. Installers not only have to activate the wireless interface, they also will need to define a profile to work with a wireless network. The procedure proves to be less than intuitive, and did require several reboots to get the wireless network card to associate with an access point, especially if any encryption is used.

Freespire does provide a "theme manager," which allows users to change the look and feel of the interface, but regrettably, only the default Freespire theme is included. Ubuntu offers themes, and they are easy to select. OpenSuse goes one step further and provides themes that can mimic other operating systems, such as Windows and Mac. That feature, along with the almost infinite tune-ability offered by OpenSuse, brings the product to the top of the heap when it comes to setup options and custom configurations.

Setup/Configuration

OpenSuse: 3 points
Ubuntu: 2 points
Freespire: 1 point

NEXT: Support, Feature Set
SUPPORT
Freespire, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu all rely on community-oriented support and also offer upgrade paths to commercially supported products or service plans.

Ubuntu leads the pack when it comes to free support, driven by a very active user community. Not only does Ubuntu's website provide extensive documentation, community forums, FAQs and demonstrations, the product includes a community driven application installer. Driven by the "Add/Remove Applications" control panel, users can quickly list all available applications that can be installed into the OS. Those applications are available via the Ubuntu website and the list is updated frequently, if not daily. Installation of new applications in the list takes little more than a select and click approach. For the most part applications are installed completely automatically. Software updating is also provided by Ubuntu, where the latest patches and fixes can be downloaded and applied automatically.

Freespire offers similar capabilities, but through its CNR (Click 'N' Run) tool. CNR is available on a trial basis, but ultimately, users will have to pay a fee for continued use of the service.

OpenSuse sticks to the time-tested method of downloading and installing applications by hand. The upside is that almost anything is available. The downside is that application installations can be cumbersome and complex.

Both Freespire and OpenSuse are relatively new open source projects and have yet to attain the momentum that is behind Ubuntu. That analysis comes through quite clearly when one looks at each of the distribution's community forums. While each of these distributions offer adequate free support, Ubuntu rises to the top in service just because of the sheer size of the support community. But, as support goes, all three of the reviewed distributions can get better with age.

Support
Ubuntu: 3 points
OpenSUSE: 2 points
Freespire: 1 point

FEATURE SET
Each distribution comes chock full of features, but OpenSuse seems to lead the pack here. Arguably, its OpenSuse's bundle of 5 installation CDs that bring a plethora of options to the table, while both Ubuntu and Freespire make due with a single CD to house their installations and application options. That said, a basic install of any of these three distributions includes most of the features anyone may need. All provide web browsing (Firefox), an office suite (open office based) and a slew of other applications. The real difference comes down to how well the features are implemented and readily accessible. OpenSuse relies on YAST (yet another system tool) as its feature manager. YAST is extremely robust and offers almost unlimited options when it comes to controlling the Linux feature set. What's more, the ability to quickly locate and launch applications is readily apparent in OpenSuse.

Freespire puts ease of use ahead of everything else, which reduces the learning curve associated with a Linux desktop. The product's "control center" is where all the magic happens. Here is where a user can customize menus and other elements for further ease of use. Freespire covers all of the basics quite well, and includes elements such as VPN support, CD & DVD burning tools, multimedia tools, utilities and so on. While Freespire comes in at the bottom of our feature set list, that is due mostly to the fact that the product eschews many features for ease of use and requires a paid membership to CNR to enhance the product further.

Ubuntu, on the other hand, strives to balance ease of use and available features and does an impressive job. Ubuntu's weakness (and strength) comes from its Add/Remove Applications control. Most add on applications must be downloaded and installed. While mainly an automatic process, it is still an "after the fact" procedure. All things being equal, OpenSuse offers the quickest method to start off with as many features as possible and offers intricate control of the feature set during installation.

Feature set
OpenSuse: 3 points
Ubuntu: 2 points
Freespire: 1 point


NEXT: Usability

USABILITY
One of the hardest factors to determine is the usability of a desktop operating system. Millions of dollars and countless hours have been spent by software developers to try and find that sweet spot of usability, only to find that a sweet spot may not exist at all. Each of these Linux distributions offer exceptional usability, but one has to take into account the needs of the target audience and balance ease of use against the products feature set to grade usability.

In this case, the Test Center took a look at how usability affects channel players becoming purveyors of open source Linux to new customers or users making the leap to Linux. With those elements in mind, Ubuntu rises to the top in usability. The product's menus are well laid out and descriptive, applications are organized into logical areas and startup and shutdown tasks are easily accomplished. Joining networks, browsing the web and setting up wireless access are all equally as easy. Ubuntu tries to eschew much of the technobabble associated with Linux and helps to further ease the transition for a user moving from Windows to an alternative operating system.

Freespire's usability power comes from the fact that the product somewhat mimics Windows, by offering a Launch button (similar to Windows start button) and lays out menus and controls similar to what Windows' users are accustomed to. But that mimicking of Windows is also a weakness. Arguably, if a solution provider is going to go through the process of introducing something new to their clients, it should have a new look and feel and should be an improvement over what it is replacing. OpenSuse sports excellent usability enhancements, such as the support of XGL, which allows the implementation of 3D effects to the desktop interface, on par with what Window's Vista users will experience. That said, OpenSuse is more complicated to use then the other two distributions here, mostly because of the robust feature set and partially because of the reliance on Linuxspeak throughout the interface. Many of the Linux terms used will be alien to Windows users, but savvy users should be quick to adapt to the changes.

When push comes to shove, Ubuntu edges out the others when it comes to usability, although selecting OpenSuse or Freespire would be far from a mistake.

Usability
Ubuntu: 3 points
Freespire: 2 points
OpenSuse: 1 point

FINAL RATING
Choosing Freespire, OpenSuse or Ubuntu to build a Linux business on should meet the needs of most system builders. All offer advantages and disadvantages. Much like the cola wars of the 1990s, it will all come down to taste. One area that system builders will need to focus on is the right to redistribute a Linux open source distribution. In some cases, Linux distribution rights are controlled by agreements with third party software providers, such as open office or other bundled applications. Since bundles and add-ons change frequently, solution providers will want to read the fine print associated with the licensing and redistribution of both the Linux vendor and the 3rd party software partners. Either way, that is a small price to pay for something that is for all intents and purposes free.

Final rating

Ubuntu: 12 points
OpenSuse: 10 points
Freespire: 8 points
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