My experiences with LindowsOS
by Brad Rodriguez
29 July 2003
Let me say from the outset that "your grandmother's Linux" is not intended as an insult, but as a descriptive term for LindowsOS. I think this is an ideal OS for someone who is not computer-literate...as long as that someone has current hardware and a high-speed Internet connection. If you're dealing with older hardware, a dial-up connection, or you are a programmer or an existing Linux user, you may find the Lindows experience a bit frustrating.
I was attracted to Lindows during its pre-release promotion because it was going to be a true alternative to Windows: a non-Microsoft operating system that would run Windows applications. I've always believed that the marketplace needs to support alternatives to Microsoft; that's why I bought DR-DOS, and that's why the Lindows project appealed to me. I'm also willing to support a worthy cause, so I pre-ordered Lindows (becoming an "Insider"), and was eventually rewarded with an "alpha" Lindows 2.0 and finally a full release, Lindows 3.0.
My first disappointment was to find that Lindows had moved the goalposts. It seems that they weren't able to achieve a satisfactory level of performance or reliability running Windows applications. They're using a derivative of WINE -- and it should be noted that Lindows contributes to the open-source WINE effort -- but since it's not yet ready for prime time, they don't ship it with the system.
So, rather than running true Windows software, Lindows decided to offer equivalents for all of the popular Windows apps, and make them really, really easy to download.
Lindows may be the easiest install I've ever performed of any OS. A "takeover" installation, if I recall correctly, asks only one question, and the entire process takes only a few minutes. If, like me, you're on a manually-configured LAN, you need to later supply IP addresses for the Lindows box, gateway, and DNS; but this is a piece of cake compared to the same configuration under Windows.
Because I was converting an old Windows 95 box into a dual-boot system, I had to use the "advanced" installation. This requires you to use a third-party tool, like Partition Magic or GNU Parted, to create an empty partition on your disk, and you get asked a few more questions during installation. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Lindows auto-detect my Windows partition, mount it under Lindows, and configure the boot loader to choose between Lindows and Windows.
Lindows also did an excellent job of automatically configuring itself for my hardware – at least, the hardware that it recognized. And therein lay the first stumbling block.
I was installing Lindows on my "guest" PC, which used a venerable (but slow) WD8003 Ethernet card. This card is supported by every OS from DOS through Linux...but not Lindows. I presume that, to trim the Lindows distribution down to a single CD-ROM, they jettisoned many drivers for "obsolete" hardware.
Here I stumbled onto the Catch-22 that lives within the Lindows distribution model. They believe in providing everything – the OS, applications, and help – via the Internet. It's true that this is a revolutionary new model that will cut their costs and make software more plentiful and affordable. It's also true that without Internet access, you're screwed. And without a functioning Ethernet card, I had no Internet access.
I began by going over to my regular computer and posting an on-line help request at lindows.com. I got a prompt and helpful reply telling me where I could find the list of supported hardware; sure enough, my card wasn't on it. My second query elicited the not-so-helpful reply that I should change my Ethernet card, but if I wanted to use the old card, a Debian driver would work. (Lindows is based on Debian Linux.)
No problem, you'd think. I don't have Debian Linux, but I do have the source code for the WD8003 driver. That's when I discovered that Lindows does not include the GCC compiler in the distribution. Sure, it's available to any Lindows user, but you have to...download it from the Internet.
At this point I realized that I had only two choices: (a) crack open the box and install a dial-up modem, so I could get Internet access, or (b) crack open the box and install a supported Ethernet card. Option (b) was less total work, so I bought some 3c905 Ethernet cards on eBay, waited for them to arrive, and installed one. Presto! Lindows is now talking on the net. (In one of those little jests that the universe likes to play on me, I found out that this new card isn't supported by Win95. So when I boot Windows, I no longer have network access.)
There are two morals to this tale:
Before you install Lindows, check your hardware compatibility. It's much more restricted than most Linux distributions.
Lindows is utterly dependent on Internet access...even for the "help" function. Don't use it for a standalone application where there is no Internet.
Once you're on line, you have access to the "Click-N-Run Warehouse." This is where you get applications software for Lindows. Basically, it's full of open-source applications that they've vetted to run under Lindows; but they are also encouraging commercial vendors to contribute applications directly to the Warehouse. Normally you buy a one-year subscription to the Warehouse when you buy Lindows; as an early adopter I received a two-year subscription. (I believe you can now buy LindowsOS and the Warehouse subscription separately.)
I think Click-N-Run is Lindows' strongest feature. The name is not an exaggeration: your PC displays a menu of available applications in a browser. You select an application that you want, and click on that choice. Period. Lindows then downloads the application from the Warehouse, installs it on your computer, and puts it on your desktop, with no further intervention. This is smoother and easier than installing a Windows application, and perfect for the family member who doesn't "get" computers.
There are two disadvantages:
For those who care about such things, you've basically sole-sourced your software. Click-N-Run only works with the Click-N-Run Warehouse operated by Lindows. (Of course you can download GCC and compile applications from source, but your grandmother doesn't want to do that.)
For applications of any size, you need a high-speed connection.
The folks at Lindows have tried to help people like me who are limited to dial-up access. You can buy the OS on CD-ROM. And you can buy the "Click-N-Run Express" CD-ROM, which contains copies of the more popular applications (and those that were first available for Lindows). When I went to install Adobe Acrobat Reader, Lindows promptly grabbed it from the CD-ROM.
Very nice, but sometimes it stumbles. One of the perqs of the Warehouse subscription is StarOffice, and as this was one of the first applications vetted for Lindows, it's on the CD-ROM. But I surmise that it's been updated since my CD-ROMs were made, because when I went to install StarOffice from CD-ROM, Lindows promptly checked the Warehouse for a new version, discovered one, and decided to install that.
Two days later, the download completed. It would have been faster had I not needed to restart it so many times; it never managed to grab all 70+ megabytes in one go. On the bright side, Click-N-Run is smart enough to resume the download where it was interrupted, rather than having to restart from the beginning.
The moral: you don't really want to use Lindows with only dial-up Internet access.
When I bought Lindows early on, it required a Pentium CPU with 64 MB of RAM, so that's what I built. When Lindows 3.0 arrived, the spec had been bumped up to 128 MB of RAM. They're not fooling. You can install Lindows with 64 MB, but I can only describe the speed as glacial. A small investment in an additional 64 meg solved the problem. Take this spec seriously.
I'm running Lindows on an HP Kayak with a 400 MHz Pentium II. This has an Analog Devices AD1816 sound controller on the motherboard...not, alas, one which is recognized by Lindows. Since my main use for this machine is sound editing, this is a problem. In theory, I can install any ALSA drivers, and this chipset is supported by ALSA, but I haven't yet found time to jump through these hoops. (And, as much as I hate disabling perfectly good hardware, it's tempting to simply install a vanilla Sound Blaster card.)
Also, for some reason, Lindows does not recognize my HP CD-writer. It works fine as a CD-ROM reader, but I haven't been able to write to it yet. This would also be a problem, but is also awaiting more time to tinker with it.
On the plus side, my Okidata OL-400e printer is supported by Lindows, was a snap to install, and worked right away.
Because this machine was cobbled together from spare parts, I'm still running 800x600 video resolution. This works fine for most applications, but it's a bit constraining for the Click-N-Run browser. (Imagine a Netscape browser with an extra toolbar, and with the broswer window divided into three panes, and you'll see there isn't much room for the menu listing.) I'd recommend 1024x768 for a truly satisfactory experience.
I haven't had time to play with Lindows as much as I'd like. But we recently had a visitor for a few weeks, and as this is our "guest" computer, I got some feedback from him. He's a non-computer person running Red Hat Linux with some help from his techie roomate. He seemed quite happy with Lindows; he used Netscape and Star Office for weeks with no problems (and, need I add, with no crashes). His one gripe with Red Hat Linux is his dependence on his roomate for configuration and setup, so he'd probably be an ideal Lindows customer.
Lindows also deserves praise for their license terms. If you buy one copy of Lindows, you can install it on all the computers in your household. Ditto the Click-N-Run membership. Arguably they're just recognizing the facts of life here, but compared to Microsoft's increasingly draconian attempts to make you buy a license for every PC, this is a refreshing change.
I think Lindows is a great idea, but it's not going to be the Linux I use every day. (I have a dial-up connection, perverse hardware, and technical savvy.) I'll keep it on the guest machine, and I'll even upgrade to the just-released Lindows 4.0. I'll also put it on the "demo" machine that I'm building to show off Linux.
The bottom line: Lindows fills an important need -- a "consumer" Linux for home users. It probably won't satisfy "office" users who have more need for Microsoft compatibility; they'll want to investigate Xandros, Crossover Office, or Win4Lin. And it probably won't satisfy "techie" users who want to tinker or install all kinds of oddball software. But for the Wal-Mart market, and for new computer users, it's a strong contender: easier, more reliable, and less expensive than Windows.