Linspire is a desktop operating system based on a Linux kernel, which is presented as an alternative desktop operating system to Windows. At the time of our review, both the company and the product were in the middle of a name change, having been at the pointy end of a trademark battle with Microsoft – so what was called Lindows is now Linspire.

The first step for installation is to choose whether to allow Linspire to take over an entire disk, or to place it on a predefined partition. Our test machine (a PIII-500 Medion desktop) is using our spare 20GB disk, so we told it to take over the entire drive. Next, you're asked to give the machine a name and define the "security" password, then after a quick "Are you really, absolutely sure?" dialogue, the installer proceeds to copy its files. After fifteen minutes or so of copying stuff, the machine reboots and starts up in the new operating system, which is based on the KDE window manager (and which will therefore look familiar to many Linux users).

The manufacturer's emphasis seems to have been on making the system as usable as possible for the average desktop user. It happily recognised our hardware, including a NetGear Ethernet adaptor and a TFT monitor that some operating systems have problems with (note that, as with many Linuxes, it usually doesn't name the brand but the chipset that the hardware is based on – so our SMC network card was seen as an Accton chipset). The system is automatically configured to be able to browse Windows filesharing networks and to share printers thereon and, although you can configure it with your default Windows workgroup, it doesn't actually need this information in order to work.

The system comes preinstalled with a small collection of software and utilities, of which the most important is the OpenOffice suite, which includes a variety of office applications (word processor, spreadsheet and so on) which claim to be compatible with MS Office file formats (and the Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents we threw at OpenOffice certainly posed it no problems aside from the odd missing font). There's also the obligatory set of Internet applications – a Web browser, email client and AOL instant messaging client.

Alongside the preinstalled cluster of applications is a whole wad of programs that aren't installed as standard (the system does, after all, ship on just one CD). These are accessed via the "Click and Run", or "CNR" function. It's basically a Web site containing downloads – both free and paid-for – which you can browse at will, once you've set up a user ID and password. When you select an item, it's added to your "CNR queue", and is downloaded and installed automatically in the background. It's a kind of neat idea and it works very well.

We came across a couple of issues in our review. First of all, when the machine rebooted after the initial installation, it hung instead of restarting and we had to hit the Reset button. This seems to have been a one-off glitch, though, as it worked fine for subsequent shutdowns and restarts. The main issue that's a bit weird is that the system didn't identify document types correctly when they were viewed over the network. That is, when we browsed to a Windows fileshare, a PDF document was listed as an "Executable" and was given a generic icon to reflect this – as was a PowerPoint presentation in the same folder. This said, though, double-clicking the documents had the correct effect – the right applications were launched in each case and the files displayed correctly. The issue seems to be with the directory listing, because as soon as the items were copied to the local disk they were given the right icons and file types.

Linspire is an excellent quick-start desktop operating system. It's certainly as easy from the user's point of view as any Linux implementation we've come across, there are various bundles available with extras such as AV software - see the Web site - and the combination of preinstalled applications and CNR-accessible ones is well thought-out and works superbly.

OUR VERDICT

Linspire isn't as well-known as some Linuxes (such as Red Hat and Debian), but it is priced more competitively than Red Hat and in our opinion it's easier to use as a desktop operating system for the average user.