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Lindows in the living room – can you live with it?

Nice ideas, but pity about quite a lot of things...

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Earlier this year The Register expressed an interest in Lindows.com's Lindows Media Computer, and despite the accompanying back-handed compliments, Michael Robertson himself got in touch and arranged to have one shipped round. So for the past couple of months I've been able to check out LindowsOS itself, the Lindows.com business model in operation, the hardware, and the whole notion of the 'living room' PC, or the 'one per room' PC.

Don't you just hate it when simple things get predictably complicated? Any one of these really ought to have been enough to be going on with, but you really can't separate them.

What you get

So we'll start with a plugging in the box overview of the whole package. The LMC is essentially a standard iDOT low-footprint miniITX system with LindowsOS preinstalled. LindowsOS is essentially an implementation of Debian designed to offer the consumer a non-threatening and cheap alternative to Windows, and the business model is heavily dependent on 'Click-N-Run', which is a sort of combination of support mechanism, online store, discussion group and walled garden. And the living room PC? That will probably come out as we progress.

The review system wasn't exactly straight out of the iDOT box, as Lindows.com had purchased it and configured it prior to shipping. A nice thought, but the configuration got mangled somewhere on the way across the Atlantic, so we wound up reinstalling anyway. This was simple enough, although the default suppression of boot information would have made it difficult for a new user (a target markets) to figure out why it was hanging in the first place. The system is the more expensive $329 DVD variant, and Lindows.com had added in a Logitech optical mouse and a big Keytronic old-style IBM clacky keyboard.

This is the current writer's favourite kind of keyboard, and because it's no longer particularly easy to just walk into a store and buy one these days, I'm deeply grateful. But it was an odd choice for a low-footprint living room PC, so I swapped it out for a small black USB Happy Hacker instead.

The hardware

The hardware itself is a sort of bookcase mini-tower, with two USBs at rear and two at front, and serial, parallel, Ethernet and audio at the rear. Interior access is simple, involving just loosening two thumbscrews at the rear and sliding a side panel off. At which point you see that interior access is also pretty pointless, considering how jam-packed it is in there. There's a standard height Sony DVD-ROM drive in the centre above the motherboard, hard disk tucked at one side beside the single PCI slot, and mini power supply over on the other. You get access to the motherboard itself by undoing another thumbscrew at the rear, unclipping the front panel then undoing a retaining screw at the front and sliding out the DVD drive. So basically you can shove in a PCI card of some description, fill the vacant memory slot, then shut it forever, or until you fancy really radical surgery.

It's clearly built to a price, and nothing wrong with that. The combination of needed clearance for the motherboard and full height DVD dictates the width of the machine, and on the review model the PSU emits a whine that is really not appropriate for the living room. When I took Lindows.com to task for this they protested that iDOT was in general keeping PSU noise down, but although maybe I just got a wrong 'un, low-cost PSUs will inevitably perform variably, and the PC industry in general has yet to wrap its head around the concept of 'quiet.'

The board itself is an FIC, not, as I'd earlier guessed, a Via, and houses a 933MHz Via C3 E-series CPU. This comes with a fan, but it's a very small fan, so it can possibly be forgiven. The board itself lacks a TV output, which is less forgivable in something you might want to run in a living room, and use to watch DVDs.

Which, as we know, can be a pretty good trick with Linux anyway. So how does it work under LindowsOS? Actually, it doesn't as such. The LMC uses a DVD and audio playing capability in the motherboard bios, so you can get instant play of a DVD when you switch on, but that's something you choose instead of booting the machine as a PC. Personally I have issues with this approach, because although it brings a consumer electronics style level of instant gratification to PCs, it does so by turning the PC into a temporarily dumb piece of consumer electronics. And it's only instant if the default state of your PC is off, whereas it seems to me that the default state of a living room PC should be on.

Although LindowsOS doesn't ship with DVD playing software, the Click-N-Run service offers Xine, but hedges it with an 'in development' message and a link through to a substantial How-To and discussion in the Members' Forum. Given that Linux DVD players aren't yet sufficiently simple for your average grandpa in the street, this is probably the sensible way to do it, and is a good example of how the fulfillment/support/forum combination of Click-N-Run can be effective. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

LindowsOS

The software is basically Debian after a heavy cosmetic job. In some senses you could call this a munge, even heresy, but bear in mind that the configuration is intended to do a job for people who do not necessarily include you. Do I think it's an error to automatically default to logging you in as root? Probably, yes. But do I habitually log into Windows systems as Administrator? Well, yes to this too, naughty me, and anyway normal people probably don't feel their computers should come with a compulsory introduction to the theory and practice of secure network administration.

The 'Windows-izing' of an otherwise harmless KDE is maybe a little harder to bear, and not entirely successful. Sure, the headings have been gone over so thery're more in line with what you'd get in a Windows installation, but the introduction of a 'C:' drive is incongruous and weird. Click on it and you're browsing files normally in Linux, which is surely not what your naiive Windows user would have expected, and click on My Documents and you'll see that there it is, under root. In trying not to threaten people with the alien, Lindows.com is here only going to end up confusing them.

But overall it's really not a bad system. It works, gives you reasonably easy access to a reasonable level of functionality without your having to work too hard at it, and I can't really find it in myself to actively hate anything in particular about it. An alternative to Microsoft that ordinary people can use is, IMO, A Good Thing, and this one's a candidate.

The money bit

Depending on where you're sitting, Click-N-Run could be the thing you could hate most readily. The operating system software itself surely won't make the company much money, if any, but Click-N-Run, by adding a subscription element, could be a big moneyspinner if Lindows.com can get enough users out there, and using it. It's a little bit in your face, and if you take one of two major open source viewpoints (Idealist: Software should be free; Realist: Damned if I'm paying for software) it's a lot in your face. But I don't know, I kind of like at least the idea of it.

Click-N-Run membership is $99 for a year, or $299 for two years 'insider' membership, the discrepancy here being largely accounted for by your getting access to insider forums. Lindows.com doesn't seem to say what the renewal cost of membership will be, which does make it a little difficult to figure out the long term value, or even durability of the service. The strange lack of financial signposts here does kind of suggest that renewal might well just be another $99, which either takes Lindows into a stupidly expensive rental scenario, or consigns Click-N-Run to a one-off 'beginner' status that nobody sane is going to renew. Membership gets you access to a a large pile of software; all of it is available elsewhere, a little of it (e.g. StarOffice) would cost you money to buy separately, but mostly it's free if you're prepared to look for it..

So why give Michael Robertson money to get software you could get somewhere else anyway? Compare, for example, SuSE Linux Office Desktop, which for $129 has StarOffice and Codeweavers Crossover Office thrown in. One of the things Lindows.com has to do in order to make it worthwhile renewing Click-N-Run is to pull in a continuing series of (relatively) high ticket items; it's difficult to see how it can do this in the short term, which perhaps explains why the company might not have come up with a level for the renewal fee yet. $99 might also seem like a lot on top of what's likely to have been a pretty cheap box, but as many new users will compare it with retail software prices, they possibly won't see it that way.

The system does have some attractions for the newbie, and perhaps for the lazy journalist who was comped a sub with the review machine. It styles itself as a "warehouse," and is organised into aisles, such as Business & Finance, Audio & MP3, Games, and so on. The nice thing about this is that you get easy, and easily understood, access to software that will run on the OS you're using, so new users can just plug in the box and start assembling the software they want to run on it without having to rummage around the Web for it. So it's good as a start point, and also useful because of the way it organises what's available. If new users become enthusiasts (who tend to be the people who want more software), however, then they will start to acquire knowledge and start to question the value of Click-N-Run, unless it can demonstrate longer-term value.

Support and discussion via the Click-N-Run forums also has some value, but with similar caveats. Much of the support comes from other Click-N-Run members, but there's quite a bit of it about, and it again has the virtue of being all in the one place, dealing with a single platform. So new users will probably find it easier to find things out from what seem to be fairly polite people (it must be tricky to be a techno-snob Lindows insider). But it's limited, and in the longer term will depend on having a regular stream of new users who need stuff fixed, and on sufficient critical mass for the Click-N-Run system to allow it to grow.

Which basically sums up Click-N-Run, and possibly also LindowsOS, and Lindows.com. You can see how they might be good ideas, blueprints for things that could be great if they achieved critical mass and got finished before the whole thing imploded, but if you look at where they are now it seems like one hell of a bet. If Lindows machines get into enough retail outlets, if enough new users buy them to create a viable market, if Robertson can leverage this into more software in the warehouse, if this becomes sufficiently interesting for people to renew their subs...

The ifs just roll on, and you start to wonder about the courage to foolhardiness ratio of the whole operation. In some senses it would be nice to see something like this work, but it's significant that I can't bring myself to just flat-out say I'd like this to work. If I were presented with a project intended to get SuSE, or Red Hat or Mandrake preinstalled on retail PCs, to achieve a respectable market share and to generate a viable software marketplace for users then I don't think I'd have a similar problem. None of these, nor anybody else 'respectable,' shows any sign of kicking off such an enterprise, which maybe takes us back to courage:foolhardiness. So maybe I'll just vote for Lindows to be sufficiently viable to begin to open up a consumer market for non-Microsoft operating systems, to show that there are the germs of good, sustainable ideas in the package, and to maybe learn some things itself. I'll certainly not vote for it to be the kind of stonking, high-profile disaster that could set the whole show back several years.

Would I have bought it?
Easy - no. Which gets us onto the living room PC and associated issues. It's too loud, and although the power supply I mentioned accounts for a lot of that, when I was part way through this piece I had the opportunity to compare it with an alternative Via-boarded system with an external PSU. This is pretty quiet, but there's still detectable, albeit not irritating, noise from the CPU fan.

Granted, if you could get the noise level down to something as acceptable as this second system (review coming soon, honest, Via), then the LMC would be perfectly adequate for a little light home surfing, writing, and starting an MP3 collection. It also has some utility as a DVD player, but for the living room I think I'd as soon just buy a 'real' DVD player. How about playing games? This is largely academic as far as Linux systems are concerned, but even the most recent of the miniITX generation boards do not have sufficient beef to be classed as serious gaming machines. So you've a choice there - if you want a living room PC that plays state of the art graphical games, then you're going to have to put up with some level of noise, or get into some seriously heavy heatsink engineering. If you want an unobtrusive living room PC, then you're going to have to put the gaming machine somewhere else. Or buy a Playstation instead. Both good strategies, if you ask me.

What I would have bought, I think, would have been a machine of around this size, perhaps a little smaller, either with an internal PSU that was seriously certified as near-silent, or using an external one. I'd have gone for one of the newer, slightly higher-specced, boards, and I'd have gone for a combination CD writer and DVD drive. But I'd have wound up paying a lot more than the LMC's price for this, so overall, it's still not a bad deal. ®

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