Spawn of Ubuntu

Looking for a new desktop? Ubuntu's spiffy progeny includes several worth checking out, including Linux Mint, Freespire, and gOS.

It isn’t enough just to create a great distribution these days; you also have to create a distribution that can spawn offspring to further that greatness. All the major distributions including Slackware, Red Hat, SUSE, Gentoo, and Debian have reproduced to the point where the children scarcely look like the parent. Now the children have grown up enough to begin procreating new and exciting distributions of their own for every whim and user type.

Ubuntu Linux, based on Debian, is one of those prolific parents that produce new offspring on a regular basis. A few new Ubuntu-based distributions have converted from other distributions to join the ever-growing Ubuntu family. Some of Ubuntu’s offspring have gone on to become multimedia moguls, foreign language speakers, Christians, Muslims, and security experts.

Ubuntu has also produced some nifty new Desktop distributions as well. This article profiles three of those new rising stars in the Ubuntu Desktop fold: Linux Mint, Freespire, and gOS. If you would like to try one, or all, before you commit, the ISO CD image does double duty as a Live CD.

From Freedom Came Elegance: Linux Mint

Linux Mint 4.0 (codenamed “Daryna”), is based on Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, has many additional features and tools that qualify it as a new and improved Desktop choice. The overall look and feel of Linux Mint is undeniably Ubuntu but closer examination reveals why it stands as a new distribution. Look at distinguishing features in Listing 1.

Linux Mint’s Daryna Features

  • MintUpdate Configurable Automated Updates with Security Levels
  • MintInstaller/Software Portal Synaptic-based Software Repository
  • MintDesktop New Features including a Configuration Applet
  • Liberation Fonts RedHat’s Liberation Fonts
  • Compiz Fusion Pre-Activated 3D Effects
  • Upstream Improvements Includes all the latest Software and Kernel Improvements
  • New Repository Structure Organized into Main, Community, Upstream, Import, and Backport Packages.

Linux Mint has the familiar and simple Ubuntu installation procedure that is well suited to newcomers, but also has advanced configuration options for you old pros. Most of your decision-making however, is performed post-installation where you can install new software, remove applications you don’t like, and adjust and tweak your settings to fit your personal style.

FIGURE 1: Linux Mint’s Elegant Desktop

Linux Mint’s development team takes its suggestions and ideas from its user community. This user-driven development provides everyone a voice in making Linux Mint a top-notch Desktop Operating System. Some of the improvements that set Linux Mint apart from its peers and siblings are its vast array of drivers for hardware including video and WiFi cards, built-in multimedia codecs, and screen resolution choices.

The Freedom of Choice: Freespire

This particular Ubuntu progeny is interesting because it is part of the Linspire distribution. Linspire, known for its ease of installation, ease of use, and excellent support, is the operating system of choice for some commercial Desktop PC vendors.

At one time, it was the sub $200 PC that discount chain stores carried and sold as an entry-level computer. Freespire is the community supported offering from the Linspire community of developers.

FIGURE 2: Freespire Ready to Work

Freespire is similar to Linspire in its user-friendly installation, familiar interface, and simple to use CNR (Click-N-Run) software updater and installer but is less stable due to its bleeding-edge technology and sometimes-experimental kernels. Having Debian roots means that apt-get is still your command line partner when manually updating packages or kernel versions.

Version 2.0x comes standard with the low latency kernel and may give you some trouble in certain situations. For example, if you experiment with virtualization products, you may find that the startup wizard fails and locks the virtual machine. The workaround for this is straightforward (thanks to Jason Perlow’s troubleshooting skills).

Workaround for Freespire Virtual Machine Problems

  1. Log in using a Failsafe session.
  2. Use apt-get to install a non low-latency kernel.
    apt-get update
    apt-get linux-image-2.6.18-5-686
  3. Edit the menu-normal.lst file removing references to the low-latency kernel and replace them with: vmlinuz-2.6.18-5-686> and initrd.img-2.6.18-5-686.
  4. Reboot.

Your system will boot normally with the new kernel. Login using a KDE or GNOME session and the startup wizard will complete. Once your system is up and running, you’ll notice that its layout and menu contents are almost exactly like those of the generic Ubuntu desktop.

All You Need Inside and Out: gOS

Of all the various Desktop distributions available, gOS one is unique and has that uber-cool factor that other distributions long to attain. Though the ‘g’ in gOS stands for ‘good’, the developers have done a first rate job in bringing you a Linux Desktop that is Ubuntu simple to install, easy to use, and has everything but the kitchen sink attached to it.

gOS uses the Enlightenment Window Manager rather than KDE or GNOME, which seem to be the stock desktop(s) of choice for most mainstream distros. Don’t worry about finding your favorite applications or getting lost in some maze of foreign or oddball menus; Enlightenment still has the familiar Start button with cascading menus with the standard application groupings: Accessories, Administration, Games, Graphics, Internet, Sound & Video, Office, and System Tools.

You can download this little gem from the Web site or you can purchase a pre-built gPC by Everex from large discount retail stores or online. The computer costs $199 and comes with 512MB RAM, an 80GB Hard Drive, a VIA C7-D 1.5GHz CPU, CDRW/DVD, Integrated VIA graphics and NIC. It’s no performance record breaker but for a library, student, Internet Cafe, small business, or family that you might have to do IT support for, you can’t beat the price or the easy-to-use interface. Fortunately, Enlightenment’s low fat interface makes entry-level hardware outperform its GNOME and KDE counterparts.

Ubuntu’s Other Children

Ubuntu has spawned a lot of projects and sub-projects. If none of the distros reviewed in this article catch your fancy, check out these distros and see if they measure up.

Yes, gOS is fast, however, the most striking feature of gOS comes not from its performance but from the Desktop itself. Instead of the standard icons along the bottom or top of the screen, you have just about every online destination you need represented by animated Enlightenment iBar icons. Many of the sites and services available are Google related though no connection exists between gOS, the company, and Google. There is also a convenient Google Search field, using WebRunner (now called Prism), in the upper right corner of your screen. See Figure 3 for the gOS Desktop image.

FIGURE 3: The Enlightenment gOS Desktop

The software updater application is simple and provides a popularity rating system for each application so that you know what other users like you are downloading and using. This is a very simple ‘click to install’ application system. For more advanced tasks such as solving application dependencies, you should use the Synaptic Package Manager or the command line apt-get.

Sibling Rivalry

It’s difficult to make a choice amongst these three distinctly different Desktop distributions because each has its own set of desirable attributes. First, Linux Mint has everything its Ubuntu parent has plus its own set of proprietary Linux Mint utilities that make it a great choice for those with a beginner to moderate level of Linux exposure. Linux Mint is minty fresh with a twist.

Second in line is Freespire with its commercial Linspire connection, availability of commercial support, frequent updates, and bleeding edge appeal. Freespire, however, is not for the beginner, casual user, or the new Linux convert. It is more suited to geeks who like to tinker and work with something that is little ahead of the pack in terms of functionality, drivers, and latest kernel tweaks. Freespire inspires you to a higher level of technical expertise.

Finally, gOS with its rebellious Enlightenment Window Manager, lively iBar icons, gadgets, and Single Site Browser (SSB) applications like WebRunner is great for the Linux newcomer or for those impatient folk who just want their computer to work for them without any tweaking. It is also available on very low cost computer systems. If you haven’t tried gOS yet, do so with gOdSpeed.

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