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Review: Which Free Linux Desktop Is Best?

CRN's Test Center compares three free open-source Linux desktop distributions: Ubuntu, Freespire, and OpenSuse. Which one gets top grades?

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

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