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?
One of the hardest factors to determine is the usability of a desktop operating system. Millions of dollars and countless hours have been spent by software developers to try and find that sweet spot of usability, only to find that a sweet spot may not exist at all. Each of these Linux distributions offer exceptional usability, but one has to take into account the needs of the target audience and balance ease of use against the products feature set to grade usability.

In this case, the Test Center took a look at how usability affects channel players becoming purveyors of open source Linux to new customers or users making the leap to Linux. With those elements in mind, Ubuntu rises to the top in usability. The product's menus are well laid out and descriptive, applications are organized into logical areas and startup and shutdown tasks are easily accomplished. Joining networks, browsing the web and setting up wireless access are all equally as easy. Ubuntu tries to eschew much of the technobabble associated with Linux and helps to further ease the transition for a user moving from Windows to an alternative operating system.

Freespire's usability power comes from the fact that the product somewhat mimics Windows, by offering a Launch button (similar to Windows start button) and lays out menus and controls similar to what Windows' users are accustomed to. But that mimicking of Windows is also a weakness. Arguably, if a solution provider is going to go through the process of introducing something new to their clients, it should have a new look and feel and should be an improvement over what it is replacing.

OpenSuse sports excellent usability enhancements, such as the support of XGL, which allows the implementation of 3D effects to the desktop interface, on par with what Window's Vista users will experience. That said, OpenSuse is more complicated to use then the other two distributions here, mostly because of the robust feature set and partially because of the reliance on Linuxspeak throughout the interface. Many of the Linux terms used will be alien to Windows users, but savvy users should be quick to adapt to the changes.

When push comes to shove, Ubuntu edges out the others when it comes to usability, although selecting OpenSuse or Freespire would be far from a mistake.

Ubuntu: 3 points
Freespire: 2 points
OpenSuse: 1 point

Choosing Freespire, OpenSuse or Ubuntu to build a Linux business on should meet the needs of most system builders. All offer advantages and disadvantages. Much like the cola wars of the 1990s, it will all come down to taste. One area that system builders will need to focus on is the right to redistribute a Linux open source distribution. In some cases, Linux distribution rights are controlled by agreements with third party software providers, such as open office or other bundled applications. Since bundles and add-ons change frequently, solution providers will want to read the fine print associated with the licensing and redistribution of both the Linux vendor and the 3rd party software partners. Either way, that is a small price to pay for something that is for all intents and purposes free.

Final rating
Ubuntu: 12 points
OpenSuse: 10 points
Freespire: 8 points

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing