There’s a lot of hype at the moment about Splashtop, Hyperspace, Presto and other “instant on” Linux desktops that are supposed to give you access to everything you possibly need without having to wait for Windows to start.
As I was planning to reformat my laptop soon I thought I’d try them out and see if the dream was actually real for either me or my family. Sure, I work for Microsoft but before joining here I used OSX and various Linux client configurations so I’m open minded. I have also been using Win7 for quite a while so I set that as the bar.
First up was Splashtop. Sadly there’s no end user configuration for that. You have to have hardware with it installed on. If anyone wants to lend me a netbook with this on to have a play with I’d love to see how it stacks up, but I suspect it’ll face the same problems I encountered with the other two.
Hyperspace was the first one I could actually install and play with. Installation is pretty simple for the end user considering that it re-partitions your hard drive and makes itself the default OS. I’d really have liked it to give me the choice what I wanted as default and you should be aware that re-partitioning on the fly can be pretty dangerous (and the uninstaller did not remove the redundant partition automatically which was a real pain)
The desktop in Hyperspace is heavily locked down. There is a fixed toolbar that includes some apps I would never use and links to sites I’d never visit. If the product was free and made money based off the click-thoughts I could accept it but as this actually expects me to part with money I don’t think that’s okay.
Installing other apps seemed to be pretty limited so if you want a different Instant Messenger client or browser you’re probably out of luck. There doesn’t seem to be a native mail client so if you’re not online and able to do everything in the cloud you’ve got a fast booting paperweight.
Oh, and USB mice are not supported so you’d better like your trackpad!
Ease of installation was great, but on the whole the downsides were too much given that startup wasn’t that much less than the fully functional Win7 build on the same machine.
The limitations are such that I didn’t even want to put this in front of the family as an option. While I’m sure Rhiannon would have been able to play games there’s no integrated iPod experience.
Xandros Presto was a lot more pleasant an experience overall. The installation was, like Hyperspace, pretty straight-forward though it has the advantage of not creating its own partition, it installs into the existing Windows NTFS file system. It doesn’t make itself the default OS so you have a few seconds after a reboot to choose it otherwise your normal Windows desktop starts up.
Uninstall was equally clean (though I have since re-installed it!)
Similar to Hyperspace again this isn’t free, though there is a trial period so you can kick the tires. Xandros have been in business for quite some time with a user friendly Linux distribution with an integrated applications catalog that makes it easy to find, try and buy applications. They’ve followed the same model here but it’s more flexible than the other options.
There is a default toolbar docked with some apps already loaded but their forums show you how to get to the underlying OS to change, reconfigure and generally do what you need to do – always assuming there isn’t a GUI app that you can download from the catalog to solve the problem.
The biggest issue I have with Presto is that the app catalog offers older versions of some of the apps I wanted to use. Evolution Mail and the Exchange Connector for instance were not current enough to connect to our Exchange server (though the IMAP/Gmail connector worked fine) and there’s no link to Chrome as an alternative browser. I was however able to install the Moonlight Linux port of Silverlight without any problems and the pre-installed Flash version was okay for casual games.
Because Presto runs from the same disk partition as Windows I was able to access files from the main operating system which was a bonus.
… but is it worth 30 seconds?
Both Presto and Hyperspace start up about 30 seconds quicker but seem to have significant functionality issues that mean unless what you want to do is web based, and you have a connection, there’s not much advantage.
The Linux desktops are getting better but still lag behind OSX and Windows in usability (especially the later Win7 builds) and while Presto does let the user under the covers to tweak you’re really heading down the rabbit hole into another world if you’re just looking for a simple solution.
Because they’re stripped back they are fast – performance was great, but as most real operations are going to be web bound that’s not really a huge selling point.
I didn’t notice significantly better battery life with either of the solutions. Maybe if they were installed on a Flash drive and the hard drive spun down totally we’d see some benefit. Hardware issues like the lack of a USB mouse, wired ethernet not working properly and lack of support for the full screen resolution on my laptop makes me think that they’re not quite there yet…
With Win7 having much better support for low end hardware I think the choice for an operating system for low end machines (or quick startup) is going to become much more hotly contested in the future than it is today where the competition is Vista.