Lindows, a version of the open-source Linux operating system aimed at consumers put off by the cost of Windows, has been on the market for only a year or so, but it's already made some impressive gains: It comes pre-installed on desktop computers from more than a dozen off-brand manufacturers, and its San Diego-based developers just released their fourth major update.
The new LindowsOS 4.0, sold as a $50, 454-megabyte download (www.lindows.com) or a $60, two-CD boxed version, is more polished than previous versions and now shows promise as a viable alternative to Windows. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.
For starters, it took two tries to get Lindows 4.0 on my PC after the first attempt mysteriously failed. The second took about 10 minutes, after which a helpful multimedia tutorial introduced the basics of Lindows's interface.
This software will tolerate an 800MHz processor and 128 megabytes of memory, although more of both is a good idea. Lindows 4.0 can't be installed on a hard drive that uses Microsoft's "NTFS" file system (that covers just about all new PCs) without using third-party partitioning software. You'll also need Internet access -- preferably broadband.
One reason is that Lindows, like other distributions of Linux, can't work with the proprietary code that runs most internal modems. Only an external USB or serial modem, or a genuine internal hardware modem, will do. Under those conditions, Lindows can connect to most dial-up providers (but not America Online).
In my case, Lindows configured itself correctly to work with a cable-modem connection. But it had problems with quite a few other peripherals. It misjudged the monitor's resolution, requiring a manual override to correct. It managed to print to an Epson USB printer but couldn't recognize a Hewlett-Packard model. It could read and write to disks in a USB Zip drive, but it could not format a blank disk. Unplugging the Zip drive from the USB port crashed Lindows.
Lindows did play nicely with a digital camera, but only after I got some extra software for it through Lindows's Click-N-Run service.
Click-N-Run is Lindows's most distinctive feature. For $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year, it allows a Lindows user to browse through a library of 1,500 open-source programs and have each new application downloaded and installed automatically.
It will be hard for most users to do without Click-N-Run, at least for the first few months. Although the programs sold through it are free downloads elsewhere, the sometimes nauseating complexity of Linux software installs will stymie many beginners.
Out of the box, Lindows includes a Web browser, an e-mail client, instant-message software, a text editor, an MP3 player and some simple games. Most of this built-in software does an admirable job of insulating Windows users from the tricky parts of Linux. But the interface isn't always consistent from one application to another, making the entire package feel like the mishmash of software it is.
A firewall is built in; Web-screening and anti-virus programs are available through Click-N-Run at extra cost.
Anti-virus software is normally irrelevant in Linux, mostly because it restricts access to core system functions. Lindows undoes this, granting you and any software you run full, or "root," access. Worse, it does so without requiring you to set a password.
The shrink-wrapped version of Lindows also includes LindowsCD, a test-drive version that doesn't require you to install anything on your PC.
For Windows users who have been looking for a cheaper alternative to Windows, Lindows is certainly worth a look -- especially for those willing to spring for Click-N-Run. But other Linux distributions aren't standing still either, and Lindows users who have gotten the hang of things may find that versions from Red Hat Inc., MandrakeSoft SA or Lycoris offer comparable ease of use without Lindows's ongoing cost or security flaws.