Setup was smooth and problem-free. If you're using Windows on the same PC, Lindows 4.0 handily mounts FAT and NTFS hard drives automatically, so you can access your Windows-created files from within Lindows. Unfortunately, the drives don't automatically appear on your desktop; you must dig for them in the file browser.
Lindows 4.0 presents a clean, usable interface that's very recognizable to Windows users. Programs are organized logically and succinctly, but some attempts at usability go astray. For example, in the Control Panel interface, you'll see the now-standard, two-pane display, with a category list on the left and details about the currently selected item on the right. However, once you choose a category, the left side of the pane displays only that submenu, rather than a Windows Explorer-like cascading menu. To return to the larger menu list, you must click Preview Menu. The biggest change in Lindows 4.0 is the LindowsCD disc, from which you can run the entire OS--without installing it--so that you can check out Lindows with no commitment. Ten minutes after inserting LindowsCD into the CD-ROM drive, Lindows 4.0 is up and running, with enough elements in place to offer a functional and useful hands-on experience.
Version 4.0 is clearly designed for the novice Linux user. A Lindows tutorial opens on first launch. A well-designed Internet Connect Tool resides on the desktop and helps you get onto the Net quickly. A life-preserver icon offers a wide variety of additional tutorials and help screens, and the Lindows button (which functions like Windows' Start button) organizes the programs nicely.
Lindows runs the KDE 3.1 desktop environment, which looks good, works well, and contains numerous widely available apps. But Lindows doesn't include the rapidly encroaching GNOME (SuSE, Red Hat, and Mandrake all offer both), which makes it less flexible, in terms of interface.
With its first release, Lindows pioneered an important feature for consumer Linux: Click-N-Run, a $49.95-per-year (or $4.95-per-month) subscription system that provides a hassle-free way to buy or download new software. Just choose Click-N-Run from the start menu, then browse a well-organized listing, much like a storefront. Simply click your program of choice to install it.
Click-N-Run unfortunately highlights Lindows' biggest drawback compared to SuSE, Red Hat, or Mandrake. Whereas those distributions cram in bundled software, Lindows 4.0 skimps. It's the only one of the four distros mentioned here that does not automatically install, for example, OpenOffice and The Gimp. You don't even get KDE's K-Office suite. You could always download and install apps yourself, but it's significantly more difficult without Click-N-Run's help.
Neither will your Click-N-Run subscription buy you all the apps you might need. Some commercial packages, such as StarOffice, cost extra (via a scheme called Click-N-Buy). When you add up the cost of the OS itself ($59.95 for the boxed version), the Click-N-Run subscription, plus the extra-cost commercial apps, Lindows starts to get expensive. Lindows recommends a minimum configuration of an 800MHz or higher processor with 256MB of RAM and a couple of gigabytes of disk space. For testing, we installed it on a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of RAM, as well as a 500MHz Celeron machine with 256MB of RAM. It worked fine on both, although obviously apps ran faster on the more-powerful PC. The OS even avoided fairly typical Linux problems of recognizing and working effectively with various display settings. (Note: We do not run formal CNET benchmark tests on Linux distributions.) Because Lindows offers only one standard OS package (other companies offer various levels of packaging), you can't get advanced support by paying more for the distro. Instead, Lindows offers free online support, in the form of FAQs, a knowledge base, and user forums. Once you register, you can e-mail questions to Lindows support personnel, and you can expect to receive answers within a day. You can also phone the support team between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, but this is a premium service, priced by the length of the call.