Splashtop: Linux for Windows users

Most desktop Linuxes are meant to replace Windows lock, stock, and barrel, but Splashtop acts as a "as needed" replacement for Windows.

Ever just want to turn on your laptop and get right to work on the Web without any delay? If that's you, even if you'd never consider switching from Windows to Linux, you might want to give the new release of Splashtop a try.

Indeed many Windows users, especially those with newer laptops have already been using the Linux-based Splashtop-they just haven't known it. On Dell laptops, it's called Latitude ON; on HP laptops, it's known as QuickWeb; and on Lenovo IdeaPad netbooks, its Quick Start 2. Whatever the name, it's actually an embedded Splashtop Linux variation designed for quick and easy access to the Web. On each of these laptop lines, and many others, Splashtop is there to make it fast and easy for "Windows" users to check their Web-based e-mail; look up information, write a document in Google Docs, etc., etc. without waiting for Windows to boot up."

Now, Splashtop has made it possible for almost anyone to give this a try with a downloadable version of its light-weight Linux desktop. Unlike almost all other Linux distributions you don't need to download an ISO image of the distribution, burn it to a CD, DVD or USB stick, and then install it on a PC to give it a try. Instead you simply download Splashtop as a Windows installation executable, run the install program, and then re-boot. Splashtop will then appear as one of your boot-up choices. From there, you simply select it and in about half the time it takes to boot up Windows, you're in Splashtop.

There's no learning curve to Splashtop because you'll already know how to use it. That's because the user-interface is Google's Chromium Web browser-the pure open-source version of the Chrome Web browser. If you can use a Web browser, you can use Splashtop.

That's easy to say, but is really that easy to use? I decided to find out. I downloaded the Splashtop installer and ran it on my main Windows XP workstation. This is a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. While it runs XP SP3 and every Linux I've ever thrown at it just fine, it's a wee bit low-powered for Windows 7. I also tried it on my tried and true Linux laptop workhorse: a Lenovo ThinkPad R61 with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor T7500 and 2GBs of RAM.

On the Dell, I had no trouble at all installing it. The one tricky bit is that Splashtop installed itself with the Windows boot manager rather than the system's main boot loader, the Ubuntu's Grub2 boot manager. Most Windows users, who don't tend to use dual-boot systems, will never see this. The only thing that it changed was I had to make two choices, one in Grub2 to get to the Windows boot manager, and then to boot Splashtop itself from the Windows boot manager.

I actually had more trouble getting it to boot on my Mint 10 Linux-powered ThinkPad. That was because there's no Windows at all on the ThinkPad and the only way you can install Splashtop is from inside Windows. I had to actually install XP on the laptop-thanks to my near limitless supply of Windows operating system images via my Microsoft TechNet membership-and then install Splashtop. This isn't going to change. Splashtop officials told me, "Currently, we do not have plans for [making Splashtop available as an ISO image]. The target audience is really people who have Windows on their laptops, and are suffering from slow boot times."

I wish they did make it available in other formats, but fair enough. So was it faster then Windows? Yes, yes, it was. I was up and running on Splashtop in 11 seconds on the Dell, compared to 27-seconds with XP, and in 13-second compared to 32-seconds on the ThinkPad. I then decided, in the interest of completeness to try it on Windows 7.

Page 2: [Splashtop in Action] »

Splashtop in Action

For this run, I used my main Windows 7 SP1 PC. This is a Gateway DX4710. This PC is powered by a 2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and has 6GBs of RAM and an Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 3100 for graphics. It's fast, but it's nothing to write home about. Windows 7, with its new SP1 patch applied, still took 32-seconds to boot. Splashtop took, I kid you not, 10-seconds. Neat.

Those few seconds may not sound like a lot, but consider that when you're booted up with Splashtop you're ready to roll. You don't need to open up a browser. The operating system interface is the browser. As Phil Sheu, CTO and co-founder of Splashtop said in a statement, it's "tor people who spend all their time using web apps and services like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox Google Docs and Gmail, adding a fast, safe and secure browser-centric environment to the traditional desktop-oriented environment makes total sense."

Sheu's right. Under the Chrome surface, you'll find the 2.6.32 Linux kernel, while those parts of the interface that aren't Chrome, such as the system controls, uses Qt 4.6 user interface framework. Linux users know Qt best from its use as the foundation of the KDE desktop.

One odd thing about Splashtop is that, although its interface is Chromium, its default search engine isn't Google. No, it's Microsoft's Bing. I guess this is proof that not only can Linux and Windows get along with Splashtop, so can Google and Microsoft.

Splashtop doesn't have any native applications beyond the browser itself. It does, however come with core browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash. You're not limited to "pure" Web applications though. You can also add Web-based applications from the Chrome Web apps Store.

I should also note, for Linux fans, that this version of Splashtop is not the one that's built on MeeGo. This version also isn't one of the varieties that appear on OEM laptops. According to Splashtop, this is the "only one to-date that uses Chromium and supports the Chrome Web Store." The source-code isn't available yet, but "It will be posted on http://www.splashtop.com/opensource shortly."

So, how does it work other than being fast to boot? Well, it's just fast in general. With a good Internet connection I could see many people using Splashtop as their main desktop. Of course, if your Internet goes out, your productivity just went through the floor, but isn't that true for many of us anyway?

There are some rough edges still. While I had no trouble getting it to work on any of my three systems, some people are having trouble. Officially, there are only a handful of laptops, all from HP, and a goodly, but far from complete number of peripherals that are supported.

In addition, Splashtop doesn't currently support WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) Enterprise security. That means it will not be able to connect to high-security Wi-Fi corporate networks. You're also, for now, limited to a 1024x768 display.

Personally, I don't think these are major problems. I've been enjoying using Splashtop, and I'm going to keep it around on at least one of my PCs-probably the XP desktop. It's fast, it runs well, and it points the way to a possible future where we do most of our computing on the cloud and the Web rather than on our PCs. I'm not sure that future will happen, but this an interesting look in a crystal ball for computing in the twenty-teens.

If you're tired of waiting for Google's Chrome operating system and want something that's like it but you can probably run on your existing hardware, Splashtop is for you. Also, if you're a Windows user that just needs a quick way to get on the Web, give it a try. I think you'll like it, even if you've never had any interest in Linux.


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