Xandros Desktop OS - v2 Deluxe Edition

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, February 2004, send e-mail
Published by: Xandros Corporation, go to the web site
Requires: Pentium 200MHz CPU or faster, Celeron, AMD-K6, 64MB RAM, 2.5GB free hard drive space, bootable CD-ROM drive, floppy drive, video card & monitor capable of 1024x768 resolution, mouse or similar pointing device
MSRP: $89.00 (deluxe edition), $39.95 (standard edition - download)

What in the world do we have here? I'm typing this review using Xandros Desktop OS version 2 running OpenOffice? Hmmm, must be an illusion or something, yes?


It's no illusion gang. We've got ourselves yet another Linux distribution tied up with a corporate brand name: "Xandros - Making Linux Work for You"

Alright, alright . . . I'll stop. Besides, I like Linux. Mind you, I have this goofy idea that there's really no way to make Linux the best viable alternative to Windows XP (after Mac OS X anyway), unless large companies hell-bent on making a profit grab the best of what makes Linux work and run with it. Hats off to the open source community and the GNU Public License (GPL).

This is a big review, not only because of its physical length, but also because the Xandros Desktop OS v2 release represents a genuinely big deal for Windows users heretofore leery of Linux dabbling.

Red Hat, Mandrake, Debian, Lindows, etc., etc., and now Xandros. Heck, a few years ago even Dell Computers tried selling desktop computers pre-loaded with Linux. Didn't work - nobody cared (or bought, rather more importantly) and Dell dropped the whole thing. Corel tried marketing a kind of quasi-stable Linux release and actually managed to grab almost 25% of the Linux market. But Corel's version didn't work well, didn't make any money and therefore went bye-bye. It seems however that Corel shopped its Linux R&D around the marketplace and found a buyer - Xandros Corporation - which recognized the potential in the Debian-based Linux distribution and decided to run with it. Good for you, Xandros! Mr. Torvalds (Linus, that is - one of the key programmers who helped start the whole Linux thing in the first place) must be wondering, truly, whatever happened to the concept of free, open source software, available to everyone, and so on. No matter now, because Compaq (HP?) is selling Linux laptops, LinuxCertified is certainly selling native Linux laptops and desktop computers (and selling quite a few I believe), so something good must be up!

So for Torvalds (and all the other incredible open source programmers who have basically written so much software for free that real companies can now put it all together, package it, and sell it), I guess it's time for Linux to step up to the plate because the Linux community has been touting itself as a viable Windows alternative for years. Nobody is making much money just yet however, so it remains to be seen how strong these legs really are. In any event, it seems as though each new release of a packaged up, smoothed out Linux distribution under yet another new corporate banner, seems to be noticeably better than the last one. In the case of Xandros Desktop OS, "better" seems to mean very good indeed.

Just to keep the record straight however, and for those of you whom I've already confused, Linux is still free. You can launch any web browser right now, go to LinuxISO.org and download the latest disk images of all the latest Linux releases including the venerable FreeBSD (still best in the minds of many, and more UNIX than Linux). In essence therefore, you buy Xandros Desktop OS in the box at the store in order to save yourself hours of downloading, avoid the time and cost necessary to burn the ISO images to CD, and (not least of all) to get yourself a nice, fat, detailed printed manual along with a no-brain-required installer, and a whole lot of bundled software. It's more than worth it.

Kickstartnews is hopelessly mired in Windows XP. My own computers are 90% Windows XP, with the balance plugging happily along under Mac OS X. Linux has always been a low-priority item that we play with and work with occasionally. But with the arrival of the last Mandrake distribution (we'll save that for a different review) and now Xandros, it appears that it's safe for us to begin recommending Linux as a serious and viable desktop computing alternative for moderately experienced computer users at home and in the office. Maybe it's just the timing. Maybe we've seen one too many Windows security patch updates (download, install, reboot - WHY, Microsoft, do we still have to reboot? Didn't you tell us that Windows XP would eliminate all that pestilential rebooting? Hmmm?). Maybe, we just need an operating system alternative that doesn't cost $299. Maybe we're just fed up with looking at the same thing, done the same way, year in and year out.

You decide.

At the end of the day, the things traditionally holding back Linux have been pain-in-the-butt installers which fail to recognize half the hardware in your system, followed by the even bigger pain in the butt resulting from the subsequent fruitless search for the required drivers. Goofy program installation paradigms don't help the cause either, what with all that searching for individual files required to install some programs in your particular Linux distribution. Well those days are largely gone not in the least because the Debian installer has always been somewhat brighter than the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) approach to program installation. Those days are also largely gone due to the swollen ranks of open source programmers who are regularly producing drivers for the latest hardware and peripherals. Xandros Desktop OS v2 installed flawlessly and quickly - how does 25 minutes sound, including the OpenOffice suite of productivity software? It also recognized all of the hardware and idiosyncrasies in the two machines we used, and above all else didn't throw any Linux command line nonsense or weird dialogs at us. Three cheers for Xandros - they seem to get it.

We installed Xandros Desktop OS v2 on a Pentium 4, 1.7 GHz Celeron (socket 478) running Windows XP (on an NTFS-formatted hard drive), with 512MB PC133 RAM, USB 2.0, a Buslink 10/100 ethernet card, Creative Audigy sound card and an ATI 9200SE video card. We also installed Xandros on an AMD Athlon XP 2600+ in an Asus A7N8X motherboard running Windows XP (on a FAT32-formated hard drive), with 512MB DDR RAM, a D-Link 10/100 ethernet card, nVivida GeForce FX video card, Creative 128 sound card and a 3Com 56K fax modem. Xandros detected all of the hardware correctly and installed the proper drivers automatically. Note that both computers were already running Windows XP Professional. I had no problems installing Xandros - it never touched XP. Xandros created and used its own partition during the installation setup. The installer and configuration routines also recognized the Sony DVD+/-RW drive.

After restarting, the Xandros boot manager provided a list of choices in the boot menu - Xandros Desktop OS at the top of the list, Windows XP at the bottom. Despite restarting the machines dozens of times going back and forth between operating systems, the boot manager worked flawlessly.

The clarity and usefulness of any operating system or desktop user interface is directly related to the degree to which all of the connected hardware and software tools are integrated. Integration means simply that, for example, installation of a network printer should not require knowledge of advanced electronics and network administration. Xandros passed the network access, printer access and peripheral integration 'test' with flying colors. Connecting to a network printer was a very simple process: point, click, select a shared printer (Lexmark T622 and Xerox P8ex) on our Windows XP small office network and voilà - a perfect test page. Most of the other Linux distributions should take heed: If you want Windows users to migrate en masse to Linux, the enticement of being able to connect this easily to a network printer is a very good start. We've experienced many printer frustrations with other Linux distributions, but Xandros was a breath of fresh air.

We've been using Xandros Desktop OS for the past month in a small office environment comprised of 8 workstations and a busy file server. File exchange across the network is seamless - no weird logons or command lines - using the Captain Nemo file manager on the Windows workstations to read and copy files from the Xandros workstation. Creating shared folders on the Xandros machine is also a simple point & click task, with shared folders appearing instantly across the network. OpenOffice as a replacement for Microsoft Office has been a nice change. The 'heaviness' of Word and Excel are not present when using OpenOffice. It's powerful enough - distinctly overkill actually - for 95% of the document creation work which takes place in this office which handles property management and related graphic design and page layout work. Lots of letters, contracts, spreadsheets, leases, newspaper ads, flyers, memos, tons of e-mail, two different network printers, a network fax machine and of course the ubiquitous Internet connection. The IS/IT contractor responsible for adding to and maintaining the small network had the Xandros machine up and running in 60 minutes including drive partitioning, installation of the operating system and all the application software updates necessary, connection to the network, installation of the network printers and installation of Nemo on three of the Windows workstations. This is easy.

Be smart - defragment your hard drive before installing Xandros. The installation time you save may be your own. Besides, a fragmented hard drive is liable to lose some important data if some piece of a file is floating out on the hard drive somewhere in an area that just got formatted for the Xandros partition. You may still encounter some minor roadblocks with respect to exotic keyboard drivers (all those Internet keyboards out there contain buttons which just can't be mapped in Linux - drivers please!). Five or six years ago, the prospect of asking most hardware manufacturers to write Linux drivers was met with hoots of derision. Times have changed and not insignificantly have brought with them some excellent development tools for quickly porting Windows drivers to Linux or creating new Linux drivers from scratch. Either way, it's about time the hardware makers stepped off the open source community free driver ride and started serious development of their own Linux drivers. It's simply not as expensive or as difficult as it used to be.

Cons: There are still a few gotchas which every business segment will have to deal with when it comes to using Linux on the desktop. For example, in the property management office, Xandros could not be installed on the server or any of the administrative machines simply because the REMS (Real Estate Management Software) made by Yardi Systems is not Linux compatible. There are literally millions of businesses out there which depend on proprietary, business-specific software in order to operate effectively and efficiently. It's one of the key reasons that Windows remains dominant. Some Linux developer (Xandros maybe?) should target a couple of business segments and either port existing software or develop new Linux software to serve the segments. We heartily recommend a development partnership between Xandros and Yardi. If the price is right and the business needs are fully met, believe me when I tell you that the operating system will suddenly become irrelevant. This may be the most important business consideration for Linux on the business desktop. Forget about emulation too (Wine, Crossover Office, etc.) because busy business offices simply can't afford the time needed to fiddle with that comparatively unstable nonsense. A lite version of Crossover Office installs automatically. For the uninitiated, Crossover Office actually lets you install Microsoft Office in Linux. Unfortunately, our configuration simply did not work well, with terrible screen redraws, poor text rendering and a whole range of other problems making it difficult to use Word or Excel. Stick with OpenOffice - it's excellent stuff. PDA users are served by software such as J-Pilot (a Palm Desktop replacement), but setting it up requires either lots of patience or a moderate amount of Linux technical knowledge. Ditto for the client programs which take care of active sync chores for Pocket PC's.

Pros: This is it - a Linux distribution that is easy enough for moderately experienced home and office computer users to install and ride productively. Partitioning the Windows XP (NTFS and FAT32) drives on each machine was virtually automatic and flawless, with the only choice necessary being the size of the Linux partition. Huge software package supplied on CD and via free download and installation from the Xandros web site. When we say huge, we really mean HUGE - literally hundreds of programs for every conceivable need. Documents created in the powerful, easy to use OpenOffice loaded easily into Microsoft Office 2000 and XP, with the only changes being the loss of some graphical formatting proprietary to the OpenOffice document structure. Multisheet Microsoft Excel spreadsheets opened accurately in OpenOffice with the only changes being some physical differences in text formatting; formulas were perfectly preserved. CD burning was a breeze, in particular via drag & drop in the Xandros File Manager (data and audio CDs, CD copying). Xandros Linux, like every other good Linux distribution, is incredibly configurable. Every tiny detail in the operating system can be tweaked through the control panel using point & click settings. It's a tinkerer's dream come true. Multimedia (movies, MP3 and video files), photo editing, even desktop publishing are all fully supported on Linux. The software may be different, but the file formats are the same and that's what matters. Automatically recognizes Windows networks, permitting easy transfers. I said it at the outset of the review and I say it again - Xandros Desktop OS v2 Deluxe Edition is ready for the home and office desktop. Highly recommended.

Letters to the Editor are welcome and occasionally abused in public. Send e-mail to: whine@kickstartnews.com





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