||Xandros Desktop Linux has emerged. From the brightness of many minds of talented developers, through the darkness of processor cycles, the millions of lines of code have been transformed into an elegant-looking CD containing a complete operating system for your computer. The goals have been clearly defined by Xandros: this product is for all of us. It's no longer necessary to be a computer enthusiast or a geek in order to run Linux; Xandros has designed it so that anyone can install it and be immediately productive. That was the vision. Let's set out and discover how far Xandros has gone in making the Linux desktop a reality.
|First a little bit of history. Xandros Corporation was established in August 2001 in Ottawa, Canada. Its existence is the result of a deal between Corel Corporation and a New York-based software investment firm called Linux Global Partners (LPG), in which Corel sold its Linux OS division to LPG for an undisclosed sum. Corel Linux was a popular distribution during its short life-span and many have been disappointed by Corel's decision to withdraw from further work on Linux.|
After more than a year of work and a couple of releases only available to selected beta testers, Xandros Desktop was born. Like Corel before it, the distribution has a solid base in Debian GNU/Linux, which, from a purely technical point of view, is probably the best built distribution. But Debian itself is hard to install and set up, at least for the majority of ordinary folk. This is where Xandros has put a lot of effort trying to eliminate the myth that Linux is difficult to use. I will look at the result of this effort in some detail later in the review.
The review will be split into four parts. First, I'll take a brief look at installation. Next, I'll poke around the desktop, test the available applications and take a more detailed look at Xandros-specific tools and utilities. The next section will be devoted to pleasures and annoyances of general usage. Finally, and this is something new, a general purpose FAQ of those questions that have been asked on public forums and not answered elsewhere. The reason for this section is that, unlike Corel Linux, Xandros Desktop is not available for free download so consumers are naturally hesitant to spend money on a product that has yet to prove itself.
Screenshot 1: Xandros Desktop
|The Xandros installation procedure is quick, logical and easy-to-follow. After a welcome screen and the obligatory license agreement, an installation wizard will guide you through the necessary steps. You will have to make a choice between the Express Install, giving the wizard full authority on all subsequent decisions and the Custom Install, where you retain control at the expense of having to make some choices. They include software selection (minimal, standard, complete or custom), disk configuration (select or resize a partition), boot loader options, network configuration, setting a root password and creating users. A summary screen will give you the details of your decisions (you can always go back and change any of the previously configured settings) before pressing that tempting "Install" button to get on with the actual file copying.
Once the files are safely on your hard disk, you'll be asked to reboot and watch idly until your new operating system boots and prompts you for your username and password. Enter them and get on with the First Run Wizard, where further decision making is required. This is where you set up your mouse, language, time zone and printer (local or networked) and you are done.
On my test system, the installation of the Complete Desktop took just over 10 minutes. All hardware was detected correctly and the only change I needed to make after installation was to increase the screen resolution and colour depth, which was easy enough to do in the KDE Control Center.
|Applications and System Configuration|
|Selection of applications. By Linux standards, the selection of application is rather limited, although this is not necessarily a negative aspect of the distribution. Similar to Lycoris in this respect, Xandros provides one kind of application for each common task. You'll get Mozilla for browsing, Mozilla Mail for email, OpenOffice for office productivity needs, xine for watching DVDs and the list goes on. All applications included with Xandros Desktop worked as advertised. Mozilla is pre-configured with all major plugins so Java, Flash, Real Audio and PDF files all work flawlessly out of the box.
CrossOver Office. One of the much touted speciality of the product is its inclusion of CrossOver Office and Plugin from CodeWeavers (see the glossary section, bottom right). Both of these extras are commercial applications and their presence on the CD has given the Xandros's marketing team an excuse to bring the product price up to $99, which is rather steep by Linux standards. A trip to the LGP web site reveals that the investment firm has direct interest in both CodeWeavers and Xandros, which gives rise to speculation that this bundling arrangement serves the best interests of LGP, rather than that of us, users.
But of course, I am biased. Firstly, CrossOver Office provides me with absolutely no value. No matter how well it works and no matter how technically amazing it is to run Microsoft Office in Linux, you should avoid using it. The sooner the world standardises on open file formats and open standards and the sooner everybody switches to OpenOffice/StarOffice, irrespective of the platform, the better for humanity. We have been at the mercy of one company and its whims for far too long.
Secondly, I wasn't planning to test CrossOver Office for this review, because reportedly, it does work well, but I've given in to see how well CrossOver Office supports my copy of MS Office 2000, Chinese edition. Well, it doesn't. The installation falls over right at the beginning during the installation of a Chinese input method editor, without which the installation program refuses to continue. Just a little warning for those who need this functionality, but use a non-English version of MS Office.
CrossOver Plugin. On the other hand, I found the CrossOver Plugin a much better value. Installing MS true type fonts is a breeze and so is setting up QuickTime, Flash, Shockwave and half a dozen of other plugins for Mozilla. The utility allows for installation of Windows Media Player 6.4 for those ignorant web sites that only provide Windows audio formats. It also comes with viewers for MS Office applications.
Switch User. One immediately apparent aspect of Xandros Desktop is the way the entire working space is designed to resemble Windows and to allow for easy transformation to a new environment. The KDE menus have been redesigned, cryptic application names replaced with functional ones and many new useful utilities, such an the enhanced system tray, appear on the main KDE task bar. I particularly enjoyed the Switch User facility. While technically it's nothing more than a graphical tool to start a second X-session on screen 1 (you can even switch between session with Ctrl+Alt+F7 for X-session 0, Ctrl+Alt+F8 for X-session 1, etc), it simply shows what can be done when developers focus on end users and their needs rather than assuming that everyone is a geek.
Screenshot 2: Xandros File Manager
Xandros File Manager. The Xandros File Manager has received a lot of coverage in previously published Xandros reviews (see this site's Xandros page for links to those), so I am not going to spend much time on this one. Again, Xandros has succeeded in creating an excellent file manipulation utility, resembling Windows Explorer, but with many impressive enhancements. A detailed description of these has recently been published by Consulting Times, so head over there if you'd like to know more.
Help Center. Another interesting application that begs mentioning is the Xandros Help Center. While it's not as comprehensive as a similar utility in SuSE Linux, it still offers a convenient way to get help, browse various topics, man and info pages and search the documentation. Integrating the available online books (such the Linux Cookbook) with the Help Center would be my suggestion for improvement in a next release.
Screenshot 3: Xandros Help Center
Xandros Update. Xandros Update is, in simple terms, Xandros's software installation tool. In more technical terms, it is a graphical front-end to Debian's apt-get. It enables seamless package installation, automatic resolution of dependencies, the ability to install RPM packages (presumably via the rpm2deb utility) and even an option to set up software installation sources, be it a CD-ROM drive or a Debian mirror. All that without ever reaching for the command line.
Screenshot 4: Xandros Update
Xandros Networks. Finally, a brief look at Xandros Networks, a utility providing online software updates in a fashion similar to Lindows Click'NRun or IRIS by Lycoris. Currently in development and offering only a handful of extra software (Tux Racer, Evolution and GnuCash were the only major ones offered at the time of writing), plus the usual bug and security updates, Xandros Networks has a potential to become a truly useful application. It does offer one-click installation, but more applications are needed before that available search function becomes really valuable.
Screenshot 5: Xandros Networks
|Pleasures and Annoyances|
|First, let me mention some of the pleasant aspects of Xandros Desktop.
Easy installation. The ease of installation is not that much of a surprise, but it deserves a mention. Xandros install is simple and logical without taking away the underlying power (as an example, it provides hard disk partitioning tools for expert users). One unusual aspect of the the installation procedure is its ability to resize partitions using the NTFS file system as used by Windows XP/2000, a feature presently not offered by any other distribution.
Automatic networking setup. You've got to appreciate this, no matter how skilled you are in setting up a wide variety of networks. Xandros does an amazing job in getting your new OS with the rest of your network during installation and the only question it asks is the name of the network (or workgroup). After booting into your new OS for the first time, you'll be able to access all your shared folders from within the Xandros File Manager, you'll be able to access the home directory of your Xandros computer from within file managers on each of your networked machines (provided that you've enabled sharing) and you will be able to print on a shared printer attached to any of the computers on your network. It is really as simple as that.
Hardware auto detection and configuration. Xandros correctly detected every single piece of hardware on my test system, although that's hardly a unique quality. However, what did impress me tremendously was its automatic system reconfiguration after a hardware change. I happened to replace my ageing Matrox graphics card with a more cutting edge nVidia GForce4 and wondered how Xandros would handle the change. For good measure, I also a plugged in a USB mouse, in addition to the already configured PS/2 mouse before booting with the new hardware.
Then I booted and watched. And watched in disbelief as Xandros not only detected both hardware changes, it correctly reconfigured X-window, it loaded the nVidia drivers, it set up the second mouse and simply presented me with the login prompt, as if nothing happened! Not a single question asked and no answers demanded, Xandros reconfigured the system which was instantly ready for use!
This, ladies and gentlemen, beats any operating system I've ever tried, fair and square. Even in Windows a change like this would require a fair amount of user interaction prior to effecting a driver change for the new piece of hardware. I also booted into each of the dozen or so Linux distributions scattered across my two hard drives to see how they handled the hardware change but none, not one of them came close to getting it right. Not even SuSE 8.1, which did offer to install the nVidia drivers, but still failed to set up a usable configuration.
The little user-friendly touches. They are far too numerous to mention all, but at least a a few examples. I've already talked about the well-structured menus, the switch user feature and the Help Center. But once you start using Xandros, you'll constantly discover new and uniquely friendly features. Insert an audio CD into your CD-ROM drive and the audio software will start automatically, while a little CD icon appears in your system tray with a handful of useful functions just a right-click away. The modified KDE control panel has a number of enhancements, including an option to change your screen resolution and another to reconfigure your network or Internet connection. The boot process also offers ways to boot into safe or expert modes in cases when troubleshooting is required. Many of these small enhancements are unique to Xandros Desktop.
The Xandros File Manager. Again, it has far too many functional features for the available space here, so just one example: you can create Ogg Vorbis media from your audio CD with nothing more than dragging the desired track from the CD and dropping it into a folder of your choice. Can things get any easier than that?
Any suggestions for improvements? But of course...
CrossOver Office. The inclusion of CrossOver Office in the distribution presents little value, any way you look at it (with a possible exception of some companies that need a temporary transition period while maintaining their MS Office macros and VBA code). Firstly, OpenOffice is there and it does the job, without fear that its next release will bring new and incompatible file formats, forcing the whole world to pay for an upgrade. Secondly, CrossOver Office is unsupported and users are not entitled to free upgrades to newer versions. Lastly, Xandros does not take into account that some customers might have already purchased the application directly from CodeWeavers and do not need a second copy. Xandros Desktop would get a better score if it offered its OS without CrossOver Office (for say $25 less) and offered CrossOver Office as an optional extra.
OpenOffice fonts. While Xandros comes with plenty of fonts, the developers made no effort to make them appear in the OpenOffice word processor (although strangely, they are present in its spreadsheet and presentation applications). This is probably the biggest blunder of Xandros Desktop - after noting all the beginner-friendly touches found in the distribution, it comes as a shock to open the supplied word processor and find that only 15, mostly ugly fonts are there for creating your professional documents!
In fairness though, it has to be said that the fonts look fine in print.
Screenshot 6: OpenOffice font disappointment
Documentation. The 220-page User Guide does a fair job, although I feel that it could be improved upon - both in terms of its design and content. There really is no need to give almost identical step-by-step instructions to set up every one of your three mouse buttons, while X-CD-Roast, the only available CD-writing application, with its non-standard and non-intuitive user interface gets no more than one line of space. I also found some index entries referring to incorrect pages. As for its design, the Xandros User Guide strongly resembles the manual supplied with the boxed edition of Corel Linux, providing dry facts and plenty of step-by-step instructions, but little else.
Hardware Compatibility. While Xandros has done an excellent job with detection and configuration of most common hardware, some less widespread devices, notably TV tuner cards and wireless network cards were left out. The Xandros engineers are reportedly working on these, but if you require support for them now, you'll be advised to postpone your purchase of Xandros Desktop for the time being.
Product availability. Xandros is good, but is it worth a hundred dollars? Currently, there is no way to find out before purchasing the product, which is rather unusual by Linux standards. Hence the hesitations and reluctance to get the wallet out by many users accustomed to freely available downloads. Some ideas have been floating around, suggesting a SuSE-style live CD or a stripped down version of the product. Personally I would rather lean towards the idea of a new Xandros release fairly soon and giving the Desktop 1.0 away, after duly stripping the third-party applications from it. This way the developers can continue working on product enhancements (like fixing the OpenOffice font problem) instead of deviating to non-productive tasks (like creating a live CD). It's a tough business world out there and the question of how to gain market share without giving the product away for free is not particularly easy to answer.
|Frequently Asked Questions|
|Does Xandros come with GNOME packages?|
No. It does however include GTK+ and a few GTK applications are available from Xandros Networks, notably Gimp and Evolution.
What do fonts look like on Xandros out of the box?
They look fine, except in OpenOffice. Anti-aliasing is disabled by default, but you can enable it in the KDE Control Center at the expense of the number of available fonts which will be reduced to just a few. However, installing Microsoft True Type fonts is painless using the CrossOver Plugin.
Can you apt-get dist-upgrade to regular Debian?
An interesting question from a technical point of view, although I don't see many people trying to do that, at least not before their Xandros system ages considerably. But can it be done? Yes it can. Since Xandros's base installation is more or less Debian Woody, I've added sources to Sarge (currently Debian's testing branch) to /etc/apt/sources.list and ran apt-get update followed by apt-get dist-upgrade. After confirming that this is indeed what I intend to do, apt-get proceeded with fetching the Sarge packages, all 163MB of them. A couple of hours later and without any errors, the system was turned into Debian Sarge; yet all of the Xandros utilities, including XFM and Xandros Networks as well as Xandros's KDE enhancements were working just as before dist-upgrade.
How good is multimedia support in Xandros?
All common graphics and sound cards are supported. The hardware compatibility list does not include TV tuner cards, but those supported by the current Kernel reportedly work (if you are prepared to get your hands dirty with loading Kernel modules and editing configuration files). Supplied multimedia applications include KSCD for playing audio CDs, Xmms for playing MP3 and Ogg Vorbis media, X-CD-Roast for burning CDs, xine for watching VCD/DVDs (unencrypted only) and RealPlayer 8 for streaming audio. MPlayer, Ogle and xawtv are not included. The Xandros File Manager also serves as a CD-ripping utility, converting audio files into Ogg Vorbis format with a simple drag-and-drop. As for supported media formats, only those not subject to commercial licensing restrictions are available, so DivX movies are not playable out of the box.
Does Xandros include binary-only 3D video drivers?
Yes, the nVidia and ATI Radeon drivers are included as Kernel modules.
How big is the default Xandros install?
The Standard Desktop installation will take up 1204MB. Minimal Desktop (845MB) and Complete Desktop (1438MB) are also available as options during installation.
Is Evolution included?
Not on the installation CD, but it can be installed via Xandros Networks.
|This is the place where the big question begs to be answered: is Xandros Desktop 1.0 worth its price?
My initial reaction right after installing Xandros was along the what's-the-big-deal lines. The KDE desktop doesn't look much different from those found in most other Linux distributions, which can often be had for next to nothing. Yes, there were some nice enhancements, but... the doubts prevailed.
Fortunately, the longer I used it, the more I liked it. I kept discovering new and interesting features on a regular basis, some of which made me marvel at the simplicity of ideas that made the desktop experience so much more pleasant. Setting up a Linux system from scratch may be fun for some, but even the geekiest amongst us would surely welcome a system which sets up a network printer "automagically" without having to dive in to the deepest configuration waters of samba and cups.
The installation routine, the automatic network setup and the dozens of user-friendly enhancements made me start leaning towards a mild "yes" as the answer to my earlier question about the value for the buck. But it wasn't until the hardware change and the subsequent automatic and flawless system reconfiguration that the mild "yes" changed into a resounding "YES". No, Xandros is not perfect. They should definitely drop CrossOver Office from the standard distribution and offer it as an optional extra and spend some time on OpenOffice fonts.
Overall though, if you are trying to switch from Windows and are new to Linux, then Xandros Desktop is the absolute best to make the transition. If you are a moderately experienced Linux user and value your time, then likewise, Xandros is a great value as it will save you plenty of time and effort without taking away the power of Debian and its thousands of applications.
Is Xandros worth $99? Yes, and a resounding one at that: Xandros Desktop is indeed worth every penny. So reach for that credit card and show support for a distribution that has turned Linux from a powerful operating system into a powerful and friendly operating system in its very first release. And as a special and unexpected bonus, this review has just managed to solve one of your problems regarding this year's Christmas presents ;-) Thank you for reading.
Xandros. Simple. Powerful. Linux.
|Copyright (C) 2002 Ladislav Bodnar|
Verbatim copying and distribution of this article is permitted in any medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.
|12 December 2002|
|Corrections, suggestions and tips have been contributed by:
• Dennis Yanez
• Ed Richards
• Michael Valentine
• Louis Dunkin
The review copy of Xandros Desktop 1.0 was kindly supplied by Xandros Corporation.
|Intel Pentium 4 1.4 GHz|
|ASUS P4T mainboard|
Intel 850 chipset
|Matrox Millennium G450|
nVidia GForce4 Ti4200
|384 MB RDRAM|
|IBM 40 GB, 7200 RPM|
WD 80 GB, 7200 RPM
|RICOH CD-RW drive|
Panasonic DVD drive
Panasonic floppy drive
|Realtek 8139too (on board)|
|Lemel TF700 17"|
|22 October 2002|
|Pentium 200MHz processor|
1GB hard disk space
CD-ROM or floppy drive
| Intel: 486DX to Pentium 4|
AMD: Duron, Athlon, Athlon XP
|Automatic hardware detection & configuration|
XFM (Xandros File Manager)
• Apache 1.3.26|
• Cups 1.1.14
• GCC 2.95.4
• Gimp 1.2.3
• glibc 2.2.5
• GTK+ 1.2.10
• KDE 2.2.2
• KOffice 1.1.1
• Mozilla 1.0.1
• MySQL 3.23.49
• OpenOffice 1.0.1
• Perl 5.6.1
• Python 2.1.3
• Samba 2.2.5
• XFree86 4.2.0
• xine 0.9.12
• Xmms 1.2.6
• 30-day email installation support|
• User Forums
• Technical FAQs
• Hardware compatibility list
|The name is a combination of X and Andros; X as in the windowing system and Andros is a Greek island named after a divine hero who settled there.|
|WINE Is Not an Emulator. Wine is an open source software initiative that is systematically re-implementing the Win32 API under Linux. Wine makes it possible for Linux PCs to run Windows application as if natively.|
WINE home page...
|CodeWeavers is the leading corporate backer of the WINE Project.|
CodeWeavers home page...
|CrossOver Office allows you to install your favourite Windows productivity applications in Linux, without needing a Microsoft Operating System license. CrossOver includes an easy to use, single click interface, which makes installing a Windows application simple and fast.|
CrossOver Office page...
|CrossOver Plugin lets you use many Windows plugins directly from your Linux browser. In particular CrossOver fully supports QuickTime, Shockwave Director, Windows Media Player 6.4, Word Viewer, Excel Viewer, PowerPoint Viewer.
CrossOver Plugin page...