A new version of an existing distribution doesn’t generate near the fanfare of a new distribution from a new company. Or a near new distribution from said new company. The first release from Xandros Inc., Xandros Desktop 1.0, is the descendent of the excellent Corel Linux (Corel 2.0?). Read more for a review, a mini-usability test and screenshots.
Xandros purchased the rights to Corel’s Linux distribution and set up shop across town. Corel’s Linux projects were impressive while they lasted. Corel managed not only to create a Linux version of WordPerfect Office and Corel Paint on top of their distro, but they also flung it onto store shelves far and wide.
Xandros belongs to a specific sub-group of Linux distros; these aren’t just trying to be approachable to Windows users, but to actually mimic it as closely as possible. As such Xandros blends a Windows “look and feel” with as much branding and Linux features as can be squeezed in. The result? Rather than a cold shower, it’s lukewarm and much easier to get into.
A Windows user can expect an introduction to a multiuser OS and all sorts of great open source applications, as well as the ability to run a large number of Windows apps.
Most of the big commercial distros work reasonably well in the area of installation. The different distributions have taken different approaches to the process. Some load the configuration options on the front end. Xandros has only a few steps on the front end and has left other options either to default configuration and or for the user to set up after the installation.
Xandros, like Corel Linux, is based on Debian, unlike the offerings from big names like SuSE and Redhat. And aside from superb stability and awesome package management Debian is know for an arcane and confounding installation process. The Xandros installer conceals the complexities of the Debian installer in a simple and attractive GUI. Xandros offers users the choice of either an Express or Manual installation. The Express installation will take over a single disk on your system and install the Standard desktop bundle. For more experienced users, the Manual installation cedes control over the installation. I opted for the latter.
After accepting the license agreement, the user has about a half dozen steps. Among them are package bundle options. Xandros comes with three different bundles: Minimal, Standard and Complete. Having chose the Minimal install, I assigned Xandros a small partition, 2 gigs, and the Complete version would have fit, but I wanted to test run Xandros Networks.
You’ll be prompted to build or assign your Xandros partition (either ext2 or ReiserFS), and can resize your existing FAT partitions. For such a nice installer, it’s too bad that Xandros hasn’t been able to develop a better partitioning tool interface. Other steps in the installation are the option to configure network settings, set up your printer, add user accounts and create a boot floppy.
Linux users might be a little surprised that during boot up Xandros doesn’t have kernel or init messages scrolling up the screen. Instead there are a couple of little messages ticking off the completion of their tasks (Checking root filesystem…OK, Checking all filesystems…OK). It’s just one of the touches designed to bring Linux a little closer to the Windows experience, kindalike the little flare music as the desktop opens and closes.
The Xandros desktop itself is a customized KDE 2.2.2 (the Launch button has the Xandros logo) on XFree4.2. After the initial reboot and login the user will encounter the First Run Wizard. The Wizard guides the user through a few further simple setting options such as mouse button settings, regional settings and date and time, printer settings, and some system behaviour (such as Windows look alike options, among them the Default, KDE etc.). Not to mention electronic registration of your shiny new Xandros product.
Xandros has it’s own desktop file system manager that’s quick, configurable and more or less looks like Windows Explorer (more Windows 9X than XP). Xandros automatically mounts all other partitions under the folder Other Filesystems (from the command line they’re parked under /disks.). Some of the intricacies of Linux are still there. Click above /home and a Windows user might get confused by /root, /usr, /etc. The key to sorting it out is to remember that more or less the same names and look are present. Keep it in mind and no one should get terribly confused in normal user mode in the home directory.
Corel Linux uses the stopwatch feedback feature that Xandros has expanded on. In Windows it’s an egg timer. This handy little feature lets you know that your application has in fact launched, something that may be unclear with an enormous app like OpenOffice. Xandros attaches near your cursor a miniature icon of the app you just clicked on. It will be annoying to some, probably many, but it is an effort to give feedback to the user.
We all know that there are reams of apps from command line to CAD available out there. Mozilla is the default browser, and the default office suite is OpenOffice 1.0.1. The tool I was interested in was Crossover Office, a product that I haven’t used before, but was I quickly impressed. And the ability to fairly easily install a wide assortment of Windows applications will definitely be a selling feature for some.
The Xandros Networks is a tool to leverage Debian’s advanced packaging tool, or apt. With Xandros Networks users can access a large pool of Xandros-approved apps, OS updates and enhancements when they are posted to the Xandros FTP site.
Xandros Networks is distinct from Windows Update because it offers applications outside of OS updates. The basic mode compresses packages and dependencies selections under the umbrella of the main application’s name. Xandros Networks conceals the complexities of Debian package management and narrows the range of choices to the major packages in the stream. With Gimp, who really needs to know that you have to install a half dozen other libraries? Hmm, no one. Every app I wanted to install was downloaded and installed easily, as it should be. In addition, I was able to add my favourite unstable sources to the sources list and it hasn’t broken anything yet.
So, how does a Windows user react to Xandros? I flogged a friend with a usability test that proved the Xandros/Windows connection. Said friend has been around my machine enough to know how to launch a browser from WindowMaker, but their main computer is a Windows box and their preferred environment is Mac. I left all of the defaults except for a new icon for Phoenix on the desktop and I switched the wallpaper to Debian.
The first task was to go online and use their webmail account. Time spent? All of the time it took to recognize the Mozilla web browser icon (it actually says “Web Browser”) and type in a webmail address.
The next task involved changing the wallpaper. They went straight to the launcher and started looking around. The first thing they found was the console icon in the menu’s recently used apps section. They chose console, which I can understand, and when bash opened up they realized that wasn’t it and started rifling around some more. Next they browsed through the Applications and found things like the utility to import GTK themes. As soon as my tester realized how they would have done it in Windows they went straight back to the launcher and found the Control Centre menu and shortly found the display options and chose a new wallpaper from collection Xandros included (I think it was the Calm Waters image).
For their third task, I asked my friend to play some music. The first thing they did was look for a quick launch icon and found the volume control sound mixer icon in the bottom right hand corner. Then they looked in the Launcher menu and found MP3 Player (XMMS) in the recently used apps queue. Done.
The they were asked to write a short letter in a word processor. They found Abiword right away in the editors folder on the launcher menu.
The final task was executed with gentle guidance. It involved installing new software with Xandros Networks, namely the Gimp. I told them about the number concept of apps in a reservoir at Xandros and that Xandros has provided a tool to facilitate their installation. My tester said this was an attractive concept, depending on what sort of applications you can install. They went straight to Xandros Networks icon and clicked it. A little while later the Xandros Networks window opened up. They glanced at the window for a second and rather than go through the menu options of New Applications, Upgradable Applications, and Installed Applications they opted for Search. As expected the Gimp window opened and revealed it wasn’t installed, but the install option was available. The downloading and install
window is a little slow and my test subject started to wonder what was happening.
Overall the experience was sufficiently positive for my tester to say they liked what they saw. I don’t know if they’re ready to move, but they also aren’t planning on buying a new computer. For myself, I like that it’s Debian and I like being able to install some Windows apps and run Quicktime in Linux.
Chances are that you’re not buying this for the enormous world of options that are available with Linux and open source, rather you’re buying it because that daunting world has been trimmed down and edited for you. It’s important to note that this is a distribution for Windows users and at this time it’s only meant to be a desktop replacement option for a Windows desktop.
I don’t know how many people have sat down with a Windows user and watched them install Linux or try to use it. Some people will gladly switch without incident, as long as they get a half-decent introduction and have someone to ring with questions. Others will need more coaxing. Xandros seems to understand a paritcular market segment: Windows users at home or work who are prepped to leap, provided the jump is painless.
The look of Xandros satisfies. The organization is familiar enough. And a Windows user probably won’t be bothered if the version of gcc isn’t the latest, or if standard command line tools aren’t installed (who knows, maybe locate and find utils are in the Complete Desktop).
What Xandros has achieved in the Windows usability is impressive. I’m interested to see what’s next for the Xandros Desktop. I’m also curious to see what they have planned for their upcoming Xandros Server OS.
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