This article is the fifth and final installment of my series on Debian-based commercial distros in a Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) environment. It has been a wild ride (see OSNews’ archives under the “Features” menu for the previous articles of the series), and I would rather eat my weight in jelly beans than go through that again. But I think it was worth it. We will see in this article Xandros being reviewed and compared to all previous distros I used and reviewed the past 2-3 months.
(Hardware note: Main system = P3 1 gig, 384 meg RAM, 56K USR internal faxmodem, onboard i810 video disabled in BIOS, 32 meg Radeon 7200 PCI video card. Secondary system = P3 450, 128 meg RAM, 4 meg ATI Rage agp, Lucent winmodem. Also note that I am on a dialup internet connection.)
The specific distinction of a “SOHO” environment is important for understanding the approach I take to these articles. The needs of a SOHO user are slightly more complex and technical than those of a typical home user who just wants to surf and read email. The SOHO user also needs to be a little more adaptable than the standard mega-corp drone who only uses three or four programs all day long.
Rather than a “review”, it might be more appropriate to consider these articles as “asessments”. I am not making an itemized checklist of anything. I am not even paying much attention to which kernel or applications are included. What I am trying to do is assess these distros in terms of their general applicability to the real world needs of the SOHO user.
A SOHO operator needs to be sysadmin, beancounter, hardware tech, salesman, CEO, janitor, and anything else that comes along. The two things that must be kept in mind when discussing the SOHO operator are *limited time* and *limited budget*.
When you are literally doing everything that there is to do, and trying to coordinate all of it while you are emptying the trash cans, there aren’t enough hours in a week to get your daily work done. Just a fact of life that has to be dealt with. You deal with it by streamlining as much as possible, You pick hardware that is easy to maintain, you pick software that is easy to use and dependable. You set up routines that let you automate the grunt work as much as you can.
When you are a SOHO operation you are generally working on a tight budget with tight deadlines. Another fact of life. So you buy the cheapest hardware that you can get which will get the job done. And if you buy software, you buy what you need with the understanding that you will not be upgrading every year. Probably not even every couple of years. You either use free software, or you spend whatever you have to spend in order to get something that will keep you operational for as long as possible.
I started this series with Lindows 4.0, then went to Libranet 2.8.1, then MEPIS 2003.10, then a quick second look at Lindows when they released version 4.5, and now I am winding things up with the newly released Xandros 2,0. Along the way I have tried to describe my experiences with each distro, the good and the bad. I have been cussed & criticized by some people for daring to mention flaws in their pet distro. I have been accused of favoritism for mentioning that a particular distro excelled in some particular area.
I honestly do not have an axe to grind here. All of these distros offer both advantages and disadvantages for me. None of them are a perfect fit, but I never expected a perfect fit. I am trying to pin down the best options available to me. I want to set up my chosen distro(s) on my two systems and leave them there for a while.
In previous articles I have been going through the list of distros step by step. The logical and engineering-type approach to finishing this series would be to also go through Xandros step by step, then have a separate section at the end for conclusions. Naturally, I am not going to do it that way.
What I plan to do instead is to meander slowly through Xandros, pausing frequently to make comparisons between Xandros and the other three distros. By the end of this journey I hope to finish up at a point where the most reasonable choice for each of my two systems is self-evident. To make things easier to follow (and to give people more amunition to argue with me) I will rank the distros in various categories from best to worst as I go along.
On the one hand, Xandros will be put into the position of competing against all of the other distros at once (just like reality). On the other hand, Xandros will get as fair an evaluation as I am capable of doing and really have a chance to prove itself against all of them at once.
I think this will make it easier to follow. I have abandoned the +/- scoring system since I was only using it for my own subjective reference, and it won’t make any real difference in the final decision.
Final Victim – Xandros 2.0 Deluxe
Xandros 2.0 is, in many ways, one of the easiest and most pleasant distros I have ever tried to use. In other ways, it is an unmitigated pain. The contrast keeps things interesting.
I received my box copy of Xandros 2.0 Deluxe on December 23. The whole saga of obtaining this copy was fraught with interest before it even got here. Originally, as many people already know, Xandros 2.0 was scheduled to be released on December 9. Then the due date was shifted to December 16. Then December 18. Then back to December 16. My copy was actually shipped out on December 17.
The issue of release dates and timing apply to many aspects of my experience with Xandros. From my personal experience, and from what I read on the Xandros forums, I have concluded that the Xandros team were *almost* done with this distro and did a last minute rush job on it to beat the Christmas deadline. There are some things in Xandros 2.0 that should have, and probably would have, been caught with a little more beta testing. But I am getting ahead of myself.
This is the soft underbelly of many a Linux distro. No matter what a distro can provide, no matter what you can do with it, no matter how many nifty features it has to offer, what good is it if no one but a programmer can figure out how to get the full benefit of the thing?
Xandros takes the prize in this category by the simple virtue of actually providing that old fashioned courtesy called a user manual. Astonishing really. Of course an ancient geezer like me can remember the good old days when user manuals were S.O.P. for software packages. No more. Now you generally have to embark on a research project, visit the public library, search the web, ask questions on the user forums, beg help from your local LUG, and go earn a degree in computer science before you are qualified to open a new file and actually do anything constructive. Anyone who is unable or unwilling to jump through these hoops is obviously a stupid newbie and inherently unfit to be trusted with a computer anyway.
There is a woeful truth that many distros seem unaware of. It can be challenging to access an online help system when your computer is a smoking ruin. Hard to believe, but there it is.
End User: “Hey Fred! My modem quit working, the keyboard is locked up and the monitor keeps flashing Budweiser off and on! What should I do?”
Sysadmin Fred: “Jump on the internet and check the Linux Documentation Proj……uh-oh. Well then, just go to the start menu and….oh dear.”
A hard copy can be a blessing and a real help to a confused end user in need.
Speaking as a tech writer, I found the Xandros user manual a blissful thing to behold. Containing 318 pages jam packed with fluffy and superficial information. Plus about 32 pages of Index and ToC, for a grand total of approximately 350 pages. But it was a MANUAL. A real, honest to goodness, hold it in your hand, something to read in the bathroom manual. And it was immune to power failures.
The first part of the manual takes up some space giving a summary of Linux in general and Xandros in particular. This is perfectly appropriate when you consider the target customer base that Xandros is trying to hook. Most of the information is of the “click this, drag that” variety, which is also right in line with their intended user base. I do wish that Xandros had included some addition technical details, perhaps in an appendix or something. For example. the section on setting up a network describes how to input a static IP address, and then tells the reader to go get the IP information from their system administrator. Someone like the average home user who doesn’t have a sysadmin to call is not helped by that piece of advice.
But overall I am very favorably impressed. This manual is actually readable and comprehensible by most non-tech users. Also, page 3 of the Xandros user manual had something interesting. There is a section entitled “We Want Your Documentation Feedback”. The paragraph that follows invites anyone with comments or suggestions to submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org. In other words, they are working to continuously improve their documentation. I would dance with joy if I were not sitting down. Finally, somebody gets it.
To ice the cake, the start menu in Xandros has an entry under Application-Education-Guides. It is called the Linux Cookbook and is an excellent source of online information during those periods when your system is actually up and running. Most modern distros include a copy of the Linux Cookbook in their documentation packages, but I haven’t seen any other distro give it a separate menu listing for itself. Very nice.
Lindows includes a twenty-something page high gloss pamphlet that adds up to more of a marketing brochure than a user reference. MEPIS included a simple two page typed set of installation instructions. My copy of Libranet was downloaded, so I can’t say what they might include in the physical copy. All of the distros include extensive information on their web page.
Ratings for User Documentation, in descending order –
4) Libranet (?)
Installation and Technical Support, Page 1/2
Throughout the course of this series, hardware issues have been the main sticking point for me on just about every distro. I haven’t found one single distro that worked properly out of the box on both of my systems. For the issue of installation I can’t pick out a clear winner. All of them could be made to work. Neutral grades all around.
Lindows 4.0 and 4.5 both worked flawlessly on my secondary system, but neither of them were able to cope with the Radeon video on my primary system without major pain.
Libranet 2.8.1 worked well on my primary system, but I had to perform the original install with the VESA option and then configure XF86Config-4 by hand. Libranet also installed a version of Grub that tried to eat my secondary system’s MBR. This upset me.
MEPIS had automount issues with my secondary system, and also had issues with the video card on my primary system. Both were fixable, but not without pain.
Xandros was no exception to the parade. Just to make things interesting, Xandros had preliminary issues right off the bat with both of my systems. Joy, joy, happy, happy.
On my primary system I plugged in the installation CD and rebooted. The installation program started to load and then….WHAM. The black screen of ATI death. Just like Lindows. I buried my face in my hands and groaned. While mourning and weeping I remembered seeing (very briefly before the screen went black) a notice to hold down the shift key for extra options. So I tried it.
(Be it noted that this option is specifically mentioned in the user manual. I had just been so conditioned by years of inadequate documentation that I forgot to look. Once it hit me I checked the user manual for installation options and there it was. My own fault for not reading the directions carefully enough.)
Xandros promptly popped up a menu list of just about every conceivable installation option I could imagine. Including a VESA option, which I used. Once I was installed and rebooted, I expected to reconfigure XFree by hand again. But oddly enough when I right clicked the desktop and selected properties, I was informed that Xandros had detected both my Radeon primary card and the onboard i810 card. It had also quietly configured itself for dual monitors without bothering to mention it to me. Nice.
The only two flies in the ointment were –
1) Xandros detected my Radeon as having twice as much video RAM as it actually possesses, and
2) I still had to configure XF86Config-4 by hand to enable 3D acceleration for my Radeon. I do not believe that there is a distro in existence that will setup 3D acceleration out of the box for my Radeon.
Overall I am going to give Xandros a neutral evaluation on this part. It was inconvenient needing to pick an atypical option. But overall it was not a serious problem. At least I was not forced to crawl under the desk again.
I am confused about why Xandros, since it was obviously capable of detecting my hardware configuration in the final setup, did not detect it immediately and give me some options on whether or not I even wanted a dual monitor setup (I didn’t). This is the kind of thing I meant when I mentioned rushing something out the door in a hurry.
On the secondary system the issue was more insidious, and far more puzzling. Installation proceeded without incident and apparently all was well. But once I had the secondary system installed I could no longer access my CD-ROM drive. This was the same automount problem that I had encountered in MEPIS. Since it wasn’t distro specific, I can only conclude that something in the latest Debian Sarge package has issues with this particular drive.
To confirm that this was not a hardware issue I re-installed both Lindows and Knoppix on my secondary system, one at a time. Both of them were able to work with the CD-ROM with no problem at all. I then reinstalled Xandros and the same problem reappeared.
Okey-dokey. I needed to check out the Xandros tech support system anyway, So I went to their website. I read their FAQ list, online knowledge base, ran a search of the forums, etc. Nothing there seemed to apply to my situation. So I sent off an email to Xandros tech support. This was the day after Christmas so I expected a delay. I was surprised to receive a response within 5 minutes.
It was a very courteous form letter politely explaining to me that Xandros tech support was only available Monday through Friday during business hours, Eastern Standard Time. The email went on to explain that due to overwhelming demand for tech support, there would be delays and that they would try very hard to get back to me within 5 business days if they could. Then the email went on to suggest checking the forums and the online knowledge base.
I kept remembering how Warren, the manager of MEPIS, had spent hours late at night exchanging emails with me to try fixing this same problem. The comparison was not flattering to Xandros.
I went to the forums and posted my problem under installation issues. I received several replies from other users almost immediately. None of the replies knew what to do, but they were generous about offering suggestions about things that *might* work. That is about as good as you could hope for in a user forum. Xandros did NOT respond to my forum post. This is not acceptable. I could get this much technical support from one of the free non-commercial distros.
Once again – THE. USERS. ARE. NOT. RESPONSIBLE. FOR. PROVIDING. TECH. SUPPORT. FOR. THE. SOFTWARE. THEY. BOUGHT.
This should be branded into the side of every coffee mug in every software company in the world. Most especially, this should be branded, tatooed and beaten into every tech support department head of every Linux distro. The user is not responsible for providing technical support to their fellow users. The users are not the ones selling the software. The users are not the ones making a profit, or trying to make a profit, on the software.
I am going to follow up on this for a moment, please bear with me. I have received a lot of feedback about this series, both positive and negative. The positive feedback has been very flattering, and I thank everyone that took the time to write. But the negative feedback is even more important. No matter what you are doing, no one can get better at it unless they have people who are willing to call their attention to points that need improvement.
Yet I have been forced to shake my head at the religious zealotry of some of these firebrands. I have been attacked for daring to offer even the mildest criticism of someone’s personal flavor of Linux. Please note that I never received any negative feedback from the companies themselves, not even for my criticism. The flames have been coming from some of the users. I am guessing that these users are either very young, or very inexperienced in the realities of free market economics.
Basic Free Market 101. Winner takes all, losers go under. Simple as that. I read a lot of double talk issuing from the propaganda machines of some Linux companies about how they are not competing against their fellow Linux distros, and their only focus is to bring greater acceptance of Linux to a wider audience, yada yada yada. I don’t believe a word of it. Every Linux company is in direct competition between every other Linux company AS-WELL-AS Microsoft.
This is the real world difference between commercial efforts and the academic projects, open source volunteer efforts and all the other undertakings that make the open source universe so wonderful. The free projects, the volunteer projects, can honestly say that they are not in competition with other projects of the same general type. They can trade code freely and even collaborate with similar projects openly. Because there is no money issues at stake.
But when you step over the line into the world of commerce, everything changes. This is how you feed your family. This is how you pay for your car. This is how you keep the utility companies happy and pay for your hardware upgrades. This is the source of your beer money. This is serious. Your competition, wherever and whoever it is, has one overriding compulsion. They are out to skin you alive and throw whatever is left to the dogs for a chew toy. When your competition smiles and offers you an olive branch, any sensible business person is going to check the smile for fangs and inspect the olive branch for poisoned thorns.
Xandros is in direct competition with Lindows, who is in direct competition with Libranet, who is in direct competition with SUSE, who is in direct competition with Mandrake, etc. The fact that they are all trying to skin Microsoft out of some market share does not detract from the fact that all of the *commercial* Linux distros are competing directly with each other for the same limited user base. Which means that every little detail counts.
These commercial Linux distros are new little companies trying to take down, or at least weaken, the established leadership of one of the most powerful megacorps in the world. They do not have any room for mistakes. Nor can they get away with sloppiness. Nor can they take the loyalty of their current customers for granted. Every detail matters.
Installation and Technical Support, Page 2/2
Another point deserves emphasis. Once people get settled in and comfortable with a particular product, software or otherwise, they tend to stay there unless provoked into changing. If they are provoked into switching, they are not likely to return. It is not enough to offer an option that is equally as good as the one that people have now. The new option needs to be noticeably better than what the customer has now, or it will be ignored. This is the reason that the righteously angry people who chant “If you don’t like it then go back to Windows you losers!” are shooting Linux in the foot. Because non-technical end users really will go back to Windows, and they will not try Linux again anytime soon.
I ask anyone reading this to please keep this in mind while I continue meandering. I am not attacking any particular distro when I point out a deficiency. I am offering constructive criticism. If these Linux companies are seriously intending to stay afloat long enough to pay off their mortgages, they better pay close attention to every user’s complaint. And react ASAP. It is inherently impossible to compare different distros without picking one of the choices as being better than the others in-that-particular-area. So please don’t take any of this personally. I am not attacking your friends, I am cynically dissecting a group of commercial products.
Now, returning to the Xandros form letter reply to my request for help. I grant that it was the day after Christmas. I grant that it was a long weekend. I grant all of it. But I also observe that they were running behind schedule and had to hurry up in order to get the shipments out the door before the holiday season. Under such circumstance that should have realized that there would be the possibility of some oversights, and even perhaps a few mistakes being made.
The one thing that a company should not do in such circumstances is to take off on a long weekend and leave their brand new customers high and dry with technical issues. Somebody at Xandros tech support should have been drawing holiday pay to be available for critical need cases at minimum.
I know that Xandros is a small company. All of the Linux vendors except RedHat are small companies. That is not the customer’s problem. In fact, giving customers the impression that they are too small to provide prompt tech support simply reinforces the notion (which Microsoft keeps hammering) that switching to Linux is not safe because you cannot depend on a Linux vendor to be there when you need them. Informal suggestions from a crowd of fellow users is *NOT* the kind of customer support that Business customers are looking for.
Xandros is specifically targeting the business market. When they finally release their much anticipated Xandros Business version, will they immediately go on vacation or a long weekend and expect their new corporate customers to wait patiently for them to get back? I hope not.
I have the luxury of two computer systems in my home office. However, many SOHO end users do not have that luxury. Any technical flaw which renders a system unusable for normal work cannot wait until tech support gets back from their holiday. Not when it is the only computer you have. A system that cannot access its only CD-ROM drive is not usuable.
It isn’t reasonable to expect a customer in that situation to wait for 5 business days either. When you are a SOHO operator and you have a client who is waiting for the project to be delivered (and calling you twice a day asking “How is it going?”) you cannot sit around on your thumbs without doing something about the problem.
Cost is also a consideration. The version that I received, Xandros 2.0 Deluxe, costs approximately $100 when you include shipping. This is the one of the highest prices on a Linux distro that I know of, and is perilously close to what Microsoft charges for system upgrades. Some Linux distros can get away with a few weak points by asking “Well, what do you want for nothing?”. Xandros can’t do that. They are charging above standard market prices, therefore they need to provide above standard market service.
The best customer service I have received, by far, was from MEPIS. MEPIS is a tiny little startup shoestring operation with a starvation budget and a workaholic founder. MEPIS markets exclusively by word of mouth. MEPIS is free to download, about $10 to register. But I never had to wait very long for a response to get tech support from MEPIS. My first response from MEPIS came approximately 5 hours after I sent my first email.
The next best tech support came from Libranet. Not only do they maintain an extensive and relevant database on their web site that covers almost any problem you can imagine, but they also respond to tech support inquiries promptly. They market by word of mouth also. Otherwise they don’t blow their own horn much. Their previous release version is free to download. My first response from Libranet came at the start of the first business day following my weekend email.
The third best is Lindows. That is painful to admit after Lindows took 6 days to respond to my email, but it is true. The email tech support system with Lindows is pitiful. But the Lindows customer service reps keep a close eye on the visitor forums. If you go to the visitor forum, identify yourself as a registered user, and announce that you have a problem they will repond almost instantly. On the other hand, if you go to the member forums where visitors seldom bother to look, you will get swift response from other users but not necessarily from Lindows.
Overall, it is possible to get fast and effective tech support from Lindows if you know where to look and who to harass. They market by every method possible and a few that are amazingly improbable. Lindows has so many pricing plans, membership options, and package versions that it is impossible to keep them all straight. Prices range from $30-$100. My first forum response from Lindows came about ten minutes after I posted a seething rant on their public boards where the prospective new customers could see it. The email response took 6 days.
When new software is released, there are always last minute bugs that slip through the cracks. Always. Doesn’t matter if you are selling an OS, or a new Multiplayer game, or an Office program. There are always going to be installation issues, hardware conflicts, and so on with a new release. Invariably. The time when you need to be most alert, and most ready to respond to user complaints, is immediately after release.
Yet despite this, Xandros shut down for the holidays and left their newest customers high and dry. Not a good idea. And never forget the importance of first impressions. Xandros markets through word of mouth, advertising, trade shows, etc. and is currently engaged on a marketing blitz to convince the world that they will soon be offering the definitive solution for Business users. This is not the time to drop the ball on customer support.
I even saw one post on the Xandros forums, on the Sunday after Christmas, from a new purchaser who had bought the downloadable version but had not received access to the servers to download his copy yet. This poor forlorn person was apparently sent an email with all of the information he needed *except* the links to his downloadable copy. He was trying to figure out how to work through this difficulty but “no one is answering at Xandros right now” so he was pretty well stuck.
This is the kind of mistake that a young company makes while they are learning their way around. If they don’t learn quickly enough, they never get to become an old company. We will see what happens. I am not trying to hurt Xandros. I am not trying to persuade people away from them. But I am criticizing their tech support, and I make no apology for this.
For comparison, I browsed the Lindows Visitor forums and saw several posts from the Lindows customer service rep that had been made on Christmas Eve & Christmas Day. Lindows personnel that posted over the holidays were very apologetic (while posting on Christmas Day) that they were running behind since they had just released some new versions (Xandros take note) and as a consequence Lindows was-bracing-for-extra-tech-support-needs.
Live and learn. The Xandros forums however, are excellent. I have found the forums and community for all of these distros to be wide open and helpful. I hope sincerely that this aspect of using a Linux OS will continue after the grim realities of the open market has knocked the gleam off some of these companies. Effectively, Windows doesn’t have a community to speak of. I wonder sometimes how long Linux can hold onto theirs?
By the way, I eventually fixed the problem with my secondary system myself. It was similar to the problem that I had with MEPIS so I took the info from Warren (founder of MEPIS) along with copies of my config files from both Libranet and Knoppix, and managed to work backward into a configuration that operated properly. How many typical Windows end users (Xandros target customer) could have done that? How many of them would have had previous technical support information from a Linux distro plus configuration files from two other linux distros, all for the same hardware? Without this combined information for reference, my secondary system would still be unusable. Because I am not a programmer you see, therefore I had to interpolate what Xandros was doing and then trace it backwards. Whereas a Xandros tech could probably have solved my problem in five minutes because they would already have known where to start.
You can’t tell an impatient client that he will have to wait, explaining that your new operating system isn’t working and you have to wait for tech support to come back from their holiday vacation. Sorry folks, but that doesn’t get it.
At the time of this writing, it has been 8 days total, 4 business days, since I sent an email to tech support at Xandros. No response from Xandros to my email at this point. And no official response to my forum post either.
After I fixed the problem myself, I sent an email to Warren at MEPIS describing how I had fixed it. I thought he might be interested for future reference. He sent a reply New Year’s Eve thanking me cordially for reporting the information. Late at night. New Year’s Eve.
Ratings for this section:
Installation – No clear winner. They all work more or less, none of them work perfectly.
Technical support from best to worst –
Once I got the installation finished on my primary system I started looking around. The flavor and general feel of Xandros in terms of graphics, icons, menu layout, and so forth seemed quite professional and polished to me. It doesn’t glitter as much as Lindows, but it is plenty shiny enough for my purposes.
No, I am not including any screenshots in this article either. Go check the Xandros site if you want to see what it looks like. To me, it looks like KDE. I have seen KDE before.
What about function?
Xandros has been pushing a few specialties. They are emphasizing
– easy setup (quite true, if your hardware is compatible),
– easy networking with high levels of compatibility with Windows networks,
– the ability to run some Windows programs,
– the ease of Xandros Networks for upgrades and installation,
– and they are pushing Xandros File Manager as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, especially if you want to toast a CD-R.
Lets look at networking first. Ordinarily I don’t bother much with networking. I have a hub and I can handle setting up a LAN in either Windows or Linux if I want to. Most of the time I don’t bother. I have two systems less than 6 feet apart, plus my wife’s system over by the window. Sneakernet works fine. But I have been playing with the idea lately of setting up a LAN so the kids and I can play multiplayer DM games. I figured now was as good a time as any to try it out.
Here I must compliment Xandros. They are far and away the easiest Linux distro I have ever used in a LAN. Not quite as simple as Windows, but very close. I can report that for my setup, Xandros was completely compatible with the Windows box. It also provided seamless reciprocity with the Windows shares. Using the Windows computer I had no way of telling that I wasn’t accessing the shares on another Windows system.
Good enough. I have tinkered with the network settings in an idle way for the other distros but never bothered to finish setting them up. After Xandros I estimate that Libranet is the next easiest for me, followed by Lindows and finally MEPIS. None of them offer much of a challenge to setting up a network if you know what needs to be done. Neutral ratings on this subject because I simply don’t need it. But any of them will work well enough to be useable. I merely include this description because Xandros pushes it as one of their strongest points.
Xandros did make one mistake with networking that they acknowledge to be the result of an oversight. Apparently Xandros 1.1 included the ability to mesh seamlessly with Windows NT domain networks. Xandros 2.0 dropped that utility, intending to switch it over to their upcoming Business version. This caused a major whirlwind of complaints on the user forums. Xandros did admit that they goofed and offered any user of 2.0 who needed compatibility with Win NT domains a free upgrade.
They acknowledged the oversight and made a forthright effort to fix it. But they still rushed things.
Running Windows Programs
The Deluxe version of Xandros 2.0 comes with a specialized copy of Codeweavers CrossOver package, both Office and Plugins. For those that have never tried it, Codeweavers uses WINE plus a few extra bells and whistles to make it easy to use some Microsoft programs in Linux. The version that comes with Xandros is tied right into the operating system so that if you click a MS Windows executable, Codeweavers is launched by default.
The ability to run Windows programs is another selling point that has minimal relevance for me. I already own a copy of Crossover Office 1.1, but I stopped using it because I outgrew the need for most Windows programs. If and when I ever get into a tight spot and feel compelled to use a Windows program I can easily set up a dual boot arrangement and use the real McCoy.
But since it came with the system I gave it a try. Again, I cannot do any comparison with the other distros in this regard because none of them included this. In fact, the other three distros (MEPIS, Libranet and Lindows) did not seem overly concerned with Windows compatibility at all, except for making a recent copy of Wine available if someone wanted it.
This is somewhat shortsighted I think. Like it or hate it, Microsoft is universal. You can’t get away from it, so you might as well play as nice as possible with it. But that is my subjective opinion.
Codeweavers worked as expected. It ran MS Office and Adobe Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro quite well. Codeweavers did have the potentially annoying habit of trying to automatically install any and all Windows disks that you stuck into either drive, but such is life and the feature can easily be disabled. I call Codeweavers a neutral aspect as far as my use goes. But for someone who really needs to run a few specialized Windows programs, and who cannot or will not setup a dual boot system, this is a good alternative.
Compatibility with MS Windows –
1) Xandros (Codeweavers included)
2) Libranet (wine included + adminmenu)
3) MEPIS (wine included)
4) Lindows (requires wine download)
Xandros Networks is the functional equivalent of the Lindows CNR Warehouse. Xandros does not have as many packages available as CNR, but it does offer some other advantages. I will go thru what I saw as the pros and cons in no particular order.
Pro – You can easily choose between multiple repositories with a simple mouse click. You can also deselect repositories just as easily. You can choose CDs, Xandros Networks server or Debian repositories at the user’s option. Any or all of them.
Con – You are risking dependency hell if you veer away from the packages that Xandros has specifically blessed.
Pro – Xandros includes (with the Deluxe edition) a second CD-ROM containing a nice selection of Debian packages that you can access directly without the need of any third party hardware. This is on par with what Libranet and MEPIS provide, and all three are miles ahead of the Lindows approach, which presupposes that all customers will have broadband.
Con – You can break your heart and imperil your immortal soul with curses because Xandros never bothers to TELL ANYONE that when Xandros offers you the option of setting up repositories using the 1st CD-ROM and 2nd CD-ROM, it is not talking about the two CDs included with the box set. It is talking about your physical CD-ROM drives. I had to learn this the hard way because as far as I know, there is no explanation of this in the Xandros Documentation. (Did I mention that I got the impression Xandros rushed things a bit, and didn’t quite finish polishing up the loose ends?)
Con – When you set the sources to exclusively use the supplemental CD-ROM, you get a few listing errors. Nothing major, but more undeniable evidence of not covering all the bases. For example, when using the Xandros Networks application with the supplemental CD-ROM as the only source, the only text editor that I saw listed was Vim. Emacs was not listed by the Xandros Networks application. But Vim is not included on the CD-ROM, whereas Emacs actually is present on the CD-ROM, along with a few others. They definitely hurried this release and missed a few small things. Nothing major, especially for me since I don’t use Vim or Emacs either one. I suppose the most convenient workaround would be to apt-cdrom the extra disk and then use Synaptic.
Pro – Xandros Networks allows you to substitute apt-get instead of the GUI interface if you prefer it. I often do prefer it. In Xandros, either method uses the same repositories. I may be wrong, but I am not aware of any way to use apt-get to access the Lindows CNR Warehouse. Of course, Libranet and MEPIS use raw Debian, so apt-get and synaptic are the way to go with those two.
Con – The user interface generally could be improved for clarity and explicit directions in my opinion. Yet another sign of putting something on the market in a bit of a hurry. The overall layout and approach is excellent, it just needs a bit more spit and polish on the interface. The menus, to me, seemed a bit counter-intuitive. But of course that is also subjective.
Overall I have to give Xandros Networks a thumbs up. Considering everything, I would say that Xandros Networks is better than Lindows CNR because of the flexibility that Xandros provides the user. Lindows CNR pins you down to one source, and in order to acccess that source you have to pay yearly rent and use the proprietary Lindows browser. Xandros provides free access to free software, and allows you to configure their GUI interface to use Debian repositories if you prefer. And Xandros allows you to access the Xandros repositories and extra CD via the command line tools if such be your wish.
However, Libranet deserves to have it mentioned that they are coming up from behind pretty fast. What Libranet proposes to do is set up their own, completely open repository for Libranet users while maintaining full compatibility with Debian in the time of it. Good luck to them. With their track record I have high hopes that they can actually do it. If Libranet pulls this off, it will be a serious blow to the proprietary lock-in approach that some distros are trying to adopt. What was I saying earlier about winner taking all?
MEPIS is already using bleeding edge stuff to begin with, so heigh-ho and dive into the Debian pool. For the brave souls willing to venture into the uncharted web of the raw Debian wilderness…..I can only say that I salute you. I am chicken.
(As a side note, am I the only one who is getting nervous about the way Sarge and Sid are getting so tangled up in the latest distros? I have reached the point that I am almost afraid to try upgrading a Debian-based distro for fear of crunching half a dozen major dependencies and destroying my whole installation. For a while I seriously considered going back to Woody and staying there until the storm passed. All I want is to keep my kernel, video and applications up to date. Is that too much to ask?)
Ratings for installing and upgrading packages, in descending order –
Xandros File Manager
To read the marketing hype, the Xandros File Manager is the crown jewel in the Xandros offering. It’s Konqueror.
Basically, it is Konqueror with a modified window layout, a more pleasant arrangement, the adaptation of some Windows conventions to the drive designations, and a few applications intergrated into the file list. It is a nice, user friendly, efficient, effective and pretty little file manager. From my viewpoint, what Xandros has done is to take Konqueror and mold it into a workable imitation of the Windows Explorer file manager, while adding a few Linux-specific advantages. It’s nice. It’s not a ‘wow” experience to me, but it gets the job done. I must admit it is handy having all my drives, printers, network shares (when I had them) all neatly laid out in one place.
I acknowledge that I may simply be too ignorant to properly appreciate all the technical genius that went into producing this marvel. To my unsophisticated gaze, it looks like that same breed of multi-pane file managers that I have been using for twenty years. But I am not a programmer. I am willing to bet that most of Xandros’ target customers would not know the difference either.
On the down side, Xandros is one of those distros that tries to protect the user from all those nasty configuration files and system folders. You can still use the Xandros File Manager to access the root filesystem and everything else, but not without searching for it. You either have to physically click on the address bar and type in (for example) “/etc/X11” to access that particular folder, or you must go to the menu and choose “all file systems” and then click on the “/” folder to jump to the standard Linux file system. For a user at my level this is moderately annoying, but I can live with it.
Xandros File Manager also includes specific modifications to make it simple and painless to rip and burn CDs. Personally, I have never had any great difficulty using K3B on the desktop, but to each their own. For the target market that Xandros is shooting for, this makes sense. And it doesn’t actually interfere with anything, so no problem.
Ratings for file management, in descending order –
2) Lindows & Libranet & MEPIS (tied)
I touched on some of this under installation, but there are several more aspects to cover. (Before anyone asks, the infamous IBM webcam worked fine in Xandros).
Printer setup in Xandros was simple and easy, just like Lindows and Libranet and MEPIS. One thing I did notice during my brief foray into LAN-dom with Xandros was the ability to access network printers from either end. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I have ever been able to use a Windows box to access a network shared printer that was hooked directly to a Linux box before. Of course, this may simply be evidence of my own ignorance of proper networking. I toss this out for whatever it might be worth to the readers. When I personally need to access a printer I simply stand up, unplug it from one box and plug it into the other box, then sit down and print. So printer sharing is not a deal breaker for me. I truly wonder how many SOHO users have a real need for a LAN? Or network printer sharing?
Talking about harware compatibility, I will begin with my secondary system. For that one there is no contest. Lindows wins hands down. Not one of the other three distros was able to handle my secondary hardware without problems.
MEPIS was unable to access the CD-ROM drive after installation without major reconfiguring. If a distro requires major reconfiguring right off the bat, what other problems are lurking down the road? No way, I am not about to risk it.
For Libranet, I am ready to believe that the problem I encountered with Grub on my secondary system was more Grub’s fault than Libranet’s. But the fact remains that the version of Grub installed by Libranet attacked my poor bewildered hard drive without warning or provocation. This forced me to subject my little HD to major software surgery as well as several hours of intensive therapy & counseling before it settled down and started working again. Uh-uh, not again.
Xandros had the same problem that MEPIS had. Same problem, same solution, same objection to using it on that system.
Lindows is the one for my secondary system. Permanently. It is the only reasonable option. This is not to say that I would necessarily have chosen one of the others for this system. I might, or I might have picked Lindows anyway. But in this case Lindows prevails by virtue of being the only distro that I can depend on not to eat my hardware. Besides, any company that can scare Microsoft badly enough to provoke them into blind panic is worth supporting.
For the primary system things are not so clear cut.
Lindows is out of it. Conceivably there may be some esoteric way of using secret cheat codes and major arcana to force a VESA installation of Lindows (maybe a shift key?), but if there is a way Lindows never bothered to provide documentation about it. So I couldn’t use Lindows on my primary system even if I wanted to. Not without diving under the desk again and I am just too fat to do that anymore.
For the other three, all of them required a VESA installation. After which, all of them were perfectly happy to use the KNOPPIX version of XF86Config-4 that I have been forced to archive as my golden solution. Why Knoppix (a free non-commercial distro) was able to recognize and configure this hardware last year, whereas none of the commercial distros (costing anywhere from $10-$100 US) can duplicate that feat even today, is one of life’s little mysteries.
Once installed, Xandros did the best job of the three at actually finding out what video was on the system and coping with it, followed by Libranet. MEPIS needed more tweaking. MEPIS did not recognize my USR modem, but it was no problem to setup a symbolic link to ttyS4. Both Libranet and Xandros were able to detect and auto-configure my USR modem with the GUI based tools. So they are even on that point. None of the three had any issues with my DVD-ROM or CD-RW drives. All three distros recognized and configured my mainstream sound card. All three distros recognized my network card without problems. And so on and so forth, etc.
When it comes to hardware on the primary system, I guess I am going to be forced into making a subjective judgement based on my “feel” of the system. I know this is unfair, but I don’t have anything else to go by. Based on an entirely subjective opinion, I will say that Xandros “felt” the smoothest. This is difficult to explain, but Libranet felt faster & snappier, while Xandros felt smoother. I can’t put it any better than that. MEPIS felt….let me try an analogy.
If these three distros were cars, MEPIS would be an SUV, Libranet would be a hotrod, and Xandros would be a luxury sedan. That is strictly based on my subjective and biased opinion of the intangible “feel” of the distro. No two people will have the same reaction of course. But I am making this selection based on my needs, so a subjective judgement call is all I got.
Ratings for hardware compatibility
Primary system –
Lindows (out of the running)
Secondary system –
MEPIS & Xandros (tied & out of the running)
Intangibles, Fringe Issues & General Musings
I have previously said that MEPIS is just too close to the razor’s edge for me. For a hi-tech user who is interested in trying out the latest and greatest, you could not ask for better than MEPIS. But I am chicken when it comes to my data. I cherish stability and predictability. I am willing to pay the price in boredom if I must for the sake of not needing to do anything to my computer except turn it on or off. So this leaves me with a two dog race between Libranet and Xandros on my primary system.
Libranet is the more polished and mature of the two. Libranet gives me the impression of being more experienced and less prone to letting things slip through the cracks. But they are not nearly as user-friendly as Xandros. Libranet lacks many of the nifty little bells and whistles that make life so much simpler for us lazy and ignorant types.
Libranet offers significantly better tech support, which I credit to the fact that Libranet has learned through experience. I expect Libranet to continue growing and remain a stable distro for several years to come. I may be wrong, but I estimate Libranet will be here for a while. Libranet “feels” faster. It has more of a snap to it. Applications in Libranet load faster and close faster and seem less prone to long pauses.
Xandros offers a smoother user experience. Everything flows easily and it is a soothing environment to use. Xandros is the first Linux distro that I have ever seen which actually does offer a user experience equal to Windows. But the Xandros tech support is less than stellar and their business judgement worries me. Of course, Xandros has just recently switched CEOs and that makes a difference. I have endured that sort of thing myself. Swapping the top dog at a company sends shock waves reverberating all the way up and down the food chain. No matter how gently management tries to handle it, a certain amount of uncertainty and distraction is inevitable. So it is quite possible that Xandros will improve quickly in the near future. But for right now they are showing signs (like dropping part of their networking capability without telling the user base, and leaving tech support unmanned over a holiday following their new release, and neglecting to mention a few details about installing from a CD-ROM in their instructions) of being behind the curve. They have missed a few things. Nothing major, nothing that can’t be fixed. But will they fix it?
The Xandros forums are an interesting insight into that question. The Xandros veteran users are not as ferocious as their counterparts in MEPIS, not as technically lofty as the Libranet crew, and not as fired up with anti-Microsoft fever as the Lindows bunch. But the Xandros forums display a user base that is intelligent, polite, helpful and stubbornly loyal to their favorite company. You can learn a lot about the character of a company by looking at the people who have faith in them. Like I said about Lindows, a company that can inspire this kind of support must be doing something right.
But what would be best for my SOHO needs? That is what this whole adventure was about after all. Which of these two will answer my needs and suit my workstyle and equipment best? Assume that I become a permanent customer and purchase upgrades of my preferred distro on an regular basis. What exactly am I buying when I pick one of these?
I have two computers, my wife has one, my son and daughter have one each. All but mine are strictly Windows boxes. That is a factor to be considered. Do I need to spend a lot of concern on compatibility? But I am not using a LAN. And I don’t run Windows programs in Linux much, if any at all. Is access to a large database of proprietary software important? Not really. I have Debian. That pretty much covers my needs. I seldom change a working configuration except to upgrade a specific package anyway.
Libranet vs. Xandros
– Technical control & detailed options vs. Supreme user friendliness,
– GPL + proprietary user tweaks vs. GPL + proprietary user tweaks,
– 100% compatible with standard Debian vs. Maybe, maybe not compatible with standard Debian. (But in fairness, you can break a Debian system even if you are running “pure” Debian nowadays. Things are getting tangled enough to make me nervous.)
The Xandros EULA reads like standard proprietary boilerplate. I spent several years reading and writing legalese like this, and the way I interpret it Xandros is granting me a revokable license to use their proprietary software unless and until Xandros revokes that license at their option, without right of appeal, in which case I have to give it back. I blinked and had to re-read the thing a few times to be sure I wasn’t reading the EULA for Windows. Conceivably, Xandros would have the legal right to demand that I return the boxed set I used for this review if they don’t like my writing. I seriously doubt that they would go that far, but they possess the legal authority to do that, and prosecute me if I refuse to comply. They own this software, and no mistake about it. I use it at their sufferance.
By the way, I am not a lawyer, I just complain about them whenever I get the chance.
The EULA for Libranet is a bit more casual. Libranet’s EULA is more along the lines of “Hey, this stuff is GPL, except for what isn’t. Look at the individual packages to find out which is which. Don’t blame us if it blows up your system. Do whatever you want with this stuff, just don’t get us in trouble over it.”
A slight difference in flavor and attitude is evident.
Xandros has spent no telling how much money, and a lot of man hours of work, in producing one of the smoothest, prettiest and most pleasant operating systems I have ever seen. Xandros 2.0 Deluxe is beautiful to behold, pleasant to use and easy to configure. Xandros has every legal and (to me) moral right to keep the non-GPL portions of their code proprietary. I have not the slightest objection in principle to their approach. Even if their trial version for download is supposed to be time bombed so that it quits working after 30 days or something, Xandros has every right to do that.
Libranet offers a free copy of their previous version for download from their website with no strings attached. When you send Libranet money for their latest edition, what you are paying for is to compensate them for the time and trouble of smoothing off the rough edges from Debian, putting together a nice installer, and inserting a useful interface that makes many tasks simpler and easier and compiling all of it.
Xandros seems to be struggling uphill a bit when it comes to tech support. Libranet tech support is mature and efficient and promptly effective. Both companies have excellent and deeply loyal user forums.
So why did I leave Microsoft anyway?
Well, I left Microsoft because it crashed early and often, because it picked up virii more readily than a classroom full of 6 year olds, because it bogged down my system to an incredible degree. But mostly I left Microsoft because I got tired of paying Danegeld. Extortion. Protection Money. I got tired of being locked into obligatory upgrades and proprietary file formats and activation codes that force a user to beg a faceless stranger for permission to use his own hardware. I got tired of asking permission from Microsoft to do whatever I want to do with the computer I paid for. I got tired of Microsoft’s casual assumption that owning the license to the operating system gave them a license to tell me what I could, or could not, do with my hardware. I got tired of the uncertainty that comes from not knowing what hoop Microsoft was going to force me to jump through next. I got tired of doing things the Microsoft way simply because no other way existed. Now another way does exist. Where do I go from here?
I don’t need to run Windows programs anymore. If I do find a need in the future, I have several (legal) copies of Windows in various incarnations here and I know how to setup a dual boot system. I don’t need compatibility with a Windows network because I don’t usually bother with a network. I don’t really *need* all the user friendly enhancements that Xandros includes, but I certainly do enjoy them.
Libranet will do everything I need from an operating system. I can upgrade it indefinitely from free repositories. Xandros offers software that has been pre-configured to fit the operating system, and they are making noises about a subscription service in the future. Libranet is working on the same thing in a free Debian repository, and stating that it will always remain free.
Xandros retains ownership of their operating system and in their EULA specifically reserves the right to revoke the license at their option. Libranet says, “Take it, use it and enjoy”. Xandros is still getting their legs under them in a cutthroat market. Libranet reports in their latest email newsletter that 2003 set new records for them, that their sales have tripled and they will show a profit this year. Xandros is designed for the non-tech Windows convert. Libranet gives me the tools to customize anything I want, any way I want it. Xandros is beautiful. Libranet is powerful. Xandros is smooth as old whiskey. Libranet is lightning fast.
“Just shut up and pick one Smith.”
Boil it all down and the question is still subjective, just like it always has been. Subjectively, I like Libranet’s attitude better. I like their general approach better. I like their customer responsiveness better. I also like the extra speed that Libranet gives my system. I like knowing that no one is ever going to audit my computer for illegal software with Libranet. And after I have tasted what it means to have full control over my own system, and full freedom to do whatever I want with my own computer, I can’t give them up. I am going with Libranet for my primary computer.
Primary system – Libranet
Secondary system – Lindows