There’s always a lot of excitement when a major Linux distribution has a new release – there’s the clamour for the release notes and changelog, as well as the insatiable urge for screenshots and the search for the torrent for the ISOs. The release of Xandros Desktop 3.0 last week was no exception, with OS fanatics everywhere curious just what was in store. Read on for details.
Unlike many of the popular Linux distributions, Xandros is not offered in a free form for some time following the release. Eventually, there will be an “Open Circulation Edition,” but for now, there are two editions of Xandros, the Standard Edition, at $49.95, and the Deluxe Edition at $89.95. The Deluxe Edition, which was used for this review, contains Codeweavers’ CrossOver Office 4.1, which is an enhanced version of WINE, which can run Windows applications. Xandros is based on Corel Linux, which includes the closed source, heavily modified Xandros File Manager (XFM), which is the bread and butter of this distribution. With integrated CD and now DVD burning, XFM is one of the sleekest file managers out there.
The Xandros adventure starts with a fairly straightforward installation routine. I won’t go into too much detail, but the install is graphical and easy enough to figure out, even for someone who hasn’t installed Linux before. When I chose to manually select a partition for installation, Xandros correctly guessed I wanted to use my ReiserFS Userlinux partition, and the existing SWAP space. Package selection is, as I’ve noticed with many “desktop friendly” distributions, fairly pointless. The recommended default installation is just a few megabytes less than their “everything” selection, which includes Apache and Netware connectivity. Xandros will write the boot loader to the partition you install it on automatically, you can choose to add it to the master boot record as well, as it will detect your Windows partitions in a dual boot scenario. My one complaint here is that, as per usual, it recognizes my XP installation as “Windows XP,” and then adds an option to boot to my non-bootable NTFS data store as well. I wish the installer would check if the partition is bootable before adding an entry to the boot menu.
Xandros boots noticeably slower than I expected, slower than I remember version 2 booting and certainly much slower than my Windows XP installation. It’s worth the wait in my opinion, as after login you’re presented with a gorgeous modified KDE desktop. At the heart of Xandros lies Xandros Networks, the update and software installation tool for Xandros OS. You’ll want to update immediately after install. Since I installed Xandros the day it was released, there were no updates. My first act was to check for network connectivity. I had unplugged my ethernet cable to check if it would detect my wireless card, as one of the touted features of Xandros is “Extended Wireless Support.” Unfortunately, no go – there was no connectivity, and no light on the card. Now, my card is a PCMCIA Dell Truemobile card, and it should work under Linux. A “modprobe orinoco_cs” showed the module installed, but not functional. I had to play around a little while, and eventually got the card to work. As you can see in the screenshots, this was disagnosed by Eugenia as a bug in the Xandros hotplug scripts. Over the course of the next few days, I’d have a number of problems with my wireless connection – after an extended period of inactivity, the wireless would stop working. In addition, I never got it to work while the ethernet card was marked active.
The wireless card was the largest problem I had with Xandros. By far, the rest of the experience was fantastic. Once connected, I decided to try one of Xandros’ other new claims – their PPTP VPN. I can sum this up in a word: awesome. I don’t know what’s taken Linux so long to have a capable PPTP VPN, but it’s an absolute MUST. Without it, Linux cannot be the primary OS on my home computer. I connected to my work VPN in a few seconds, and used the remote console application to login to my Windows domain controller at work simply and easily. SSH worked like a charm through my VPN connection as well. I say this not lightly – for me, this is the best feature I’ve seen added to a Linux distribution in the last two years. This is very significant, because it goes beyond “wow factor” and is really, honestly, something I require from a computer. A+ for Xandros here.
One complaint I have is the inclusion of Mozilla as the default browser. I think the world has spoken, and it’s spoken more than 10 million times in the last month, Firefox is the browser of choice. So I popped in the included “Applications” CD. It included many applications I was pleased to see – Evolution and Firefox amongst them. These applications are available directly from Xandros as well via Xandros networks. Xandros Networks can be pointed to a repository over the internet or via local CD or filesystem. Pointing it to the applications CD allowed me to add new software. It was very nice to see it ask questions as it installed, such as “Should MySQL start on boot?” Xandros Networks is great, similar to Linspire’s Click N Run.
As far as software goes, though, there are a few things missing that I think are pretty important. First off, there’s no FTP client available that I could find. KBear would be a natural fit for Xandros. Furthermore, there’s no easy development environment other than the package marked “KDE development tools.” Why not include Quanta+, at least in the apps CD, which is certainly a fantastic application. Lastly, the last version of Xandros included the Citrix client. With the Citrix client, you’ve really got yourself a capable work machine. It’s likely we’ll see the Citrix client appear again in the Business Edition, which is supposed to be released in a few months.
Xandros includes tons of plugins by default, including many closed source licensed ones, like RealPlayer 10, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Flash Player 7, and Java 1.4x. This is very convenient, as in other distributions it’s taken me a bunch of tinkering to make things work. But by far, the selling point of the Deluxe version is Crossover Office 4.1. Things have improved tremendously since the last version of Crossover. The good people at Codeweavers have done some amazing things. With the inclusion of no development software like Quanta or Bluefish in the apps CD or via XN online, I resorted to my favorite editor, the Windows only Programmer’s Notepad. I was amazed to see it run almost fully functional in Linux directly from my NTFS partition, and even better, to install without an issue directly from an .exe file into my Xandros Desktop OS. I was able to install KaZaa Lite K++, but it wouldn’t run. Crossover makes a great addition if applications is part of the reason you’re holding up your transition.
Xandros hardware detection, apart from my wireless card, was spot on. It caught my digital camera, my sound, and my video card (it comes pre-bundled with the NVIDIA video driver), and even let me run at 1280×1024, which most Linux distributions can’t do, due to my semi-obscure Quaddro 4 card. My CD burner was picked up with the option to burn at 24x, which is also not always available, and burning a disc was never so easy. Simply open a folder and select “Burn to Disc.”
Xandros also mounted my NTFS drives for me. Since my test system was a Dell, it came with a very small FAT partition (about 55MB) for some Dell nonsense present in all new Dell models. Xandros mounted this as C:, and then my C: drive as D: and my D: drive as E:. It mounted them under /disks and placed links in XFM for easy location.
I’m fairly picky about what stays on my hard drive. I’m very partial to XFCE as my desktop these days, and consequently, I’m partial to GTK+ apps. I miss Gaim and Gnumeric. But I understand that Xandros’ strength comes from their integration of KDE. And furthermore, I think it’s a good thing. “Do one thing and do it well” is not the mentality of many distributors these days. Much Linux suffers from the “must provide choice, must include everything” syndrome. Xandros provides as useful a desktop on CD as Fedora does on four.
Xandros is possibly the prettiest Linux I’ve seen thus far. It’s smooth without being effortful, colorful without being garish, clean without being too simple, and functional without being novelty. It includes useful applications, and provides tools that are essential to computing. Frankly, what it has that many miss the mark on seems pretty simple: it looks and feels like a unified system. The entire experience adds a legitimacy to desktop Linux seldom seen elsewhere. The nay-sayers will say that Xandros is dumbed down or a Windows wannabe, but I’d argue that the Xandros people are listening to what’s needed and providing it. I don’t think I’d run Xandros Desktop 3 on any of my servers, but if you’re considering a change to Linux, but aren’t sure if you can make that leap, you might consider Xandros. It’s got all the makings of a comfortable transition desktop.