Review of Xandros 3.0.1 OCE

To begin this review, I visited Xandros download page, snagged the public torrent, downloaded the ISO, and burned myself a copy of Xandros 3.0.1 OCE. Credit goes to Xandros for having a professional website that’s easy to negotiate and for offering instructions to help new users of all platforms perform this task.

My test machine is an 800MHz AMD box with 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, RAGE IIC graphics, 17″ monitor, and C-Media sound. It is a used system that came to me with a trashed MS install and was a good candidate for recycling. I refreshed it with some new components and it has run Debian Sarge and KDE 3.3 spiritedly. I expect similar performance from Xandros as it too is based on Sarge yet runs a custom 2.6.9 Linux kernel.

I won’t go into specifics of the install suffice to say that it’s a purely graphical affair and a walk in the park. I allowed Xandros to assume the entire hard drive and after a few clicks, the install took approximately 30 min and was pleasingly uneventful. Xandros has so polished this process that MS could take notes.

Moving on …

The default account is the user, which is a good practise, and after entering the appropriate password, KDE 3.3 booted up.

click for a larger view The target audience here is Windows refugees and it shows. The first run wizard is professional and very helpful for setting user preferences. The desktop is straightforward and polished. A quickstart guide is a thoughtful gesture however some other icons littering the desktop link to pay services offered by Xandros, which seems to be the real purpose of this release.

Applets crowd the taskbar especially when other apps populate it — an XP user would expect an auto-hide feature here. The Xandros Update applet is there to remind, or nag, you of available updates. One click on the clock brings up the calendar window, which also allows you to configure time zone and servers for NTP update. Across the screen, the quick-launch panel is nicely filled and the K-menu sports a simple “Launch” icon that’s easy to comprehend.

click for a larger view The K-menu itself is laid out in a clear manner and a right click will allow you to modify it as needed. Packages installed from Xandros networks will predictably find their way into the “Applications” menu. (Upon further testing, I discovered that some packages installed from Debian repositories did appear in the menu and some not.) Below you’ll discover a file finder, the much maligned KDE Control Center, and links to Xandros File Manager, Xandros Networks, system-wide help, recently opened documents, application launcher, and user switcher and logout functions. Topping it all are the five most used applications. This is not a far stroll from the Windows environment and most should adapt quickly, which is why I believe Xandros prefers KDE.

Applications for most tasks are already installed and I feel Xandros has taken the time to cover all bases including writing some of their own spiffy wizards. There is a smattering of desktop games available but nothing serious. 3D acceleration was not available for my pathetic video card but 2D rendered fine and at a good resolution. Fonts and icons look nice as well.

Firefox and Thunderbird are first choices for surfing and email chores. These are fine apps and may already be familiar to Windows users. An abbreviated Kontact is included should people wish for PIM functionality.

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OpenOffice is included for office duty though not in its KDE optimized version, which makes it look rather out-of-place. But it’s the full suite for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation authoring, plus relevant tools. Start-up is a tad slow on this older machine and lacks any launch feedback before the splash screen. But when it’s up and running, it works fine and is indeed a bargain.

click for a larger view Acrobat reader is there. But version 5.0 looks awful and features rudimentary navigation. Adobe really ought to be ashamed — this archaic app only cheapens the experience. I would have let KGhostview or the new KPDF handle this task even though rendering may not be 100%.

Crossover Office 4.1 is offered on a 30 day trial, obviously a teaser for you to upgrade. Fair enough. It worked perfectly and allowed me to easily install MS Office 2002 and a surprising amount of Win 9x based apps. This may be the crutch many are looking for to make the switch.

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A slew of MS apps running under Xandros.

click for a larger view One outstanding program under the graphics banner is DigiKam, aka Digital Camera. It magically found the pictures I dumped in the home folder and previewed them as thumbnails allowing me to print or do quick edits such as resizing, cropping, colour correction, etc. It also supports a bunch of cameras and plug-ins. It’s just so easy and well thought out, it’s brilliant — a shining example of usability for the entire OS to follow.

Missing from the party is the GIMP should one wish to go futher in graphics. Saving grace is it’s available from Xandros networks for free albeit only at version 2.0.

Rounding out the graphics capabilities are Kolour Paint for doodling. Kooka for scanners, and Xandros’ amazing wizard for handling CUPS printing set-up — I merely plugged in my USB printer and followed the instructions that appeared. Quite impressive.

Under the internet banner, there is an easy connection wizard for ADSL and dial-up users. DHCP works right from the get-go and I was pleased to see my SMB network and Debian server assessable from the Xandros File Manager. Sharing folders is also an easy task. This is a very network friendly distro.

Kopete is the default chat program and, while functional, clearly lacks the glamour of MSN Messenger. I wish Mozilla would make a chat client as spiffy as Firefox.

Frankly, I was surprised to see Skype, an increasingly popular VOIP client. Third-party apps in Linux are sometimes difficult for beginners to set up and it’s nice to see its inclusion.

Bittorrent isn’t neglected either. A quick install from Xandros Networks and I had Bittornado working perfectly. However, the wxpython UI would make anyone wince, and saving files by default leaves you to navigate the root file system. This may be too traumatic for a new-to-Linux user.

True to its nature, the VPN client has been stripped from OCE. But I don’t think many home users would miss it. It is but another reason for business users to upgrade.

I looked for the famous firewall wizard but to no avail. It does appear in Xandros Networks client but has no link to initiate the download. Strange. I simply installed and used Firestarter.

There is functional, if unspectacular, multimedia software included, basic players for CD, midi, mp3, and many video formats. Noatun is the default media player but lacking many of its available plugins. Now where are amaroK? Also, RealPlayer is included, but not Quicktime or and WMV codecs. And encrypted DVD playback is missing too. This may be a disappointment to some.

click for a larger view As every Debian aficionado knows, there is a wealth of software for Sarge available free from various Debian repositories around the world, but hard as I tried, I could not manually set application sources in the Xandros Network manager. Some other options in the menubar were disabled as well leading me to feel this more of a crippled demo. Manually entering sources and toggling expert mode uncovers the treasure-trove of free software, though I don’t know how many Windows refugees would bother learning to do so. OCE may leave you stuck with what’s available from Xandros Networks, but for the casual user it seems adequate.

click for a larger view As every DThe Xandros File Manager is functional, attractive and clones the Explorer experience quite well. It is the perfect application for its mission and is clearly what makes Xandros special. Intergrated CD burning would be a bonus if not throttled back to 2X and sans DVD capability. And since K3B, the killer burning app for KDE, is not available through Xandros Networks, you would want to upgrade.

Pop in a music CD and it starts to play; jam in a data CD or a USB stick and XFM opens with contents listed. This is very good functionality expected of Windows users and reflects the careful thought put into the operating system. However, all these features and polish seem to come at a price as the entire system feels sluggish when compared to KDE/Sarge on the same gear. I wouldn’t recommend OCE on a lesser machine.

My overall impression is of an operating system built for a purpose, with ease of use, networking power, and ability to run critical MS software aimed to attract users of Window particularly in the corporate environment. Home users may be disappointed by the austere apps, the limited repository, the lack of eye candy, and annoying subtle marketing. Next to other community releases like Fedora, OCE feels like a crippled demo. As a power user, I can easily unlock its potential but at the risk of breakage. The huge binary repositories and infinite up-gradability, hallmarks of Debian, are largely lost because Xandros does not fully embrace Sarge.

Aesthetically speaking, OCE is a mixed bag. There are conflicting toolkits and redundant functionality. It’s not near as polished as, say, Mac OS X and lacks the personality of Ubuntu. I suppose it’s a matter of quality control and kernel stability, as Xandros must focus on their target audience and turn a profit. However, aside from the aforementioned qualities, there isn’t a lot that makes Xandros stand out from the growing crowd of Windows clones. If you otherwise like this release, I would recommend at least ante up for the Deluxe version. Compared to its contemporaries, it is worth the coin.

click for a larger view So, would I recommend Xandros 3.0.1 OCE to my Grandmother? Sure. It’s one of the slickest out-of-box Linux experiences I’ve seen and offers so much potential simply being based on Debian. In fact, I played with it for several days and you can see the screenshot of my pimped Xandros desktop. I safely added Synaptic, amaroK, K3B, replaced Noatun with Kaffeine, and installed a bit of eye candy too. You know, it’s really quite acceptable once you add Sarge repositories.

About the author

My interest with computers can be traced back to the eighties, but it wasn’t until the late 90s when I began hobby building and selling PCs. Two years ago, and after eons of fighting with MS’ finest, I switched to Debian and haven’t looked back. I also casually write fiction and decided to combine skills to promote the cause. I am a family man and reside on Canada’s east coast..

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