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Xandros Desktop Home Edition 4.0 review

By Jem Matzan

After suffering through version 1.0 many years ago, I thought Xandros would be the least likely of the commercial desktop GNU/Linux distributions to succeed. Each subsequent release since 1.1 has changed my mind a little bit, and now with version 4.0 of its home desktop edition, I'm at last convinced that Xandros is positioned for success. This should be the desktop operating system that you recommend to your Windows-hating friends and family.

Xandros overview

If you have never used Xandros Desktop Linux before, this section will give you an overview of it. If you're already familiar with Xandros, you might want to skip down to the next section, which covers the changes introduced in version 4.

Originally developed and sold as Corel Linux, Xandros is a KDE-centric GNU/Linux distribution that is loosely based on Debian. While it offers a rich desktop environment, it is possible to use the Debian package tools to adapt Xandros Desktop Home Edition for a variety of different uses. Its heritage plus the excellence of its design equal an operating system that is easy to use, but powerful when necessary.

The base distribution includes about 1.4GB of software, though most of that is the base operating system and "filler" -- ancillary KDE software and other programs that are rarely or never used. The default Xandros Desktop Home Edition installation offers few useful applications, but the Premium version comes with CrossOver Office 5.0 Standard, which allows you to run many Windows programs, and Versora Progression Desktop, which enables you to safely move all of your data and settings from Windows to GNU/Linux. You'll also find a small collection of proprietary extras: the Java Runtime Environment, Adobe Flash Player, RealPlayer, and hardware-accelerated Nvidia and ATI video card drivers installed and ready to go. In essence, Xandros is more of an operating system with the ability to expand, whereas most of its desktop GNU/Linux competitors are self-contained software distributions.

The officially supported method of installing new software (and updating currently installed programs) is through the Xandros Networks framework. This consists of a self-contained program that both tracks your current software situation and informs you of other applications that you can install. It's much like Linspire's Click N Run (CNR) system, though Xandros Networks is not integrated into the KDE menu structure like CNR is. Lastly, Xandros Networks has a taskbar notification applet that tells you when software updates are available.

The general "look and feel" of Xandros Desktop Home Edition is like a cross between Windows XP and Sun Java Desktop System. It's easy to use and navigate if you're used to the Windows Start menu interface philosophy, but not really all that sensibly designed according to modern usability standards. One thing you won't find in Xandros is clutter -- the Launch menu is clean, focused, and easy to navigate. Most other desktop GNU/Linux operating systems will have up to three separate Web browsers, office suites, and email programs. Xandros, in contrast, only has one standard program for each purpose.

Desktop Home Edition is only one of Xandros Inc.'s GNU/Linux products. The others include a business desktop product and a deployment management server; a business server edition; and an education desktop and server edition for schools. Xandros Desktop Home Edition and Home Edition Premium are the only two Xandros products aimed at consumers.

What's new in 4.0

The most noticeable change in Xandros since version 3 is the interface. Everything from the installation boot splash screen to the KDE desktop and all points in between has been graphically enhanced. Cosmetically this is an impressive distribution, but I am growing increasingly weary of blue themes. I think this must be the "blue period" for GNU/Linux -- SUSE, Linspire, Mandriva, Red Hat, and Xandros all have blue standard themes.

Unless I missed it in the previous version, Xandros now requires product activation to enable the Xandros Networks program. Previously you needed a subscription to take full advantage of Xandros Networks, but you could still get updates. In version 4, the whole framework is inoperable until you put in your support serial number, which is sent to Xandros to generate your product activation code, which is emailed to you. Then you enter that code into a prompt in the XN client to enable it. Word on the Xandros forum is, you can only use your serial number five times before you have to make a phone call to activate your XN subscription (normal business hours only). Some Xandros customers are upset about this, complaining that it's no better than Microsoft's product activation schemes. In effect, Xandros actually is a little bit better; Windows XP requires product activation to use the operating system, whereas Xandros only restricts support requests and product updates -- the base distribution is perfectly usable without the activation code. Secondly, every other major commercial GNU/Linux distribution except SUSE already does this -- Mandriva, Red Hat, and Linspire -- so there aren't a lot of alternatives in the top tier if you're trying to avoid any kind of product registration. I'm not saying what Xandros is doing is in any way ethical or respectful of its customers' privacy; I'm just pointing out that everyone else is doing it, so there really is no surprise here.

The Xandros Home Edition 4.0 license is rather strange -- it now allows customers to install the entire distribution on an unlimited number of home computers and one business computer. This is a sensible choice because, quite honestly, it's what people do anyway regardless of license restrictions. I don't know how this broad allowance reconciles with the fact that you can't activate your support serial number more than five times.

A new feature in the Premium Edition is the Xandros Security Suite, comprised of a firewall, anti-virus scanner, and file system protection application. The latter two programs wanted to run memory- and disk-intensive services at frequent intervals, so I disabled them. Realistically, I think most users are going to have to do the same in order to avoid a noticeable system performance decrease. These services seem like they are designed more to assuage the fears of paranoid-by-experience Windows refugees than as useful security precautions anyway.

Also new to Premium Edition is the Xandros Storage Manager, Xandros File Manager, and the Paragon NTFS kernel module. The latter allows you to write to Windows NTFS partitions; the standard Linux kernel module only allows reading NTFS volumes, so this could be a great asset to people who need to share data with a Windows partition.

Putting it to the test

Xandros Home Edition Premium installed completely in about 15 minutes and without incident on an Athlon64 X2 desktop machine and an Acer TravelMate 2300, both of which are notorious for having problems with poorly equipped operating systems. The TravelMate has an oddball integrated wireless network card that works well through NDISwrapper, but doesn't have a native free software driver yet. I expected the software to prompt me to set up NDISwrapper for my unsupported wireless card during setup, but no such prompt appeared. Later on, when I went to run the cool NDISwrapper graphical utility that I'd raved about in Xandros Surfside Linux, I found that it had disappeared.

Actually it wasn't gone -- it was just hiding. The utility no longer appears in a sensible place. You now have to go to the Control Center, then click on Hardware Information, then Hardware Detection, then select the unsupported network device, then click Properties, then click Windows (NDIS) Wireless Drivers. If that isn't a wild goose chase, I don't know what is. I'm bothered by the decision to move the NDISdrivermanager utility to a remote corner of the interface because there are many laptop computer users who need it. I also think that operating systems should not purposefully be made more difficult to configure -- that's pure insanity. A Xandros representative told me that the NDISdrivermanager was put in the background because most wireless network cards are natively supported in Xandros Desktop 4.0. That's no excuse for making the operating system more difficult to configure.

I had trouble getting the touchpad mouse to work properly on the laptop test system. This is nothing new, though -- the default behavior of Synaptics touchpads in is to enable an unbelievably annoying "scroll" feature. If your finger gets too close to the invisible scroll area to the right or bottom of the touchpad, it acts like a scroll wheel on a regular mouse. Unfortunately, that can mean that you often go back or forward in the Firefox browser history, which treats sideways scrolling as a back/forward event. The usual cure for this is a program called KSynaptics, which can be found in the standard Debian package repositories. Xandros does not come with any kind of touchpad configuration program by default, and KSynaptics is not in Xandros Networks unless you add the Debian sources to it. Don't bother trying to do this, though -- KSynaptics in Xandros 4.0 causes worse problems than it fixes. In the end, I had to manually hack the xorg.conf file from a terminal window, and even then I didn't completely eliminate the problem.

I hooked up my Windows XP (NTFS) test drive on the same SATA drive controller that my Xandros test drive was on, then started the computer. While Xandros created device nodes for sdb and sdb1, there was absolutely no indication that the drive existed in the graphical interface. I tried the Xandros Storage Manager, but even that did not list the second hard drive. I tried to mount the Windows NTFS partition from the command line, but I got an error message saying that the drive was already mounted, even though mtab disagreed. So don't count on flawless NTFS partition support in Xandros Desktop 4.0.

Although they were perfectly capable programs, I didn't find much value in the Xandros File Manager and Storage Manager. They offer essentially the same (or less) functionality as Konqueror and KParted, except they are more stable and easier to use. The true advantage in these applications is not to someone like me, but to a user who is coming directly from Windows and needs familiar-looking programs to help them adjust to the new operating environment.

One flaw I noticed in Xandros Networks is that the Premium Edition extras like CrossOver Office, Progression Desktop, and the proprietary NTFS kernel module were not listed as "purchased." In other words, even though these components were installed, the option to buy them was still there, and XN did not recognize the fact that they existed on my computer. This may seem like a small oversight until you consider product updates. How will XN know to update these programs if it doesn't even know that they are installed?

My other big complaint about Xandros Networks is the fact that the Shop area is comprised mostly of demo or trial software, not the full version. If we can't buy and install the real thing, why tease us with limited demos?

Xandros Desktop Home Edition 4.0
Xandros Desktop Home Edition: just like Windows

Whenever there was a disc in my DVD drive, Xandros would spin it up and seek it about twice per second. This heated the disc so much that I couldn't even pick it up out of the drive after fifteen minutes of use. This is a serious bug -- CDs and DVDs can be ruined if you're not paying attention. The operating system shouldn't seek or spin up the drive unless it is currently being used.

There is still no native support for playing encrypted DVD movie discs; neither is there support for Windows Media Audio and Video (WMV, WMA) files. I figured out how to enable these options and wrote this article to show you how to do it.

Lastly, I'll take a moment to marvel at the fact that ATI and Nvidia video drivers were not only supplied with the distribution, but that they required zero effort to install or configure. I didn't even know they were there until I ran the glxinfo program and saw that I already had full DRI and GLX support on two test systems (one using an ATI Radeon X700, the other an Nvidia Quadro FX 4000). Unfortunately, there was no hardware acceleration available for integrated Intel graphics chips. I tried briefly to enable DRI on one such system, but didn't get very far with it.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Xandros Desktop Home Edition 4.0 isn't without its little problems here and there, but as far as desktop operating systems go, it's the most complete one I've ever used. Very little has to be done to modify it to do practically anything you need a desktop OS to do, and those few procedures that have to be done are quick and simple. Adding new software and updating the programs you already have is easy and accomplished through a single, simple management framework. The menus aren't clogged with superfluous options and multiple programs for common tasks, and in general everything is very easy to use if you're a Windows refugee. Current GNU/Linux or *BSD users probably won't have much of a reason to switch to Xandros, however.

I'm not sure that the standard Home Edition is worth buying. People who don't need CrossOver Office or Versora Progression Desktop for Windows migration (it's a really great tool for that -- it couldn't be easier to use, and gets all of your settings and data in one quick operation) probably won't see more value in Xandros than they would in a free-of-charge distribution like openSUSE, Ubuntu, or Fedora Core. Xandros' real advantage is in the ease of migration from Windows that it offers in the Premium Edition.

As I said in the introduction, this should be the GNU/Linux distribution that you recommend to friends and family when you don't want to spend a lot of time helping them. Xandros is a snap to install and use, and includes a good paper manual and commercial phone and email support, so you can safely absolve yourself of the infuriating string of "how-do-I" questions that computer illiterates sap your time with. If you yourself are looking for a good way out of Windows, Xandros Desktop Home Premium Edition is your ticket to desktop computing happiness.

  • Native DVD playback support. I don't think GNU/Linux companies like Xandros are really putting enough thought and/org money behind native DVD decoding abilities. A significant number of people watch DVD movie discs on their computer. It's time some company took the initiative to either find a way to make libdvdcss legal, or write a driver for one of the hardware MPEG2 decoder cards out there. Why can't that company be Xandros?
  • Make it easier to find NDISdrivermanager. It was a big mistake to hide this excellent utility. Not only should it go back to where it was among the other networking tools, but it should also be offered during installation so that people who don't have any other way of accessing the Internet can complete the installation process properly with their "unsupported" wireless network card.
  • Red, green, purple, orange... anything but blue! Please, no more blue themes -- seriously. At least offer other color themes. Windows is blue and gray because those are the Microsoft company colors. I know that some people might feel more comfortable with what they're familiar with in Windows, but I doubt that extends to tired old color themes.
  • A control utility for touchpads. In general Xandros needs to work a little harder on laptop compatibility. In specific, it would be nice to have greater control over the behavior of the touchpad mouse.
  • No more demos. Take the demo software out of Xandros Networks. If you can't offer the full version, don't bother teasing users with products you can't deliver.
  • A 64-bit edition. It's getting harder and harder to find desktop CPUs that don't have either the AMD64 or EM64T 64-bit architectures. It's time to make the transition away from 32-bit software, and Xandros is among the last of the holdouts that do not offer a 64-bit edition.
Purpose Home desktop operating system
Manufacturer Xandros, Inc.
Architectures x86
License Proprietary, lightly restrictive. Most of the included software is under the GNU General Public License.
Market Home desktop users desirous of switching to GNU/Linux from Microsoft Windows.
Price (retail) U.S. $80 for the Premium Edition, or $40 for the standard edition
Previous version Xandros Desktop 3.0, Xandros Surfside Linux
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