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Xandros Desktop Professional 4.1 review

By Jem Matzan

There are several "business," "corporate," or "professional" desktop operating systems on the market today, all aimed at seeping into large corporations that already use GNU/Linux on servers. It's a pretty good plan, and most of the operating systems in this arena are pretty good -- not perfect, but pretty good. Xandros has had such a product for a while now, and it's always been near the top of the list in terms of features and quality. The market is now mature and the products are more competitive, though, and the product formerly known as Xandros Business Desktop, while still a good operating system, isn't keeping up with the industry's pace. As a standalone operating system it doesn't go very far, though it may have a much more meaningful impact when combined with Xandros' other products.

Xandros overview

If you have never used Xandros Desktop Professional or Xandros Business Desktop 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 4.1.

Originally developed and sold as Corel Linux, Xandros is a KDE-centric GNU/Linux distribution based on Debian. While it offers a rich desktop environment, it is possible to use the Debian package tools to adapt Xandros Desktop Professional 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. Xandros Desktop Professional was previously known as Xandros Business Desktop, which has seen several releases of increasing quality over the years.

The distribution includes about 1.5GB 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. From the included Applications disc you can install several important programs like the suite, the GIMP image editor, the Adobe Acrobat Reader, the Thunderbird email client, and more. Also included in the default install is CrossOver Office 5.9.1 Standard, which allows you to run many Windows programs inside Xandros. You'll also find a small collection of proprietary extras: the Java Runtime Environment version 1.5.0, RealPlayer G2, and hardware-accelerated Nvidia and ATI video card drivers installed and ready to go.

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 Professional 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 is limited in all the same ways. One thing you won't find in Xandros is a high degree of 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 Professional is only one of Xandros Inc.'s GNU/Linux products. The others include two home desktop products; a deployment management server; a business server edition; and an education desktop and server edition for schools.

What's new in 4.1

The following major updates and changes have been made since the previous version of Xandros Business Desktop:

  • 3D desktop effects ala AIGLX
  • The Xandros Desktop Search tool has been added
  • Bluetooth support
  • Expanded mobile Internet (GSM, UTMS, 3G) device support
  • The Xandros Network Connection System has been added
  • NTFS read/write capabilities
  • Application updates: Firefox 2.0, 2.0.3, Evolution 2.6.3
  • Windows domain authentication
  • The Xandros Security Suite

Of the above, the most significant changes are the NTFS read/write capabilities, the new networking tools, and the 3D desktop effects. Previously the proprietary NTFS module was available for an extra fee through Xandros Networks; now it is included by default. The fancy desktop effects I could personally do without, but they seem to be a big deal to some people. As for the network tools, I found them extremely helpful for connecting to restricted wireless networks.

The ability to authenticate users on a Windows-controlled network seems important at first, but when you consider the environment that such a need would exist in, it looks a little unrealistic. Why would you use Windows as your server and Xandros as your desktop? If you're committed to Xandros on desktop machines, why wouldn't you ditch Windows entirely and go with a Xandros server? According to a company representative, Xandros Desktop Professional is designed to work with Xandros Desktop Management Server, which is better enabled to manage Xandros-based desktop machines.

Putting it to the test

Xandros Dekstop Professional 4.1
Xandros Desktop Professional 4.1: a more expensive Desktop Home Premium?

The first interesting thing I noticed about Xandros Desktop Professional 4.1 was that its default installation behavior is not to replace other operating systems, but to resize existing partitions and install beside them. The existing boot loader is replaced with LILO and other detected OSes are automatically added to the boot screen.

I had no trouble installing on a variety of machines: an Asus P5B-based Core 2 Duo system, an older Asus A8N-E with a Athlon 64 X2 3800+, and a rather finicky Acer TravelMate 2300. Xandros Desktop Professional installed and worked reasonably well with each system, though all of them had some missing functionality. The Acer had trouble with the integrated Inprocomm IPM2220 wireless, which required NDISwrapper. The Core 2 Duo system had an Nvidia GeForce 7300GS video card in it that worked well for desktop applications, but was not compatible with AIGLX. The AMD system used an ATI X700 video card that claimed to have AIGLX support, but upon enabling it I was unable to get back into without manually hacking the configuration file.

Finding and using wireless access points was considerably easier in Xandros Desktop Professional than it is in most other desktop operating systems. I did go through a bit of a hassle with NDISwrapper, though, and I think this should be a little more automatic. I like the ndisdrivermanager utility a lot -- it makes installing Windows wireless drivers a simple matter. The only difficulty is in getting to the utility and setting up the network device once the driver issue's been resolved. I found myself going around in circles and restarting the computer a few times before I got the IPN2220 driver working as intended. Networking hassles are one element of Microsoft Windows culture that should not be emulated in GNU/Linux distros like Xandros.

I was unable to get the desktop 3D effects working on any of my machines with a variety of different video cards. This is not unexpected; AIGLX has never worked with any of this hardware in the past. Though I doubt the 3D effects will be a primary selling point for anyone, it's worth mentioning that this feature is very likely to either not work, or wreck your configuration so that you can't get into KDE anymore.

The only feature that distinguishes Xandros Desktop Professional from the Home Premium edition is the cellular network connection tools. The challenge with 3G/GSM/etc. connectivity is not in configuring the service, though it can be a hassle and it is nice to have some graphical tools to make it easier. The real problem is with hardware support of cellular Internet devices: Smart phones, PDAs, and PCMCIA connection cards. Since I haven't had any luck finding a device that works well with Linux and is compatible with my service options (not to mention affordable), I was not able to test Xandros' capabilities in this area.

NTFS support is not as seamless as the Xandros marketing materials led me to believe. I connected a second hard drive that has an NTFS partition on it, but the Xandros file manager did not recognize it at all. A device node was created in /dev, but the drive was not mounted by default, and I wasn't able to mount it from the command line, either.

The Xandros Security Suite is easy to use, does not require an extra subscription fee, and is suprisingly effective. I visited two Web pages (the Debian home page and one of the Debian sponsors linked to from it), and Xandros Security Suite managed to find a phishing-related item in Firefox' cache: the HTML.Phishing.Gold virus. After some investigation I believe it may have been a false positive, but it was still caught, quarantined, and deleted from the cache. The firewall is easily modified through the Security Suite interface, and it is designed to look and act like the graphical security framework built into Windows XP SP2, so Windows refugees should be able to configure it without much trouble. It's hard to ignore when it remains unconfigured -- it blinks an icon in the taskbar until you set up regular virus scans.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Mobile Internet support and some updated desktop applications aside, there really isn't any significant difference between Desktop Professional and Desktop Home Premium when used as a standalone product. Combined with AIGLX' lackluster hardware support, Xandros Desktop Professional 4.1 isn't as impressive as it could or should be. Desktop users need flawless "I don't have to think about or mess with it" support for everything that the operating environment is capable of doing. While basic desktop functionality in Desktop Professional was excellent, more advanced features like support for NTFS partitions and desktop 3D effects for modern video cards was not delivered as advertised. It's not that these things are always necessary in a business environment -- it's that they are supposed to be there, and they are supposed to work without having to mess with the command line, and that is not the case with Desktop Professional 4.1. If it doesn't work, it shouldn't be there.

In the future I'd like to test this with the Xandros Desktop Management Server to see if it really shines as a piece of a solution instead of just a standalone desktop OS.

Here's what I'd like to see in the next version of Xandros Desktop Professional:

  • Focus on business productivity. What's the difference between Desktop Professional and Desktop Home Premium, aside from the name and the support options? There should be a definite reason why a business customer would want to pay $20 more per seat for the Professional edition. As silly as it sounds, changing the desktop theme and artwork in Desktop Professional to look different from the Home products could make a difference to IT managers. It shows that this product is visibly different from the consumer-grade products, and is geared toward productivity in a business environment. I also think the menu structure and default software selection should be changed to eliminate anything that does not have to do specifically with business desktop work. Xandros Networks probably should not be so easily accessible, either -- it's not a good idea to give users the potential to install extra software on a business machine. Apparently this can be done through the Desktop Management Server, but that is a separate product from Desktop Professional.

  • Better release testing. If you say you have 3D desktop effects, they need to work -- or they need to be removed until they are production-ready. When a user connects an NTFS-partitioned drive, it needs to be properly mounted and easily accessible from the Xandros File Manager. A Xandros representative pointed out to me that the desktop effects are included as a technology preview, but if users try to mess with it, they can make their computer unusable. If it's there, it has to work, and ideally it shouldn't cause any damage in trying to get it to work.
  • A control utility for touchpads. Synaptics touchpads have "scroll" areas by default. This is extremely annoying and very difficult to get rid of in the absence of a control utility like KSynaptics. This or some similar program should be included in the default install.
  • A 64-bit edition. It's almost impossible to find new 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 Business 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 Businesses that want to switch desktops from Windows to GNU/Linux.
Price (retail) U.S. $99. Upgrades are available at a variety of prices
Previous version Xandros Business Desktop 3.5
Product Web site Click here