October 12, 2006

Linux XP Desktop: A Windows face on an old Linux base

Author: Mayank Sharma

Late last month Linux-Online launched the English edition of Linux XP Desktop. The screenshots look pretty and amazingly similar to Windows XP. As a commercial distro for non-techie desktop users, does it do enough to challenge the likes of Linspire and Xandros?

Unlike Linspire and Xandros, which are both based on Debian, Linux XP is derived from Fedora. It runs an extensively modified version of GNOME to create an environment a Windows user should be comfortable with. Its manifesto claims that Linux XP is not a "cheap copycat product" but rather a mature and stable "ready-to-migrate desktop system." This I had to see.

When I tried to download the software, the HTTP and FTP download mirrors were all choked because of extreme traffic, but a torrent was available. The torrent contained two files -- a MD5sum text file and a 620.5MB ISO image. You can burn the latter to a CD from which to install the OS.

Installation is one department where Linux XP impresses. The installer is a modified version of Anaconda, which begins with partitioning. The installation messages are sanitized and written to aid non-techies by focusing on applications that help users perform common desktop tasks such as sending email, playing music, and managing documents.

On the down side, there's no option to preview or customize the list of packages being installed, which can be annoying when you're installing the OS on a machine with limited disk space. Neither can you create any user apart from the superuser during the installation process. It's not a good idea for regular users to run as root, due to the irreversible damage it can cause and the potential security risk. Several applications under LXP itself (such as XChat) will complain and warn of the security risk of running them from the root account. You can add additional users after the install process is complete, but the kind of user who is attracted to a Windows XP lookalike is not likely to take that extra step.

Linux XP boots in text mode, which for some reason defaults to 1280x1024. I was automatically logged in as root, since there wasn't any other user. Yet even after I later created other non-privileged users, LXP still on startup logged me in as root. To complicate matters the Logout button didn't always work, and I found no apparent reason for it failing. Killing X was the only sure way of reaching the Login screen. Once I got to it, I found it similar to the one in Windows. Once you enter your username and password, you can stare at a blank screen while the desktop is being prepared -- there's no splash screen to indicate the GUI being loaded.

But once it is loaded, you'll see a great Windows lookalike interface. It seems like a lot of effort has been put into making Linux XP cosmetically identical to Windows XP. One desktop enhancement, XP view, is inspired from the Mac OS platform. When invoked with the F11 key, it displays thumbnails of all open windows in a neat table. Linux XP also has a Control Panel similar to the one in Windows and to the Control Center in KDE. It can be used to control the behavior of the system, from changing fonts to adding applications and tweaking hardware.

Speaking of hardware, Linux XP couldn't play sound on my IBM ThinkPad R51. Sound card detection failed, and the Control Panel didn't suggest alternate strategies. Linux XP also didn't recognize the monitor on my machine. I made it run at 1024x768 by choosing "standard LCD 1024x768 panel" from the Display Properties. On the up side, the OS detected, configured, and activated the Linksys PC Card wireless network adapter and a mouse connected through a cheap PS2-to-USB converter.

A network monitor applet is pre-loaded onto the taskbar, but it defaults to monitoring eth0. I had to fiddle with the applet to make it show traffic from eth1, even when I had disabled eth0 during installation itself.

On my desktop machine, sound worked fine, and LXP also detected the Samsung SyncMaster TFT monitor, but chose to run it at 1024x768. A FAQ on the LXP Web site has instructions on how to make ATI and NVIDIA cards work. Surprisingly, the ATI Radeon card on the desktop was detected and configured automatically during installation itself.

Once everything was up and running, I checked on the installed software. I found the GNOME PDF viewer, GIMP image editor, gThumb image viewer, aMule P2P file sharing client, Totem movie player, Evolution email client, Firefox Web browser, Gaim instant messenger client, and XChat IRC client, among others. However, I found neither OpenOffice.org 2.0 nor the Flash plugin for Firefox were installed.

LXP offers installation of additional software through the Control Panel. Currently there are a grand total of 6 -- Adobe Reader 7.0, the Free Colonization game, Inkscape, MPlayer, OpenOffice 2.0.3, and Skype 1.3. The Control Panel installer automatically creates uninstall scripts and informs the user about them. You have to remember their location and invoke these scripts manually from the command line since they lack a GUI.

Another option is to install from RPM files, but you have to do that manually from the command line, because no GUI package management application is included. LXP Desktop 2006 is based on the ancient Fedora Core 3, so choose your .rpm files accordingly. The project says the next version, LXP Desktop 2007, will be based on Fedora Core 6, but gives no date for when that might be released.

You can also update system components through two listed packs (much like Windows Service Packs). On my systems, once the installer was done downloading the packs, it crashed without any errors and the packs weren't installed.

Finally I noticed some inconsistency with regards to LXP's terms of usage. The Web site says you are free to use LXP for three months or 99 boots, but the registration icon in Control Panel warns that free usage tops out after 30 boots. In any case, whenever it does, a boxed set will cost around $50, and includes support for a month.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, in its current state, LXP Desktop 2006 Service Release 2 has too many rough edges for me to consider it as my primary desktop. It has an old base, isn't very stable, and apart from the eye-candy has no major add-on feature. Unlike Xandros and Linspire, even after the license fee, there's no CrossOver Office to run Windows applications under Linux.

Unless you really like the XP look and can make do with the prepackaged software, you can skip this version. But keep an eye out for the next version, as the roadmap promises a data migration tool, remote desktop management from an Active Directory server, and other features.

Category:

  • Linux
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