July 7, 2006

Review: Xandros Desktop Linux 4.0

Author: Nathan Willis

The newly released Xandros Desktop Linux 4.0 is one of the few remaining for-pay Linux distributions on the consumer market. The Home Edition is available for $40, or $80 for a Premium Edition. What do you get for your hard-earned cash? Let's take a look.

On the technical side, Xandros 4.0 is a Debian-derived distro shipping with a 2.6.15 kernel and a KDE 3.4.2 desktop environment. Xandros has put a lot of work into customizing the user experience, slimming down and reorganizing menus and panels, adding some custom applications, and integrating some third-party Windows compatibility apps -- all with an eye toward making its operating system painless for refugees from Microsoft.

Xandros has streamlined the available applications, both in terms of selection and look and feel. Most of the apps are described by generic name in the system menu -- Photo Manager, Music Manager, and the like -- even though underneath they are the same KDE applications veterans are used to. When you select Music Manager from the menu, a Xandros-specific "Music Manager" splash screen pops up, but once the app itself has launched, it calls itself amaroK. If a new user doesn't understand what that disparity means, then he may be confused -- especially since amaroK (like most music apps) needs to run a setup wizard before getting started the first time.

Apps, apps, apps

Xandros has put a lot of work into paring down the often overwhelming array of applications presented by other Debian-based distros. The system uses a specialized app called Xandros Networks to install new applications and update existing software. XN is a front end to APT, of course, but it connects to Xandros' customer-only repositories -- which is where you will see the streamlined app selections. You can also use APT tools to reach standard repositories.

The Xandros Networks client. Click to enlarge

Under XN, OpenOffice.org is available, but KOffice and GNOME Office are not. Yet the streamlining process does not seem to reflect a simple best-of-breed philosophy. Skype and KPhone, which serve the exact same purpose, are both available. One might think both are present because Skype is proprietary and KPhone is free and open. But Thunderbird, KMail, and Evolution are also all available, and there is no such distinction between them.

Xandros supplies several no-cost commercial applications, including the aforementioned Skype, Adobe Reader, and RealPlayer. XN can also connect to a special "store" repository through which users can purchase additional commercial titles. Confusingly, some of the software titles in the store are free, and several are free software (as in GPLed), but are only available for purchase to Xandros subscribers.

I found it interesting that, given the inclusion of some non-free components, the company included neither MP3 creation nor encrypted DVD playback with its offerings. Both are available through third-party suppliers, and Xandros makes a point to push "iPod compatibility" in its marketing materials.

We do Windows

Besides ease of use, the other main area that Xandros touts is Windows compatibility. Bundled with the Premium Edition of Xandros Desktop Linux 4.0 is Crossover Office, which is also available to non-Premium owners via XN. Crossover is well integrated into desktop environment; when I inserted a Windows application CD, Crossover detected it and auto-ran the installer. Likewise, I downloaded a Windows app from Google, and Crossover detected it and auto-launched the installer again. In both cases, there were no hiccups and the new Windows apps were integrated into the system menus. I am not a connoisseur of Windows software, so I cannot push Crossover to its limits, but as a casual user I found it a welcome addition, as I'm certain a recent convert to Linux would.

Xandros also bundles Versora Progression Desktop with its distro, on a separate CD. Versora is a Windows migration tool; you run the CD in your Windows computer, and it creates a migration package containing your personal data, address book contacts, email messages, and so on, which you then import into Xandros. It strikes me as a welcome addition for migrating users.

Safety and support

On the security front, Xandros 4.0 includes a nice graphical app called Xandros Security Suite (XSS) which is intended to provide point-and-click access to firewall, anti-virus, and intrusion detection features. XSS runs a small monitor in the task bar notification area that blinks and pops up warning messages on security events. The main XSS app displays a summary pane for four components: Xandros Anti Virus protection, Xandros firewall, "system file protection," and security updates via the XN service.

Xandros Anti Virus is a custom-written front end to the free ClamAV package. With it, you can set up virus scanning rules and automated schedules. The Xandros Firewall Wizard guides you through a simple iptables configuration (basic, port-blocking rules only). The system file protection tool checks for rootkits. All are painless and easy to use.

Purchasers of any edition of Xandros Desktop Linux receive a temporary email support contract. I had several issues at the outset -- installing Xandros requires a serial number, which you must register to an email address, which in turn generates an activation code, which you must use to access XN ... and somewhere along the line, that process got trapped in an indeterminate state. The support team was fast and thorough in its responses as we sorted out the problem.

My assessment

All in all, Xandros Desktop Linux 4.0 is as solid as any other recent Linux distribution. These days, a commercial distro must differentiate itself from the competition on the basis of integration, management, and ease-of-use tools, points on which Xandros scores admirably. Similarly, Xandros sets its sights dead center on new users migrating from the Windows platform, and does a good job of welcoming them and making their transition hassle-free.

Coming as I do from the completely free distro Ubuntu, it irks me on ethical grounds to see a distro stamp its own name on applications and services developed by others, as Xandros does to many of its tools. But at the same time, I understand why the company does it, and I do not believe it is out of evil intent. Rather, part of the perceived intimidation factor of Linux is the wide and wild nature of a desktop distribution's component parts. Xandros seeks to unify the language of its OS to put users at ease.

Not all experienced Linux users will have the same reaction to the re-branding of open source software; for many the mettle of a distro is in its performance alone. To those, I say that you should give Xandros a serious look. Do not be put off by the paucity of pre-packaged software available from the company; you can still add, remove, and customize the system as much as you like -- just not through XN. Xandros is easy to use; it is not hamstrung.

All that said, we should revisit the opening statement: Xandros is one of the few remaining for-pay Linux distributions on the consumer market. That might be worth thinking about before you shell out hard-earned cash for a retail copy. Where Xandros excels is as a Windows replacement -- either a migration tool, or a Linux distro for heterogeneous networks. It is a good fit for small business environments. There are not a lot of other players in this space (Linspire is the closest competitor), which could be a bellwether of things to come. Businesses deploying Linux in an office environment need to know that the company they purchase their operating system from will still be around in several years. If for-pay Linux distros are going the way of the dodo, purchasing one is a risky proposition.


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