December 19, 2006

Review: Xandros Desktop OS 4.1 Professional

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

A few weeks ago, Xandros released an update of its Business Desktop OS with a number of new features, including 3-D effects and desktop search. The 3-D effects fell flat in my tests, but I found the distro to be a pretty good OS if you're looking for a Windows replacement.

One of the things Xandros has always gotten right is its simple installation routine. If you pick the express install, all it requires is a few mouse clicks and you're done before you know it. The custom install is not much more difficult. Some users might find the limited options for disk partitioning and management to be a bit frustrating, but users who want to set up a RAID or use LVM probably aren't Xandros' target market for the desktop system. The custom install allows you to modify the default Xandros package selection, handle custom partitioning and choosing a different filesystem (Xandros uses ReiserFS by default), and allows you to set up the network configuration manually.

I tried Xandros on a couple of systems. One was a Shuttle XPC with an Athlon X2 4200+, 4GB of RAM, an Nvidia 7900 video card, and Realtek onboard audio; the other was a Pentium 4 laptop with 1GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 250, Intel sound card, and Intersil Prism wireless.

Xandros did just fine on both machines. It detected all of the peripherals and devices on my systems with no problems, and configured most of them appropriately. The one spot where Xandros didn't do "the right thing" was with the network configuration on my laptop. Despite the fact that I had no Ethernet cable plugged into the laptop's onboard NIC, and that Xandros detected the wireless card correctly, it didn't try setting up the network using wireless. I had to configure that manually after the install had finished.

Xandros Security Suite

When it comes to anti-virus applications for Linux, color me skeptical. The need for desktop AV under Linux today is minimal at best. But vendors like Xandros are trying to woo users and organizations away from Windows, and Windows users have been trained to look for anti-virus applications on their desktop. Without the anti-virus app giving the thumbs-up, many users are going to feel nervous about a system, and wonder what sort of nasty malware may be lurking on it.

Xandros Security Suite - click to view

Xandros ships its Desktop OS with the Xandros Security Suite, which consists of Xandros Anti-Virus, a firewall configuration app, a rootkit checker, and the Xandros Networks updater. I understand why Xandros is shipping the security suite, but I don't understand why Xandros chose to set it up in such an intrusive manner. The security suite is like an annoying younger sibling in the corner of the desktop, always demanding attention.

As soon as the system is installed and the user logs in for the first time, the user is presented with a flashing shield in the system tray. To get the shield to stop blinking, the user must manually configure the security suite to perform the checks Xandros deems necessary to keep the system "safe" at the required intervals -- or to configure the suite to ignore the "problems."

Providing the security suite for the user's piece of mind makes sense, but why not set it up to have the "safe" settings by default and skip annoying the user? Even after it was configured to the "safe" settings, the software would occasionally pop up a dialog just to let you know it was still there. Maybe Windows users have a higher tolerance for random flashy things on their desktops, but I prefer that applications stay out of my way unless there's a good reason to grab my attention.

The firewall configurator, on the other hand, is nicely done. Xandros makes configuring the firewall a simple matter of walking through two dialogs and selecting the incoming and outgoing services that should be allowed. Xandros should relabel the Firewall Control button, though -- I was expecting this to allow additional tweaking of firewall rules, but instead the "control" is just a dialog that asks whether you want to turn the firewall off or on.

Video effects?

This release of Xandros Desktop includes the increasingly popular "bling" that you've heard so much about. At least, it does if you have the required hardware and it doesn't freeze up on you. On the two systems I tested, Xandros was unable to muster any bling to brag about.

On the desktop system with the Nvidia 7900 card, Xandros detected the video card and installed the proprietary Nvidia drivers. However, when I tried to enable desktop effects for the system, the configuration wizard told me that the system wasn't supported for desktop effects.

On the laptop, which I've used Compiz with successfully in the past, the configuration wizard indicated that my video card did support 3-D effects. After clicking enable, it asked me to restart my computer for the change to take effect. After doing so, the login screen came up OK, so I thought I was on my way to wobbly windows and a cubed virtual desktop. Actually, I was only in for a locked-up desktop as soon as I logged in.

I restarted the system a few times to be absolutely sure, but Xandros locked up tighter than a drum each time I logged in. After the final try, I rebooted the system again and used the Xandros Safe Video mode to disable 3-D effects so I could at least return to the boring old 2-D desktop.

The Xandros desktop

The Xandros desktop is based on KDE, but configured to look much like Windows. The default packages are primarily KDE/Qt applications, but Xandros does throw in a few choice GNOME/Gtk applications as well. For example, Evolution is included for users who want a mail client and groupware suite that looks like Outlook.

Xandros running Word and IE6 with CrossOver - click to view

Xandros has done a good job of picking just one application for each task, so that new Linux users won't be overwhelmed by a gob of browsers, music players, and so forth. Oddly, Xandros did choose to ship two mail clients, though -- KMail and Evolution are both installed by default.

Overall, the default selection of packages is decent -- though I might quibble with some of the selections that Xandros made. For instance, the company chose to ship Kopete for IM rather than Gaim. While I don't have anything against Kopete, I think Gaim is a better application for Linux newbies.

A couple of applications are left out of the mix that I'd expect to see in any Linux desktop OS, specifically the GIMP and Neither package is installed by default, though you can grab them through Xandros Networks, Xandros' package management utility and repository.

Well, you can grab them if the repository happens to be online, anyway. I tried downloading and the GIMP on a weekday morning and got a note saying that the Xandros Network archive "is being refreshed" and to "please check back in a moment." Hours later, I was able to complete the download.

The new release also integrates Beagle search into the Xandros desktop. Beagle indexes office documents, Web pages, IM conversations, and more, and makes it easy to find anything that contains the keywords you're looking for. Other distros have been shipping Beagle for a while, so it's not particularly revolutionary to find it in Xandros, but it is a nice addition. Beagle also seems to be fairly well optimized; I didn't notice any performance hit from Beagle indexing my documents on the test systems.

If you must run Microsoft Office ...

Xandros also includes CrossOver Office, which allows you to run some Windows applications under Linux. I don't have a lot of Windows software lying around these days, but I did install a few apps to try it out. I installed Internet Explorer 6 and Microsoft Office 2003 under CrossOver, and it was almost as easy as installing the applications under Windows itself. (I say "almost" only because there are a few additional dialogs to contend with, as CrossOver asks a few questions about the process.)

Once installed, Office was set to open Office documents automatically, and I'm guessing that the average Windows/Office user would see little difference between using Office on Windows and Office on Xandros. IE6 also worked well, though it did have some weird refresh issues when running on a Xandros virtual machine under VMware Workstation. That might be more of a VMware side effect than a Xandros/CrossOver issue, though. If you're hoping to run IE7, it may be a while before you can do so -- a quick look at the CrossOver Web site indicates that IE7 isn't yet supported.

Overall, Xandros is a fine desktop operating system, and well suited for Windows refugees and the business environment -- particularly one where Microsoft Office is still a requirement. The price tag, $99 for download or boxed set, is a bit steep in a market where there are so many good free Linux distros, but the inclusion of CrossOver Office and security tools may make the cost worthwhile to businesses.

The desktop effects don't seem to be ready for prime time yet, and Xandros needs to take the security suite down a notch so it's not so annoying, but otherwise this distribution is worth trying out if you're looking for a Linux desktop to see you through Windows withdrawal.


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