January 21, 2004

Spawn of Debian faceoff: Xandros 2.0

Author: Joe Barr

This is the third in a series of reviews of Debian-based distributions. The first review looked at LindowsOS 4.5. The second examined newcomer MEPIS Linux. This time it's all about Xandros, one of the oldest of the commercial Debian-based distributions. Since its release last month, Xandros 2.0 has been garnering rave reviews. To learn why it didn't earn another here, keep reading.

The buzz about Xandros

Xandros was formed in 2001 when it acquired the remains of Corel Linux, which had been known as the most beautifully crafted Linux desktop ever. Corel was also one of -- if not the -- first commercial distributions to be based on Debian. Xandros Release 1.0 came later than originally planned, finally appearing in the fall of 2002. Release 2.0 came about a year later, in December of 2003.

The test environment

I am using a low-cost desktop box I purchased from Fry's Electronics for $199.99 for the review. It came with an 800MHz VIA processor, 128MB DRAM, 30GB hard drive, 52X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, and mainboard with built-in AC97 Codec sound, 3D Graphics Accelerator video, SiS630E chipset, and a 10BaseT/100BaseTX NIC.

The box is connected to the Internet through my home LAN. A Belkin Wi-Fi router sits next to my office desktop, and the test machine connects to it via Cat 5 cable. Connected to my desktop box is an HP printer which is configured to allow sharing with others on the LAN.


I opened the box containing Xandros Desktop OS Deluxe Edition version 2 and found a hefty user's manual, a getting started guide, and two colorfully labeled CDs. One CD was marked for installation, the other for applications. I slid the install CD into the drive and restarted the computer.

The installation wizard appeared after booting from the CD. Number one order of business was to accept or decline the license. After accepting the license, I was given the choice of an Express or a Custom installation. I chose Express and was prompted for an administrator password, a computer name, and a user name and password.

The wizard wanted to take over the hard drive for the install and that was fine with me. After a brief couple of moments, it had partitioned and formatted the drive and it began copying things from the CD to the drive.

Infomercials appear on the screen as the install proceeds. I noted that Xandros 2.0 can run Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, and that Xandros Networks allow one click updates. I also noted that the along the bottom left of the screen the build date and time was shown in small type: build 2003-11-26-07:00.

After almost 30 minutes, everything had been transferred from the CD. I was given the choice of creating a boot disk or simply exiting. Normally I would build the floppy, but since this is a test machine where installation shelf-life is measured in days, I chose to exit instead. I noticed that the mouse movement was very slow as I moved it to click my choice. Then I was told to remove the CD and press enter to restart my computer. I did, several times. But nothing happened. Finally I hit the reset button instead.

During the first boot from the hard drive, I was given three choices of how to proceed: boot Xandros 2.0, boot Safe Mode, or Configure System. I chose Xandros and off we went. It wasn't long before KDE announced musically that it was loaded. Just after that is when the crash occurred.

KDE told me that "Xandros Desktop Wizard" had crashed with signal 11: SIGSEGV. I contacted Xandros support and between the two of us we determined that it had something to do with the shared printer on my normal desktop machine. I changed that configuration to not allow sharing of the printer, and the Xandros Desktop Wizard loaded and ran without crashing. Well, it did for awhile, anyway.

The Wizard led me through choices for right-handed or left-handed rodent, regional settings like language and character set, date and time, printers, and system behavior. Printers, of course, was blank since the Deskjet was no longer available to be shared. I would have gotten through the entire process without a hitch if something hadn't made me click on preview after selecting KDE as the model for system behavior. It was SIGSEGV all over again. I started the Wizard again and found that nothing had been lost, so I finished it without asking for a preview and it terminated normally.

I later repeated the installation with the shared printer removed from my desktop. The Desktop Wizard ran without a hitch and I was encouraged to use Xandros Networks to apply any waiting security updates or critical fixes before going any further.

Post-install landscape

Following the install, the Xandros desktop appears as you see it here. (Click on the desktop image for a larger view.) There are desktop icons for trash, home, Quick Start, Mozilla, and Xandros Networks in a vertical row along the left-hand side.

On the taskbar at the bottom of the desktop are a menu launcher, Xandros File Manager, Help, and a Show Desktop icon. On the right-hand side of the task bar are two workspaces, sound, desktop lock, logout, and switch-user icon. The switch-user facility allows you to quickly move from one login ID to another without the bother of having to log out of the current session, log in to a new one, do something, log out of the new session, and log back in as the current user. Type that once and you'll see why it's a good idea.

There is an interesting array of applications included by the default installation available via the menu launcher. Accessories include both a personal time tracker and pop-up notes. There is a complete CrossOver menu to allow you to run MS Office, Adobe Photoshop, and other Windows applications on your Xandros box. Multimedia includes Audio Builder, which is actually ARTS, the Real Time Synthesizer. OpenOffice.org is also present. The only thing that surprised me was that the GIMP was not present in the default installation.
But given the ease of adding applications via Xandros Networks, that's really not a big deal.

More about XFM, the Xandros File Manager. At first glance I expected to find that XFM was simply a re-branded KDE Konqueror, but the help facility told me it was a copyrighted application owned by Xandros. I learned more about the distinctions between XFM and Konqueror in this article in Consulting Times, which discusses the XFM heritage and why it was developed in the first place.

More on page 2... Connectivity

Xandros found the ethernet card and configured it properly as a DHCP client on the Belkin router. The crash in the Desktop Wizard kept it from finding the printer, however. Out of curiosity, I made the printer sharable again to see what would happen when I tried to configure it for use on the Xandros box. When I went into the Control Center to configure it, I found it sitting there waiting for me.

Software maintenance

Xandros Networks is an excellent means of providing software maintenance. It's not quite as easy to use as Click N Run, but it's darn close. The only difference I could see was that Xandros Networks asked for the administrator's password before it would allow me to install the GIMP.


Xandros requires an administration (root) password and at least one normal user account. When running as root, the default Xandros desktop is a bright red color, to warn the unwary. During the First Run of the Xandros Desktop Wizard to finalize loose ends from the installation, users are strongly encouraged to check for and install critical fixes and security updates. I applied two security updates which included security patches for about half a dozen applications as easily as clicking on each one. My only complaint with Xandros security is that it does not appear to install a firewall by default, nor did I find one waiting to be activated in the Control Center. Otherwise, I would be tempted to give Xandros the highest possible score in this category.


The Deluxe edition tested includes 60 days of email tech support. In the standard edition, it's 30 days. In addition, the website provides a FAQ, searchable knowledge base, and a user forum. I also found an IRC support channel at #xandros/irc.freenode.net. It wasn't exactly the busiest channel on the network, but at least there is one there.

The final score

Xandros is a very impressive distribution. It's sad that bugs in one key application (the Xandros Desktop Wizard) were exposed on my particular test configuration. Both the Installation and Connectivity categories suffered as a result. If you've read about Xandros 2.0 elsewhere on the Internet, you know that it is drawing rave reviews. This would have been another one except for that single flaw.

I like the fact that Xandros provides an ultra-easy installation path for noobies and also a custom path that allows more experienced users to get under the hood a little bit. If you are a power Windows user looking for your first Linux distribution, you'll be hard pressed to find a better choice.

Category LindowsOS 4.5 MEPIS 2003.10 Xandros 2.0
Installation 90 90 75
Connectivity 95 95 85
Security 85 95 95
Software maintenance 95 90 95
Free/Included Support 75 90 85
Price as tested $49.95 $17 $89.00
Upgrade software maintenance $49.95 N/A N/A
Final Grade 88 92 87
Click Here!