August 17, 2004

Xandros Desktop 2.5 Business Edition

Author: Jem Matzan

Xandros Desktop 2.5 represents the fourth release of the desktop GNU/Linux distribution formerly known as Corel Linux. Xandros prides itself on superior Windows compatibility, and to maintain that reputation it includes some hard-hitting tools for making Windows programs work well on GNU/Linux. It's a little on the expensive side as far as desktop distributions go, and it feels somewhat like a slightly watered-down version of Linspire, but Xandros 2.5 Business Edition definitely has its advantages.

Xandros now has four editions of their desktop GNU/Linux distribution: the Open Circulation Edition, which is free to download via BitTorrent, but somewhat disabled; the Standard Edition which is the full Xandros distribution without CrossOver Office; the Deluxe Edition, which is more for the home desktop user; and the Business Edition, which is aimed at small/medium-sized businesses. The underlying operating system is mostly the same for all editions, but they are restricted to varying degrees of functionality. For this review I tested the Deluxe and Business editions, which are quite similar; the only significant difference I found was that OpenOffice.org 1.1 was replaced by Sun StarOffice 7 in the Business Edition.

Base distribution

Xandros Desktop Business Edition comes with Sun StarOffice 7 and 60 days of standard support from Sun Microsystems along with a Sun online training course on migrating from other office suites; CodeWeavers CrossOver Office 3.0.1; KDE 3.1.4; XFree86 4.3; Java Runtime Environment 1.4.2; and Mozilla 1.6 with a very nice custom theme and the Flash, Java, and PDF plug-ins. The kernel is 2.4.24 with hardware accelerated proprietary drivers for ATI and Nvidia video cards (so you can play 3D games like Unreal Tournament 2004) and a module for NeTraverse Win4Lin.

With the exception of CrossOver Office, this is not particularly up-to-date software -- especially the kernel. Everyone else in the desktop GNU/Linux market has released a product based on the superior 2.6 kernel, which offers better performance and expanded hardware compatibility over the 2.4 series. The 2.4 kernel means no SATA hard drive support and no 64-bit support for the AMD64 architecture (although Xandros worked very well in 32-bit mode on my Asus K8V Deluxe-based AMD64 system). Curiously the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) is not installed by default; it has to be added through Xandros Networks. This means that some sound cards, like the Creative SoundBlaster Audigy, will not produce sound until you've installed ALSA and rebooted.

Despite the nice extras like the video drivers and Crossover Office license, Xandros is missing suitable video playback capabilities. The QuickTime and Windows Media Player browser plug-ins are absent, as is the ability to play DVDs. Granted, these options are not often used in a business setting, but their lack of inclusion diminishes the usefulness of the distribution. Inevitably someone in your business someday will need to do one of these things, and they will not be able to do them easily with Xandros.

Extra software

With any desktop operating system the important question for most people is, "How do I get more software installed?" Xandros uses a tool called Xandros Networks which looks and feels like a considerably less fancy version of Linspire's Click N Run. The same functionality is there -- you click on software categories in a left-hand pane and then select software to install from a list on the right. It's all very convenient and I wasn't able to break it (and I've broken Click N Run more than once), but your selection is very limited unless you're paying for a software subscription.

US$39 per year gets you access to some otherwise restricted programs and a discount on proprietary software like NeTraverse's Win4Lin (which is the only commercial proprietary program in Xandros Networks that is not included with the Business Edition), and Sun StarOffice 7. That's not a lot of money to pay for a software subscription when you compare it to Linspire's $49 and Sun's Java Desktop System $99 per annum charges.

There are two sections for you to choose new programs from: the Shop and the New Applications area. The Shop is much like Click N Run, and roughly half of the programs listed there are restricted from non-subscribers. Restricted programs can be either free or proprietary, and seem to have been randomly selected for restriction. Novell Evolution is not restricted, but Quanta+ is; GIMP 2.0 is restricted but GIMP 1.2 is not. Many demo products, like the Quake3 Arena demo, are also restricted.

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The New Applications section includes programs that apparently aren't as popular or important as the ones in the Shop, or perhaps they were also randomly selected. There just doesn't seem to be any logical layout to Xandros Networks. I would prefer to see one consolidated list of programs that are not yet installed on the computer, rather than two discrete lists that pretend to represent different classes of software.

One thing that I definitely don't like about Xandros Networks is that there is no automatic update applet. If you want to check for updates, you have to open up the Xandros Networks application and click on the update icon. Of course this is not difficult or complicated, but it does not compel the user to keep their software current. By "current" I mean patched, not upgraded -- if you want to jump up to a new kernel or move from Mozilla 1.6 to 1.7, you can't do it through Xandros Networks. Its only function is to apply security and bugfix patches.

I noticed that Sun's StarOffice patches are not available through Xandros Networks. There have been three product updates since the release; in order to take advantage of those patches, you'll have to download them directly from Sun.

Xandros Desktop is based on Debian Sarge, so more experienced users can still use the apt-get command in the terminal if they like. The company warns that if you install programs from sources other than Xandros Networks, your system or certain programs could stop working correctly. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which this would be true; it seems more likely that Xandros Inc. is trying to scare its users into a software subscription.

Windows compatibility

Xandros Desktop Business Edition comes with a free copy of CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office, which enables you to run quite a number of Windows programs in GNU/Linux. From my experience with this software I can say that it generally works quite well with supported applications and you can occasionally find an unsupported program that will install and run to a reasonable degree. CrossOver Office is definitely the best-performing Windows compatibility program available.

Included in the same package is a trial license for NeTraverse Win4Lin 5.15, a virtual machine supporting the ultra-stable, secure, and reliable Microsoft Windows 98 and Millennium Edition operating systems. This program acts as a machine inside a machine, so you'd need a real, legally licensed copy of Windows to install on it. There is a significant but not showstopping performance loss by using Windows through Win4Lin, but that's a small price to pay for being able to run any Windows 98/ME-compatible program flawlessly within Xandros. What is not a small price to pay is the license fee for the full version: US$89. Oddly, there is no way to buy a full version license through Xandros Networks -- you have to go directly to NeTraverse. According to a Xandros representative, customer demand for a full edition of Win4Lin is not great enough to merit a place for it in Xandros Networks. The trial version is limited to 4-hour sessions, and you can only use it for 30 days.

Business Edition?

The kind of business that would benefit most from Xandros Desktop Business Edition is a smaller one that has a limited or nonexistent IT department. This is an operating system that can very easily be installed and configured by someone who has never used GNU/Linux before, but expert sysadmins who expect to be able to roll out an OS onto hundreds of machines through unattended headless network installs will be disappointed. To achieve that level of functionality you'd have to also buy the not-yet-available Xandros Desktop Management Server.

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Xandros Desktop cannot easily be used as a server platform, and I certainly would not recommend it for such use as it has no administrative tools and server software is not included with the distribution at all. Sure, you could use APT to install Samba and Apache and such, but if you're not going to use the nice desktop and all of the GUI-based programs that come with Xandros, why spend the money on it? Debian Sarge is free to download, if that's all you need.

Xandros Desktop Business Edition is not a corporate desktop product like Red Hat Desktop, SUSE Desktop, or Sun Java Desktop System. Those operating systems are meant to work with companion server products to create a tightly integrated environment that can easily span hundreds or thousands of computers and be centrally controlled by a single sysadmin. Xandros Desktop looks like it is headed in that direction, but as the accompanying server product is not yet available and the desktop product doesn't appear to be designed to be integrated with it, I'd say that 2.5 is not yet ready for serious consideration in an enterprise environment. Small and medium-sized businesses will no doubt find Xandros Desktop an ideal solution for use as a stable, reliable, secure, and easy to use alternative to Microsoft Windows.

Bugs

The first and most annoying problem I had with Xandros Desktop was the fact that the KDE desktop kept crashing every time I tried to copy something to the desktop directory. Dragging a file onto the desktop caused it to stop responding; re-logging got me back to normal. I was fully updated through Xandros Networks, and the problem occurred on two drastically different machines.

Sound support is somewhat sub-par, and not just because ALSA isn't installed by default. The Analog Devices AD1980 sound chip on my Asus K8V Deluxe was not recognized or configured by the somewhat aged 2.4.24 kernel.

Conclusions

Yes, Xandros Desktop 2.5 is a pretty good GNU/Linux distribution. If it didn't have so much competition, I'd give it higher marks. I'm left feeling somewhat uninspired by Xandros -- it just doesn't offer anything that I haven't seen before in other distributions. The inclusion of CrossOver Office is certainly interesting and useful, but for what you're paying for the distribution you're not saving any money over the retail cost of a standard CrossOver license. The proprietary video drivers are nice to have too, but they don't cost anything and I can download those from ATI and Nvidia if I need them.

On the home desktop front, Xandros Deluxe Edition is nice, but if you're not afraid of proprietary licenses you may as well go for the gold and get Linspire instead -- it's much like Xandros only the CNR database is easier to navigate than Xandros Networks and offers automatic updates. It's also a lot cheaper. Linspire's software subscription may be somewhat more expensive, and it doesn't have the Windows compatibility than Xandros does, but most people don't really need to run Windows-native programs anyway, and Linspire has a native DVD player available.

If you own a small business and are looking to outfit your shop with new hardware and software at as low a cost as possible, or if you are using older versions of Windows and MS Office that are no longer supported, Xandros Desktop Business Edition is certainly a consideration. The problem is, it's expensive to buy and expensive to maintain the yearly subscription plan. Windows XP would be a cheaper solution as a bare operating system, but if you take into consideration the fact that Xandros comes with a full-featured MS Office-compatible office suite with support directly from Sun Microsystems along with the ability to run many Windows-native programs in a more secure and stable environment, the cost is justified. Also keep in mind that any GNU/Linux operating system will tend not to break through updating and installing/uninstalling software, whereas you can count on Windows needing to be reinstalled monthly or yearly depending on how it is used -- time is money, and if your time is worth a lot of money, Xandros is worth the price you'll pay over Windows initially. Don't let those misleading Microsoft TCO studies confuse you; initial cost is not the total cost, and downtime alone can lead to hidden costs that erase any money you would have saved with a more expensive solution like Xandros.

So Xandros buries Windows in terms of ease of installation and configuration, and in reliability and value of included software and support, but is it worth more than, say, SUSE Linux Professional? SUSE is just as user-friendly and secure, and it uses newer software, a newer kernel that supports newer hardware, and costs $40 less. Add in a CrossOver Office license and it ends up as the same price, except SUSE doesn't have a per annum subscription fee and it comes with piles and piles of software applications, many of which are not available through Xandros Networks. Xandros is good, but it's not good enough to be the hands-down choice for small/medium-sized businesses. There are, however, situations in which Xandros Desktop will make more sense than any other operating system -- you'll really have to examine your business needs closely to see if Xandros Desktop Business Edition is the right solution for you.

Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer Xandros Corporation
Architectures x86
License Proprietary, although most of the operating system is under the GNU General Public License
Market Small/medium-sized businesses
Price (retail) US$129 for the distribution, $39 per year for the software subscription
Previous version Xandros Desktop 2.0
Product website Click here

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

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