Showdown: The Penguins Prepare for a Shootout

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:31 PM

The goal is tough, the reviewers tougher, and while the lineup of contenders are all worthy the award, only one will receive it. In this report, Open for Business' Timothy R. Butler grills Xandros in the first of a multi-part series to find out which vendor has created the best GNU/Linux distribution in town.

Twas the week before Christmas,

and all through the office,

every creature was stirring,

especially my mouse (and keyboard),

the distros were tucked all away in their jewel cases,

in hopes that they would soon win the first annual OfB Distro Shootout…

Okay, so that isn't exactly Henry Livingston, Jr.'s Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, but hopefully you get the idea. With the fall producing a bounty of exciting new distribution releases, Open for Business will spend the next few weeks providing a report on some of them, and then pit them against each other to find out what the best overall distribution is.

The challengers include some venerable favorites like Mandrake Linux and SuSE Linux, but we will also spend time with new entrants into the “distro wars,” such as LindowsOS and Xandros Desktop. It is our hope that the OfB Labs tests on these packages will help you get the new year started off right with a sparkling new distribution.

What exactly will we be looking for? Generally speaking, we will consider ease of installation, general user friendliness, the ease of getting updates, and how well suited each distribution is to average desktop usage. With the push for a Linux desktop starting up in full gear again, this is certainly an exciting time to be considering distributions for these types of things.

Without a further ado, let me present to you our first distribution to be dissected: Xandros Desktop 1.0.

Xandros Desktop 1.0

This is a distribution that has caused much intrigue over the past year. After the company came out and announced its purchase of Corel Linux, including the never released Corel Linux 3.0, Xandros went into the shadows and busied itself with its new desktop operating system.

When repeated attempts by publications, including Open for Business, failed to find out anything about the software, we were forced to wait and be satisfied with the information we could glean from Xandros licensee LindowsOS. However, the release date has passed, and we have finally had the opportunity to try out this much-hyped new package.

If initial presentation was the measure of quality, Xandros would have all of the other distributions beat right from the start; this company definitely understands the importance of first impressions. When the installer first boots up, rather than being greeted by a text-based progress bar or scrolling boot messages, this distribution starts up in style with a flashing Xandros logo that fades away once things are ready to go. It might not do much for you once your ready to use the system, but it did make for something different than the normal monotony of the boot system (which also often scares new GNU/Linux users).

The installer itself is nothing particularly spectacular, but it is pleasant enough, and seems reminiscent of Corel Draw's installer, surely a sign of Xandros' heritage. Using the default options, we were able to complete all of the necessary installation steps in a matter of minutes, and the advanced install option only added a few additional minutes onto the setup time.

After the system booted for the first time, we ran into the only major hitch of the entire installation. For some reason Xandros automatically attempts to mount all partitions on the drive, whether or not they are actually formatted. Since we had an empty partition, it caused a very messy set of booting errors, but we were able to resume a normal boot. Fortunately, normal installations shouldn't have these conditions, so although this was a bit of an oversight in the design of the installer, you should not encounter problems like this normally.

All Systems Go.

Once I logged into my user account, I was greeted with a clean, Windows 9x/2000-style desktop, probably a smart move on the part of Xandros to lower the learning curve. A lot of the other changes the company has made seem to point to a pre-XP Windows like style as well. The clean, simple Launch button menu contains a layout nearly identical to that of older versions of Windows, even including the “Programs” menu for applications. It may not be original, and may not be a favorite with users from non-Windows operating systems, but it should be great for the company's targeted audience.

If I had to make one statement to summarize how Xandros differs from its competitors, it is that they have definitely gone beyond the other distributions in customizing their package. Unlike most distributions, there is no way you could miss the fact that you are running Xandros. Central to this tweaking of the system is the Xandros file manager, a completely new file manager that replaces Konqueror as the default file tool in this distribution.

As with the rest of the interface, it is completely unmistakable where the inspiration for this program originated from - Windows Explorer. Much like Explorer, Xandros File Manager is a dual paned interface, with a directory tree on the one side and the file listings on the other. The left pane auto detected the various SMB and NFS network devices on our LAN properly, and it even included nice “C:” and “D:” icons for the NTFS and FAT partitions we had on the drive.

Also, like Mandrake Linux, Xandros seems to have included a “media automounter” meaning that you can access CD's and diskettes in the file manager without having to tell the system that the media is there first. As an added plus, when we placed an audio CD in the drive and then attempted to “open” that drive, the file manager automatically launched the CD player and looked up the name of the CD in the FreeDB online CD database (album information is shown on the Windows-like information bar that is in the file listing pane).

Much as I was a bit puzzled why the company did not simply add the needed enhancements to the already robust Konqueror file manager/web browser that comes with KDE, I must say they did do a very good job with Xandros File Manager. Clearly the company spent some time working on polishing this program, as we did not encounter any problems with it and all of the functionality was easily accessible. Also, while it looks a lot like Windows, they did differ from Explorer where it was advantageous to, showing that they had sense enough not to make the software look like Windows just for the sake of making it look like Windows.

Another smart feature that Xandros includes is the ability to easily have multiple users logged in, much liked Windows XP's “fast user switching.” Though GNU/Linux paired with XFree86 has supported this long before XP was even dreamt about, this is the first time that a distribution has bothered to make this feature easy to use. Whether your system will play a dual role in a home office/family computer situation or you just occasionally must share your system with a co-worker, this is an ideal way to do so without having to logout and close all of your programs. Kudos definitely go to Xandros for not only implementing a GUI for this functionality but making it work intuitively.

Much like its cousin LindowsOS, Xandros is based on the Debian distribution, and includes its oft-touted apt-get functionality. In short, apt-get is an efficient way for installing new packages and resolving software dependencies (i.e. one package requires another one), often over the Internet. Both distributions have recognized how powerful this technology is, however both of them implement a user interface for it in very different ways. For now, I will not go into detail about LindowsOS program, but I will say I am confused as to why Xandros did not take a the same route. In essence, Lindows' program is a KDE application, just like the rest of the core desktop software, but for some reason Xandros' “Xandros Networks” is a web-based utility that runs out of Mozilla.

Although a heroic effort was made to make Xandros Networks appear to fit in with the rest of the system, there is simply no hiding the fact that this “application” is really a series of web pages with fancy JavaScript coding. OfB Labs is completely puzzled as to why Xandros took this approach rather than the native KDE/Qt route like they did with Xandros File Manager. The system does do its job, but running a web server on port 8080 serving up web pages for the purpose of installing packages does leave a lot to be desired.

To begin with, this seems like a serious security hazard. Without using so much as a password, we were able to take another computer on a remote network and browse around the Xandros Networks tool as if it where a normal web server. This allowed us to see what applications where and where not installed, and even revealed what security updates where needed on the system. While the program does not install any software without entry of the root password, just revealing exactly what possible security flaws exist on the system seemed troublesome to say the least. Fortunately, it does seem that Xandros has released a patch for this problem, an update that everyone should download as soon as they install this distribution.

Another issue that we had with Xandros Networks is simply the fact that web pages just don't work like applications. Beyond looking a bit clunky in spots, I received security prompts like those when submitting data in a web browser - because that was indeed what I was doing. This isn't horrible, but the experience would be made nicer, and faster, if Xandros had simply enhanced KPackage or wrote their own native application like Lindows did. Whatever the case, it should be said that Xandros Networks does work, and overall the interface is intuitive enough.

The final major feature that Xandros has is another feature also sported Lindows, albeit in a very different form. Both companies use proprietary extensions to WINE (a program that makes some Windows applications run under GNU/Linux) to offer support for some Windows programs, such as Microsoft Office 2000. Furthermore, both companies are using proprietary extensions developed by CodeWeavers, one of the major sponsors of the WINE Project. However, whereas Lindows has attempted to make WINE transparent (we will address whether this succeeds or fails in our LindowsOS review), Xandros simply includes a copy of CodeWeaver's CrossOver Office and Plug-in, each of which come with a tool for installing Windows software.

We would have liked to see the Office and Plug-in tools integrated together or perhaps even placed with the rest of Xandros' system tools, yet at least true to previous versions of CrossOver, everything did work just how it was suppose to. In less than 10 minutes, we were able to launch the CrossOver Office utility, click the application we wanted, and have it take care of the install. When we tried installing Microsoft Internet Explorer, it even downloaded the files for us, requiring interaction from us only to click through the Internet Explorer Setup Wizard. Once it was installed, the Launch menu was extended with a “Windows Programs” menu, and Internet Explorer also received an icon on the desktop.

While this isn't anything that Xandros can claim as a special feature only available in its distribution, it is very nice to see them include the functionality in the box rather than requiring one to purchase it separately and download it from CodeWeavers. A few months ago, SuSE announced that they would offer a similar boxed set, however for the moment Xandros gets exclusive bragging rights for this.

Beyond these features, Xandros includes the standard array of other useful applications such, The Gimp, and Mozilla (oddly enough, Mozilla is preferred over Konqueror and KMail even though the distribution uses KDE as its desktop). To brighten things up, they even include a nice variety of photo wallpapers for you to use on your desktop.

Oh, But Wait…

Xandros is an extremely promising distribution, and for a one-point-oh release, it is very impressive. Unfortunately, the distribution is not without a few major caveats that any serious review should consider. The most obvious issue on startup is that the system still uses KDE 2.2.x rather than KDE 3.x. With KDE 3.0's release nearly eight months behind us, and all of the other major distributions, save Lycoris, using it, this is more than a minor detail. KDE 3.x includes numerous bug, security, and usability fixes, and many new applications coming out are designed exclusively for the newer KDE.

As such, for those looking for systems requiring minimal upgrading for an extended period of time, we recommend holding out awhile longer if you wish to go with Xandros. Apparently, boxed sets of Xandros do include a “Technology Preview CD” that contains a copy of Xandros based on KDE 3.0, but it appears that this version of Xandros may lack many of the enhancements provided in the normal distribution. The review kit that the company provided us with did not include this CD, so we cannot offer any actual testing experience concerning it.

On a side note, a smaller KDE related caveat is the Bookmark utility in the Internet programs group. While experienced KDE users will immediately recognize it as being Konqueror's bookmark utility, new users might think it actually edits the entire system's bookmarks. Since Konqueror is not the default web browser, we thought it strange that a special icon to access its bookmark system was included in such a prominent place.

The other major issue is Xandros' licensing system, which (again) like LindowsOS, is a per-seat license agreement. Even though most of the system is based on Open Source/Free Software, the majority of the enhancements made by the company have been placed under a proprietary per-seat licensing agreement. The most immediate consequence of this choice is that it will set your budget back $99 per seat that you wish to install Xandros Desktop on. In actuality, this isn't a bad price considering the inclusion of CrossOver Office and Plug-in is worth $69 (for some reason, Xandros' site claims that the CrossOver bundle is actually a $99 value), so long as you actually need CrossOver.

If you are migrating from Windows, and CrossOver will run the applications that you need, then Xandros' package comes out slightly cheaper than buying Mandrake or SuSE Linux and CrossOver Bundle à la carte. Yet, if you are attempting to move away from Windows software, or only a limited number of your systems need CrossOver, you are stuck with paying for it anyway. This is a shame, as Xandros Desktop probably could have retailed for substantially less without CrossOver (or perhaps a “locked” version of CrossOver that required a registration key to activate), and it is a fine distribution by itself.

There is another issue to consider when purchasing a “proprietary distribution” like Xandros. The problem with the majority of the “selling points” of this system being proprietary is that if by chance Xandros would go under, those components simply would cease to be developed. Admittedly, that is possible even with Free Software, but there is at least a good chance that someone will continue to develop the software if it is under a license such as the GPL. In a less dramatic scenario, like the one that happened at Corel, a change of focus might cause Xandros to put the distribution up for sale. Corel Linux users were mostly forced to abandon the distribution as the time in-between Corel's decision to stop developing it, and the time that Xandros came along and bought it was long enough that the system had become woefully antiquated.

We are not suggesting that you should avoid Xandros because of this; yet, it should be something you consider when choosing a distribution. Some may recall we made a similar note in Open for Business' review of SuSE Linux 8.0 earlier this year, yet SuSE does have the distinct advantage of letting you modify YaST2 so long as you do not charge for your modified version.

There are several ways that Xandros could solve this problem, the most ideal being releasing their code under a Free Software license (or at least a non-Free source license such as the YaST License). Since that may not be the most desirable thing for a software company to do, another good option in our opinion would be for the company to setup a foundation similar to the KDE Free Qt Foundation. That foundation was created when the library KDE is based on (Qt) was still a proprietary product, and assured that under various circumstances — such as the discontinuation of Qt or the bankruptcy of TrollTech - that Qt would automatically be released under the BSD license. While in TrollTech's case they did eventually choose to make Qt Free Software anyway, the peace of mind it provided for those adopting that technology was certainly beneficial. Likewise, we feel that we could give a much more ringing endorsement if we were aware of a similar procedure at Xandros.

All of this considered, Xandros is still a real contender for those requiring an easy migration path from Windows that includes support for some legacy applications (such as Office 2000). In many cases, running Windows software under Linux is not necessary, still there are times when the need does arise, and for those cases, Xandros is definitely a drop-in solution.

How will Xandros fare compared to the rest of the penguins in our distribution shootout? Stay tuned: we will address that issue once the other victims — I mean distributions — have had their time time in our spotlight.

Summary of Xandros Desktop 1.0

User Interface:
Total Cost of Ownership:
UPSIDE: It is nice to see a new distribution perform so well, especially with so many novel features. If you are looking for a way
to migrate to GNU/Linux and keep Microsoft Office without any hassels, Xandros is a distribution that deserves serious

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.