Written by Jem Matzan
Monday, 17 July 2006

After suffering through version 1.0 many years ago, I thought Xandros would be the least likely of the commercial desktop GNU/Linux distributions to succeed. Each subsequent release since 1.1 has changed my mind a little bit, and now with version 4.0 of its home desktop edition, I'm at last convinced that Xandros is positioned for success. This should be the desktop operating system that you recommend to your Windows-hating friends and family.

Xandros overview

If you have never used Xandros Desktop Linux before, this section will give you an overview of it. If you're already familiar with Xandros, you might want to skip down to the next section, which covers the changes introduced in version 4.

Originally developed and sold as Corel Linux, Xandros is a KDE-centric GNU/Linux distribution that is loosely based on Debian. While it offers a rich desktop environment, it is possible to use the Debian package tools to adapt Xandros Desktop Home Edition for a variety of different uses. Its heritage plus the excellence of its design equal an operating system that is easy to use, but powerful when necessary.

The base distribution includes about 1.4GB of software, though most of that is the base operating system and "filler" -- ancillary KDE software and other programs that are rarely or never used. The default Xandros Desktop Home Edition installation offers few useful applications, but the Premium version comes with CrossOver Office 5.0 Standard, which allows you to run many Windows programs, and Versora Progression Desktop, which enables you to safely move all of your data and settings from Windows to GNU/Linux. You'll also find a small collection of proprietary extras: the Java Runtime Environment, Adobe Flash Player, RealPlayer, and hardware-accelerated Nvidia and ATI video card drivers installed and ready to go. In essence, Xandros is more of an operating system with the ability to expand, whereas most of its desktop GNU/Linux competitors are self-contained software distributions.

The officially supported method of installing new software (and updating currently installed programs) is through the Xandros Networks framework. This consists of a self-contained program that both tracks your current software situation and informs you of other applications that you can install. It's much like Linspire's Click N Run (CNR) system, though Xandros Networks is not integrated into the KDE menu structure like CNR is. Lastly, Xandros Networks has a taskbar notification applet that tells you when software updates are available.

The general "look and feel" of Xandros Desktop Home Edition is like a cross between Windows XP and Sun Java Desktop System. It's easy to use and navigate if you're used to the Windows Start menu interface philosophy, but not really all that sensibly designed according to modern usability standards. One thing you won't find in Xandros is clutter -- the Launch menu is clean, focused, and easy to navigate. Most other desktop GNU/Linux operating systems will have up to three separate Web browsers, office suites, and email programs. Xandros, in contrast, only has one standard program for each purpose.

Desktop Home Edition is only one of Xandros Inc.'s GNU/Linux products. The others include a business desktop product and a deployment management server; a business server edition; and an education desktop and server edition for schools. Xandros Desktop Home Edition and Home Edition Premium are the only two Xandros products aimed at consumers.

What's new in 4.0

The most noticeable change in Xandros since version 3 is the interface. Everything from the installation boot splash screen to the KDE desktop and all points in between has been graphically enhanced. Cosmetically this is an impressive distribution, but I am growing increasingly weary of blue themes. I think this must be the "blue period" for GNU/Linux -- SUSE, Linspire, Mandriva, Red Hat, and Xandros all have blue standard themes.

Unless I missed it in the previous version, Xandros now requires product activation to enable the Xandros Networks program. Previously you needed a subscription to take full advantage of Xandros Networks, but you could still get updates. In version 4, the whole framework is inoperable until you put in your support serial number, which is sent to Xandros to generate your product activation code, which is emailed to you. Then you enter that code into a prompt in the XN client to enable it. Word on the Xandros forum is, you can only use your serial number five times before you have to make a phone call to activate your XN subscription (normal business hours only). Some Xandros customers are upset about this, complaining that it's no better than Microsoft's product activation schemes. In effect, Xandros actually is a little bit better; Windows XP requires product activation to use the operating system, whereas Xandros only restricts support requests and product updates -- the base distribution is perfectly usable without the activation code. Secondly, every other major commercial GNU/Linux distribution except SUSE already does this -- Mandriva, Red Hat, and Linspire -- so there aren't a lot of alternatives in the top tier if you're trying to avoid any kind of product registration. I'm not saying what Xandros is doing is in any way ethical or respectful of its customers' privacy; I'm just pointing out that everyone else is doing it, so there really is no surprise here.

The Xandros Home Edition 4.0 license is rather strange -- it now allows customers to install the entire distribution on an unlimited number of home computers and one business computer. This is a sensible choice because, quite honestly, it's what people do anyway regardless of license restrictions. I don't know how this broad allowance reconciles with the fact that you can't activate your support serial number more than five times.

A new feature in the Premium Edition is the Xandros Security Suite, comprised of a firewall, anti-virus scanner, and file system protection application. The latter two programs wanted to run memory- and disk-intensive services at frequent intervals, so I disabled them. Realistically, I think most users are going to have to do the same in order to avoid a noticeable system performance decrease. These services seem like they are designed more to assuage the fears of paranoid-by-experience Windows refugees than as useful security precautions anyway.

Also new to Premium Edition is the Xandros Storage Manager, Xandros File Manager, and the Paragon NTFS kernel module. The latter allows you to write to Windows NTFS partitions; the standard Linux kernel module only allows reading NTFS volumes, so this could be a great asset to people who need to share data with a Windows partition.

*Read on at the link. Great Review.*