Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Xandros 4.0 Review - How to do a entry level distro almost right

When I first played with Xandros back a few years, it was being touted as the distribution that actually worked and could be a Windows replacement for new users. At the time, I was new to Linux and willing to take that risk and well, wasn't impressed. I then got a hold of a 3.0 distro and loaded it on my wife's laptop so she could stop getting killed by malware and popups. She liked some things of Linux, but by no means is interested in her laptop being either Windows or Linux. Well, the wireless never worked, so she never used it. It was extremely difficult to even attempt setting up NDISWRAPPER, which is by far the easiest way to get wireless working IMHO, so I quit and now it just sits there idle.

So Xandros now has 4.0, which really is nothing super special, mainly upgrading pieces to more recent/less buggy with many of the latest (operational) offerings on the kernel, KDE and other aspects. With their "Making Linux work for you" tag line, lets see how they did...


Kernel - 2.6.15 or higher (I love how they at least tell you what comes out of the box)
Desktop - KDE 3.4.2 Xandros Enhanced
Specs -
Cost - Home $39.99 Premium $79.99 (30 day free Trial) $129.95 Business
Special Features - Included Code Weavers (in Premium version), NTFS Read/Write Support

Nitty Gritty:

Installation (

With a distro that is touted as being a Windows replacement for newbies, the first test for me is how much gray matter does it take to install. If I have to call upon knowledge via another computer googling this and that, it will get a 1. A 5 is reserved for the fact that I don't do anything and it can read my mind on what I want.

So the test starts for Xandros and quickly it is a clean looking boot into the installer. You know what is happening all the way up to the first screen. You are welcomed in a with a very simple screen telling you what you are doing today. One thing I really like on this is that it keeps you informed all the time of where you are in the process and keeps the option of going back for the user. If you have any questions during this, there is a nice resource located here.

The next screen is the lawyer speak for this is yours and not mine, but I reserve the right to change what is yours and make it mine again. Really, the EULA here is pretty basic and nothing in there scared me.

The next step is important for new installs, in that it allows the installation to continue is newbie mode or in a mode more advanced, but not too nuts that you need a PhD in cyber speak in order to succeed.

For the sake of keeping the windows easy, I went ahead with the Custom install, but remember one can always go back and choose Express if they get lost.

What I like here is that you have two methods of playing in the Custom sandbox: One click grab it all; item by item. This allows the really picky people to hunt and peck if they like, or for the more simple minded folk like me, you can just grab the whole bag at once. The difference in the Express and the Custom Complete seems to be only a few items such as Organizer, Drivers, PIM devices (such as Palm), and the media player. While these are not all critical items to run, I would think that media player would be nice to have as a default, but with the silly licensing issues with that, once can easily tell why they kept it clear from the Express.

The next screen really is what I know is critical for folks who plan on Dual booting with Windows still alive on their PC. This is the disk screen, and it allows the user to determine what partition, if any available, to install Xandros onto. It evens tells you that trying to modify these partitions now is really something that an expert should try, rather than mere mortals. By giving the options of using free space (you won't break a thing), taking over (say goodbye to the old, hello new), resize a Windows (move over Bill, I coming in), Replace Xandros (thanks for coming back home) and then expert (Look out momma, trying to fly) I think that they simplified a step that can really put off the newbie. Again, this option is not available for the Express install, that just makes a decision based on what it could find. Using the option of Free Space is also the default if the partition is blank as in the case of my trial for the Express installation.

Take over disk still allows the user to choose where they want to install. On advanced machines where there are several partitions, this is important so that you don't over write the wrong one (been there, done that). It also asks where you wish to over write the master boot record, which is also extremely important so that you know how your system will boot. Typically I place this at the MBR rather than on a partition if I am going to be dual booting with windows.

Networking is next and Xandros found my network card and then allows me to tweak what it thinks I should be doing. I didn't have wireless on the machine I tested this with, but will test that later on and update the site with any findings (Have to get permission to break my wife's laptop 8-S)

So that concluded the Custom options on the installation and the fork in the road brings us back to where the Express would have already taken us. The only real change we made was to do a complete installation rather than the default, but realistically that would have not been noticeable in any way once we completed.

The Admin screen is extremely straight forward, providing options for the password (you can't leave it blank for the lazy people out there), a computer name for use on networks primarily, and then options for user password strength, and home folder being private (stay out of my stuff mom). I am not a huge fan of the strength option as it just makes your day longer in the end on remembering passwords.

The next window gets us to the user additions, which one should always do. By not creating a user account, and only running Linux in Admin role, well that would be like having a diamond store full of the most high tech security in the world, and not locking the front door. Just create a user account and be safe all the time. I know it can be a pain, but really, is typing SU that hard????

As always, the user name is lower case with no funky stuff, and you then can create the real name along side and the default password.

And then that is that. One Linux distro ready to be installed. Note how nicely the system warns you on a Take Over Partition option that you could be doing some nasty things, so make sure you know what you are doing.

I can honestly say that Xandros does have one of the cleanest and easiest installations on the planet. I would have to say that they are the closest to getting a 5 out there, and would probably if this wasn't my first review.
Nothing in the installation is above any user who has done anything close to install any software. I commend the Xandros team on creating a distro that can truly get off the ground running in limited time and no excess gray matter usage. Thank you, thank you and thank you for that.

Onto bigger and better things; she is quick out of the gate, but how does she corner???

Starting ( )

Well, I am not a fan of their boot selector, I mean this is exactly the same as 3.0, and doesn't do much for the eye candy appeal, and really no excitement or incite for the newbie on what is even happening. However I think I might be looking too hard for an issue as the install happened a bit too easily.

One thing you quickly notice when firing up Xandros the first time is pretty nice graphics. Nice in that they don't try and go over the top, which could slow down the process on older systems.

The boot screen is equally simple and clean, allowing the user to choose to login as the user created during installation, or the evil Admin login. Please note I am not a fan of the admin option of logging in, as it eventually makes newbies login as root, making their systems more susceptible to intrusion.

Like many KDE based distros, there is a nice First Time Run utility that allows you to setup time zones, printers, affects, etc...but is nothing new.

One new item in the First Time Run is the Registration with Xandros, which tells the user in order to get new software and updates they MUST register. Now, I am not opposed to this, and is pretty simple up front, but I do like the idea of me being anonomous to the OS provider. Do they really need to know me, especially if I paid $40 to get their OS to this point??? Getting a code is pretty simple, but I am giving a bit more data than I really would want too. Whether or not this still supports Apt-get is to be seen, which I will update later.

And honestly, that is a pretty common theme with Xandros: nothing new. It is a very vanilla distro in that there are no real bells or whistles, but I think that is the true intention. It is really designed as a packaged Linux distro that newbies can enjoy, get a PC up and running with in minimal time and effort and do what people want to do on computers, surf baby, surf. It allows for quick support with iPods, music, media and NTFS systems with Read/Write support, so you have a new Linux system that can talk to your older Windows boxes as well. It is truly a product that they intended it to be, and for that I give them credit. I doubt it will ever win over the hearts and minds of true Linux fans who live for the challenge of it all, but for mom and dad who are retired and can barely tell the difference between a mouse and a keyboard, this is definitely an option to look into.

Bonus Stuff ( )

So why should someone put out $40 for a distro when there are others that are FREE???? And realistically the only configuration that makes any sense is really the Premium at that gets up to $80. So what do you get for that? First of all (and most arguably what sets Xandros apart from the crowd) is CodeWeavers. In a nut shell, codeweavers is Wine tweaked to really work better and with a cleaner front end. So what is Wine then? Well, it stands for Wine Is Not An Emulator, and basically allows programs for Windows to be run within Linux. Do all work? Not really. So CodeWeavers has tweaked and pulled Wine for specific packages, mainly Microsoft Office, iTunes, Adobe packages and some other software that just doesn't exist in the forms Windows users would want. It is a bridge for the Windows users that just can't get rid of Word, Excel and Outlook and are affraid to work in OpenOffice, or simply don't want to try.

CodeWeavers alone is $39.95, so that covers the delta between the basic and premium costs, but there are other packages and a link in Xandros explains that. There are several key product differentiators for the $40, but the base cost of Xandros is still a mystery to me. Again, I don't mind people trying to make money in building a superior product, but the cost here is really for a convenience over superior and there are other packages out there today that offer the same level of support, quality and ease for FREE.

One feature that I am not fully in tune with is a nice to have package called Versora, which is a migration package from Windows to Linux. This type of application would work well for most newbies getting their key documents, settings, and attributes over. How well it works would really depend on the user's expectations and details that they are moving.

Another nice package in the distro is the Security Center, which really pulls together all the issues a newbie might be concerned about. Again, there is a for sale security package with Virus Checking, Firewall services (which are going against one of the current strengths of Linux) but I understand the concept in providing this in a user friendly way and applaud the centralized control and visibility of the product.

Overall ( )

So what do I think overall? (if you care, right ) Xandros has a really strong product, but I think they outprice their market. At $80 for a package that delivers what people would want, they are too near the cost of Windows which also does everything they do(and some a bit better). If they are after the orphaned Win 98 and ME consumers who are scratching their heads now that support is over, they missed by about 100 yards. I love the ease of the product, the great look and feel that KDE provides and how Xandros is sticking to what works in packages, kernels and simple software bundles. CodeWeavers is good for those who want to have the Windows packages, but Wine is also a viable option and again there is a pricing issue as to the value of what this really provides today when OpenOffice is gaining strength on its own for an Office package, reducing the need for Wine. If most of these came in a cheaper package, where it was not basically as much as MS, then no doubt this would be a 4 Pennie package. As it sits, 3 Pennies is all I can give until they offer a FREE base package similar to what Freespire is to Linspire, which to me is a direct comparison product offering (and also our next package to be reviewed)

So I will be probably deleting my install and moving on to keep the lookout for the Nirvana, but would recommend this strongly to any newbie who is tired of Redmond ways and wants the control that Linux provides back to the user, but not to my Linux friends looking for that thrill of the compile and having the cutting edge.


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