Linux examined: Xandros Professional

Xandros, a commercial Linux distro, tries to be user-friendly, and for the most part, it succeeds.

To a lot of people, Ubuntu represents the most end-user-friendly nongeek-compatible Linux distribution. But there are other commercial distributions that work even harder to create a desktop experience that is, frankly, Windows-like. The two most well-known of these are Xandros and Linspire (formerly Lindows). Since Xandros recently acquired Linspire, that leaves it pretty much in sole possession of that segment of the marketplace.

Xandros tries to set itself apart from the majority of popular distributions in two ways. First, by making the installation and administration procedure as simple as -- or simpler than -- the best free distributions. Second, by integrating commercial software offerings into its package management system.

A no-choice install

While distributions such as Ubuntu try to make the installation process easy for nontechnical users by offering reasonable defaults for the various setup options, Xandros takes it a step further -- by essentially offering no choices. The first thing that the installer asks is whether you want an express installation or a custom one.

If you select express, you have made your last decision -- the installer will take over the entire disk, install a standard set of packages, set your network port up for DHCP, and so on. About all you'll be asked for is the required security information for the system login. (As you'd expect, the custom install gives you a bit more control.)

The Xandros installation CD performed well during testing, installing nearly flawlessly on both VMware running on a Windows Vista quad Core 2 workstation and a trusty three-year-old Toshiba laptop. It correctly identified and configured the 802.11g wireless system in the laptop, something that not every distribution I've tested can boast. It did not, however, manage to configure the laptop's sound correctly -- it did not recognize the device, leaving me without audio.

One thing you won't find with Xandros is a LiveCD version. This means that your opportunities to "try before you buy" are limited to physically installing the trial version, and installing something else later if it turns out you don't like it.

Xandros

Xandros can find most common printers.

Click to view larger image

After installation, you'll be asked a few more questions when you first log in, dealing with internationalization, time zones, and selecting a desktop look and feel. The default Xandros look is (probably intentionally) very reminiscent of Windows XP, with a Launch button in place of the Start button and little icons representing running programs on the bottom right. If you want, you can choose from several other themes, including a generic KDE interface.

The standard install doesn't include some things you might have expected, such as the OpenOffice suite or the Gimp image manipulation app (although both are available for install via the Xandros Network). You also won't find the Gnome desktop. Unlike many distributions, Gnome isn't available in the standard Xandros installation as a choice -- in fact, it isn't available at all, even through the package manager. Xandros has clearly decided that KDE is the app of choice, and the company is sticking with it.

Interestingly, the install does include some of the usual suspects, such as Firefox and Evolution, the integrated mail, address book and calendaring app. You also get a copy of CrossOver Linux, an app that allows you to install Windows software on a Linux system, which makes one wonder if they expect most of their potential users would rather install Microsoft Office than use the open-source alternatives.

Incidentally, Xandros does a good job of making a number of tasks more friendly than usual for Linux. For example, it has a printer driver installation wizard that walks you through the process, and seems to know about most common printers, such as the pair of networked Brother laser printers I used it with.

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