Xandros Linux: ‘It just works’, even with Windows stuff

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Review The "premier release" of Xandros, formerly known as Corel Linux, is being released today at the Xandros.com Web site. Individual users can pick up a copy for $99, and corporate/enterprise users will see a discount price for multiple licenses. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Xandros to play around with. This distribution is Linux through and through, but it could just be the Linux that will truly snag a market that is looking to escape from the confines of Windows.

Xandros came in a real box, with a real 220-pages long user guide, and a single installation CD. As Roblimo would say, I popped the CD into the beverage tray. The first thing that came up was the Xandros Installation Wizard. "The wizard will help you to install Xandros Desktop."

Next was the license agreement. It was one of those (quickly-becoming typical) EULAS that mention the GPL stuff and then the proprietary stuff. Interesting about this license: There was no license to read BEFORE I opened the box, no shrink wrap or seal on the package, and yet the final paragraph of the EULA states that if I don't agree with the license and haven't broken the seal on the software I can return it for a refund. Oops! Too late. Of course, this is a review copy -- perhaps yours will be shrink-wrapped with a copy of the agreement on the outside.

The next screen presented a choice between an express install and a custom install. I chose the custom just to see what I could fiddle with. This brought up a screen that lists all software available, with check marks next to the defaults. These include Crossover Office and Plugin, plus all the usual included-with-your-distro software, including OpenOffice, games, Palm utilities, editors, and Adobe Acrobat reader. I simply left the defaults in place.

Next I could choose whether to use the free space, take over the disk, resize a Windows partition (including NTFS and FAT 32), or "manage disks and partitions," something Xandros recommended for experts only. I ultimately told it to take over the disk, but peeked into the expert mode and found a disk druid like utility that would allow me to resize current partitions, delete them, reassign them, and choose to either format them or leave them as is.

Next I was asked to choose the root password, or administrator account, as Xandros calls it. There are also options to "enforce strong passwords" and "make user home folders private," all things that should make most security-conscious Linux people happy.

Then, just as in most Linux graphical installs, I was given the option of creating user accounts. Xandros recommends creating at least one user account. Even without strong passwords enforced, it still required a six-character password for a user account.

Next was the installation summary, and because I had opted to "take over disk," Xandros gave me a blinking red warning that all my data would be destroyed. I noticed that Xandros thought I had no network interfaces, though my PCMCIA NIC was firmly in place and plugged into my network. I clicked on "Finish," and Xandros went to work installing the files needed.

After 16 minutes, Xandros said it was done and I restarted the computer. While it is booting up, the messages look just like the Lindows start up messages, an eery reminder of the history between Xandros and Lindows and Crossover, a current partner with Xandros.

Then came the login screen. I typed my name and password, and the KDE desktop, with a Xandros logo substituted, booted. The desktop is familiar graphical Linux stuff. A "First Run Wizard" greeted me and led me through most all the options you'd normally fiddle with when installing Linux, such as setting which hand I would use the mouse with, setting the time and time zone, and setting up a network connection. Now, my network card was recognized, and connecting was ever so simple. I just accepted all the defaults and was online in about two seconds.

Then I could set up my printers, tell the desktop which Operating System to simulate: UNIX, Windows, Apple MacOS, or KDE (which isn't an operating system, but it was an option nonetheless).

UNIX looked just like a standard KDE desktop to me; Windows didn't look much different; Apple MacOS was cool. I flipped it back to the default for the purposes of this review, but would probably go with the Apple look if I decide to keep running this distribution.

Conspicuously and happily missing was the X configuration stuff, which is almost always a pain in the rear, especially on laptops. Xandros just detected the hardware and employed what it considered to be the best settings. Works for me.

Next was the registration screen. You'll have a choice to register online or skip it. That was it for the "First Run Wizard."

One really, really interesting feature of Xandros is the ability to switch users mid-stream, or to have two users logged on to the same computer simultaneously, simply by selecting "Switch User" from the launch menu.

This option can be set so that you have to re-enter your password when switching back to your desktop, or you can leave it so that no password is necessary. For family groups using the same computer, this will be a very convenient option for a quick email check -- no need to log out, just switch users.

And being that Xandros is based on Debian, you're still able to run apt-get from the console to pull down any applications you want or need.

Of course, with Crossover Office and CrossOver Plugin installed by default, you'll also be able to install your Windows programs. Let me tell you: Internet Explorer 5.5 runs beautifully in Xandros. I've used Crossover to install Explorer on Mandrake and SuSE, with only partial success. But everything about Explorer is right this time: the fonts, the javascript, the layouts, the speed -- everything.

In fact, everything that Crossover has said is solid in its products is also solid in Xandros. You won't have any problems installing MS Office, or Quicken or Lotus, or any of the myriad plugins Crossover normally supports.

Having said that, you need to know that Crossover is not supporting the version that comes with Xandros. For support, you'll have to pay extra. The nice thing is, you probably won't need any support. "It just works," is what Xandros CEO Michael Begos told me. Now that I've had the chance to install Xandros and run it, I have to agree.

Xandros is touting the control center, which looks just like the control center in Windows, including the display setting options, and the fact that users can access Windows files and share printers with Windows on a network.

The menus are grouped logically; there's a "Launch" button where the "start" button usually is in Windows; the default taskbar icons are helpful: switch user, volume, the typical Windows-like connected computers icon for when you're online, the Mozilla browser, logout and lock screen buttons, the file manager, and mail. Everything that is installed works.

The only problem for Windows users I would foresee is the lack of a major graphics manipulation application like The Gimp. They're probably not going to know how to get a copy of that and install it; and CrossOver Office doesn't support any graphics apps like that yet.

Xandros seems to be what Lindows could have been if it had stayed true to its Linux roots, both product-wise and philosophically. I like Xandros; I like the ease of use combined with common-sense security options and configurability; I like that it reaches out to Windows users without alienating the Linux community; it may just end up becoming the main distribution in my house.

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