Xandros Linux conquers a hostile Sony laptop
A little something for everyone
OS Review I have an impressive talent for buying laptop computers hostile to Linux. Right now I'm using a Sony Vaio VGN-FS840/W, with more proprietary drivers than you can shake a stick at. It's so bad that even a retail edition of Windows XP won't run on it; you need the OEM Windows (and sure enough, Sony is too cheap to include the CD), or you need to go to the Sony support site, download all of the drivers, and make your own supplement CD.
As for Linux drivers, forget it. Sony has more important things to worry about, like recalling millions of inflammable batteries. So naturally, this machine represents quite a challenge for a Linux distro.
My personal favourite, SuSE, won't run on it without a tiring vi session, trying to edit xorg.conf to get a screen to appear. But Xandros Home Edition Premium ran fine right out of the box. Indeed, it has turned out more functional on this Linux-hating computer than even a vanilla Windows installation, which is not something one expects.
The installation routine will be familiar to any Windows user: you put in the disk, and click OK every now and then. It isn't possible to do much tweaking during the install, although I was able to re-partition my hard disk and set up my Linux filesystems as I saw fit. Otherwise, there isn't a great deal for an advanced user to do, except set up the network and printer towards the end.
The desktop system is KDE, nicely decorated to look like Windows XP. Actually, KDE is pretty Windowsey to begin with, but if one feels that Xandros has gone too far in that direction, it's easy enough to customise.
There have been some improvements since our last review, with KMail now serving as the default mail client, as it should. A packet filter is installed by default; the Gimp is installed by default; and KWrite is the default text editor. These are all good choices.
But KDE is an excellent desktop, not just a good one: far superior to Windows in its wealth of useful applications and utilities. It's a pity that Xandros has limited its KDE packages to those that a Windows user would expect to find. Thus we're missing the KBear FTP client, KGpg, KMplayer, Kaffeine, KPackage, the K3b CD utility, Ark, and many others.
The Xandros file manager has been designed to look and feel like Windows Explorer, and this is fine; but I wish Konqueror were included in the start menu so that users could find it easily and experiment with it. It's present, of course, but you have to hunt for it. Still, the Xandros file manager handles a number of tasks, including compression and archiving, FTP, CD creation, and file sharing between Windows and *nix networks. A great deal of work has gone into it, and it's clearly meant to replace a number of KDE utilities. Yet there's no need to hide or neglect to install them; it's always nice to have a choice.
The default browser is Firefox, not Mozilla as it previously had been. Firefox is a bit leaner and faster, although it has lagged behind Mozilla in a number of important security features. It has certainly not lived up to the hype surrounding it, at least until recently. At this point, though, it's nearly on an equal footing with Mozilla security-wise, and definitely more responsive. So I would call that a good choice.
Overall, Xandros's security is improving, but there are lapses. GnuPG is included, but the KGpg front end is not. Shred is included, but it's not integrated with the file manager. There do seem to be fewer networking daemons enabled by default than there had been when we first looked at Xandros, and this is quite encouraging. I had only to turn off NFS and Samba (file and print sharing was off by default). I couldn't find a way to turn off the portmap daemon via the rather limited admin interface in the KDE Control Centre, and had to do it manually. But that's about it.
These daemon processes are called "services" to conform to Windows parlance, and they include some surprising items. For example, there's remote desktop sharing (VNC), which, on home machines, makes me uncomfortable from a security point of view.
The company has taken great pains to look security conscious, in the way that Windows looks security conscious. This means that the panel is buzzing with little applets popping up and interrupting your work to warn you to scan for viruses and the like. They have icons shaped like little shields; they look like things you associate with Norton and McAfee, and the Microsoft "Security Centre".
Windows users expect this so, apparently, Xandros felt it ought to give the computing public what it's used to, whether it needs it or not. But unless you're running a mail or file server, you simply don't need a virus scanner on a Linux box. And there's no need to be so showy about the rest of it, either. The company should enable packet filtering by default, leave the networking daemons off unless they're needed, tighten up the file permissions, and leave it at that. Users can get behind a NAT box, and forget about all those threats that used to terrify them running Windows. It's ridiculous for Xandros to remind people of the horrors they've just escaped by switching to Linux; I say, let them enjoy their computers for a change, instead of worrying about them constantly. Bag those silly little security applets.
Xandros's multimedia support is poor, and this is a surprise when you consider how much effort has gone into making Windows users feel comfortable with the distro. The default video player is Xine, which is not half bad, especially with the Kaffeine frontend, but there are basically no codecs installed. Good luck opening anything more exotic than a .wav file. One can install Mplayer, for which a cornucopia of codecs is available. And if you prefer the KMplayer frontend, just install that afterwards (I've found that the Mplayer codecs work with Xine/Kaffeine, although it seems that Mplayer has got to be present. And it also seems that Mplayer and the codecs are best installed after Xine).
One of the best items included with Xandros is Crossover Office. If you've got a substantial number of MS Office documents, you'll appreciate the convenience of running Office on Linux. OpenOffice.org is a fine product, but the conversion filters don't always handle everything, and it's hard to let go of all your macros and templates. Crossover isn't free; it will help boost the price of Xandros Home Edition from $40 to $80 for the Home Edition Premium package containing it, but for some users, it will be worth every penny.
In the Premium package and above, you also get Versora Progression Desktop. This application will compress and package your Windows files and enable you to move them in bulk to your Linux machine, although you can only package files and applications in batches of 2GB. Obviously, you have to be able to see the Windows volume containing your Versora packages, which means that they will be on another partition on the same disk, or on another disk connected to the same machine, or on a network share that you can access. Which means in turn that it would be just as easy to copy the directories containing the files and apps you want to move to your new Linux image using the file manager. Versora Progression is a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. And it's buggy on top of it all.
For example, when I assembled a package, the application informed me that it was over 2GB uncompressed, and might not work because it would have to be under 2GB when compressed; but it gave me the option of going ahead, which I did. And sure enough, it failed. And yet, I was given the option to save the package anyway, which of course I did. I then booted up the Linux image, and tried to open the package. Of course it was useless.
Now, admittedly, I was just pushing it to see what would happen. I didn't really expect it to work. But a well-designed application of this sort should be able to tell me whether or not the package I've selected can be compressed to below 2GB, and allow me to divide it if it can't. And I suppose it will, eventually. But right now the application is rather rough. It's not pleasant to consider that Versora Progression represents at least some of the $40 difference between the home edition and the premium edition.
For another irritant, Xandros insists that you register your OS before giving you any online updates, including security patches. I happen not to be keen on product registrations; I think that paying for a product entitles me to a reasonable amount of after-sale service and support, and who I am doesn't really figure into it. Some companies need to know who and where you are to provide proper service, but software vendors don't. And when you consider the prices of Xandros's products, you get the feeling that their customers have already given them enough.
Overall, there's too much magic in Xandros for my taste. Too much is proprietary; too much is concealed. One of the greatest features of Linux, and open source software in general, is how transparent it is. If you're at all concerned with information security, you know that transparency is a virtue.
Xandros is also one of the most expensive distros available. It does work nicely, and it is well polished. And yes, quality costs money. But there are a lot of useful packages that you will have to find and install on your own. This is not to say that there aren't numerous distros with far too many old packages, many of which don't work properly. In many cases, they're just there; they don't really add value.
Still, the best distros offer good packages, and plenty of choice. Xandros has decided which are the best packages, and it has removed those it deems unpopular, dysfunctional, or competitive with its proprietary ones. You sense some of that Redmond paternalism along with the Windowsey look and feel.
But at the same time, SuSE, which I've used loyally for many years, couldn't triumph over this miserable Sony box of mine. Xandros didn't hesitate for a moment. ®