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Xandros 4: The best desktop Linux for Windows users
Sep. 25, 2007

What's the best desktop Linux? For me, it's SimplyMEPIS 6.5, soon to be replaced by 7.0. But this is both a dumb question and a dumb answer. The real question is: What's the best desktop operating system for you?

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If I told you the best 2007 car is a Mazda MX-5 Miata, I'd also be right, according to Consumer Reports. But what's right for me, a middle-aged gent with a lovely wife and no kids at home, is not what's right for a family of four. For them, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Sienna makes more sense.

It's the exact same thing with desktop operating systems. With that idea firmly in mind, I've started looking at Linux desktops not for me but for particular groups of users.

For my tests, I'm going to use my Insignia 300a, an older, Best Buy house-brand desktop PC with a 2.8GHz Pentium IV CPU, a GB of RAM and an Ultra ATA/100 60GB hard drive. In short, it's a decent, but in no way, shape or form, cutting-edge system.

I'm going to be starting my "best Linux desktop" series with a review of the best Linux for a Windows user who's willing to install his or her own distribution. Don't get me wrong. My pick for this user, Xandros' Xandros Desktop Professional 4.1, could be installed by anyone who's ever used a computer, but, and it's a big but, some people get twitchy at the very idea of touching an operating system. For those users, there's another story, but that's a tale for another day.

Let's start with the basics. Why is Xandros a good Linux for Windows users? Well, for starters, you can use it as a drop-in replacement for most Windows XP uses.

It works in both Linux- and Windows-based office networks. I've used Xandros Pro 4 on NT domains, AD (Active Directory) forests and Linux/Unix NIS (Network Information Service)-based LANs with no trouble at all. It just works. Frankly, it's a lot easier to integrate Xandros into a Windows network than it is Vista.

Xandros 4 is designed for seamless integration into existing Windows-centric networks. It doesn't just support the basics of domain and AD authentication. It also supports logon scripts and group policy profiles.

If you use the pre-installed Evolution 2.6.3 for your e-mail client and organizer, which I highly recommend, you'll also find it integrates very smoothly with Microsoft Exchange e-mail and groupware. Since I consider Outlook as a security hole that pretends to be an e-mail client, I vastly prefer Evolution for use with Exchange or any other mail server, including Xandros recently acquired Scalix, a well-regarded open-source mail server. In addition, Microsoft recently licensed its Exchange protocols to Xandros for use in Scalix. This, in turn, means we can expect even better Exchange compatibility in Xandros Pro.

OK, so let's say you're not a Windows business user. What's in Xandros for you? For starters, this distribution enables to both read and write to Microsoft's NTFS (New Technology File System) partitions with Paragon Software Group's NTFS for Linux 5.0. With it, you can read and write to your hard drive's Windows NTFS partitions. Other Linuxes will let you read from NTFS, but Xandros makes it easy to get full use out of a dual Windows/Linux boot PC's hard disk.

In addition, Xandros Professional deploys a customized KDE 3.4.2 desktop interface that looks and acts a great deal like the Windows XP interface. Trick the desktop out with Windows applications and an XP user could probably use Xandros for several days before figuring out that it really wasn't XP.

Oh, yes, I did say Windows applications. Xandros includes CodeWeavers's CrossOver Office 5.9.1. While not the newest version of this program that enables users to run many of the most popular Windows applications on Linux (that honor goes to CrossOver 6.1), it will give many Windows users all the applications they need. I've successfully run Office 2000 and 2003 suites, Quicken 2005, Windows Media Player 6.4 and iTunes 5.01 on it.

If you can live without Microsoft Office, the distribution also includes 2.0.6. It also includes a selection of some of the latest open-source software that appears on both Linux and Windows, such as Firefox and Thunderbird.

Xandros also includes the Xandros Network Connection System. I have to say it, combined with the file manager, makes accessing wired, wireless, mobile and VPN network-connected file and print servers easier than on any other system I've ever used. Hooking it up to any network is mindlessly easy. Want to use a printer on a Samba server? An NTFS drive hanging off an AD server? An NFS (Network File System) RAID running on Solaris? Click it, put in your user ID and password and you're in business.

Underneath all this Windows-friendly goodness beats a heart based on Debian 3.1 Sarge. The Linux kernel, however, has been upgraded to version 2.6.18, with additional updates to proprietary ATI and NVIDIA graphics drivers. This is certainly no bleeding-edge distribution. On the other hand, even by Linux's high standards, Xandros is remarkably stable. Short of a power outage, I haven't found anything that will take it down.

The distribution is also LSB (Linux Standards Base) 3.1 compliant. It is also one of the first commercial distributions to integrate the Portland 1.0 tools. Developers can use these tools to create applications that can easily integrate into a Linux desktop regardless of whether the desktop is GNOME or KDE based.

That's all well and good, but here's the important part. This really is a Linux distribution that a Windows user can use without tears. To quote Kim Brebach, from his recent overview of Linux desktops, "Xandros did exactly what it claimed: open an easy passage for Windows users through the mountains of Linux."

Exactly. That's why, for me, Xandros is the Linux for Windows users who have grown sick and tired of Windows' endless security holes and the occasional crash. Xandros just works, and it works enough like Windows XP that even the most Linux-phobic user will be able to appreciate it.

Xandros Desktop Professional pricing starts at $99.99 per desktop. There is also a free version of Xandros 4.1, this Open Circulation edition, but for some reason Xandros makes it difficult to find. A BitTorrent link to it can be found on an otherwise idle Xandros fan site. You can also download a 30-day trial version for free.

Steven J. Vaughan Nichols

Xandros 4.1 Annotated Screenshot Tour

Setting up Xandros. After telling Xandros to install, this is your first 'big' decision on the setup. Easy enough for you?
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Continuing the Xandros setup. All of this basic setup runs automatically. Foul something up? You can always re-run the First Run Wizard.
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Setting up Peripherals. Setting up your peripherals, such as a printer, is also simple even if, as in this case, it's a network printer on a Windows server on a Windows network.
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Making Xandros Windows-like: Making Xandros look and feel like Windows requires a simple one step choice. On System Behavior choose Windows.
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Xandros Windows. Ta-da, suddenly Xandros looks, and acts, a lot like Windows XP.
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Installing Windows Applications. A little farther along, I've placed the main bar on the top, where I like it, and I'm getting ready to install Internet Explorer 6. Installing Windows applications with CrossOver is as easy as installing them in native XP.
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Securing Xandros. Besides having Linux's built-in security, Xandros makes setting up firewalls easy. Don't know networking? Just go with the defaults, and you'll be fine.
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Updating Xandros. Updating Xandros is also easy, and unlike Microsoft, they never try to 'sneak' an update in on you.
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Permissions the right way. Unlike Vista, which seemingly wants your password and permission every time you want to wipe your nose, Xandros only asks you for your administrator password when you're making a significant change to your system.
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Networking and file systems the Xandros way. Yes, that's right, you can drop Xandros in a Windows Active Directory network and it works just fine. Try that with other Linuxes, or Vista for that matter.
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Accessing network resources. Notice all those file resource options? Windows servers, NFS servers, local drives, whatever, Xandros make getting to file systems easy no matter what they're running on.
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The Full Xandros. And, here we are at my complete desktop. In the foreground, we've got Internet Explorer, OpenOffice with a document that's on an AD server, and Firefox with Acrobat showing a PDF. Xandros isn't just ready for work. It's working.
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