September 24, 2008, 9:05 AM — 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.
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.
The Xandros Network
The Xandros Network is a very interesting component of the distribution. It combines a number of functions that most distributions keep separate: package management, updates and news from Xandros. The package management component, where you install new applications, looks pretty much like that for any other distribution. However, the update section is another place where Xandros has gone for a Windows look and feel, with highly readable descriptions of the updates, divided up into security updates, normal updates, driver updates and service packs (yes, Xandros has even borrowed the Service Pack nomenclature from Microsoft).
One thing that Xandros offers that most distributions don't is a store, integrated into the Network, that lets you purchase, download and install commercial Linux software.
Unfortunately, there really aren't that many packages available -- the store mainly offers the pro version of CrossOver and the StarOffice productivity suite, along with Xandros' antivirus software. For an additional US$40, you can purchase a Xandros Network Pro membership, which lets you download a number of interesting games and tools.
The current Network may become irrelevant, however, due to the Linspire purchase. One of the major reasons that Xandros gave for acquiring Linspire was to integrate Linspire's Click and Run (CNR) technology into Xandros. CNR offers a much wider variety of commercial software as well as the usual open-source fare, and is available on multiple distributions, including Fedora and Ubuntu. As of this writing, CNR is still not available for Xandros, despite an announced July 2008 date, but I would expect it to become available soon.
No free lunch
Xandros is an unabashedly commercial distribution. Unlike Linspire, which has a parallel Freespire project, Xandros has no free version. The trial version is just that -- it starts shutting down after a half-hour once you've reached the end of the 30-day trial.
If you decide to buy, you currently have only one option: You can purchase the Professional version for $99, which includes the distribution, the Xandros Network package and 90 days of support. (If you're a nonprofit, incidentally, the company allows unlimited installations for nonprofit use.)
And if you're looking for a single desktop edition? At the moment, you're out of luck; Xandros has discontinued its $40 Desktop Home Edition. However, according to a company rep, Xandros will release Freespire 5 in late October and a new Business Desktop version in November.
Xandros will no doubt offend Linux purists, both by the tight integration of commercial software into its business model and by the lack of features such as Gnome. On the other hand, for a Linux newbie who wants a Windows-like experience, it may make a reasonable choice.
James Turner is a freelance journalist specializing in technology.