Xandros: This is My Wifeís Linux
By Brad Rodriguez
November 04, 2003
My wife is probably a typical Windows user. Most of her time is spent in only a few applications; in her case, Microsoft Word, Netscape, and Eudora for email. Like most Windows users, sheís fed up with system crashes and security holes, but unlike most, sheís aware that an alternative exists. And sheís willing (eager!) to switch to Linux, provided that she doesnít lose her essential -- and they are essential -- applications, that she doesnít have to re-learn the basics of computer operation, and she doesnít have to mess with system internals. In short, she wants a Linux that looks like Windows 9x and is as easy to administer. InXandros Linux, I have finally found it.
I bought a copy of Xandros Desktop Deluxe after seeing it at theReal World Linux show in Toronto. ("Deluxe" includes the CrossOver Office product; see below.) The package arrived with two CD-ROMs and a 220-page printed manual. One of the CD-ROMs is the Xandros installation CD. The other, called the "Technology Preview," is a CD full of "unsupported applications" -- open source programs that the folks at Xandros have collected and put on CD for convenient installation.
Hardware requirements:Xandros states that, as a minimum, you will need a Pentium-class processor, 64 MB of RAM, and 1.5 GB of hard disk space to run Xandros Linux. A 450 MHz or faster processor, 128 MB RAM, and 3 GB hard disk are recommended. For evaluation Iím using a 200 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM, and a low-end video card with a 1024x768 display. Iíve been getting adequate performance from this, although it seems a tad slower than Windows 9x..
Superb installation. Xandros is tied withLindows for the fastest and easiest installation Iíve ever seen. The entire installation from CD-ROM took perhaps 10 minutes, and asked (if I recall correctly) five questions. All of my hardware was auto-detected correctly, including an older video card, Ethernet card, and both CD-ROM and CD-RW drives. I have not yet tested the sound card, but a trial installation on a different PC detected that computerís sound card perfectly as well. I have not yet installed a printer on this system.
This is a multiboot system with DOS and Red Hat 9 installed in other partitions, and Xandros also auto-detected them! Later I was also able to mount a Lindows partition (which I installed after Xandros). Fortunately Xandros gives the option to write its LILO boot to the partition rather than the Master Boot Record, because Iím using GRUB under Red Hat for the boot manager.
Like Red Hat (and unlike Lindows), the Xandros installation procedure includes setting up at least one user account. Youíre not expected by default to operate as root.
The default installation includes many useful Linux applications, such as Mozilla, Open Office, GIMP, and gcc, as well as applications I need such as Acrobat Reader, X-CD-Roast, RealPlayer, and an MP3 player. Others can be installed from the "technology preview" CD-ROM.
The Xandros Desktop
What first caught my eye at the trade show is the Xandros Desktop. This is built on KDE, and offers a number of "styles" including Windows 9x and Macintosh. Iíve only tried the Windows style, which is eerily similar to my old 9x machineÖespecially once I changed my background to flat green. Any Windows user should feel right at home with this desktop. From a distance, you might not even notice that it isnít Windows.
The Windows similarity extends down to the Start menu, called "Launch" in Xandros. Clicking on this pops up a menu which includes "Applications," "Windows Applications" (more on this later), "Find", "Control Center", "Help", "File Manager", "Recent Documents," "Run Command" and "Logout" (instead of Shut Down). Again, perfectly familiar to a Windows user: everything is where you would expect it. You can even right-click on a vacant part of the desktop to pop up a menu that will let you change display properties.
The Xandros File Manager
One of the strongest features, in my mind, is the Xandros File Manager. This is not an open-source program; it is only available with Xandros Linux. Thatís a pity, because Iíd love to have this on my Red Hat system! I surmise that this is derived from the old Corel File Manager, which Xandros acquired when they bought Corel Linux.
As you might expect by now, the aim of the Xandros File Manager is to resemble the Windows Explorer, and once again theyíve done a superb job. It actually follows Windows 98 (and Konqueror) in that it can also function as a web browser. In a file manager, I prefer the "Detailed List" view to cute icons, and the Xandros view is identical to Windows -- except that it also includes file permissions, owner, and group. Both the directory tree and the file list are displayed in the high density that I like.
To offer both Windows-friendliness and Linux power, the first two branches on the file tree are "My Home" and "All File Systems." The first, naturally, takes you to your home directory (/home/whoever) and the second to the root directory (/).
"All File Systems" also includes every mounted parition that was autodetected during the Xandros install. In my case, I have /disks/C and /disks/D for the two DOS/Windows partitions, plus /disks/redhat and /disks/redhat/boot for the two Red Hat 9 partitions. (Yes, Xandros deduced automatically that I had a separate boot partition for Red Hat.) This of course will be ideal for my wife, who will want to keep her old Windows hard drive installed and access it from Linux. The DOS/Windows drives also appear as C: and D: at the top level of the file tree.
Also in my file tree are "Floppy," "CD-ROM 1," and "CD-ROM 2." These are automounted when accessed.
Best of all, the Xandros File Manager includes the Network Neighborhood. Actually it includes two networks: the Windows (SMB) network, and NFS network. You can browse both of these as easily as local files. (Iím taking the NFS capabilities on faith, since right now I donít use an NFS network.)
"Out of the box," Xandros is set up to browse Windows networks. It promptly identified all the computers on my SMB network. To share local files on the network, you follow the Windows fashion: right click on the file or folder in the File Manager. One difference is that from this menu you can enable Windows and/or NFS sharing. No more editing of the Samba configuration file!
The crucial feature that I was seeking is the ability to run Windows applications -- particularly Microsoft Word and Eudora. (For reasons I wonít discuss here, these are a must.) Xandros Desktop Deluxe comes bundled withCodeWeavers CrossOver Office, a greatly-enhanced version of Wine that is tailored to Microsoft applications.
Having some experience with Wine, I must tip my hat to the folks at CodeWeavers for making it easy to useÖand to the folks at Xandros for integrating it with their distribution. To install a Windows application, you simply click Launch > Applications > CrossOver > OfficeSetup. This brings up a window where you can select a supported application, "other" application, or Windows font to install. (The supported applications on the menu include MS Office, Visio, IE 5.5, Quicken, and Lotus Notes.) Having selected one, you can navigate to the file or CD-ROM where the Windows installation file (e.g. Setup.exe) can be found. The normal Windows installer (e.g. InstallShield) then runs, with all the familiar dialog boxes.
After installation, CrossOver Setup allows you to establish associations for file types used by the application. This will allow that Windows application to be launched automatically from Linux to handle those files. You can also configure CrossOver to launch automatically if you double-click on an .EXE file in the Xandros File Manager.
Once installed, the Windows program will appear on the Launch menu under Launch > Windows Applications > Programs. This submenu is identical to the Start > Programs menu under Windows 9x. The program will also appear on the CrossOver Setup list of installed programs, where a simple click of the "Remove" button will launch its uninstaller to remove the application.
The simulated Windows file system "C:" is located at ~/.cxoffice/dotwine/fake_windows/ in the Linux file system. Thereís a possible source of confusion because thereís a "My Documents" folder under all that (for Windows applications to use), but thereís also a ~/My Documents, a different directory, for Linux apps to useÖwhich appears to Windows applications as drive Y:.
CrossOver Office is focused specifically on running Microsoft Office flawlessly. (They are slowly addingother applications.) Since this is one of my wifeís two main applications, my first test was to install Word 97. The installation went without a hitch, and so far in my limited testing there have been no problems. As an exercise, I composed this article in MS Word under Xandros. The program starts and appears as a perfectly normal Win 9x window. I was particularly glad to note that I can cut and paste from Linux applications to Word 97. (On my own computer I use Win4Lin, which lacks this ability. Not a problem for me, but it would be for my wife, who is constantly pasting from her web browser to her word processor.) So far I have had no problems with Word.
Unfortunately, I canít say the same forEudora. I was able to install both Eudora 5.2.1 and Eudora 6.0, and both would send and receive email -- which speaks well of the emulation of Windows network services! But attempting to use the Eudora Address Book inevitably locked up the program. (Eudora is reported to work under Wine, which I decided to try next.) This is where I learned about the "Reset CrossOver Office" function, which terminates all running CrossOver applications. So far, this has always successfully killed locked-up programs -- I presume by terminating their Linux processes -- and I havenít yet had to try the "Simulate Windows Reboot" function.
Note that CrossOver Office is available as a standalone product for any version of Linux. If your only interest is running MS Office, and youíre happy with the standard Linux desktops and file managers, then you donít need to buy Xandros. But the integration with Xandros is excellent, and because itís included by default, the installation is trivial. One advantage of buying CrossOver Office separately is that you get support directly from CodeWeavers, and you get the latest version (2.1). My copy of Xandros came with CrossOver version 1.3.
Having decided to install "plain"Wine, I was led to the Xandros Update function. This is both the package manger and update manager. When you click "Update Package List," it goes out to the Xandros FTP site and obtains a current list of all packages in the Xandros distribution. You can then view a menu of packages which are out of date on your system, and the current available version, and you can select packages to be updated from the server. (This seems to be similar to the Red Hat Network service, except that it must be run manually.)
Xandros Update can install packages directly from the FTP server or from the distribution CD-ROMs. It can also install downloaded DEB packages -- Xandros is based onDebian Linux -- or downloaded RPM packages. I think this will be a very useful feature, since most of the Linux applications I have downloaded from the Internet are available in RPM format. (Caveat: I have not yet tried installing an RPM, so I donít know how well this works.)
In my case, I elected to install the latest Wine from the FTP site, rather than the copy on the "Technology Preview" CD-ROM. (Wine is small enough that Iím willing to download it over a dial-up connection.) Having updated the package list, I did a "Find" to locate Wine, selected the four Wine packages (Wine, utilities, documentation, and configuration tool), and clicked "Install Packages." Xandros Update did the rest, including finding and installing the required "libwine" package. Very easy.
Plain Old Wine
CrossOver Office is designed to peacefully coexist with ordinary Wine. The Wine directory tree starts at ~/.wine/fake_windows/, but if you wish you can configure CrossOver Office and Wine to share directories. I opted for independent directories to test Eudora.
To make a long story short, I had the same problem with Eudora under Wine. But the voluminous error messages from Wine pointed me to the problem: Eudora requires that Wine use a supplied DLL rather than the Wine default. A quick edit of the .wine/config file, and Eudora was running! Even better, the exact same fix applies to the CrossOver Office version of Wine. So I now have all our key Windows applications running on Linux.
Incidentally, when plain old Wine is installed, a new Wine > Programs submenu is added to the Xandros Launch menu. Programs which are installed under Wine appear in this menu.
This is the product that I hoped Lindows would be -- the Linux system that my wife can use, and which will let her run her Windows applications. I have been very impressed with the flexibility and ease of use of Xandros, and had I known then what I know now, I likely would have installed this instead of Red Hat 8. (Iíd switch over, but it would be a lot of work to move Win4Lin from one distribution to the other. And unlike my wife, I need Win4Lin because I need port-level hardware compatibility for my Windows apps.)
Additional kudos to Xandros for their Lindows-likelicensing terms. If you buy a copy of Xandros you can install it on one computer for "commercial use" and any number of computers in your home for "non-commercial use." (Lindows just says any number of computers in your home, regardless of use.)
CrossOver Office gets high marks for ease of use, and for working well with "supported" applications. I wish CodeWeavers were more responsive to queries about other applications, though; I saw a query on their forum about Eudora, and it got dismissed with "Eudora isnít a supported application." Not helpful.
Xandros tech support is helpful. For my first trial installation, I had a problem installing from CD-ROM, and they quickly told me how to copy the install files to the hard drive. They do seem to lean heavily on theirUser Forums to provide support (although their staff also answers queries there). On the upside, there seems to be a strong Xandros user community, and Iíve found many answers just by reading the postings there.
In short: Iíd call Xandros the ideal distribution for a home or office user making the transition from Windows, or needing to run legacy Windows applications. I think itís also a good choice for "non-technical" Linux users -- itís easy to install, easy to configure, and easy to maintain. The downside? It costs moneyÖUS$99.