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Xandros: An Excellent Desktop Replacement

Xandros: An Excellent Desktop Replacement

Like many geeks, I find myself as the default support person for my family's computers.

How this came to be is a mystery since I rarely, if ever, run any of the same programs as the rest of my family. Months ago I spent the better part of two evenings removing adware, spyware, malware, worms, and viruses from my parents' computer which was running Microsoft Windows XP Professional. During the course of this first infection I removed McAfee firewalling and other bits (which obviously didn't prevent the problem) and I purchased Norton Antivirus and firewall for the computer.

Soon after repairing the operating system, I was again informed that the computer was "acting up" and displaying the same symptoms as before. With some level of frustration I again set about repairing the computer. However, this time it was going to be different. It became clear after this second infection that the root cause of the problem wasn't the user but rather the operating system itself. However, this time I wasn't simply going to clean Windows again only to have it become infected in another week.

I confirmed the new operating system approach with my parents who made it clear that they didn't care what the interface looked like as long as the computer worked for their needs. I then set out on an adventure to find an appropriate operating system to fulfill this need.

The criteria were simple: Find an OS that has adequate security protections such as separation of user versus system processes, a real firewall, and some level of stability. With those criteria, it was obvious that Microsoft Windows was not an option. Even if there was some level of stability with Windows XP, the security criteria of separation between user and system is not met, nor is there an adequate firewall. Although Windows XP Service Pack 2 does include an improved firewall, the firewall can be disabled too easily thus making it completely useless.

I looked at a few different Linux-based desktop-oriented operating systems and finally settled on Xandros. Xandros is based on Debian Linux which made it a logical choice for someone who runs Debian already. Since Xandros is Debian-based I knew that I would be intimately familiar with the underlying architecture and software such as apt. This feature also enables the rich set of software available with Debian to be installed easily and seamlessly in Xandros.

Looking at Xandros

For this computer I used the free (as in cost) version of Xandros available as a BitTorrent download. This version of Xandros, called Open Circulation Edition, includes everything that my parents need to use their computer including the Opera Web browser and OpenOffice. Other versions of Xandros include things like CrossOver Office, additional Windows networking components, and other items important for a power-user or business desktop. Xandros also provides many interface improvements and tools to make desktop management easy.

Installation was very easy. Xandros claims a 4-step installation, though truthfully I wasn't counting. I took the 'Custom' route to installation, so I think there were a couple additional steps involved. Installation was completely painless, which is amazing considering the number of steps involved to install any operating system along with the complexity of the task. Whatever they're paid, the software engineers behind the Xandros installer are worth more.

Once installed and booted for the first time, a wizard runs to configure some of the basics of the computer. This wizard enables each individual user to configure things like mouse orientation, printers, desktop preferences, and more. Connecting the computer to my LAN was trivial, it just worked. However, my parents use a modem to connect to the Internet since there are no good broadband providers in the area. Getting the computer to connect to the Internet was a little trickier but only because the modem in their computer is a Broadcom software-based modem. Some "Winmodems", as they are frequently called, are supported in Xandros, but it just happened that I had one that wasn't. As soon as I put a nice hardware-based USR modem into the computer connecting to the Internet was easy.

I was apprehensive with the task of getting the HP 932C printer working with Xandros. This apprehension was completely unfounded. Xandros automatically identified the printer and had drivers for it. Though the printer was identified as an HP 930C I was still impressed and changed it to the correct model by simply selecting it from the menu. The printer was then automatically configured as default for all users that I had setup on the computer. I've had problems setting up printers with both Windows and Linux in the past. I found the process of setting up the printer to be completely without challenge. It just worked. That phrase is quickly becoming a theme for my experience with Xandros.

Based on the amount of positive feedback I've heard on Opera (I used an early version many years ago), I'm sure it's a great browser. However, my preference is for Mozilla Firefox. Xandros does include the entire Mozilla suite in the personal and business versions of the desktop. Since I'm running the Open Circulation Edition I set out to download and install Firefox myself. I was surprised to see that Xandros didn't have an apt-get'able version of Firefox available but downloading it from Mozilla.org is trivial anyway. I've setup Firefox more than a few times so I wasn't expecting any surprises here nor did I receive any. Firefox worked seamlessly in Xandros as I would've expected.

Installation of a firewall was next on the agenda. Yes, I could've thrown together any iptables script but I was curious about the typical Xandros solution. A search of the Xandros support forums (which are excellent) revealed that a program called Firestarter was a common choice. Installation of Firestarter was a matter of typing 'apt-get install firestarter'. Firestarter provides a GUI interface to creating an iptables ruleset. While it won't provide as advanced of a setup as I could get by rolling my own script, the firewall will work perfectly for a desktop computer. With the firewall enabled, an nmap run against the computer reveals no open TCP ports.

Looking back at the entire process, from the computer's initial infections to the successful deployment of Xandros, the only thing I should've done was install Xandros right away after the first encounter with Windows malware. Everyone's lives would've been easier had I done the obvious and treated the cause of the problem (Microsoft Windows) rather than the symptoms (the malware). Anyone plagued by spyware, adware, malware, viruses, worms or otherwise should take a serious look at Xandros. My mistake was to treat the symptoms rather than treating the root cause when I fixed their computer the first time. And yes, my parents are using the computer and couldn't be happier with it.

Looking Closer at Xandros

Xandros offers numerous editions of their desktop software, each aimed at a different user base. From the free download edition, multiple personal editions, and software aimed at business, there are ample choices to match your situation. The business edition includes authentication to Windows Active Directory networks for legacy support. Xandros' web site includes a comparison matrix of the four editions. Xandros support options are numerous as well, with varying levels of support for installation and post-installation tasks.

It's also possible to install Xandros onto an existing Windows computer and dual-boot, just in case you're not ready to take the huge leap. Using one of the Deluxe editions of Xandros gives the user CrossOver Office and plugin capabilities. This means that you can run Microsoft Office and some Windows plugins for web browsing as well. There are tons of games available in Xandros (and with Debian too), though many of the most popular games run only on Windows (though Doom III has been released for Linux). Soon your only use of Microsoft Windows could be as a gaming platform.

Based on this experience with Xandros I installed the Deluxe Edition of Xandros, replacing a pre-installed Windows XP laptop. Xandros detected the hardware flawlessly which is no small feat on a laptop computer. I've since tested various Windows software including Quicken and found that they work perfectly in Xandros. With the stability, security, and flexibility provided by Xandros there's no reason to run anything else.

Pros: (Too numerous to mention but I'll try)

  • Easy installation and cooperation with Windows for dual-boot, if necessary.
  • Easy-to-use desktop interface. Users shouldn't have to spend much time configuring their computer.
  • Good selection of applications included such as Opera (or Mozilla), OpenOffice, instant messaging, and more.
  • Compatibility. CodeWeavers CrossOver is a great addition and enables many Windows-only applications to run successfully if there's no Linux counterpart.
  •  Configurability. Users can, if they so choose, configure things just how they want them.
  •  Stability and standards. It's based on Linux. It's based on Debian.
  •  Security. Real separation of user to system functions and a real firewall.

Cons:

  • Though I've not encountered them, I'm guessing that there are some Windows programs that won't run in CrossOver or other emulators, including games.
  •  Some Winmodems won't run, or won't run without a fight, in Xandros. 

More Stories By Steve Suehring

Steve Suehring is a technology architect and engineer with a solid background in many areas of computing encompassing both open and closed source systems, he has worked with a variety of companies from small to large, including new and old economy, to help them integrate systems and provide the best use of available technologies. He has also taken a hands-on approach with many projects and frequently leads teams of engineers and developers, and has written magazine articles as well as a book on the MySQL database server. He has also performed technical editing on a number of other titles.

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