The World Series of Linux: Round 1

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For untold thousands of developers around the world, it's not a game. For solution providers and their customers, it's not a game.

But the world of desktop Linux has become increasingly competitive, increasingly important to the IT industry, and increasingly available for anyone to try.

So we decided to take a look at some of the best-known Linux desktops available and ask one overriding question: Put to the test of usability in a standard office environment, which is the best Linux desktop in the world?

Welcome to the inaugural edition of CMP Channel's The World Series of Linux.

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This is the first time the CMP Channel Test Center has reviewed this number of Linux desktops across a standard hardware testbed, and put them to real-world analysis. We wanted to know whether desktop Linux was, in fact, ready for business and whether it would be worth your while. While the different distributions varied in performance and maturity, our testing has led us to one conclusion.

Desktop Linux is now business-ready for small and mid-sized enterprises and workgroups. Driver and application support is significantly advanced from even a year ago. Ease of use has improved and, considering issues with other desktop operating systems in 2007, sometimes even superior. But. . . Yes, there's a "but."

Even though desktop Linux is miles ahead of where it once was, experience varies greatly from distribution to distribution. Distributions vary greatly from hardware configuration to hardware configuration. Even though desktop Linux is free or almost free in most cases, Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. It is now a Major League operating system. But even the Major League has teams that range from the Red Sox and Yankees to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

You get the picture.

And that leads us to Round 1 of The World Series of Linux.

Ubuntu, Freespire and Xandros square off

Channel Test Center took up the challenge and spent the past few weeks putting together a test bed and collecting various distributions for testing. The test bed is fairly basic and mimics an ordinary office setup: a Systemax PC with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 512 Mbytes of memory, and an 80 Gbyte SATA II hard disk drive. HP provides universal drivers for the HP Officejet Pro L7680. The test system was carefully selected to not have any brand-new or exotic components, to give each distribution a fair shot at detecting hardware.

As there are more than 176 Linux distributions, Test Center engineers selected the most popular distributions, Debian-based and RPM-based, for the World Series. The goal is to pit the best Debian-based distro against the best of the RPM-based distro for a final smackdown. The winner of the World Series will be crowned the champion.

Playing in the Debian League was Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon, Freespire (the free version of Linspire), and Xandros Professional Edition. The RPM-based distros, which we'll review in Round 2, include Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, PC Linux OS, and Fedora 7.

For the initial round of testing, engineers focused on installation and basic office setup. The premise was to imagine an office manager doing basic tasks on the computer -- accessing the Web, opening and creating word processing documents, printing, playing CDs, DVDs, and video clips, installing peripheral devices like a printer, installing security updates, installing other software programs, and attaching external storage devices. The World Series championship round focused on advanced features, such as setting up wireless and mounting networked shares.

A coin toss puts the Debian-league up first.

Ubuntu 7.10, affectionately known throughout its user community as Gutsy Gibbon, kicked off the series. The Ubuntu Live DVD starts up a Gnome desktop with an easily visible link to the installer. The installation was quick and painless, taking only 18 minutes from start to finish. The installer asked about locale/language, how to partition the drives, set a password for security, set the timezone, and identified the servers for updates. Engineers spent another 10 minutes downloading and installing 24 additional updates. (It sounds more difficult than it was.)

In fact, everything about Ubuntu was quick and effortless. Updates were easy. A flashing icon on the top right corner of the screen indicated new updates and all engineers had to do was select which ones to install. Networking was simple, since the installer found and configured the network automatically. Printing was also straightforward. Ubuntu detected the printer as soon as the USB cable was plugged in and configured. The printer install was truly plug-and-play.

Wireshark, the network monitoring tool, was installed using the Add Software option on the menu. Like the updates, it was a painless process. There was no trouble watching a DVD or listening to a CD, either. When the USB drive was plugged in, the drive appeared as a little icon on the desktop automatically.

Canonical has made the effort to make Ubuntu user-friendly, and it showed in this round of testing. All the menu options were easily accessible and organized in a very logical manner. Considering that Linux used to be synonymous with arcane commands and complicated syntax, this was a complete turnaround.

NEXT: Xandros and Freespire

Second up, Xandros Professional Edition was the only enterprise product in this league, and it showed. The Xandros installer is slick, with a simple tree view. The wizard process covered graphics, partitioning the drive, and offers the choice of what to install. The installer automatically recognized the HP drivers and setup the printer. However, Xandros came to a screeching halt: It found the onboard LAN, but it was unsupported. During hardware detection to get the networking working, the entire system froze and hung up. There was no way to get the installation to complete. Xandros was knocked out of the competition almost before it could even get started.

This was the first indicator engineers had that the Attansic chipset on the motherboard would cause problems for other distributions. More on that later.

Third and last of the Debian distros tested, engineers tried out Freespire 2.03 with a CNR beta. The free version of Linspire, Freespire installed even faster than Ubuntu had, with only three user prompts. Like Ubuntu, Freespire had no trouble detecting and configuring the Attansic chipset for network connectivity.

Freespire uses CNR for updates. Freespire recognized the printer and installed it, but it was not listed under printers in OpenOffice. Engineers had to select and activate the printer under the control settings before it showed up in Open Office. The printer setup window resembled the Windows printer dialog, with vendors listed in the left pane and the models in the right.

While sound worked, the volume control was a little quirky, not properly increasing or decreasing the volume. The USB drive was automatically mounted and a link appeared on the desktop.

The user experience was about the same as Ubuntu. Freespire seemed a little bit shinier, but as an overall experience, engineers agreed that Ubuntu by far outscored Freespire in this round. Ubuntu had been such an effortless experience that even the extra step for printing in Freespire seemed unnecessary.

Scoring each of the Debian distros on installation, ease of use, and driver and network support, the Test Center chose Ubuntu as the winner of Round 1. It's clear that Canonical has gone the extra mile to make Ubuntu work right in real-world settings. Deploying it and integrating it into an office environment isn't the dirty job that desktop Linux used to demand.

A few notes on Xandros and Freespire are in order. Xandros has repeatedly scored high marks in previous testing by the Test Center and enterprise support is available -- unlike with most other Linux distributions. It does have a look and feel to make Windows users feel comfortable. But its inability to play well with the Attansic chipset -- while Ubuntu didn't require any special attention with the hardware configuration -- simply worked against it in this test. We'll continue to keep an eye on Xandros and its hardware and driver support.

Freespire was clearly the Cinderella story of Round 1. It surprised us with how easily and fast it installed (as quick as it took to turn away, answer a colleague's question and turn back, Freespire was installed, up and running.) Compared to Ubuntu, it was a little balky in some tasks and performance but it will be a distribution to follow in the coming year.

But, clearly, Ubuntu shined. It has earned the right to play in the championship round of The World Series of Linux. The next round will determine its opponent, as the RPM Round pits SLED 10, Fedora 7 and PCLinuxOS to compete to pick the best out of those distributions.

Round 2: SLED 10, Fedora 7, PCLinuxOS