Review: Can Xandros Linux Desktop Replace Windows Media Center Edition?

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Microsoft is currently fighting a virtual game of king of the hill with OS competitors attempting to claw their way to the high ground.

The latest challenger is Xandros, armed with its Linux-based desktop operating system Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium. With the Linux desktop product, Xandros is focusing on short list of features to push Microsoft off the desktop. Home Edition Premium is squarely targeted at the media-centric home user, a market that Microsoft has come to dominate with its Windows Media Center Edition (MCE).

With a retail price of less than $80, Xandros is hoping to dazzle prospective users with a rich feature set that eliminates the need to buy additional software. The company also is looking to leverage the delays behind Microsoft's Windows Vista Ultimate edition to bring something new to the public now, beating Microsoft's January 2007 target.

To truly see where Home Edition Premium fits into the market, it must be compared with Microsoft's forthcoming Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate.

Right off the bat, Xandros offers more in the form of bundled applications than either Vista product. For example, Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium includes an office suite, OpenOffice, and comes bundled with an antivirus product. On the Microsoft side of the equation, those would be considered add-on products.

Xandros also includes a plethora of software products to support what the typical user needs. E-mail can be supported via Thunderbird (or Evolution) and graphics editing capabilities come from GIMP, an open source alternative to Photoshop. Users also have the ability to work with video, MP3s, photos, digital cameras, music players, TV and video capture cards, and all of those capabilities are included right out of the box.

But perhaps the biggest threat to Microsoft comes in the form of four specific technologies included with Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium, namely Codeweavers CrossOver Office, KDE Desktop Windows Emulator, Xandros partition manager and the Versora migration tool.

CrossOver Office allows Linux users to run Windows applications without the Windows operating system. The product supports Windows applications such as Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes, Intuit Quicken, Adobe Photoshop, Filemaker, Microsoft Access and many others. CrossOver Office offers an installation wizard to ease the installation of native Windows applications into the Xandros environment. The product makes an excellent Band-Aid for those transitioning from Windows to Linux.

NEXT: All Is Not PerfectAn interesting capability included with Xandros is the ability for the desktop environment to mimic other operating systems, namely Microsoft Windows XP and the Macintosh OS. During the product installation, users are offered with a choice on how they want their desktop to look and the product does a good job of mimicking those other operating systems' GUIs. Light duty Windows users will find the interface a close enough approximation to quickly adapt to the Xandros environment and become quickly productive. Hardcore Windows users may be perturbed by the underlying differences, such as personalization options, application settings and OS customization. After all, the Windows look and feel emulation is just a front end spliced onto the Linux environment.

For those considering the leap to Linux, Xandros offers a multiboot capability. During an Installation, users have the option of keeping their existing Windows installation. The product will automatically create new partitions on the hard drive, protecting the original Windows installation, while creating a new partition to hold the Xandros OS. This can be done automatically and offers a way back to Windows if needed. Xandros offers a graphical boot manager that clearly shows OS choices during boot up, allowing users to switch back and forth at will.

Xandros also bundles the Versora Progression Migration tool, a product that allows a Linux user to capture all personalization information and preferences from a Windows system. Versora Progression works by creating an archive of a user's data stored in several Windows applications, including Microsoft Office, Outlook, wallpaper, directory structures, web browser settings and several other elements that define a user's desktop environment. Once all this information is captured, it can be imported into the Linux desktop, allowing users to have immediate access to their bookmarks, emails, data files and much more. Versora used in combination with dual boot technology and CrossOver Office should make the transition from Windows to Linux an easy one.

While Xandros does an admirable job in several areas, all is not perfect with the product. First off, those who use Microsoft's Media Center Edition Main Media Center Menu and Remote Controls will find that Xandros lacks anything similar out of the box. Those shortcomings, especially the lack of an "across the room" interface will make the OS not as ideal as a replacement for a Media Center PC.

What's more, some features just did not seem to function properly. For example, I was unable to get WEP encrypted Wi-fi to work. For some reason, Xandros refused to use a WEP key to associate with an encrypted Wi-fi access point. Unencrypted connections worked fine, but I found no way to connect using WEP encryption. That was the case on several machines tested, all of which worked fine using WEP under Windows XP and Windows Vista Beta 2.

NEXT: Not For Linux Enthusiasts
Minor annoyances include the lack of a bundled 3D task switcher, a prominent feature in both Vista and Novell's SUSE Linux desktop. Xandros allows users to download a 3D task switcher once the product is registered and activated. As Xandros is a commercial product, registration and activation are required before users can download updates or additional applications.

Linux proponents may turn their noses up at Xandros, as they may consider it a dumbed-down iteration of Linux that puts Windows compatibility above Linux capabilities. For example, Xandros has selected a suite of products that some may consider old or at least not as current as their open source equivalents. Xandros selected some older versions of particular applications to ensure stability, which will be paramount to a Windows user. Also, the elimination of some Linux tools, utilities and programs adds to the simplicity of the product.

Installation of the OS is quite easy. I installed Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium on four different test systems: an IBM Thinkpad T42, an HP/Compaq NC6320 notebook, an AMD Athalon 64 X2-based white box system and an Intel Pentium IV-based white box system.

The installation wizard proved to be quite straightforward and easy to use, with most choices automated. The product proves easier to install than most flavors of Windows and an installation can be accomplished in about 15 minutes. Initial driver and hardware identification was excellent, enabling all major components of the test systems.

One weakness is with unidentified hardware and tracking down appropriate drivers. For example, I was unable to get the fingerprint biometric scanners working on either notebook and I could not locate drivers for those devices. What Xandros lacks is a centralized hardware device management list, similar to the device manager found in the various flavors of Windows. At least with Windows device manager, a user can identify unsupported or unrecognized devices, making troubleshooting much easier.

Those concerns mean that time may have to be spent with a Linux professional to get everything working the way one would expect.

The bottom line is that Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium is a good choice for those looking to get off the Windows bandwagon, but the product itself will only appeal to those who want something different. Microsoft probably doesn't have to worry about a product like Xandros Desktop Version 4 Home Edition Premium stealing its dedicated customers.

On the other hand, you can't beat the feature set included for the price, security and flexibility that Xandros offers to those sitting on the fence. As the product further evolves, Microsoft may very well have something to worry about.

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