Free Agent: Two Linuxes for Newcomers

This month I turn my attention back to Linux for newbies. Xandros Desktop and Lycoris Desktop/LX are two Linux distributions geared toward folks who aren't gearheads. I've been watching them both since their inception, and recently loaded up my test machine with the latest revision of each to see where they stand.

Xandros Desktop: Rough Start

Xandros Desktop has been around longer, although not always by that name. In an earlier life, Xandros was Corel Linux, and you can still see shadows of that product. The once-revolutionary Corel File Manager, for instance, lives on as the Xandros File Manager, and it works magic. But more on that in a moment.

My first moments with Xandros Desktop Deluxe 2.5 were not without frustration. I encountered this doozy of a dialog box during the installation:

<blockquote>Xandros Installation Wizard has detected a Windows operating system without enough free space to install Xandros. By continuing through the Express Install, part of or the entire Windows operating system will be overwritten and removed from the computer. Do you still wish to continue through the Express Install?</blockquote>

What this message is really telling me: Xandros doesn't know how to shrink a Windows NTFS partition to make room for itself on my hard drive. There was over 100GB of unused space on the drive, but Xandros (which requires 2GB, max) couldn't use any of it until I used a partitioning tool to shrink the Windows partition.

This illustrates why I expand my NTFS partition to take up the whole drive before I put a Linux distro through its paces: I want to know how the installer will react. Once upon a time, when all Windows installations existed on FAT32 partitions, pretty much every Linux flavor on the planet (aside from Red Hat, oddly) could shrink Windows partitions to make room. In the brave, no-longer-new world of Windows XP, most folks are running Windows from an NTFS partition. To my knowledge, only the Mandrake distribution claims to be able to safely shrink such a beast--and in every test I've ever performed, it has failed.

So it did not surprise me that Xandros hit a bump here. But I was dismayed by the wording of the dialog box: "Part of or all" of Windows will be destroyed? Wait a second, we're using a computer, right? It has to know what it's about to do, right? Why is it playing this guessing game with me? Why can't it tell me what's really about to happen?

I am convinced that messages like this one are a primary reason why so many people hate computers. I have grown used to such maddening dialog boxes with Windows, and they no longer surprise me in that environment. They are more scarce in most Linux distributions, especially if you run the Gnome desktop. So when I come across one, it sticks out like a sore thumb. To encounter one this screwy in the installation of a Linux geared for non-geeks is a real bummer.

Your New Desktop: Just Like Your Old Desktop?

How's the Xandros system itself? Once installed, it's actually quite good. A special wizard launches the first time you boot, to take care of a few issues like setting up a printer and downloading all the latest updates. The desktop itself looks familiar, with a program-launching menu in the lower left, a taskbar and a system tray, and desktop icons.

Xandros is built atop version 3.1.4 of the KDE desktop, but Konqueror, the standard KDE file manager and Web browser, is replaced by the aforementioned Xandros File Manager. This is without a doubt the most robust Windows Explorer clone you'll find on any edition of Linux. It can browse your local file system, of course--that's no big deal. But it also traverses Windows networks with aplomb, and can burn CDs, too. No, it's not my beloved Nautilus (the Gnome file manager), but it is a beautifully designed tool that is one of Xandros's key plusses.

Xandros provides the Mozilla suite for Web and e-mail, OpenOffice.org for office apps, Kopete for universal instant messaging, and a host of lesser apps for working with digital cameras, taking screen shots, listening to digital music files, and so forth.

Also included is Xandros Networks, a dedicated tool for downloading system updates and additional applications. As I've pointed out before, Xandros Networks has a built-in option that ropes in all the online packages made available by the Debian project. This puts an entire universe of Free Software at your fingertips. Just point and click to install.

One additional nicety: If you really, really want to run Microsoft Office under Xandros, you can, as Codeweavers' CrossOver Office comes preinstalled.

Lycoris: Same Approach, Not as Far Along

If you compare a Xandros machine with one running Lycoris Desktop/LX 1.4, the only immediately noticeable difference is the wallpaper. Xandros keeps it cool with a minimalist blue background, while Lycoris, moving away from the Windows XP-like rolling hills of its previous incarnation, presents you with a view of a tropical paradise. But again, we've got a KDE desktop (version 3.2.3) that has familiar elements in familiar places.

Installing Desktop/LX was quite different from installing Xandros Desktop. In fact, Desktop/LX refused to install at all until I moved my hard drive to a different IDE controller. Lycoris doesn't support the Promise controller that was in my test machine. This is strange; no other distribution has balked at it to this degree. The installer itself looks dated--Linux fonts haven't looked that jaggy in a couple of years--and it requires more than three times as many clicks as the Xandros installer. There is no opportunity during the install to download software updates, nor are you prompted to do so once the install is complete. And at one point, when I told Desktop/LX that I wanted to make a rescue floppy, it asked me to insert a disk in "drive /dev/fd0H1440 (DOS A:)" which doesn't strike me as particularly friendly. If Linux distributors are striving to be user-friendly, they need to take a good hard look at all the scary messages their software can produce, and do something about it.

Desktop/LX wants you to handle e-mail and Web browsing with the Lycoris Web Suite--a relabeled copy of Mozilla 1.7. Kopete is on board for instant messaging. Instead of OpenOffice.org, Desktop/LX provides the KOffice suite, including KWord, KSpread, KPresenter, KChart, and KOrganizer. If Microsoft Word is your word processor of choice, you'll probably want to install an alternative to KWord. While powerful, that program is very, very different from Word; it most closely resembles Adobe FrameMaker, acting like a bit of a hybrid between a word processor and a desktop publisher. In contrast, OpenOffice.org's Writer is easy for most Word users to transition to since it closely mimics the Word way of doing things in many respects.

An Update Wizard can be launched to check for updates to Desktop/LX. A separate, Web-based interface dubbed the Iris Software Gallery offers additional software for download, much of it Free. Iris reminds me of Linspire's Click-N-Run Warehouse, but without the noxious yearly membership charge.

There is a Network Browser icon on the Lycoris desktop. I was able to use it to see other machines in my local domain, but I couldn't connect to any of them. I tried to find another way to browse my network but came up empty-handed. I yearned for the Xandros File Manager at this point.

Is KDE the Right Choice for Newbies?

Although Xandros Desktop and Lycoris Desktop/LX are very similar in nature, it seems that Xandros has a lot more bugs worked out, and a lot more of KDE's rough edges smoothed out. If you're going to connect to a Windows network, Xandros is the only way to go.

I couldn't help wondering as I played with these distributions: Isn't Gnome friendlier? KDE once definitely had the upper hand when it came to ease of use, but I think Gnome's usability surpassed KDE's a while back, not long after the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines were put into practice.

Check out the KDE Control Center, for instance. Both Xandros and Lycoris provide relabeled versions of it as a centralized means for configuring the system. Xandros's version contains 67 different applets, many of them with three or four tabs of options. We're talking about an entire sea of check boxes, radio buttons, and text entry fields here; and the vast majority of these options are never, ever going to be touched. Desktop/LX's version has a Windows XP look to it that may be familiar but only masks the same underlying complexity.

For this reason, I prefer the Gnome approach: Preferences in the user interface are restricted to the ones that a typical user might actually want to change. Additional options of the sort that only geeks play with are relegated to a different part of the system that only geeks will discover. The Gnome interface seems far more geared toward people who want to use their computers, rather than just tweak them to the nth degree. I'd like to see a newbie-oriented Linux distro based on Gnome.

For now, though, the closest thing to that dream is the latest edition of Mandrake, which offers both the KDE and Gnome desktops. I see in my inbox that version 10.1 was released as I wrote this column, so it's time to start that frighteningly large download and see what the Mandrake folks have cooked up. I am also eagerly awaiting the next edition of SuSE Linux, which should sport a great Gnome implementation, now that Novell owns both Ximian (the heart of the Gnome team) and SuSE.

If you try out Xandros, Lycoris, or any other variety of Linux, please let me know how well it fits your needs and how friendly you think it is.

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