Linux is looking ready for mainstream users

The Lab tastes 4 flavors, and finds that ease of use and Microsoft compatibility is on the rise

Editor's Note:

As a professional news organization, we take seriously our role in reporting on the government technology market as fairly, objectively, and accurately as possible. And we believe we have an obligation to inform our readers when significant lapses in our editorial standards have occurred.

We discovered, after this product review was published, that it was, in parts, substantially the same review, submitted by the same freelance writer, which GCN had published in February 2008. Although most of the products had not changed significantly since the original review -- we had not reviewed Ubuntu before -- and the reviewer re-tested the products and reached the same conclusions, the new article failed to present a new and original assessment of the product. Although we believe the findings of this review are still accurate, we nevertheless acknowledge the error in failing to recognize the degree to which it repeated a previously published article.

A review of alternative operating systems is really a look at the latest flavors of Linux. And with so many varieties of Linux to choose from, finding the best for your agency can be a challenge.

In the past, I would regularly point out that finding the best technology for your organization is a matter of knowing which needs the technology is supposed to fill. But with operating systems, that’s a bit tricky.

Operating systems add a layer of complexity to the equation because the technology has changed drastically during the past decade. Just a few years ago, even the most common Linux platforms required some programming knowledge to operate effectively — you essentially needed an expert to make sure the operating system could run your PC's hardware components. Therefore, I used to recommend that you make sure that your agency has the appropriately trained personnel to handle the operating system.

That isn’t the case anymore, just as the fact that the definition of an operating system is no longer a program that interfaces between and initiates the components of the computer (hardware) and the user (you). This old definition is now just a prerequisite for any software categorized as an operating system. They do so much more.

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Choosing the right operating system requires critical decision-making that resembles the way you would pick a tool such as a spreadsheet or database. In effect, the operating system is just a massive spreadsheet or database that performs user-fed data analysis and computations. It organizes and mines user-fed data, and then it reports the results via a graphical user interface. New operating systems are all about data. Operating the components of the PC is just a side gig. The operating system now must give us the ability to store, retrieve and use our data as simply as possible, which includes full compatibility with whatever software we use to manipulate the data. It also must help protect data from crashes, bugs and intruders. And it has to be easy to use and affordable.

During the past five years, Linux designers have made strides in creating an interface that is more intuitive, standard and user-friendly. Additionally, Mac OS X’s popularity has reached a point that many users no longer see a Windows-based platform as the only way to do office work. People are subsequently less intimidated by different operating system environments. In fact, one of the best operating systems in this roundup, Xandros, offers the ability to switch the interface to resemble Mac OS X or Windows XP.

The changes in operating systems and overall more tech-savvy crowd are reshaping the Microsoft-only landscape on a daily basis. At my office, I have recently noticed the water cooler talk gravitate more toward root issues and Linux or Mac tools instead of .dll horror stories, future service pack wish lists, and comparisons of different versions of Microsoft operating systems. As this review will demonstrate, a lot of Linux manufacturers are taking on Microsoft by producing solid desktop versions of their operating systems.

I reviewed four of the most popular Linux operating systems and judged them on ease of use, performance, functionality and price. My test bed for the roundup was a 1.7 GHz Pentium M Panasonic CF-51 with 512M of RAM and a 40G hard drive.

The Linux operating systems in the review performed from pretty good to great in the ease of use and install category and good in the performance and functionality categories. And as you would expect, the prices are unbeatable, particularly when you will soon need a home equity line of credit to purchase the next Windows operating system, not to mention Office applications.

Xandros Desktop Pro 4 makes switch to Linux easy

Past versions of Xandros have always been good. It’s a well-known adaptation of the KDE flavor of Linux that has always concentrated on playing well with Microsoft. Unlike many other versions of Linux in this roundup, Xandros not only operates some Microsoft software, primarily Office, but also plays nice with the Microsoft New Technology File System. Xandros users can now read and write to NTFS drives. Xandros even can authenticate with Microsoft Windows networks. So you can use it as a node on a fully Windows network, and it can share files and printers with other Windows machines.

During the install, I was pleased to see that Xandros’ default installation mode doesn’t replace other operating systems. Instead, it modifies the size of existing partitions and installs beside them. I had Microsoft Vista on the Panasonic, and Xandros detected the other operating system and automatically added Microsoft and Desktop Professional Version 4 to the boot screen.

Additionally, I had problems getting most Linux operating systems to use my Netgear wireless router to access the Internet. The operating systems from Novell and Xandros were the exceptions, and Xandros' was the most effortless of the two. It was just as easy to get Xandros to join my encrypted wireless network. Simply double-click on the wireless icon on the bottom right of the toolbar, and select your network. It then prompted me for the encryption key, and I was done.

The Xandros Security Suite is surprisingly robust and easy to use and does not require an extra subscription fee. The Security Suite managed to find a host of generic viruses I have collected from past e-mail messages. It caught, quarantined and deleted every attempt to damage the operating system or related files. Using the Security Suite interface, I could modify the firewall, which is easy to use because it resembles a Windows XP firewall.

Another aesthetically pleasing quality of Xandros is its ability to switch to many different modes. If you’re a Mac or Gnome user, you can operate in a familiar environment. Xandros is easy to get used to, and that experience is enhanced by Xandros' decision not to load it with a closet full of cluttered applications, as most Linux operating systems do. You can more easily find the most important apps than you can in Linspire, and you'll feel more familiar in the Xandros environment than in RedHat's.

Xandros Version 4 also is the most futuristic-looking Linux flavor in the review. That is partially because of Accelerated Indirect GLX, which allows for 3-D desktop effects, such as those commonly found in Microsoft Vista — only without the need for a high-end graphics card. Xandros also has an effective Desktop Search tool, much like Leopard or Vista does, that makes the desktop easy to use despite how cluttered I tried to make it.

Xandros comes standard with a Virtual Desktop feature, which I have grown to like. Microsoft Windows also has a Virtual Desktop Manager, but you must download it from the company’s Web site, and it is not native to the Windows operating system. In Xandros, clicking one of the two colored squares in the lower right corner of the main desktop takes you to a new Virtual Desktop that allows you to make use of more desktop real estate. For example, you could open your Web browser and e-mail client on the blue desktop. You could then change to the green desktop and open and arrange your word processor and spreadsheet files. With Xandros, you can turn on as many as 16 desktops.

A unique feature to Xandros Version 4 is Bluetooth support and an expanded mobile Internet device support that includes Global System for Mobile Communications, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System and third-generation networks.

Xandros is the operating system of choice if you want a robust, functional system in a familiar environment with all the security and stability of Linux.

Xandros Desktop Pro 4
Ease of Use and Install: A
Performance: A-
Features: B+
Value: B-
Price: $99.99

Xandros, www.xandros.com

Reviewers Choice

Novell SUSE Linux 11 has all the bases covered

Despite seemingly endless flavors, there are two main types of Linux operating systems: those geared for novice to intermediate users, and those geared for intermediate to advanced users. Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, like RedHat’s version, is the latter. Fortunately, Novell now has Version 11, which has a foot in each category.

This all-in-one solution offers tightly integrated office applications that are essential at most enterprises, including the OpenOffice.org Novell Edition office productivity suite, Mozilla Firefox Web browser, Novell Evolution e-mail and calendaring client, and Pidgin instant messenger. From the second the effortless install ends, your machine is ready to become part of any network, and you can drop it in a network with nearly plug-and-play capabilities.

Novell SUSE 11 not only seamlessly integrates with existing computer infrastructures but also, unlike Version 10, provides an easy-to-use graphical user interface, native search, 3-D desktop effects and accessibility features. Preinstalled features, such as Beagle search, provide an integrated search function so that you can scour your entire desktop for whatever you need. Simple keyword searches return all documents, applications, e-mails, instant messages and recent Web searches in a single results window.

As a Windows environment native who was trained to use Unix and Linux, I always dreaded stress testing and reviewing more advanced versions of Linux because it took more time and effort than the simple point, click, plug and unplug world of Windows-like GUIs. That is, until I encountered Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11. From top to bottom, this is the most modern and powerful version of Novell Linux that I have seen. A lot of the advances are attributable to the clean look of SUSE 11's 3-D graphics.

To save users time when they need to find an application, Novell does a great job of staying organized, keeping all programs, such as OpenOffice, Firefox and Evolution, and all other operating system accessories in separate menu tabs.

Other good features in the new version are out-of-the-box media capabilities, such as Banshee music management, F-Spot photo management and Tomboy note application, which is an easy-to-use desktop note-taking application for Linux and Unix.

One feature that I hoped to see in Version 10 was some Microsoft interoperability, particularly the ability to use Office and other Microsoft programs. With Version 11, my dream came true. You can seamlessly use all Microsoft Office programs without adding any software. The new compatibility includes Microsoft file formats such as Office, Open XML and Microsoft Works through OpenOffice.org Novell Edition, in addition to e-mail and calendaring support. That includes Novell GroupWise, Microsoft Exchange, and any collaboration server that supports IMAP or POP3. It also supports plug-and-play hardware for thousands of devices; wired, wireless and wireless broadband networking; and multimedia file formats, including MP3, AAC, Windows Media Audio and Windows Media Videos.

Because Novell 11 was so user-friendly, I tried an experiment that was not officially part of this roundup. I own an old, stubborn Brother printer, and I was curious to see whether the printing and file protocols new to SUSE 11 would work. It took just three minutes to install the printer and print a test page. Finally, it’s also important to mention that compliance with password and security regulations are strong with Novell 11.

I encountered repeated errors when installing the last version, Novell 10, which gave it the longest install time in any roundup I have performed, at 135 minutes. Novell 11 fixed those flaws and delivered an install time of 10 minutes on the same machine.

The icing on the cake is that SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11 costs only $50 for one machine for one year. That low price is just another reason it merits the Reviewer’s Choice designation.

Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11
Ease of Use and Install: A
Performance: A
Features: A+
Value: A-
Price: $50 for one device for one year

Reviewer’s Choice

Novell, www.novell.com

RedHat Enterprise Linux 5 falls behind the pack

Editor's Note:

As a professional news organization, we take seriously our role in reporting on the government technology market as fairly, objectively, and accurately as possible. And we believe we have an obligation to inform our readers when significant lapses in our editorial standards have occurred.

We discovered, after this product review was published, that it was substantially the same review, submitted by the same freelance writer, which GCN had published in February 2008. Although the product had not changed significantly since the original review and the reviewer re-tested the product and reached the same conclusions, the new article failed to present a new and original assessment of the product. While we believe the findings of this review are still accurate, we nevertheless acknowledge the error in failing to recognize the degree to which it repeated a previously published article.

Every product in this review had a simple two-step process for initiating the install: insert a disk, and reboot the computer. But Red Hat didn’t play that game. Many basic steps completely eluded Red Hat designers, who seem to want to keep making a product that would tempt few users to migrate from a Microsoft environment. And those who want to move to Linux at work will probably choose something more user-friendly, such as Novell or Xandros, instead of Red Hat.

The main issue we had with Red Hat wasn't the 15-minute install and 25-minute setup, which was the longest in the review, or the $80 for a one-year basic subscription, which is a little pricy when you can get Unbutu for free. The main issues are Red Hat's outdated interface, which feels like an unrefined, older, 2-D Linux platform, and Red Hat's inoperability with Windows applications such as Office. The fact of the matter is that Microsoft has poured a lot of money into developing clean-looking operating systems that by their very nature are user-friendly, and many alternative OS companies are copying their style, except for Red Hat.

With those complaints out of my system, let’s move on to what I liked about Enterprise Linux 5. This operating system is a move in the right direction, with stringent security features that would please the toughest government offices. Additionally, the graphical desktop includes a file manager, named Nautilus, that displays your system and personal files. What differentiates it from the other graphical desktop search engines is that Nautilus is designed to be more than a visual list of files. It lets you configure your desktop and Red Hat Linux system in the most efficient manner that works for you.

For example, I tailored Nautilus to more efficiently browse through my extensive photo collection. The cool thing about Nautilus is that access to my network resources remained unchanged. Red Hat describes Nautilus as a shell for your entire desktop experience, and it is the best-built subprogram of this operating system.

I only wish the rest of this operating system was as easy to use. For example, to start Nautilus as a file manager, you simply double-click on your home directory icon. Then you can navigate through your home directory or the rest of the file system. Select the Home button to return to your home directory, and that’s it.

Nautilus and Red Hat’s revamped security features — such as a layered defense scheme for keeping desktops secure, protection against commonly exploited security flaws such as buffer overflows integrated in the standard software stack, and smart card authentication support — kept the horrific installation process from dropping the Ease of Use and Install category to a D grade. However, for a list price of about $80 for a year, RedHat Enterprise Linux 5 is a decent value, assuming you can wrestle it onto your system in the first place.

RedHat Enterprise Linux 5
Ease of Use and Install: C
Performance: C
Features: B
Value: B+
Price: $80 for one desktop for one year

Red Hat, www.redhat.com

Ubuntu 9.10 has almost everything you need

Having never formally reviewed Ubuntu for GCN, I had to do a lot of research on the latest edition, Version 9.10 Desktop, because of the dramatic differences since the last time I used Ubuntu two versions earlier. Going into the review of 9.10, I had admired Unbutu’s ease of use, especially for a Linux operating system. This well-developed and well-supported software is maybe second to Apple in having the strongest — and most vocal — fan base in the operating system world.

The new edition delivers a range of feature enhancements that improve the user experience. Shorter boot speeds — I clocked some as fast as 30 seconds — ensure faster access to a full computing environment. Enhanced suspend-and-resume features also give users more time between charges along with immediate access after hibernation. The operating system has broadened its intelligent switching between Wi-Fi and 3G environments to support more wireless devices and 3G cards, resulting in a smoother overall experience.

Ubuntu 9.10 features OpenOffice.org, which gives users a complete office suite that is entirely compatible with Microsoft Office. However, Ubuntu does not have nearly as many compatibility features as Novell and Xandros do. Ubuntu is free, and offering OpenOffice for free provides an immediate saving of at least $200 for users who need to create presentations, write documents or manage spreadsheets at work or home.

A new feature in Ubuntu 9.10 is the Software Center, which is a mixture of the current Ubuntu package manager and an Ubuntu-specific Software Store. By Version 10.10, this store is scheduled to have the ability to act as a standard interface for installing packages from the Ubuntu repositories, with the goal of developers being able to sell their own commercial software via the Software Center.

Providing services that are similar to Apple’s iPhone App Store to the Ubuntu community could change the way we look at Linux. In the past, the approach has proven to be crucial to supporting the existence of any alternative operating system. Another plus with Version 9.10 is the look and feel of the interface. The new default Human theme is a much improved look in contrast to the older, bright theme, and I found that it made adapting to the operating system easier.

Ubuntu 9.10 is close to the best Linux or alternative operating system I have ever used. The only thing missing is what Novell and Xandros have moved to: strong compatibility with Microsoft operating systems.

Ubuntu 9.1.0
Ease of Use and Install: A
Performance: A
Features: B
Value: A+
Price: Free

Canonical, www.ubuntu.com


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