Xandros Surfside Linux Edition
by: Jack Reikel, November 2005
Requires: Pentium II 450MHz or AMD K6/II 450MHz or faster, 256MB RAM, 3GB available hard disk space, CD or DVD drive, audio card & speakers, Internet connection
A friend—a virus-riddled, we-don'-need-no-steenkin'-firewall, smartass friend—who spends more time cleaning and reformatting than he does actually using his computer, asked me to help him set up a new system. The main criteria was that the system had to be bulletproof. The main uses for the system were to be e-mail, web browsing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and a little bit of word processing. Internet connectivity had to include a wireless option. At first, I resisted the challenge. This particular friend had previously demonstrated his propensity for being a pest. But then, unbidden and unforeseen, a timely review package arrived in the mail. So I called the man and said one word: "Linux!" After he stopped laughing and picked himself up off the floor, I told him that the only way I was going to help him was with a Linux system. The writing was on the wall. It was time for a change.
I put the system together based on a zippy Pentium 4/3.2GHz Hyper Threaded processor, 1.5GB RAM, a pair of Maxtor 120GB hard drives, an nVidia 6600 video card, a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 audio card, and an Asus P5LD2 mainboard. The installation zipped by without any errors and required only about 10 minutes. I'm not sure exactly how long it took because after the installer started, I disappeared to grab a cup of decaf and when I got back the installation was done. I immediately ran through a compatibility check list and found everything to be working normally: Windows networking, Internet access, audio, video, e-mail, disk access, optical drive access and so on. I then encountered the only problem in the whole process—installing a printer driver to access the HP LaserJet 1320 attached to a Windows XP Professional box on the network. The printer selection and configuration process is straightforward enough, but the network configuration access simply did not work; I could not browse the network to find the printer share name. After several tries, I simply typed in the network path name and printer share (in this case "\\jackr\hpLaserJ") and everything started working.
The intrinsic value of Linux (the Xandros version at least) lies in the fact of its relative impermeability to most of the wiles and cudgels used by the vandals who populate the darker corners of the Internet. Linux and UNIX have their vulnerabilities too, no doubt, but since most of the focus over the past 10 years has been on Microsoft Windows, it's no wonder that thousands upon thousands of people managed to find hundreds of holes in Windows. For the foreseeable future, Linux will receive comparatively little of this sort of attention because there's just no fun in poking away at something in order to cause problems which nobody will notice. In other words, there are just too few people actually using Linux day-to-day to make virus 'fun' worthwhile. Put together a Linux distribution that is focused on the Internet, the World Wide Web, music, video, telecommunications and a bit of fun, and you'll have a fairly safe and trouble-free PC. Lest we get too cocky however, Xandros thoughtfully includes their latest antivirus software as part of the default setup. That's right—even Linux catches the occasional virus.
Using Xandros Surfside Linux is demonstrably easier than using Windows. The KDE Desktop environment is both intuitive and familiar. Tweaking or customizing the system is easy, with literally hundreds of configuration options. Of course, with such an enormous selection it's also important for the default installation and setup to be suitable for a wide variety of users. Xandros has done a great job here. As well, operating system updates and program updates are fully automated; all you have to do is click the update icon running in the system tray.
I handed the system to my friend. It was as complete and as securely hardened as I could make it without crippling the thing. I'll be darned if he didn't use it for almost three full weeks before screwing something up. Turns out that he decided to go fiddling with network settings (why do people do this?) and managed to completely shut himself off from his router. Nice going dude. It took only a few mouse clicks to reset the configuration.
While Xandros Surfside Linux is a great release, there are still a couple of important needs which aren't fully addressed. iPod integration is poor—come on Apple, provide some serious Linux support so that Xandros (and other distributions) can step more completely onto the home and home-office desktop. As well, Palm OS and Pocket PC device synchronization can be problematic. Aside from those two items (I included PDA synching because there are lots of PDA and smartphone users who use their devices for gaming, e-mail and browsing), this iteration of Xandros Linux is ideal for a great many people.
Cons: Printer installations can be a bit fussy, but the range of available drivers is huge. Wireless access was easy to configure, but access speeds were terrible until I did a system update which apparently installed some new drivers which solved the speed problem. As with any other operating system, it's usually best to do all updates immediately after completing the initial operating system installation.
Pros: The retail box includes the rather good Plantronics .Audio 45 USB stereo headset which makes gabbing via Skype, music listening, voice recognition and voice recording very easy. Should you need it, support on the Xandros web site is excellent, with huge FAQs, busy and moderated forums and plenty of enthusiastic users. The Xandros Linux distributions we've reviewed previously have all been wonderful and user friendly experiences. This new distribution, designed for and squarely targeted at home users, is a home run. Anyone who is putting together a basic Internet, e-mail and entertainment system for themselves or someone else should take a very long look at Surfside Linux.
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