With the growing popularity of inexpensive netbooks and nettop PCs, the Linux operating system (often installed on the lowest-priced budget units) is reaching a wider audience--although nowhere close to giving Windows or the Mac OS a run for their money (albeit Mac OS X is based on a Unix kernel). Some pundits even argue that the Linux OS has finally matured enough to the point where everyday computer users can use it with little trouble. This might be arguable, but the often free or inexpensive nature of the different Linux distributions, as well as the plethora of free open-source Linux applications, makes the OS an appealing option to users on a budget.
But what if you could "dumb down" the Linux OS to its bare essentials, limit its focus to mostly Web-based tasks, make it dead-simple to use, and sell it for less than $20? Could that appeal to users? The folks over and Xandros think so with their Linux-based Presto OS.
Presto is an "instant-on" OS that is meant to give you quick and easy access to a number of Web-centric tasks, such as surfing the Internet, sending Web-based e-mail, sending instant messages, and making Skype calls. What makes Presto different than the handful of instant-on OS options presently available is that Presto does not reside in a system's firmware, but instead gets installed onto a Windows system's hard drive. Whereas most other instant-on OS options are only available as an embedded feature of select motherboards, laptops, or systems, virtually anyone with a Windows XP or Vista system can install and use the Presto OS.
Presto was developed by the same company that produces the Xandros Linux distro; however, a company spokesperson tells us that "Presto is built on an entirely new customized Linux platform compared to previous Xandros distros. Our new platform incorporates Moblin v2 technology (we worked closely with Intel on that) and is moving towards compliance with the Moblin v2 specification." In many ways, Presto is similar in form and function to the Splashtop instant-on OS that is embedded into some Asus motherboards and laptops.
You can download Presto from Download.com or via the official Presto Torrent. Presto installs on Windows XP and Vista systems and needs at least 3.5GB of hard disk space (Xandros states that "Windows 7 will be supported in a future version"). Presto installs as an executable (EXE) within Windows into the C:\Program Files\Presto folder (or C:\Program Files (x86)\Presto if it is a 64-bit version of Windows). Presto does not make any changes to the hard drive's partitions. The only notable system-level change that the Presto install does is to add the Presto OS to the Windows Boot Manager, so that the Presto OS appears as a boot option when you boot up the computer. All of the Presto files reside in Windows folders on the hard drive. You can think of a Windows-Presto system as a dual-boot system, but without needing to partition the hard drive or add a second hard drive.
Once you launch Presto for the first time, it will be fully functional for 7 days. Anytime during the 7-day trial (as well as after), you can purchase a license key for $19.95.
|Under The Hood|
To launch Presto you simply either power up your system or reboot it, and once the system finishes going though POST, the Windows Boot Manager will appear. By default, Windows is selected as the default OS, so if you don't do anything in the allotted time, Windows will then load automatically. Xandros claims that the boot menu will count down from 30 seconds; however, with both of the Presto installs we did on two different systems, we found that the Windows Boot Manager counted down from only 10 seconds. We found, however, that 10 seconds was more than sufficient to choose which OS we wanted to load. If you need more time than that, changing this setting in Windows is fairly simple to do. Also note, as soon as you press the up or down arrow keys in the boot menu, the countdown stops and no OS will load until you select one.
As you must first wait for your system to go through POST before you are even given the option of launching Presto, the "instant-on" aspect of the OS is a bit of a misnomer. On the two systems we installed Presto onto, it took Presto roughly 12 seconds to boot from the moment we selected it via the Windows Boot Manager, and then about another 4 seconds before the OS was fully responsive. All said and done, from powering on the system to Presto being fully responsive, it took both testbed systems just over 30 seconds. While this falls far short of "instant," it is still noticeably quicker than the greater than 1 minute it took to boot in Windows on both systems (it took about 50 seconds to boot into the Mac OS's login screen on the MacBook Pro)--and that doesn't even take into account the additional time that Windows needs to load startup apps and services. Once Presto loaded, it took only another 4 to 6 seconds to launch Firefox and start surfing the Web--from cold boot to Internet access in just over 36 seconds is nothing to sneeze at.
Presto does not have a login screen--when it launches, it takes you directly to the Presto desktop. The OS does not support multiple users and you cannot password protect the Presto OS login. (A Xandros rep informed us that they "are investigating this along with other options to enable user authentication for a future release.") The lack of password protection could be major security issue for some users--especially if you keep sensitive data on your system. One of the features of the Presto OS is that you can read and write files stored in Windows folders (Presto includes a driver that enables reading and writing to the NTFS file system). While this can be a benefit to many, it can also represent a big security hole to others. Even if you password protect access to the Windows OS, the Presto OS potentially represents back-door read and write access to your Windows files. Note that Presto will not work on NTFS disks that use disk encryption.
When you boot into the Presto OS, you are greeted by a very sparse looking desktop. Other than the default Presto wallpaper, a taskbar sits on the left side of the screen. The taskbar features shortcuts for some of Presto's preloaded apps, including Firefox (version 3.5.2), Pidgin (version 2.5.5) instant message client, Skype (version 22.214.171.124), and Thunar (version) 1.0.0 file manager. The taskbar also includes links for the Presto Application Store (more on this below), Windows List (a list of all running apps), system shutdown and reboot, volume adjustments, network connections, and Presto Settings. The network connections app provides a simple and efficient means of connecting the system to wireless network connections. The Presto Settings however are minimal, with options only for Monitor Settings, Add/Remove Keyboards, and Import Benchmarks. Presto does not come with any power savings features, screen savers, printer drivers, or other similar type settings that are status quo in more robust operating systems.
It is possible to access some of Presto's more advanced settings via the OS's xfce4-settings-manager; but accessing the settings app is not obvious, unless you are already familiar with Linux. You can invoke the settings app from the terminal (you open a terminal window by pressing <Ctrl>+<Alt>+T) or by navigating to the app in /usr/bin using the file manager.
Presto also comes preloaded with OpenOffice (version 3.0.1) and RealPlayer (version 126.96.36.199). We got RealPlayer to successfully play a wide variety of audio and video files that were stored in Windows folders--including even a 1080p WMV file. We also successfully opened both docx and xlsx files in OpenOffice. With these and the above-mentioned apps, you should be able to access the Internet, IM, Skype, listen to audio files, watch video files, and utilize an office productivity suite--all with relative ease. Users who want to increase the functionality of the Presto OS and or additional applications, can find a bevy of options at the Presto Application Store--most of which are free.
We downloaded and installed a number of free apps from the Presto Application Store, including Adobe Reader 9, AVG for Linux Workstation (antivirus software), a Gmail notification app, FTP software, the GIMP photo editor app, a Java virtual machine, and a printing-support applet. With all this free software, we were able to greatly increase the capabilities of what Presto could do.
If there is one app we heartily recommend you install, it would be have to be Konqueror, which bills itself as "KDE's advanced File Manager, Web Browser and Document Viewer." Konqueror is like a Swiss Army Knife of file access options and system settings. It even includes a screen saver with hot-corners support and multiple desktops.
|Problems & Conclusions|
Our primary reason for installing Konqueror was not for the previously-mentioned features, but because Konqueror adds what we feel is a critical missing feature from Presto: Samba (SMB) support. In simple terms, Samba support lets the OS access files stored on local network sources, such as on a network-attached storage (NAS) device. Samba support is usually included in most Linux distros; the fact that it was left out of Presto is a strong indication of Presto's Web-based focus. We asked Xandros why Presto lack Samba support and this was their reply: "Samba shares are not supported in the first release of Presto as the focus was on web centric tasks. We have taken this into account and are evaluating it for a future release however."
If you store any files on a NAS device and want to access them in Presto, you'll need to use Konqueror. We store our media files on a NAS device so that the files are accessible from any system connected to our local network. We wanted to access our networked media files from within Presto, but the lack of built-in Samba support makes this difficult. We downloaded a handful of media player apps from the Presto Application Store, but the apps were unable to play media files from the NAS server. We also tried unsuccessfully to find a media player that included a DAAP (Digital Audio Access Protocol ) client, so that we could stream music from the iTunes server on our NAS device. Admittedly, we didn't spend a huge amount of time on the local-network media-steaming endeavors, so it is possible that there are viable solutions; but needless to say, you're not going to be able to play media stored on a network device or system with Presto's default apps and settings. You can, however, use Konqueror to copy the media files from the network to your system. Also, as Presto can access the system's NTFS file system, Presto can play the media files stored in the system's Windows folders.
Another issue we ran into was caused by the ATI GPUs in both of our testbed systems. Xandros informed us that "there is no commercial ATI driver for Linux that is available, therefore, support is provided through open-source drivers which do not support all capabilities of the hardware." As such, Presto's generic graphics driver didn't support the 1920x1200 native resolution of the m9550f's display--the max resolution we could set was 1600x1200. We installed the open source ATI Linux driver onto the m9550f, which preceded to hose the Presto install--whenever we subsequently booted into Presto, we were greeted by a blank screen. We couldn't get the driver to install on the MacBook Pro either.
We obviously pushed Presto way beyond its primary focus of easy, simple, and quick access to Web-based tasks. We took a $20 Linux distro and tried to make it act and feel more like a full-blown OS. The fact that we made a fair bit of headway in this direction goes to show just how flexible and powerful the Presto OS can be. But at the end of the day, if you need the power of a complete Linux OS, then you are best served by running a full-blown distro. If you are a Linux newbie and want to dabble a bit with the Linux OS without getting too deep, Presto might be a good place to start. Barring any feature upgrades that future versions of the OS might bring, the current iteration of Presto will best serve the needs of those who want to just get online quickly and with little fuss.
Update: After we first published this review, a Xandros representative contacted us to clarify a few points and to point out two errors we made. We mistakenly stated that Xandros produces Asus's Splashtop instant-on OS, which is actually not the case. We also stated that Presto is a scaled-down version of the Xandros OS, which is also not correct. We have made these corrections in the review. The representative went on to state that the company is positioning Presto as a software utility and not as an OS. Only they can speak for how they are positioning Presto; however, despite their modest claims, we actually see Presto as far more than just a simple utility. That said, we have chosen to give Xandros the final word on this matter:
"Our intent with Presto is not to position it as an OS with all the bells and whistles--not even an an OS--but as a software utility that turns old or slow computers into fast internet appliances. There's a big market for this kind of simple capability in developing countries and on low end hardware. For now we've traded features for simplicity since we find that a browser covers about 95% of the computing experience in these markets."