Software is one of the biggest driving forces in hardware upgrades: offices making the transition to the latest and greatest packages are frequently left with serviceable but outdated machines that just can’t cope with the latest version of Windows.
It’s this market that the Replacement for Windows Professional Edition distribution is targeting: bundling commonly required packages such as productivity software, finance management software, and even voice-over-IP capabilities, it’s designed as a drop-in replacement for Windows 98 or XP on older hardware. But does it deliver?
At its heart, Replacement for Windows is a Debian derivative – the same Linux distribution on which the popular Ubuntu Linux distro by Canonical is based. As a result, you can expect a speedy operating system with impressive hardware support – including the ability to communicate with devices running on the latest USB 3.0 specification.
Unlike Debian, however, Replacement for Windows isn’t wholly ‘free’: a PDF end-user licence agreement provided with the software warns about non-free software, including codecs for playing back MP3 files and watching DVDs, which are included in the distribution.
It’s worth mentioning at this point the difference between ‘free as in beer’ and ‘free as in speech:’ the software mentioned in the EULA doesn’t cost anything, but it does include proprietary or patented code or algorithms, meaning that users need to ensure they are within their rights to use the software in their particular jurisdiction.
It’s this that separates Replacement for Windows from most other Linux distributions, so it’s not for the purist. Thankfully, if you’re more concerned about getting work done than the state of the free software movement, you’ll be pleased to hear that it simply means that the distribution allows you to get more work done out of the box.
Provided as either a Live CD or Live USB by On-Disk, the distribution allows users to try the software out for suitability before committing to a full installation. It’s a handy trick, but it hides a problem: installation is far from straightforward.
Most modern Linux distros tend to have an easy, wizard-based installation process that allows the operating system to live happily side-by-side with an existing operating system such as Windows or Mac OS X. Sadly, Replacement for Windows doesn’t: instead, it prompts the user to perform tasks like partitioning the hard drive manually.
For the more technically adept, this isn’t an onerous task – but if you’re new to the concept of hard drive partitions, it’s enough to send you scurrying back to Windows.
With this said, the installation process itself is quick and relatively pain-free – if you know what you’re doing – and requires surprisingly little hard drive space.
Rather than the more common GNOME or KDE desktop interfaces, Replacement for Windows uses a customised version of the lightweight LXDE environment. As a result, it’s fast – even on very outdated hardware.
It’s also somewhat different to the usual Windows-style interface, having more in common with Windows 8 than Windows 98. As a result, users making the move may find that its icon-based ‘start’ menu takes a little getting used to.
The applications, however, shouldn’t: installed by default are classics such as productivity suite LibreOffice, Outlook-esque email program Evolution, Firefox browser spin-off Iceweasel, voice-over-IP client Skype, and even cloud-based storage software Dropbox.
It’s great to see so many handy packages included, and means that a user moving across from Windows should find the most common tasks covered. For other needs, there’s the Software Centre – based on work done for the Ubuntu distribution – which allows for quick and easy installation of extra packages.
It’s not all good news, though. As a replacement for a basic Windows desktop – used to check emails, browse the web, and watch DVDs – Replacement for Windows works fine.
This software, however, bills itself as the ‘Professional Edition’ – leaving you thinking that it’ll be a full replacement for Windows XP Pro. Sadly, that’s not quite true.
For starters, there’s no easy way to join the computer to an Active Directory domain – a requirement in most Windows-based offices. While it’s technically possible – thanks to an open-source project called Samba – it’s not something that’s enabled out-of-the-box.
For a distribution aimed at Windows users, there’s another surprising lack: Wine, the compatibility layer which allows selected Windows software to run under Linux. It’s an incredibly handy package, and while it can be installed separately, it’s a shock to see that it isn’t included by default.
- Tools for common tasks like watching DVDs are included as standard.
- Installation can be tricky for a non-technical user.
For the first-time Linux user, Replacement for Windows Professional Edition - despite its name - isn't a great choice. A more mainstream distribution like Ubuntu or one of its derivatives would be more useful.
For a technical user refurbishing older hardware - in, for example, a computer recycling centre - it's a more viable option: the distribution's inclusion of non-free software might make it legally difficult in certain countries, but it means that many common tasks work straight out of the box.