Last week I came upon a reference to a product called Presto. It claims to be a fast, lightweight version of Xandros Linux designed for fast booting and minimal operating system overhead. The odd thing is that it isn’t installed independently; you install it from Windows. When you boot your machine, you are given the choice of running Windows or Presto. However, according to Presto’s FAQ, it isn’t actually Linux; it’s “a Windows application based on Linux.”
Regardless, it sounded interesting and I thought I’d like to try it on my HP Mini 1000 netbook. I did a quick search to see if there were any known problems, and I found nothing of significance so I installed the trial version. True to its claims, it booted in 12 seconds. Wow!
After that, things didn’t go so well. I’ll begin by listing the good stuff, then the bad. Spoiler: the bad was so bad I uninstalled it and ended up having to reinstall Windows in order to get my Mini 1000 working correctly.
It boots really quickly, like 12 seconds quickly. Wow!
It shuts down really quickly. Something like three or four seconds.
The interface, while very minimal, is quite functional. You get a sort of task bar on the side of the screen that has a few buttons (one for the web browser, one for the file manager, etc.). Very basic, but that’s what you should expect from an OS that boots in 12 seconds.
It has an “App Store,” just like the iPhone. This is an excellent innovation, because one of the biggest complaints that nOObs have about Linux is the difficulty of installing software. Typically, you need to use some obscure commands in a terminal window to access some kind of repository somewhere (and it’s never really clear which repository to use), and then you often have to download the software in different parts and do all sorts of things that only make sense to Linux experts. Presto’s Linux App Store is the kind of thing that could really help bring Linux to the average user.
Hidden Control Panel
Presto looks terrible when you first start it up. The fonts are all to big and the buttons are ugly. I could not find a control panel, so I went to the Presto web site and checked out their very minimal FAQ. It turns out you have to open a terminal window first (Ctrl-Alt-t) and then type this unintuitive command: xfce4-settings-manager. You have to do that every time you want to change settings.
Further research revealed that the control panel was pinned to the task bar in the beta version of Presto, but not in the 1.0 release. Why? Who decided to pull this very useful tool out of plain view and hide it behind an arcane terminal command? (WTF does “xfce4” even mean?)
I decided to try out the App Store. I went in a poked around and downloaded two free applications; a text editor and FileZilla (FTP). Great. But where the heck did they go? There was no sign of them anywhere. Nothing appeared on the task bar and there were no desktop icons. I dug around some more on the web, and found out that a patch had been issued, available from the App Store, that puts the Control Panel back on the task bar. It also includes a “launcher.”
It required a lot of digging to find the patch and I never would have found it had I not read about it in the Presto forums. I installed it, and bingo! The launcher appeared, and there too were my text editor and FileZilla.
At this point the Linux dorks (not to be confused with Linux users) are thinking “yay, he dug around and now it’s working the way he wants it to. So what’s he complaining about?” The rest of us, however, are thinking “what idiot decided to hide those things in the first place? Is the product manager asleep at the wheel? The launcher should be part of the initial installation because it’s an important part of the user experience.”
In Presto, the trackpad on my Mini 1000 worked as a basic pointer, but there was no scrolling function. In the forums I found a reference to this issue that said it was just a matter of downloading and installing the right drivers. So I asked for clarification; what drivers and where do I get them? Silence. More silence. Days passed, and still nothing but silence. Great. Thanks for the excellent support.
No Sleep Mode
Every laptop on earth has a sleep mode. You close the lid, and the machine goes to sleep. It’s still on, but the hard drive and the screen is powered down. This is basic, standard stuff. With Presto, when you close the lid it shuts off.
Back to the forums. Apparently there is no fix for this, and in a rare appearance by someone who actually works for Xandros (the parent company of Presto), the claim was made that it was a safely issue.
The guy said a laptop in sleep mode might overheat if put into a backpack. What? All around me, every day, I see thousands of people carrying their sleeping laptops. I’ve done it myself with the half dozen or so laptops I’ve used over the years. Yet this one guy at Xandros has apparently not been living on the same planet as me, because he thinks we’ll burst into flames if we put our sleeping laptops into our backpacks. Therefore, no sleep mode for Presto.
Well, sir, no sleep mode is a deal breaker for me. Even if Presto boots in only 12 seconds, I open and close my laptop dozens of times a day, sometimes a dozen times in an hour. I don’t want to have to close my applications every time I want to close the lid. No sleep mode is absolutely retarded!
Help and Documentation
The Presto web site has a few words of instructions for installation, a very basic FAQ, and links to the forums. There is also a feedback form where you can send in your questions. That’s it!
Oh, but we’re in the time of web 2.0 you say. Get all your help from the forums! That would be great if people actually responded to questions that are posted.
I posted four questions, none if which were complicated, and as of this writing none have been answered.
The silence of the forums.
Dear Xandros; if you’re going to rely on user forums for tech support then you really need to assign a few people to monitor the forums and to reply to questions that are not being addressed by other users. This is the FAIL zone for product launches; if you don’t actively support your new users they will go away. Relying on un-monitored forums is passive support.
Windows Hose Job
Here’s where it goes beyond “deal breaker.” At one point I decided to boot into Windows. While there, I went to check something on the web. Zonk! Pages not loading. I tried Firefox, Chrome, and IE and none of the browsers would load a page. (Yes, I was definitely connected and online). I went back into Presto and Firefox worked fine. Back to Windows; nothing.
(This is where Presto as “a Windows application based on Linux,” as opposed to a standalone Linux operating system, shows itself as a hazard. You seem to be in a lightweight Linux environment, but in fact it’s messing with your Windows setup and drivers.)
Interestingly, the Windows troubleshooting GUI had to go online to get some information, and it did so without any problems. Also, I could ping web sites in a Windows command window. It just wouldn’t connect through any of my web browsers. Incidentally, I also noticed that my LAN icon in the taskbar was missing.
I tried many fixes, and none of them worked. I spent hours on this, trying everything. All indications were that I was connected and everything was fine. I just couldn’t connect to any web pages. (The Linux dorks are shaking their heads saying “the workaround is obvious; surf the web through Presto.” I won’t elaborate on just how stupid that is.)
In the end, I uninstalled Presto. But guess what? That didn’t bring my Windows web browsing back. After much more fixing attempts I managed to get it so it would occasionally load some pages, but it was intermittent and entirely unacceptable. (Incidentally, after uninstalling Presto my LAN indicator came back. I don’t know what the connection between the two is.)
So thanks to Presto, I spent most of last night reinstalling Windows on my HP Mini 1000. This is no easy feat given that my netbook does not have a CD or DVD drive. But I managed it, and many hours later I am back online and everything works.
In the meantime, my questions in the forums are still lying there, unanswered. I did, however, get an email response to my support form query about the connectivity problem in Windows. After a three day wait I got this brilliant reply: “Can you check with your Windows Xp Network Settings for any incorrect settings. Also check for any wireless connection settings configuration that might have any issues.” Dude, I spent an entire day doing that!
The verdict is this: Presto sucks.
Presto sucks because of its lack of user support, its product management FAILURE, and because it hosed my Windows connectivity.
Update: the day after I finally heard from the support guy (and did not reply), he followed up, asking if I had made any progress. So they at least have a pulse.
Update 2: It has been pointed out to me offline that this review reads a bit like someone winging because some obscure Linux variation isn’t supported to my liking. However, I should point out that Presto is not some obscure Linux variation designed for tinkerers. It is a commercial venture, designed to appeal to non-specialized users.
Xandros is a big company, and Presto has a lot of marketing money behind it. (That Video on their Web site is professionally made, and that App Store was not coded overnight.) You have to pay to use Presto beyond its seven day trial, and you have to pay for many of the apps in the App Store.
If Presto were indeed a tinkerer’s delight, I would have gone in with the expectation of having to fight with it. (Or, truth be told, I wouldn’t have gone in at all.) But my criticisms are based on Presto as a commercial venture.