About a month ago, NeTraverse contacted OfB Labs with an early release copy of Win4Lin 5.0, the follow-up to the already impressive Win4Lin 4.0 released in May 2002. Win4Lin, for those not familiar with it, offers near-native (or better) speed “virtualization” of a Windows box so that one can run Windows 9x (95/98/Me) inside GNU/Linux.
As can be inferred from our previous review of the aforementioned version 4.0 and NeTraverse's receipt of our Open Choice 2002 award for best legacy migration tool last July, we have been very pleased with Win4Lin in the past. At this juncture it might have improved the excitement of this review if I could add, “but our pleasant feelings towards Win4Lin quickly evaporated when we attempted to install 5.0.” It would sound good, as I said, but it would be a lie: in Win4Lin 5.0 everything worked at least as well as in 4.0 — and in many cases, better.
To get started, we decided to present Win4Lin with one of the toughest challenges a piece of software ever faces, the upgrade installation mode. Rather than remove 4.0 from our lab machine, we attempted an upgrade install. Not one to disappoint, NeTraverse's installer automatically detected our previous installation and offered the option to do the upgrade.
To provide some of the functionality the package needs, Win4Lin requires that a small Linux kernel module and patch be installed (pre-patched kernels are automatically installed during installation for most popular distributions, including Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, Lindows and Xandros). As another laudable touch, NeTraverse has standardized on the same kernel module for Win4Lin 3.x, 4.x, and 5.x. This is notable because that means that someone using an older copy of Win4Lin doesn't get left without an easy route to continue using their software when new distributions come out and NeTraverse has moved on to the next Win4Lin release.
In our particular case, the installer skipped over the kernel module installation step since we already had the module from 4.x and went straight to downloading Win4Lin 5.0. After the installation we wondered if we would have to reinstall the user's copy of Windows. Clicking the Win4Lin icon on the desktop quickly allayed our fears as a seemingly speedier Win4Lin started up Windows 98 without issue.
Now, it should be said that NeTraverse is very conservative about what features it adds to Win4Lin during its release cycle. Quite frankly, most users using 4.0 probably will be satisfied without an upgrade. While this probably is not the best thing for NeTraverse's sales department, it does show NeTraverse is a company that has refused to succumb to the bloatware trap that many companies fall into attempting to get users to upgrade. This is a company serious about its enterprise focus, and we appreciate that.
At any rate, we've been using Win4Lin 5.0 for about a month now and found no serious issues and only two minor complaints. One minor issue being that in Win4Lin's clipboard exchange with X11, which allows you to copy and paste between Windows and X11 (GNU/Linux desktop) applications, there was a bit of a snafu when used with KDE's klipper clipboard manager that caused copying to sometimes require unselecting and reselecting the clipboard information before the information went through. On a related note, due to Win4Lin's default 20 megabytes of RAM it provides Windows with, it doesn't have enough to free memory to copy very large bits of information into clipboard and back. However, that can be fixed by adjusting the appropriate setting in the Win4Lin configuration utility.
Those issues aside, everything else is nothing short of great. Applications, even large ones such as Microsoft Word and Publisher, respond with snappy speeds providing native (or better) performance right out of the box. In fact, thanks to Win4Lin's speed, it takes less time for Win4Lin to “boot” Windows and launch Microsoft Word 2000 on this Pentium 4 2.66 GHz system than it does for OpenOffice to load on the same (about 12 seconds versus 16 seconds).
Furthermore, in a year of testing Win4Lin 4.0 and a month of testing 5.0 in OfB Labs, we've only seen Win4Lin crash twice. Perhaps because it provides Windows with a set of “virtual hardware” that is fairly simple and doesn't require third party drivers, we found Win4Lin's emulated version of Windows 98 far more reliable than a native install of Windows 98 from the same exact CD on one of our test systems that originally came with Windows 98. Far from being just a “lucky” system, this is the result I have found on every box we've tried Win4Lin on.
Printing is also a snap in Win4Lin. When we wanted to use our Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 900-series printer, we simply grabbed the Windows driver from HP, installed it, and then used the Win4Lin configuration tool to point the virtual printer port to the “raw” printer port (most common GNU/Linux distributions set the printer up so that you can print directly to the printer — that is, raw — or print to the printer driver like normal). By doing this, we were able to use the native Windows driver for the printer, and as far as the Hewlett-Packard utilities were concerned the printer was just like it normally would be.
Another thing we've quickly grown to appreciate with Win4Lin is the ability to easily migrate from system to system while preserving our Windows installation. When we upgraded to a new test box, we were able to take our home directory (where most of the Win4Lin data is stored, not to mention normal GNU/Linux data and settings) and copy it over to the new system. After doing that, and reinstalling the basic Win4Lin software, we were immediately able to boot back to our copy of Windows as if it had never moved to a new system. Thanks to NeTraverse's design, Windows was blissfully unaware of the move, allowing us to continue without issue (attempting to move Windows when it is running natively can be a messy experience and can cause problems due to the need to switch device drivers).
Win4Lin's only real weak spot, if you can even call it that, is its after installation configuration tools. For the most part, to reconfigure Win4Lin, you must run the configuration tools from the command line (no icon is provided by default). The configuration utility itself is graphical, although it is a bit intimidating looking for new users. Practically speaking there are very few reasons to even use the configuration utilities, but a little attention to this in the next release would make maintenance work somewhat easier.
Win4Lin's impeccable speed, stability and performance continue to warrant our whole-hearted recommendation. We simply couldn't find anything that could cause it to make a misstep. Even applications like Norton Ghost's boot disk maker, which requires the ability to reformat a diskette, and not just write to it, had no issues in Win4Lin.
While it goes without saying that the preferred solution when migrating to a GNU/Linux desktop is to use native applications, if you simply can not give up certain Windows applications just yet, Win4Lin is an ideal way to make the switch without having to keep a Windows PC or dual boot setup to use the Windows applications you need. In our opinion, it would be impossible to recommend Win4Lin too much for this task.
Summary of Win4Lin 5.0 |
($89 for new users, reduced or free pricing for 4.0 users, www.netraverse.com).
ALSO EVALUATE: VMware, CrossOver Office and Plug-in.