Practical Technology

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Can’t give up your Windows applications? Win4Lin 4.0 is for you

You say you love Linux, but you absolutely must have your Microsoft Office and Quicken, too? Well, you’re in luck, NetTraverse’s latest Win4Lin 4.0 Workstation lets you run Office XP, Quicken, Lotus Notes, PhotoShop and a host of other common-and not so common-office programs.
Of course, there are other ways to bring Microsoft Windows to Linux, and recently Codeweavers, with Crossover Office, is providing a way for Microsoft Office lovers to use Office, and a few other programs including the Lotus Notes 5.0x client, on their Linux machines. That said, for stability, speed, and sheer range of Windows applications supported, it’s hard to beat Win4Lin 4.0.

Win4Lin enables you to run Windows 95, 98, 98 Second Edition (SE) or Windows ME on any of its supported Linux distributions. To do so, of course, you actually need to have an installable copy of Windows in hand. An update Windows disc won’t do the job any more than it would on a PC without an operating system. You can also forget about installing NT, 2000 or XP.

For my money, your best choice is Windows 98SE. ME will run just as well as ME ever does, which is just another way of saying you’re better off with 98SE.

On the Linux side, you will need to use one of NeTraverse’s modified kernels or modify the kernel yourself. Some people have asked that NeTraverse just issue a modified kernel for every Linux implementation that comes down the pike. Because that’s expensive and NeTraverse just announced its support for UnitedLinux, that’s not going to happen. In any case, with support for most popular desktop Linuxes, the vast majority of Linux users will never even notice.

If you already have Win4Lin 3, it’s an easy upgrade path to version 4. You will, however, need to purchase a new installation license. This costs $49.99. If you’re new to Win4Lin, you can download and run it for $89.99. A boxed version is available for $99.99.

Whichever way you get a copy, installation is a breeze. I installed Win4Lin on both a HP Pavilion running Red Hat 7.1 with a 1.4 GHz Athlon XP and an HP Pavilion with SuSE 8.0 and a 1GHz Pentium III. With the Red Hat machine, I set up fist Windows ME and then 98SE. On the SuSE system, I stuck with 98SE.

Once Windows was on these machines though, I did run into some customization problems. For the most part, these were commonplace Windows ME/98SE problems that I’ve seen before in ordinary Windows installations.

The one exception was in setting the machine to use a Virtual Network (VNET) so that I could more easily use the Windows Network Neighborhood to hook up to my network drives and printers. My problem was that I couldn’t connect with my network Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) IP address server. A quick look through the release notes quickly set me right. In any case, had I chosen to give the VNET adapter a static IP, I wouldn’t have run into any trouble at all.

To see what Win4Lin could really do, I decided to take the logical step of installing my full application workload on the SuSE system and work on it for a week.

So I installed all of Office 2000, except Outlook; FrontPage 2002 from Office XP; Pegasus Mail 4.01; Adobe Acrobat 5; RealPlayer 6; Adobe PhotoShop 5.5; Lotus Organizer 6.0; Internet Explorer 5.5 SP2; Macromedia DreamWeaver 4.0 and that blast from word processing’s past, WordStar 7.0.

But, especially with the Microsoft products, that was only the start. I also had to update and patch many of these programs to block security holes. This can often go wrong when you’re running one operating system on top of another, but Win4Lin delivered and installed the updates like a champ.

In fact, this is when I noticed one of the advantages of running Win4Lin with 98SE over running 98SE directly on the hardware. Shutting down and booting the Windows operating system went much faster on Linux than Win98SE did on the same system running by its self.

The real proof of any system though is how well it does when handling your day-to-day work, not just looking good in a benchmark suite. Once more, Win4Lin proved itself a winner. Over a week, the system never froze — although Windows had locked up on that very same hardware running the same workload. I can’t claim that everyone will find Win98SE more stable on Linux, but that was my experience.

I also found the system to be very fast. The total system RAM was 256MBs, and with this edition of Win4Lin, I can access up to 128MBs of RAM. This made a real difference when running such memory hungry applications as PhotoShop and DreamWeaver at the same time, which is something I do often. While not as fast as they would have been running natively on the hardware, they were perfectly usable.

And, for my day-to-day work combination of Word, Excel, Lotus Organizer, Pegasus Mail, and Internet Explorer, I didn’t really notice that Linux was also running … if it wasn’t for the fact that I also had my typical Linux application package of KDE 3.0, Netscape 6.2, Konqueror, elm, and vi running.

Now to make Win4Lin perform like this, you do need to pay attention to the release notes. In particular, you must enable backing store in XFree86-4.0.x. In most distributions the default is to turn this off, but turning it on gives Win4Lin a real graphics kick in the pants.

You may also want to give Windows access to more memory using the winsetup configuration set up utility located in /usr/bin. By default, for example, Win98SE only has access to 24MBs of RAM. Simply adding more RAM to your Window session may not actually help you, though. As is always the case with system performance tuning, you should read all the instructions and not simply assume that the maximum values are the best values.

For my purposes, daily office work, Win4Lin is a keeper.

It may not, however, be for you. While it now has support for wheeled mice, it still lacks support for USB, FireWire, DirectX, CD-writing and many other useful, but not necessarily essential, hardware and software additions.

But, if what you want is a solid way to bring most Windows office and home applications to either your desk or to your workplace, Win4Lin is for you.

A version of this story first appeared in NewsForge.

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