posted by Jeff Rollin on Thu 31st Aug 2006 18:44 UTC
IconI downloaded a few VMware images for use in VMware player. The mouse (a PS/2 type) did not work either in ReactOS or in Syllable, but did work in PC-BSD (all in VMware Player). Later, I downloaded the install-cd iso of ReactOS and burned it to a CD. The image is a tiny download (19MB uncompressed), so it didn't take long. I intended to install ReactOS on a laptop and desktop.

The laptop is a year-old 512MB Fujitsu with onboard graphics and wireless networking and 80MB hard drive, of which around 40 is dedicated to Linux (boot and LVM partitions); the remainder is at present unallocated. The onboard wireless network card, being a Broadcom, is useless in Linux as it appears to require a "software on-switch" which, of course, is only available as a Windows .exe. I had high hopes that I would be able to install the Windows drivers and associated programs to get it to work in ReactOS.

I burned the .iso, rebooted and inserted the CD into the drive. The install program (as far as I can tell) is almost indistinguishable from the Windows install program, except that all references to Microsoft Windows are replaced with references to ReactOS. The install program got as far as detecting the keyboard before complaining that ReactOS did not yet support "USB keyboards"; I've no idea of the internal connexions between the keyboard and the motherboard, but the keyboard I was using was the inbuilt laptop one. I rebooted into SuSE Linux and attempted to install ReactOS into the desktop PC.

The desktop PC I selected for the trial is a 3-year-old 1800 Mhz whitebox PC with 512MB RAM, two hard drives (one of 200 and one of 28MB), a DVD-ROM and a DVD-RW drive. The first drive is entirely given over to boot and LVM partitions, and the 2nd is configured as an LVM physical volume. I rebooted the machine without remembering to deallocate the space on the 2nd hard drive.

I had earlier (shortly after installing Gentoo Linux into the desktop configuration mentioned above) attempted to install Windows on the second hard drive, which similarly failed, and then onto the first, overwriting the LVM. The Windows installation program appeared to succeed in formatting the partition allocated to an LVM on the first drive, but got only halfway before reporting an error. I have not subsequently (until now) attempted to install any version of Microsoft Windows or a compatible OS on that machine.

The ReactOS installation program demands that the hard disk onto which the OS is installed have only a single primary partition. After having gotten as far as formatting the 2nd hard drive with a single FAT32 partition (the only filesystem which ReactOS supports at present), the installation program complained that it was unable to deal with the MBR of the first hard drive (on which GRUB is installed) and offered to create a boot floppy or quit; the machine's floppy drive does not work, but never having needed it before, I had not attempted to find the cause of the problem; nor did I attempt to go any further with ReactOS.

As I mentioned earlier, I had forgotten to deallocate the 2nd hard drive as a physical volume from the LVM volume group to which it belonged. Upon rebooting into Linux, this caused the reboot to fail, the kernel complaining that it couldn't find the root volume which was part of the volume group. Although it took some time to repair (which would have been shortened had a little more attention been paid to the process of recreating the physical volume, etc.), the volume group was eventually resurrected, without data loss due to the fact that no actual data had been located on the physical volume corresponding to the second hard drive. As ReactOS appears to be an attempt to duplicate as closely as possible the Windows experience without modification or improvement, I can only assume that a similar cockup with this open source variant of the world's favourite operating system would have necessitated a reinstallation, leading to a considerable loss of data due to the lack of backups (an oversight which I intend to rectify very soon.)

Conclusion

As a Linux user, I was not impressed by the (lack of) sophisticated installation and recovery tools/options in ReactOS. A requirement to have a floppy boot disk, in times when the facilities to read these these are often not installed into name-brand PC's at all, is not acceptable unless a suitable alternative is given. To some extent these faults can be excused given the alpha quality of the OS; however, it appears that the authors of the system are attempting to duplicate as closely as possible the dismally basic and inflexible installation procedure of "the real Windows". Given its target market, this is perhaps not surprising; however, this means that the system is, like Windows, not suitable for installation by a user who uses a non-Windows-class operating system as his or her primary OS without careful planning.

Given that its compatibility is (by the authors' own admission) not yet complete, for the foreseeable future ReactOS will probably be consigned to second place on a user's hard drive. As such it is in my view imperative that it deal comfortably with being installed on a second primary or logical partition or even a second HDD. I fail to see why no attempt has been made to make the system compatible with GRUB and/or more advanced and up-to-date installation methods than the antiquated floppy disk. Advanced users would, I'm sure, be more than happy to have to go through an "advanced users only" screen to get to these options, if only they were made available.

Similarly, I hope that (given that its compatibility is stated to already be so complete that it is "able" to run viruses) support for NTFS is included in future.

It is unfortunate that I was not even able to report on how well ReactOS runs various Windows apps. Despite my negative impressions of the project, it is clear that they are trying their best to reproduce Microsoft Windows as a viable open source project, even down to the faults of the platform. As such I wish them well.

Author's Note

This was originally to be a comment on the recent "ReactOS on VMware" article on OSNews, but grew too long to be a comment, so I decided to submit it as an article.

About the Author:
I am a long-time user of Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems, having used Linux almost continuously since the late nineties. I used an Amiga until 1995 when I bought my first PC, but never really fell in love with Windows. In fact with Windows98, it could be said that I fell in hate with it. I fooled around a bit with Red Hat around version 5.2 or so, but only really started using Linux when I found Mandrake, and have since used Slackware, Debian, and Arch, amongst others; and most recently Gentoo and SuSE Linux 10. I have also dabbled in various BSDs. My first experience of UNIX in any form was on a university's Solaris-on-SPARC computing pool in Germany.


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