July 14, 2004

ReactOS concept is more promise than production

Author: Preston St. Pierre

ReactOS is an open source (GPL) operating system built to be compatible with Windows NT applications and drivers. ReactOS is currently just a development platform; it is not a useful desktop system for the average user in any way, but it has potential.

The makers of ReactOS work closely with the WINE project, sharing as much of the programming effort as possible. While they now concentrate on Windows NT, future releases are planned to offer compatibility with Windows 2000 and XP.

Networking is not supported in ReactOS, and much of the Graphics Device Interface is not yet complete. However, there are several text-based applications that run, the most notable of these being GNU Midnight Commander and MinGW. (MinGW support means that ReactOS can be recompiled on ReactOS.) The number of developers contributing to this project is increasing and work is being done at an exponential rate.

The install

Booting with the ReactOS CD, I saw that the install was markedly similar to the install of Windows NT/2000. I was greeted by a blue background with grey/white text and a menu on the bottom, with shortcut keys that seem to agree with my memory of the NT/2000 shortcuts. There is also an option to start an emergency console, something I do not remember seeing on any Windows install.

I pressed Enter to continue, and was suddenly glad that I chose to use VMware to conduct these tests. The ReactOS setup program informed me that it cannot handle more than one primary partion per disk, that only the FAT filesystem was supported, and that there were many limitations on how I could modify the partition tables (such as the inability to delete a primary partition if extended partitions exist on that disk). After accepting these limitations, a few general device settings are shown. I tried changing a few of the options, only to discover that all but two (the keyboard layout and the mouse device) are not yet functional. For keyboard, monitor, and "Computer" type (I'm not quite sure what options there would be, but the default is "Standard-PC") I was forced to leave the automatically detected settings. The keyboard layout option was no minor feature to me, as I use the Dvorak layout, which is not supported in ReactOS 0.2.2. A final step involved choosing the partition on which to install ReactOS, but as I was on VMware the limitations weren't a problem.

After the first reboot (which took less than 10 seconds on VMware), the ReactOS installer asked me for my computer name, my name, and my company name. One more ultra-fast reboot and I was done with the install.

Not including the few limits placed on partitions, the ReactOS install seems to get the job done fairly easily, and succeeds in being very Windows-like. You wouldn't want to try installing it on a regular machine, though, unless you like pain and have a lot of free time to fool around with drivers and partitions.

The desktop

The ReactOS desktop is severely limited, due mostly to its infancy. Many of the problems currently in place likely will be overcome when Microsoft Windows application support comes into full power.

I began by clicking the Start menu to launch an application. I was disappointed to see that Start->Programs is devoid of applications. There are two subfolders, but both are empty. (The "there yet empty" syndrome pervades ReactOS.) With no options in the Programs folder, I used the Start->Run dialogue to run ReactOS Explorer (to which there was also a shortcut on the desktop, I noticed afterwards).

Right off the top, I noticed ReactOS's built-in support for mulitple desktops. The lack of multiple desktops in Windows has been an annoyance for me in the past, and they are a feature I take full advantage of when running GNOME. I found that while I could use multiple desktops without too much effort, there were many differences from the multiple desktop setup I am used to. Applications appear on the taskbar in all desktops, and are still visible on the screen unless another window from the current desktop has been placed over them. So if you have two programs on desktop one and two on desktop four, then at all times you will have four icons on the taskbar and four windows on the screen (assuming none are full screen and covering others). What is the point, you might ask? The windows on your current desktop are brought to the front. It works, but it isn't pretty.

The ReactOS Explorer itself is minimally functional. Copy and paste don't work, so moving files around is a novelty we cannot enjoy. Multiple windows inside of the explorer worked as expected, but all of them were named "junk!" which made it impossible to use them for anything practical. Of the 11 buttons on the top left, only two work. I clicked on all of them in many different scenarios, and I couldn't make anything but the refresh button and the new window button work. I gave up trying to use ReactOS Explorer soon after this, realizing that there were probably much better ways to accomplish what I wanted.

I double-clicked on the Command Prompt icon on the desktop and typed in ls. Many of you are undoubtedly yelling to me in your heads right now, "This is Windows, not Linux, you fool." Needless to say, I received an error. My own stupidity aside, the command line tools worked quite well. I couldn't find anything wrong or incomplete about any of the programs. There certainly weren't as many tools as I'm used to on Linux, but I found a similar number of commands as on a Windows 2000 box (based on a comparison of the respective help commands).

I ran into a few more useful tools in ReactOS. By right-clicking on the task bar, I found access to some desktop configuration utilities that allowed me to control the layout of my desktop icons in an easy, organized fashion, toggle the version number on the desktop, and hide icons in the system tray. I was also able to launch a simple task manager from the same menu. The "Performance" section didn't seem to work too well, but listing applications and processes was, while a bit buggy, still possible.

In its current state ReactOS cannot be compared to any complete desktop system. Though I have mentioned many problems with ReactOS, I was left with a positive impression. Version 0.2.3 is a big improvement over 0.2.2, and the development speed is accelerating. If that continues, ReactOS could someday become a possible alternative to Linux on the desktop.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer information systems student at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C., Canada.

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