April 27, 2007

Win4Lin Pro Desktop 4.0 lags behind free alternatives

Author: Mayank Sharma

One of the oldest virtualization products, Win4Lin, is starting to show signs of aging. Win4Lin flourished in 2000, when competition was sparse and expensive. But seven years on, not only are there several virtualization products, but almost half a dozen are available for free. With no visible improvements over its previous version, Win4Lin Pro Desktop 4.0 is now outdated and outclassed.

Our review of Win4Lin Pro 2.0 highlighted a lot of issues, the biggest being a lack in performance when compared to VMware Workstation. At that time, VMware cost $100 more than Win4Lin, which made Win4Lin a cost-effective option to run legacy Windows apps. By the time we reviewed version 3.0, Win4Lin had worked on its performance issues, but VMware Server had cut its price to free, and boasted features not available in Win4Lin Pro 3.0. Now, version 4.0 is available, but it lacks any eye-popping new features.

Command-line still indispensable

Installing Win4Lin Pro Desktop 4.0 requires some preparation. Win4Lin is based on QEMU and uses the KQEMU Linux kernel module for speeding up the emulation. To compile KQEMU, you need to have the GNU C Compiler and kernel headers for the kernel used by your distro.

But that's only half the job done. The recommended method for installing Windows via Win4Lin is through the command-line. There is a GUI installation tool available, called One-Click-2-Windows, but it lacks several options you can use with the command-line installation tools.

I had no problem with the installation, but it hasn't evolved through the versions. It's surprising that Win4Lin still lacks graphical interfaces, say for managing multiple installations of Windows or for altering their display or memory settings.

Win4Lin - click to enlarge

On the edge of usability

I installed Win4Lin on a 1.5GHz Celeron box with 1.2GB of RAM running Ubuntu 6.06 LTS. Win4LinPro Desktop 4.0 supports only Windows 2000 and Windows XP. That's quite a limitation considering that virtualization products like VMware Workstation, VMware Server, and VirtualBox can run older versions (such as Windows 98 and ME) as well as newer ones (Windows Vista).

While I had no trouble installing Windows XP (with Service Pack 2) using Win4Lin, my system's performance was nowhere near native as claimed. Windows under Win4Lin didn't even outperform VirtualBox, which I installed with a single mouse click through the Automatix2 script. While multitasking, when I had two applications running, such as the VLC media player and Firefox Web browser, launching a third, Microsoft Word, took slightly less time on Win4Lin as it did on VirtualBox. When I was playing music, I found sound would break up while Win4Lin performed processor-intensive tasks. You can't play Windows games under Win4Lin, since it still cannot handle the DirectX API.

The best thing about Win4Lin is that, out of the box, it allows you to access your home directory on the Linux host. It also enables you to copy and paste text between applications running on the host Linux and the guest Windows. But you can replicate these features in other virtualization products by installing add-on packages like VMware's vmtools and VirtualBox's Windows Guest Additions.

Poor hardware support

If you've been waiting for Win4Lin to directly recognize USB pen drives, you'll have to wait longer, but your USB mice and keyboards will work. Another no-show is direct printer support; Win4Lin still works only with printers that work on the host Linux.

Win4Lin was unable to install Windows on a Core2Duo machine I tested it with. Just before bringing up the graphical Windows installation screen, Win4Lin quit and restarted the box. I tried installing a couple of times with the same result. A post on the Win4Lin forums and an email to the Win4Lin team didn't get any response.

Sadly, one of the first virtualization products I ever tried is no longer a worthwhile option for me. It has not a single feature that justifies its $69 price. The only people likely to upgrade to Win4Lin Pro Desktop 4.0 are those who care about the support they can buy with Win4Lin, and who can do without the extra options and functionality bundled with the free products.