June 20, 2006

Win4Lin Pro improves

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Win4Lin has released another version of its Win4Lin Pro Windows compatibility program for Linux desktops, which promises improved speed, better networking performance, and sound playback and recording for Windows 2000 and Windows XP guest operating systems. Win4Lin Pro is still lags behind alternative virtualization products, such as VMware Workstation, but it has come a long, long way since the last review.

I reviewed Win4Lin Pro several months ago, and was less than impressed with the product. This time around, Win4Lin Pro is improved, and its performance is acceptable for daily use, but it still has a few problems.

Installation

Win4Lin installation was relatively easy. I grabbed the x86 Debian package and installed the prerequisites for Win4Lin on Ubuntu. I had to wrestle with prerequisites the last time I tried Win4Lin Pro, but after installing the suggested packages this time I didn't have any problems. I installed Win4Lin Pro on a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 machine with 1GB of RAM running Ubuntu Dapper.

After installing the package, the next step requires that you "load" the guest media -- in this case, Windows XP Pro -- onto the system as root, and then run an installation as the user who will run the guest OS.

You can run the installation in two ways: using a command-line method or a "One-Click-2-Windows" method with a GUI installer that's new with Win4Lin Pro 3.0. I opted for the one-click method.

The GUI installer presents a small dialog box with a couple of options for the user to choose from for the Windows software. Choose the amount of RAM to be allocated to Windows, as well as its disk size, and you're off. Win4Lin Pro automates most of the installation for Windows, so the only input I needed to give the Windows installer itself was the product key.

Though Win4Lin Pro gives users an initial GUI configuration screen when using the One-Click-2-Windows method, that's it -- if you want to change the amount of RAM allocated to your guest operating system later on, it needs to be done through a configuration file.

I've tested several releases of Win4Lin while they were working towards 3.0, and I was impressed with how much faster the installation went under 3.0. At this point, the amount of time it took to install Windows XP under Win4Lin Pro was comparable to installing it under VMware Workstation or on a standard machine.

Now with sound!

As advertised, sound now works with Win4Lin Pro. The first thing I noticed after the install was the distinctive Windows startup bleat as soon as the desktop appeared. However, the sound playback seems to be subject to disruption if the system is taxed at all. And when I say "at all," I mean a lively game of Solitaire is likely to hork sound.

To test out sound playback, I started by installing Flash in Firefox, then went to Neil Young's Web site and tried listening to the streaming feed of Living With War. The playback was a little choppy and distorted under Windows, though I had no problems with the feed on the host system.

I thought the problem might be with the feed and not with Win4Lin, so I clicked on an MP3 file in my shared directory to see how its playback would sound. Again, it was somewhat choppy and distorted. Just playing an MP3 file bogged the system down completely. Win4Lin's sound might be fine for system beeps or short bursts of sound, but I wouldn't recommend it for long-term usage.

Using Win4Lin

Performance is much improved with this release, but still sluggish compared to running Windows XP as a VMware guest OS. When using virtual hosts in VMware, I've been hard-pressed to tell the difference between using an application such as OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Office in the virtual machine or in Windows running on bare metal. When using Win4Lin, though, everything is a little slower.

The performance isn't bad enough that it's unbearable, but it is noticeable, even when running just one application like OpenOffice.org under Windows. In some of the prereleases I checked out, not only was Windows slow, Win4Lin Pro would also bog down the rest of the system. However, when using 3.0, I didn't see any serious impact on the host system's performance beyond what you'd expect from running a normal application.

As with previous releases, Win4Lin Pro supports only pass-through printing -- which is to say, you need to set up printing on your Linux host and then set up a fake printer on Win4Lin Pro. This pretty much kills the idea of using any printers that aren't supported under Linux already with your Windows guest operating system.

The network setup architecture for Win4Lin leaves a bit to be desired. Win4Lin presents a single network interface that is hard-coded for a private address that is visible only to the host. Inbound connections to Windows are out of the question using this setup, so some simple operations -- such as pinging remote hosts, browsing a Windows network, or logging onto Windows Server Domains -- aren't possible. The Win4Lin documentation is forthcoming about these limitations, but that doesn't make them any less annoying.

Compared to the competition

When Win4Lin debuted, virtualization was still "gee-whiz!" technology, and the concept of being able to run Windows under Linux was still pretty exciting in and of itself -- the fact that the experience wasn't terribly polished was to be expected. The fact that Windows ran at all was impressive. Users were willing to put up with a lot of rough edges to avoid dual booting and still have their Windows applications at their fingertips while using Linux.

Over the years, though, Win4Lin has been left in the dust by the competition. The product is still limited to specific Windows releases, and the list of missing features is still lengthy. Want to plug in a USB device and see it on your Windows desktop? No dice. Want to adjust your network settings or add a second virtual network device? No deal.

Using VMware Workstation, I can take snapshots of virtual hosts easily through the GUI to allow me to roll back to a known-good version if I hose my guest OS by running an update or if Windows gets infected by spyware.

You can take snapshots of your Windows install for Win4Lin Pro too -- just use cp to copy the current image file to a backup image file -- but these "snapshots" consume quite a bit of space compared to the VMware counterparts.

And, of course, Win4Lin is a limited solution -- if you want to play with x86 and AMD64 OSes other than Windows 2000 and Windows XP, you're out of luck.

Win4Lin Pro is priced at $90, which is about $100 cheaper than VMware Workstation. However, the extra $100 for a more polished and more robust product is probably worth it when you factor in the frustration of using a solution that runs slowly and provides limited device support. VMware has flaws and limitations as well, but it's a better choice in the long run.

Final verdict

Win4Lin Pro 3.0 is a distinct improvement over previous versions, but I'm still not sure it's the right solution. At this stage of the game, I think Win4Lin Pro may be too far behind the competition to catch up. While its developers are still working on basic features and stability, VMware has left Win4Lin sucking dust.

Win4Lin Pro's performance is too sluggish to justify spending the money on the package. If you don't mind tinkering a bit to get the software up and running, save yourself a few bucks and download VMware Player. Though it doesn't make it easy to create guest images, you can roll your own guests for VMware Player and get better performance and ease of use for no cost whatsoever.

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