FreeWin95 has come a long way since it has been renamed in 1998 and is now called ReactOS.
The new version 0.3.3 of the Windows 2000 clone already has a lot to offer and has significantly evolved in almost all areas compared to the last release. The developers have made a lot of progress in the lower system area (i. e. the NT Kernel) as well as in the application segment. Let’s have a look at some new features!
Due to the fact that I’ve tested ReactOS using the pre-configured VMWare Virtual Appliance (VMWare Fusion Version 1.0 (51348) on a MacBook 1.83 GHz to be precise) I can’t say much about the installation process of the new version using “real” hardware. However I’ve tried to install it with the Install CD that can be downloaded on the project homepage. Unfortunately I wasn’t very successful. Somehow ReactOS was not able to allocate the free space on my virtual hard disk…The last time I used the Install-CD on an old 300 MHz Computer I simply wiped my old partition out, created a new one (fat32 only guys :), formatted it and started the Installer. I had no problems. On the other hand it can be dangerous to install ReactOS on the same disk as Windows or Linux. Maybe the Installer doesn’t care and assimilates all disk space (All your system are belong to us). But: Hey! MS does the same with all competitors, and maybe ReactOS simply aims to clone that approach ;) However the Virtual Appliance worked very smooth on my system. During the test I didn’t have much problems setting up and using the virtualized OS.
When I fire up the machine a nice bootloader appears and you may select between the normal and the debugging mode. Pushing
F8 gives you another menu where you can select more booting options - like a command prompt-only version or the infamous
last good option. For the moment I simply waited eight seconds until the normal boot process started.
The developers have changed the bootup screen a bit by adapting the XP look and feel. Generally said the bootup process is very streamlined and offers a whole variety of options for the advanced user. But even the normal PEBCAC can easily reach the desktop interface. Presently the ReactOS kernel (which aims to be compatible with WinNT 5.2) offers about 25 to 30 percent of the functionality it will finally have in 1.0. As a result of the broad kernel redesign in 0.2 to 0.3 the current release faces a lot of regressions in some applications that were already useable in 0.2.
ReactOS actually comes with a small amount of pre-installed software packages. Taking a closer look the team is working hard to offer a free replacement of commonly used Win Software. Naturally it has the Command Prompt as well as Regedit, Notepad and WordPad. It also features a scientific Calculator as well as the not-so-well-known Windows commandline classics like
telnet. Most of these basic programs were borrowed from the wine project. Together with the relatively stable kernel ReactOS already has a solid basis for further software development. Such Bluescreens are (really!) an exception: If you need a package that is not installed by default you can upgrade your system by installing software just as you would on Windows. There are many packages that run out of the box without further tweaking. Just look at the list of supported software on the interwebs! The newly integrated Downloading-Tool - simply called Download! - can help you to install compatible software with just one click. Because it’s work in progress there are not so many programs available. You can select between the categories Internet & Network, Development, Games & Fun and Tools. Some cool open source apps like Firefox, Thunderbird, Samba, OpenTTD, 7zip and μTorrent are already ready to use. In later versions it will be possible to update the list of preconfigured packages. That’s why I see the Download! feature as a promising invention.
Despite the fact that 0.3.3 has all the necessary drivers on board to run on almost every machine without any need for configuration it may be quite interesting to see ReactOS on full speed using original hardware drivers. In my case I just needed to install the VMWare toolset that offers a major speed burst when installed. I’ve added a CD-Rom Drive to my virtual machine and clicked on Virtual Machine > Install VMWare Tools while ReactOS was powered on. To my surprise almost everything worked like a charm and I could install the VGA and the audio drivers to tune my system. After a reboot - my system was messed up. The VGA resolution was down to 320-something pixels which made using the OS an impossible task. I had no chance to adjust the resolution with the common Display Properties window nor did it work to use Regedit and adjust the screen values manually. My second thought was “No problem”. In case of an emergency we have the Debug Mode on board. Well, what can I say: It didn’t work. It has the same screen resolution as the normal mode. Maybe there is a workaround to fix it but I was too lazy to figure it out and so I simply reset my virtual machine (There you have it, bastard!). The free Windows clone would be quite a usable system for a normal user if some of the configuration tools were already integrated. There is no printing implementation and you can’t presently use USB or firewire devices. The latest release offers only rudimentary network support. That said the team has worked hard to offer accessibility features as well as localization adjustments. At the moment one can select between 90 (!) supported languages
ReactOS still is (and will be for a long time) an experimental System. It’s normal for an unstable pre-release of an alpha software to randomly freeze or hang or kill your machine or whatsoever. Don’t panic when you have to restart - it’s (presently) normal. Don’t expect ReactOS to run all your .exe files it is a long and painful procedure to reach this aim. That said ReactOS 0.3.3 is surprisingly stable compared to older versions. Yes it occasionally hangs and it takes a nap from time to time when all of your ram gets pwned. But don’t be afraid: Just feel free to hang around a bit dazzling with the software - actually having FUN using your computer. 0.3.3 is the first version that doesn’t almost certainly crash after two minutes of use or a wrong click in the system configuration menu (o_O). ReactOS has grown up from a pure hacker playground to a mature, promising open source alternative for proprietary M$ desktop products. Certainly you’ll find a bug and maybe want to help the developers. In this case just go to their site and fill out a bug report and you can say to yourself that you’ve just supported free software. The thing a good developer (and good engineer in general) likes most is when somebody says Thanks for all the great work! That’s what I also like to say to the ROS team. Keep up the good work! According to Wikipedia the next major release (i.e. 0.4) will offer basic USB support and a complete SMB interface (making it fully compatible with the Windows network subsystem). After that ReactOS will enter beta status and we will see all the fancy user-world stuff like NTFS support or DirectX 7-9 support. So there is a long way to go and a lot to explore!
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