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Win4Lin Pro Desktop 3.5 review

By Jem Matzan

For several years, Win4Lin has offered a virtual operating environment whereby you can run Microsoft Windows inside of GNU/Linux. The first several generations of Win4Lin were limited to Windows 98, difficult to install, and had requirements that were difficult to satisfy, such as a proprietary kernel module and various acts of command line kung fu. Version 3.5 still has some of these problems, but it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be.

Win4Lin Pro Desktop overview

This section is for people new to Win4Lin. If you're already familiar with what this product is and what its basic features are and just want to find out about the latest features, you may want to skip down to the next section.

Win4Lin is a framework for running Microsoft Windows inside of GNU/Linux. It's not a virtual machine per se because it doesn't emulate a processor architecture -- it only works on x86 and AMD64/EM64T machines and emulates a more or less identical hardware environment. The software it is based on, QEMU, is a virtual machine that can emulate a number of architectures, but in Win4Lin it is reduced to emulating (with acceleration) an x86 system and peripherals.

You simply install Win4Lin via a tarball or RPM, run it once installed, and then put in your Windows disc and install it normally inside of a window in, or you can copy the contents of the Windows CD to the drive to speed up installation. It runs like any other GNU/Linux program, except it uses a significant portion of your system resources, which are reserved for the Windows instance it's running.

Once Windows is installed, you operate it as you do natively. You run Windows Update to get updates, install Windows software by downloading it from within the virtual environment or inserting the CD.

Most of your hardware should work reasonably well with Win4Lin -- sound, mouse, keyboard, video card, and other peripherals -- so long as they work properly in the GNU/Linux host. All of the files in your user's home directory will be directly accessible through the usual Documents and Settings folder in Windows. Any files you create in Windows will be similarly accessible in the GNU/Linux host through the winpro directory.

Win4Lin may never be a true replacement for a native Windows 2000 or XP installation, but it solves many problems for GNU/Linux users who need to run Windows-centric business applications reliably and cannot do so with CrossOver Office.

Win4Lin differs from VMware Workstation in that it is focused on Microsoft Windows, and in all ways more limited -- it's not as easy to install, configure, or manage. It is also, however, considerably less expensive than VMware Workstation, thereby making it more practical for home and small business use. Win4Lin is designed to run Windows in GNU/Linux; VMware is designed to run a wide range of operating systems on either Windows or GNU/Linux hosts. Essentially the two products have different goals and target markets.

What's new in 3.5

There is little difference between version 3.0 and 3.5, if the changelog is to be believed. Unofficial support for Fedora Core 6 is listed as the sole item. Perhaps it is more useful to outline Win4Lin's as-yet unaddressed limitations:

  • Win4Lin disk images are limited to 64GB.
  • Cut-and-paste between the GNU/Linux host and Windows guest is not supported.
  • Serial port functionality is limited.
  • Installation discs for Windows 2000 with SP3 and Windows XP without SP1 will not work.
  • No direct "passthrough" USB support, though USB keyboards, mice, flash drives, and printers that work in GNU/Linux can be made to work with a Windows host. All other USB devices are not supported.
  • 3D graphics acceleration is not available.
  • Video input is not supported.
  • Windows is limited to 800x600, 1024x768, and 1280x1024 screen resolutions.

Obviously the lack of 3D video acceleration makes Win4Lin a poor candidate for playing Windows games in GNU/Linux -- or at least a less capable option than the excellent Cedega Windows API emulation framework.

Win4Lin Pro Desktop 3.5
Win4Lin 3.5: close to native (click to enlarge)

Putting it to the test

Installing Win4Lin was not quite as easy as I'd hoped it would be. I tested it on Mandriva 2007 PowerPack Edition for AMD64, and installed from the generic RPM. While the package itself had no trouble installing, there was no logical next step to running the program. I did get a desktop icon, but no menu entry was created in GNOME. I ended up having to find the location of the installed files (/opt/win4linpro/) and run some scripts from the command line -- one to register the product, another to initialize the virtual environment that Windows would run in.

Installing Windows XP is actually easier in Win4Lin than it is natively -- or at least it was faster and less aggravating for me. The only real problem I ran into during installation was that removing the CD (even when prompted) caused Win4Lin to fail to redetect it when I put the disc back in. Ordinarily you wouldn't do this during a Windows installation, but I have my CD key written on the disc surface so that I don't have to worry about losing the license agreement paper. Even if I worked around this, the same problem came up later when doing multi-CD installations of Windows programs. The workaround is to go to Windows Explorer, right-click the CD icon, select Eject from the popup menu, then press the eject button on the optical drive.

The CD eject problem was not isolated; there was further miscommunication between the host operating system and the virtual Windows instance when detecting connected devices. Though I only have a keyboard and mouse connected to the machine, Windows kept playing the "device inserted" and "device removed" notification sounds whenever I clicked a mouse button. It eventually got so that I had to disable those sounds in Control Panel. Oddly, this problem only occurred after the latest updates and service packs were applied -- something in the updates must have triggered it.

I had no trouble installing software, updating the operating system, and in all other ways using Windows XP as a desktop operating system for business purposes.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

For those who would love to switch to GNU/Linux, but can't do without Windows-only programs from companies like Adobe, Corel, and Microsoft, Win4Lin is undoubtedly the solution to your dilemma. Paired with a good, hassle-free commercial GNU/Linux distribution like Xandros, Linspire, or Mandriva, a Windows refugee will have everything he needs while keeping his software costs below the price of a Windows Vista upgrade.

It is not as simple to install Win4Lin as it is Cedega or CrossOver Office, and even VMware Workstation has an easier installation process. The provided documentation is a little abrupt, but should be enough to get you through it.

Here's what I'd like to see in future Win4Lin releases:

  • Design a better Web site. The Win4Lin home page is absolutely terrible. Finding up-to-date information on all of the available products is impossible; buying a product from the site is almost as difficult. I suggest hiring a professional Web designer to create a static Win4Lin home page with a dynamic integrated Web store. Almost anything is better than what's there now.
  • Create a central, graphical management framework for the virtual environment. I'd like to see something like what VMware has for managing the virtual OS environment. You can change resource allocations, turn features on and off, and create and delete virtual environments through a nice graphical interface. Integrating competent documentation on Win4Lin with such a framework would be an added bonus.
Purpose Virtual Windows operating system environment
Manufacturer Win4Lin Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T, though only the x86 architecture is emulated for guest operating systems.
License Proprietary, restrictive in all the usual ways.
Market Home and business desktop users
Price (retail) U.S. $70
Previous version WIn4Lin Pro 3.0
Product Web site Click here