VMware Express 2.0 and Win4Lin 2.0: A Comparison Review

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In this review, I will be discussing two Windows application compatibility and migration solutions: VMware Inc.'s VMware Express 2.0 and Netraverse's Win4Lin 2.0. Each of these offers a way to access Windows applications from a Linux desktop, and I will evaluate each based on performance in test applications, including Microsoft Office, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Adobe Photoshop, Apple QuickTime

These four packages were selected for their ability to, in combination, bring a wide range of systems to their knees and find compatibility issues in all types of system and emulation software. These applications will be tested on my current test machine, a P3 560 with 384MB of RAM running Mandrake 7.0. I have six primary considerations while evaluating each product: compatibility with DOS/Windows applications, stability both inside the emulator and of the emulator itself, interoperability with the Linux environment, resource efficiency, ease of use and support (but not necessarily in that order). After the individual evaluations, I will include some direct comparisons, a summary and errata that didn't fit anywhere else.

VMware

VMware Express is designed to emulate an entire virtual PC with its own BIOS, RAM, disk drives, etc. From a purely intellectual standpoint, this approach potentially offers compatibility on the same level as a real PC with many applications. It also inherently has more overhead than a light-weight emulation approach. VMware sports several key features: Windows 95 and 98 compatibility, support for up to 512MB of RAM in the emulated system, full networking support and file sharing with Linux via a customized version of Samba. Note that VMware Express does not support any OS other than Windows 95 (any version) or 98 (including 98SE). This means that it won't run Windows 3, Windows NT 4, Windows 2000, Linux, FreeBSD, BeOS or anything else other than the two specified systems.

Setup and Initial Impressions

Setting up VMware wasn't at all difficult; pop in the CD, mount it, run the install script, reboot and you're done. Note that some systems might not be compatible with the included setup script, but doing an rpm -i on the VMware rpm works just fine so long as you remember to run vmware-config.pl afterwards. Once VMware is up and running, you must install your own copy of Windows and the VMware tools. For the purposes of this review, I used an OEM (but not customized) copy of Windows 98 Second Edition, and the install went without incident.

The Tests

The first test--and arguably the most important--was installing and running Office 2000. The first thing I noticed was the install was very, very slow. It took more than twice as long as a native installation on the same machine; more about this later. Once I had Office installed, all components worked fine. Word launched and opened a few large, table-filled documents without any problems. Full-screen mode (View-->Full Screen) worked, as did printing to a file. Excel worked just as well as Word. PowerPoint felt a little more sluggish than its companions, but it was certainly usable. Outlook's performance was quite slow but not out of line with what one would expect on an emulated 64MB computer. All in all, Office ran well enough for someone who needs occasional access to its features under Linux. This bodes well for other popular applications in its class, such as Quicken and FileMaker Pro.

Next up came the Internet Explorer tests. IE is a fair gauge of real-world network application performance and practical 2-D graphics performance. For this test I used the IE 5.5 release with all patches from Windows Update applied. Performance while browsing short pages was good, but things got quite slow while looking at pages that involved a lot of scrolling (e.g., browsing linuxjournal.com). Apparent performance was approximately equal to my P133 laptop with minimal video acceleration. While this was annoying, this is probably a minor concern for the great majority of users for whom Netscape 4 or 6 is quite sufficient.

The real fun started with Adobe Photoshop. I installed Photoshop 6 and configured it to use 75% of available memory. Most users running Photoshop under emulation are more concerned with doing fairly light-weight web graphics and photo correction, so for this test I loaded five pictures I took on my last vacation (2048 x 1536 JPEGs). The system started swapping heavily (though not quite to the point of "thrashing"). Filters (Gaussian Blur, Despeckle, adjusting levels and balance, etc.) were slow but usable. Cropping, rescaling and exporting as web-optimized JPEGs was slower yet, but again, still usable. For running disk and memory intensive applications like Photoshop, I would recommend the reader consider dual-booting Windows if their needs are more than very basic editing and correction.

After the beating VMware took from Photoshop based on its disk and memory handling, Apple's QuickTime was a good test of the remaining multimedia functions, namely animated graphics and sound handling. To set up the test, I went to Apple's web site and downloaded a full install of the latest release of QuickTime 4. I then made a preliminary visit to the web page for Square's Final Fantasy movie to load it into my cache (my personal Squid proxy configured to cache even very large objects). Upon my second visit to the site, I found several interesting (but not totally unexpected) things. First, the movie loaded in just a few seconds, but VMware froze while the movie downloaded. Second, when the movie did play the sound broke up, and the video was very choppy. Multimedia performance was clearly not up to the level necessary for anything even moderately intensive. Among other things, this means you won't be using VMware to play DVD movies or do video production.

My final test was to run Wolfenstein 3D. The short story is: It didn't. Attempting to run the game resulted in VMware's display going black and me having to kill the emulator and restart it. What does this mean? Don't expect that your legacy DOS software will necessarily run in VMware. I would suggest that you download the demo, and try your legacy software before you make your order. Compatibility will vary greatly.

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