Windows Alternative – Is ReactOS good enough?

Windows Alternative? What is ReactOS?

ReactOS is a free and open source operating system for the x64/x86 based personal computers and are intended to be binary compatible (read Windows alternative or clone) with the software and device drivers that are written for Windows Server 2003.

The project itself is not new. The first release was way back in 1998 and the development started in 1996 as a Windows 95 clone! Many Windows compatible binary applications do run out of the box in ReactOS. The end user will barely make out the difference between a native Windows system and ReactOS. But that applies to users who are used to Windows XP or with the classic theme at least. ReactOS looks dated when it comes to the user interface.

As of now, it remains as alpha software. It does amuse you as a Windows alternative but in terms of stability and usability it has a long way to go.

Objectives of ReactOS – and requirements

The stated objective that ReactOS as a Windows alternative carries proudly on their website is this.

‘Imagine running your favorite Windows applications and drivers in an open-source environment you can trust. That’s ReactOS. Not just an Open but also a Free operating system.’

A viable Windows alternative? Firefox running on ReactOS
A viable Windows alternative? Firefox running on ReactOS (source: https://reactos.org/gallery)

That is a pretty lofty goal. Sure you can run Windows applications on other operating systems but you basically need some level of system emulation or compatibility layer to get that done. Take Wine on Linux for instance. It also has support for a wide range of Windows applications that run almost flawlessly on it. What ReactOS does is that it allows these applications to run without installing any other supporting emulation device. It runs the Windows software natively. Theoretically that saves on processing power.

The most appropriate comparison here should be between ReactOS and Windows XP. Windows XP has been retired and no new security flaws are going to be patched. ReactOS looks and feels like it, especially if you imagine putting the classic theme.

The system requirements are also pretty identical to that of Windows XP.

  1. It is light. It just requires a paltry 500 MB for installation and 96 MB of RAM to run.
  2. This is not ‘Linux mimicking Windows’, but a native x86/x64 application supporting operating system
  3. It has got some Windows-like styles to make things look closer to the original. Think of a more proper clone.
  4. You can download the image and burn it to a disc to get started.
  5. A Live disk image is also provided. You don’t need to install it to get a taste of how it performs.

How does ReactOS look and feel like?

ReactOS looks exactly like Windows XP with the classic theme on. As a Windows alternative, it comes quite close. Sure, you won’t see the Windows logo. But had it not been protected by copyright I am sure that would have been reproduced here as well. Check out the gallery here. I know. Not pretty.

On the other hand, I felt very much at home while using it. It really does make you feel as if you are still on the real Windows. For the average user doing some browsing (not using Internet Explorer) and listening to music, there is not going to be any discernible difference.

This does not mean the ReactOS is perfect or without issues.

The biggest expectation you would have from a project that has been running for 19+ years is stability. That is unfortunately not something that I found in it. It frequently broke down and the system became unusable. The community support is also lacking in this case. The official support forums are full of instances where people found it impossible to run the OS in the first place. For more serious requirements, the answers are not available. The user base is low and naturally the solution providers are few and far between. The lack of proper and adequate support is not surprising.

So the developers have actually kept this at the alpha stage. A stage it has stayed in since its inception. That is not encouraging. But if you lower your expectations to the point that you want no more than a fun experiment – ReactOS will not disappoint you.

I was amused to see that it was POSSIBLE to create a Windows binary compatible environment in the first place. That too without depending on Microsoft. You can cherish the familiar Windows 2000 or XP flavor as well.

Software support for ReactOS

ReactOS claims that it supports a number of software and drivers that run smoothly on Windows platforms. For many applications tested this is true. Microsoft Office, older Photoshop versions and other regular apps like 7zip and the popular browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox work great. You may run into issues with the audio settings from time to time but the generic drivers should be able to handle basic audio I/O tasks. I expected these from a Windows alternative, not that there are any other choices.

ReactOS is not very kind to games. This is not surprising. The Wine Windows compatibility layer for Linux does not really do much to help gaming performance. The higher specification of graphic cards are not fully supported by it. The support for high end cards and video capabilities are even less in the case of ReactOS. For many people any Windows alternative should be able to run games without a performance hit. ReactOS may run Windows apps natively, but the lack of proper driver support prevents even moderately graphics intensive games to run without stuttering. It may suffer a buffer overflow and greet you with something similar to the Blue Screen of Death we used to dread in Windows XP.

A full list of software tests on ReactOS is difficult to combine and it appears that the results also vary from PC to PC, perhaps depending on the configuration settings being used. But the problem is not intrinsic to ReactOS in particular. With only about a 100+ developers, their advertised objective of creating a Windows like operating system is already overly ambitious.

Security and Usability

Security and Usability are not this system’s strongpoints. As far as usability is concerned, you are unable to install many of the latest software on ReactOS. This is especially because the system crashes so often. The thread management is not as intuitive as Windows 7 or 10. So you are stuck with a modern PC running what will appear to you as Windows XP minus the legendary stability of the system. For any Windows alternative, the security needs to be as good at least. ReactOS does not deliver here.

The drivers are often out of date. This is a security flaw. Windows XP has also stopped giving any updates (except when major acts of data vandalism occurs). Some of the drivers work well and since the number of devs are low. It updates infrequently as well.

Verdict – Is ReactOS a viable Windows alternative

Not yet. To be brutally honest, it may never be one. Consider the fact that it is almost 20 years old now and yet has not been able to come out of its alpha stage of development. Let’s look deeper and ask some fundamental questions.

  1. Does it offer a stable ecosystem for running Windows applications for users not able/willing to pay for the Windows operating system?
    A. No. It does provide an ecosystem for running some Windows applications for users but is neither stable nor does it support all applications. It limits the driver and security updates as well.
  2. Does it look and feel like Windows as a Windows alternative?
  3. Yes. But that is the only pro that it can actually boast off. Windows applications can be run on Wine on any non-Windows platform.  Install a light desktop environment and then install Wine.True, it is not an OS but a compatibility layer. But it does the job. The only advantage that ReactOS had over Wine was that it runs Windows applications natively. But it dilutes that advantage as this Windows alternative  Operating System is not able to make the best use of the hardware resources that are already available to it.

It shines as a proof of concept. Given the right resources (both manpower and otherwise), it is possible to create a stable and usable ecosystem that can run Windows applications. Practically speaking, given the resources, a viable Windows alternative is possible. There is no reason to remain stuck to the Microsoft Windows operating system if you are a big fan of some of the Windows only applications. But they have a long way to go.

As of now, I will not recommend anyone to use ReactOS for their daily use. This is an experimental system and is likely to remain one in the near future. If you wish to use Windows applications, you are better off depending on Wine for now.