Win4Lin is one of an increasing number of packages that allow you to run Windows applications on a Linux-based computer. It is available both in a Terminal Server package (which allows multiple sessions to run on a single high-powered Linux server) or as a standalone workstation product (which installs on each desktop that needs access to Windows programs). We looked at the Workstation version. When you run the setup program, it checks to see if you have the latest version of the installer and then prompts you to download both the application and a new Linux kernel that has the extras needed to run Win4Lin (you do, incidentally, get the option not to download the items if you've already obtained them for previous installations). We initially installed the package on a Red Hat 9 partition on our multi-booting server, but discovered that it won't install if the partition you're installing to isn't the one with the Linux boot loader. So, we restarted from our Fedora Core 1 partition and tried again. Everything worked fine from there on. When you've completed the basic package and kernel installation (which is all automated, by the way) you reboot and then perform the Windows installation. Step one is to log in as the super-user and re-run the installer, at which point you're prompted to insert the appropriate Windows CD and wait while the files are copied. Next, you log out and run the installer for a third and final time under a non-root user ID, at which point it runs the Windows installer (via a largely intervention-free setup script) and chugs through the standard Windows setup process. We chose to use Windows 98 Second Edition and the entire process took less than an hour from start to finish. That includes the little tweak that you have to do manually to the X-Windows configuration file. License still required…
Once the package is installed, you effectively have Windows running as an application under Linux (which means, importantly, that you don't escape the need to buy a licence for Windows). So to all intents and purposes you have a Windows machine, and you can install and run whatever you wish on it, just as you would if the PC were running Windows natively. Because the Windows world occupies a part of the disk underneath the logged-in user's home directory, it's straightforward to copy files between the two operating systems. Since Win4Lin can interface Windows to the network via Linux's network drivers you have the same access to the network as you'd have under Linux - though you have to be careful which option you choose, because there are two alternatives and the simpler one to configure doesn't allow you to use Network Neighborhood [sic] or connect to an Exchange server. It's hard to fault Win4Lin. It's fast, and because you have a complete installation of Windows running inside your Linux machine, it works just like it would if it were sitting directly on the hardware. So we were able to run Windows Update, install and use Microsoft Office, and generally feel like we had a Windows computer, all in a window inside the Linux world. The only niggle in our minds is whether you'd bother with Win4Lin when you can have a dual-boot PC without the need to spend your $90 or whatever. But given what a faff it can be to switch between worlds each time you need to on a dual-boot machine, we think that actually there is value for those whose lives exist in both a Linux world and a Microsoft one.

OUR VERDICT

When considering this type of application, bear in mind that for an office-based setup, the Terminal Server edition may be easier to manage than a load of desktops, while for portable users the Workstation edition is more logical.