Linux cousins Part 1: Reviewing AROS, the Amiga-like OS

The first part of a series of reviews of non-Linux, open source operating systems.

AROS review Amiga OS Linux Open Source

Linux is great. It's fast. It's stable. It's free (in more ways than one).

But Linux (or, depending on who you ask, "GNU/Linux") isn't the only Free and Open Source operating system out there. Sure, it may be the most popular… but there are others. Over the next few articles I will be taking a look at some of the most interesting. One at a time.

Not just looking at them, but running them. And, where possible, doing my work in them. That way, when I'm finished, I'll be able to point to which non-Linux, Open Source operating systems are mature and functional enough as a desktop operating system that I could – in theory – run them as my main system.

The first one I'm looking at: AROS.

Standing for the "AROS Research Operating System" (one of those gloriously recursive acronyms, like "GNU"), AROS is essentially an open source Amiga-like system.

And, by "Amiga-like," I mean super-duper Amiga-like. It looks and feels like AmigaOS and has API-level compatibility with AmigaOS 3.1 (meaning AmigaOS 3.1 applications can be compiled to run on AROS). But, unlike AmigaOS, AROS runs on x86 hardware.

Just like with Linux, there are multiple distributions of AROS. For my purposes, I opted to download and run Icaros Desktop. This appears to be the most comprehensive and frequently updated of the various AROS distributions available. And, luckily, Icarus runs just dandy in VirtualBox (and, from the looks of it, VMware as well).

The full download of Icaros was absolutely huge, clocking in at 1.6GB. That's over twice the size of many Linux distros. And this is for a system inspired by an OS developed in the 1980s. At first glance, this seemed absolutely crazy to me.

But then I started using it.

I soon realized that Icaros is packed to the rafters with software, including emulators for nearly every platform on the planet (computer and consoles), a 68k emulation environment (for running applications compiled for classic amiga hardware), tons of games (including Open Source versions of classics like Doom and Duke3D), a host of developer tools, networking clients and more graphics/video/audio editing applications than you can shake a stick at. 

In a nutshell, Icaros is pre-setup to be a showcase for what is possible with AROS. Which is lucky. Because that's what I needed.

Even more important than any of that is that it comes pre-loaded with a WebKit-based web browser called OWB (Odyssey Web Browser). In my testing, OWB wasn't the fastest web browser in the world, but it wasn't slow either. And it was astoundingly capable. Outside of not being able to natively play YouTube videos (something that support for is supposed to be arriving soon), I didn't run into any problems.

For word processing, there is the lightweight Cinnamon Writer. Not a terribly robust piece of software, but it's fast and has most of the basics. I rather enjoyed writing in such a bare-bones, speedy application…but I quickly found that I needed to go to online wysiwyg editors in order to get my job done (and write this article). Luckily, Odyssey Web Browser was up for the job.

Overall, system speed is blisteringly fast, making even some lightweight Linux distributions feel pokey. I gave my Icaros installation 1 GB of RAM. As it turns out, that was pretty liberal. With the full system loaded, along with Directory Opus (the GPL version of the classic file management software), only 38 MB of RAM was used.

That's not a typo. 38 MB. For the entire system and the full graphical environment. Which means AROS/Icaros would be very well suited for machines with small amounts of RAM. This would be a perfect system for an old netbook or a lightweight virtual machine.

When you click on an application, it launches. Instantly. It almost feels like applications are running before you even finish thinking about clicking them. No waiting. Period. At all. And the system itself boots in 3 seconds. 3. Seconds.

You'd think that having such light RAM and CPU requirements would mean that the system would feel old and outdated. As if you were running Windows 3.1. And, to a certain extent… it does. Some of the apps are clearly pretty bare-bones, visually. And the main interface itself is pretty devoid of any 3D effects (though there are plenty of OpenGL applications that ship with the system). But it's not ugly. And, while some parts of the system look like they belong in the 1990s, most of it looks delightfully fresh and pleasant to the eye.

Before you jump into AROS, be warned: This is, basically, an Amiga. If you've never used an Amiga before… they are different than what you're used to. The file structure. The way you interact with the interface. It's all quite a bit different than most Linux desktops (or Windows/Mac). That's not to say it's bad at all. Just different. And different means there is a not-insignificant learning curve. Expect to take a few hours just to get acquainted with the basics of how to use the system.

Now, here's the real question – could I use AROS (or Icaros) as my primary computer system?

Yes. I totally could. Without a doubt.

There would be challenges, clearly. And I would almost certainly need to have at least one companion device (like a Chromebook, a Linux laptop or an Android tablet) to fill in the gaps. And I'm not going to be playing much in the way of new games. But, realistically, this is a full-featured, mature system that has all of the tools I would need to get my job done.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go install another lesser-used Open Source operating system.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.