Linux cousins Part 2: Reviewing ReactOS, the Open Source version of Windows

Here I take a look at ReactOS, an impressive, yet underwhelming, Open Source replacement for Windows.

ReactOS review open source replacement Windows

I spent the day running what feels like to me as one of the weirdest Operating Systems on the planet: ReactOS

A few days ago I started out on a quest to use as many Open Source (but not Linux) operating systems as possible. To see what each of them would really be like to live in, as a primary desktop system, for at least a day. 

I began by reviewing AROS, a Free Software implementation of the AmigaOS. And a system that, surprisingly, turned out to be rather usable and enjoyable as a main system.

I went from using an "Open Source Amiga Clone" to using an "Open Source Windows Clone" with ReactOS. And, when I say "Windows Clone," boy howdy do I mean it.

ReactOS is built with the primary purpose of providing full binary compatibility with applications (and device drivers) written for Windows Server 2003. That means you can literally take a piece of software built for Windows and run it on ReactOS, without too much trouble.

Because of this, the look and feel of ReactOS is nearly identical to Windows 2000. There's even a (very familiar-looking) Start menu.

In short: It's just like running Windows 2000. Except Free and Open Source. Which makes makes it feel both awesome. And dirty. And profound... also infuriating.

If I'm honest, I really don't know how ReactOS makes me feel. But it's damned impressive that it exists and works so well.

Beyond simply being Open Source, ReactOS has one cool features that Windows never really provided properly: An application manager that is laid out and structured like a Linux package manager. From within it you can even install a large number of FOSS software staples, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, and The Gimp. 

All the Windows versions of those applications, naturally.

After I went through and installed the Windows version of just about every application I typically install and use on my Linux Desktops, I had a system I could easily live in full-time. The same software (for the most part) that I use every day on Linux is right here. And works almost identically.

Except it's not Linux. It's Windows. 

Right about there is where I started developing a bit of a tick and realized that ReactOS was slowly draining what little remained of my sanity.

I really don't have anything bad to say about ReactOS. It's not as pretty as a modern Linux Desktop (or AROS). And the fact that this is Free Software, yet could be a drop-in replacement for Windows for many people, is incredibly cool.

However, if I were to really want to run Windows software, I would probably do it via WINE. That way I could benefit from running Linux software side-by-side with Windows software. ReactOS is just… Windows. It feels too limiting.

What I find interesting is that both AROS and ReactOS are implementing an older system – both with amazing success – yet my reaction to them is profoundly different. AROS creating an AmigaOS-compatible system I find noteworthy, fascinating, and fun. ReactOS implementing a Windows 2003-compatible system I just find noteworthy. It lacks the fascinating. It lacks the fun.

Because it's… just Windows.

Side note: How great is it that we live in a time when total Windows compatibility just isn't all that interesting? There was a time when that functionality would have been, to borrow a highly over-used term, a real game-changer.

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

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.