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WinLinux: Windows-Assisted Linux
By Thiravudh Khoman

Not long after I picked up Phat Linux, I came across WinLinux 2000 (https://www.winlinux.com), another Linux distribution that can be installed and run under a Windows FAT16 or FAT32 file system. WinLinux 2000 "final beta" came courtesy of QuickPC's EasyCD Volume 4 CD. Owing to the large size of the distribution file (about 140mb), it's probably wisest to obtain WinLinux locally rather than trying to download it if you're interested.

Phat Linux vs WinLinux

The main difference between Phat Linux and WinLinux becomes clear during the installation and loading phases. After unarchiving and a quick edit of a batch file to set the amount of RAM available, Phat Linux's hardware detection is done during the Linux loading process (and manually afterwards as needed). In the case of WinLinux, a setup program creates a set of directories and then unarchives a number of files into those directories. Thereafter, a Windows utility is run which queries the computer's system settings and then passes those values to WinLinux during loading. In short, WinLinux uses a Windows utility to detect the system configuration, while Phat Linux relies purely on Linux detection routines.

Another difference is that Phat Linux can be installed and run purely from DOS. WinLinux can't. It needs Windows 9x so that its configuration utility can be run. After that however, it too may be run from DOS.

Installation and Configuration

On my test Windows machine, WinLinux's Windows-based configuration utility (figure 1) perfectly detected a Diamond Stealth II PCI video card displaying at 800x600 and 64K colors, a Soundblaster AWE64 ISA sound card, a PS/2 mouse, an SMC EtherElite ISA network card, and all of the mass storage devices. Of course, this a trivial task under Windows. After loading, WinLinux was able to use all of hardware it found except for the network card which somehow got lost.

WinLinux was also able to set up X-Windows to operate at the detected 800x600/64K setting, as a run-through of the KDE GUI proved. I sometimes like to run KDE at 1024x768 and therefore, I tried to run Xconfigurator and XF86Setup in order to change the video settings. Oops, neither program was available. I suppose I could have installed these programs from downloaded RPM's or from a RedHat Linux CD, but instead, I managed to obtain the higher resolution by running WinLinux's Configuration Utility and "forcing" different settings from those detected under Windows.

While this worked for me, I should emphasize that my test machine has both a video card and a monitor which I know to be Linux compatible. Users with AGP video cards or monitors unknown to Linux aren't going to be so lucky, even with the Windows Configuration Utility paving the way. In such cases, neither they nor WinLinux will be able to setup X-Windows without a lot of manual adjustments if you desire anything better than generic VGA. This is due to the limitations of the XFree86 X-Windows server that comes with most Linux distributions and is not unique to WinLinux.

Thanks to WinLinux though, I was actually able to hear sound emanate from a Linux machine for the very first time, something I had failed to do with other Linuxes (my fault really). This time "X11Amp" (a Winamp clone) and a few of my favourite Acoustic Alchemy MP3's kept me company while I explored the rest of WinLinux. But not without some problems: the initial sound level was extremely loud and when turned down to a listenable level, an audible hiss could be heard in the background. I couldn't get X11Amp's equalizer to work and therefore wasn't able to compensate for this. Some further tweaking is clearly needed here.

Unexplainably though, WinLinux's CD Player ("kscd") failed to produce any sound (except for the hiss), least of all music. When a music CD was inserted into the CD-ROM drive, the CD Player DID detect the CD, the number of tracks, the duration of each song, but no music was heard.

All of the mass storage devices (floppy, hard, CD drives) were detected and worked fine. The DOS/Windows file system was accessible through a Linux directory called "DOS", and therefore the entire hard disk was seen and usable by Linux. With the CD-ROM drive working, I decided to install my preferred Unix text editor "joe" (a WordStar clone). Nope. KDE's package manager ("kpackage") complained about some missing or out-of-date library files when I tried to install joe from a RedHat 5.2 CD. Apparently, the installation process is somewhat stunted.

GUI vs Text Login

Like Caldera OpenLinux v2.2 and up, WinLinux sets you up with a KDE GUI login. What this means is that after loading Linux, it automatically goes into X-Windows mode and presents you with a graphical login screen. While this is standard fare for Windows users (especially those allergic to DOS), the normal Linux modus operandi is to provide a text login and allow you to choose whether to use a text or graphical login AFTER you've finished configuring X-Windows. Since you never had the chance or need to configure X-Windows, this option never came up and WinLinux made the choice for you automatically.

Myself, I prefer to login in text mode and then to execute "startx" whenever I want to use X. Thus, it was necessary for me to change how WinLinux starts up. Fortunately, I've done this before with Caldera OpenLinux. What you do is to edit the file /etc/inittab and change the line containing the string id:5:initdefault to read id:3:initdefault. Fortunately, KDE comes with a simple text editor ("kedit") and you can use that to make the change. Or if you're feeling brave, you can do it using the vi editor from a console window.

While this got me a text login (a brutally bare one though, without a text welcome/stats/info screen that most Linux distributions use these days), running "startx" didn't start up KDE for me. Only the default window manager started after which I had to type "kde" into a console window. Fortunately, there's an easy way to automate this: simply create a file called .xinitrc in your home directory which contains startkde in line 1. Again, you can use any text editor to do this or you can even do a "cat > .xinitrc" from the command prompt.

Rough Spots

The biggest problem I ran into when trying WinLinux was that it refused to run on my everyday computer. It installs fine, but crashes halfway through the loading process and forces a cold reboot. The problem may be due to the interface cards I have installed (a computer with a similar mainboard ran WinLinux fine). Still, the result was very surprising to me as I've never seen a computer refuse to load and run Linux. Also, I know this to be a Linux compatible computer as it has run several other Linux distributions before this. Anyway, I had to use another computer as my test/review machine.

Another problem is that I can't figure out how to configure the network settings. As mentioned, the network card was detected by Windows but was ignored by Linux. Conceivably, this could be one of the unfinished todo's in the beta version, and in fact WinLinux suggests submitting problem reports like this so that support can be provided. Normally though, one can configure this after installation, but neither "netcfg" nor "linuxconf" were available - either installed or on a supplementary CD. Indeed, the inability to add new programs was very frustrating to me. Presumably, this could be resolved by installing or updating some system files, but this is hardly an exercise for most Windows users, the main target audience for WinLinux.

Finally, WinLinux's support for FAT32 is still in "alpha". I didn't see this message until recently and it may be the root cause of certain problems I've experienced.

Internet Untested

Because WinLinux wouldn't run on my regular computer, the only one with a modem installed at my home, I couldn't test or configure its Internet components. However, as these are standard to Linux and KDE (i.e. not WinLinux specific), I'm fairly confident that these should work as long as you have a Linux compatible modem (i.e. NOT a Winmodem). You need to configure the modem and setup accounts for the "kppp" dialer to dial out, and can use either the browser and mail client that come with KDE (i.e. "kfm" and "kmail") or Netscape Communicator (i.e. Navigator and Messenger). Although not much more difficult than setting up Dial-Up Networking, an email client and a browser under Windows, the fact that this has to be done manually can be fairly challenging for most Windows users.

Actually, my regular computer has a Windows-based proxy server, so if I could have configured the network settings on the test machine, I could have tested the internet apps by going through the proxy server via my local area network. As mentioned though, the network configuration wasn't to be.

Final Notes

WinLinux is of course free, as are all Linuxes. It provides a fairly painless way for Windows users to try out Linux without making any changes to their Windows setup (WinLinux simply appears as another application). And as long as one stays within the confines of the pre-installed programs and possess Linux compatible hardware (this can't be taken for granted by the way), it's useable at a basic level. Unfortunately, if one wishes to stray beyond these "givens", some pretty challenging Linux tweaking may be required. In such instances, it's probably better to use the "real thing".

Myself, I have yet to decide whether to keep Phat Linux or WinLinux on my Windows machine. Or whether I should just use a regular Linux distribution and create a separate Linux partition. Actually, this is less of a problem now because tools exist that allow Windows to read native Linux ext2 partitions (check out Freshmeat.net at https://www.freshmeat.net and Dave Central at https://www.davecentral.com). So not only can Linux read DOS/Windows, but DOS/Windows can also read Linux.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman