If you just can’t ditch that vital piece of software that only runs on XP, you finally have a secure alternative: ReactOS. Clive Webster shows you how to use this open-source XP clone
If you have a favourite bit of software that only works on Windows XP, help is at hand. Clive Webster reveals the secure XP alternative
MANY PEOPLE STILL view Windows XP as Microsoft’s crowning glory, the pinnacle of PC operating systems, the perfect balance between simplicity, reliability and flexibility. Some people just need to use XP because a vital or favourite piece of software was never updated to run on anything else, and even the Compatibility Modes of later Windows versions couldn’t help. Whichever camp you’re in, there is one significant flaw: Windows XP no longer receives security updates. XP is therefore a sitting duck for hackers, leading to many XP users running their PCs in total isolation – no internet, no USB drives, no chance of ingress for any malicious software. Obviously that’s a pain, so here’s an alternative: ReactOS.
At the time of writing, the latest stable release of ReactOS is 0.4.7, which tells you something quite important about its current state: this is alpha software. As such, the list of compatible hardware is limited, the installation options are fairly specific and some features may not work. Even worse, we found that version 0.4.7 doesn’t have the required SSL certificate to allow it to access its own ‘Applications Manager’ app store.
We instead used one of the ‘nightly builds’, a release that is a bit further down the development road and has a functional Applications Manager, but which may not be as stable or reliable. You can download the stable release from www.reactos.com/
download if you prefer to install your software manually; alternatively, download the latest build from www.reactos.com/getbuilds –we used the msvc-win version of ReactOS 0.4.9-dev-50 for this guide (the gcc-lin version is for use on Linux PCs). The file downloads as a 7z compressed file, so use WinRAR (www.rarlab.com) or 7-Zip (www.7-zip.
org) to uncompress the ISO file. Borrowing from Linux habits, there is a Live CD version of ReactOS which runs the OS from a CD, allowing you to test the look and feel of ReactOS without risking your data. The Boot CD, meanwhile, will wipe your hard disk to install ReactOS. However, running any OS from a CD makes it rather sluggish. Currently the Live CD version doesn’t have the ability to actually install ReactOS, so we would instead suggest installing the Boot CD version on a virtual machine rather than using the Live CD.
We’ll first take you through creating a virtual machine to test ReactOS, then discuss how to install ReactOS for real on an actual computer. A virtual machine is essentially a fake computer run entirely in software on your main PC, borrowing some of that ‘host’ PC’s hardware. We’ve detailed how to use VirtualBox in previous issues, but there are a few odd settings when creating your virtual machine. Download and install VirtualBox from
www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads and click New to start creating your virtual machine. Give the machine a name (ReactOS, for example) and select Windows XP (32-bit) from the Version drop-down menu. Click Next and set the memory size to 2,048MB (2GB); if your main PC has 4GB of RAM or less, only lend 1,024MB of memory to the virtual machine. Click Next and then Create (to make a fake hard disk), leave the setting as VDI and click Next again, leave the setting as Dynamically allocated and click Next, then give the virtual machine something like 60GB of disk space before clicking Create.
The newly created virtual machine should appear in the left-hand pane of the main VirtualBox screen; right-click on it and select Settings. Open the Network settings from the left-hand pane and click Advanced, then set Adapter Type to PCnet-PCI II (Am79C970A) before clicking OK. If you hit compatibility problems, disabling the audio and USB might help. Click OK to close the Settings menu. On the main screen you’ll see a list of the new virtual machine’s ‘fake hardware’ - find the Storage section and right-click the IDE Secondary Master: [Optical Drive] Empty entry. Use the file browser to select the ReactOS Boot CD file you downloaded.
Double-click the virtual machine and it will boot, loading the Boot CD file and starting the ReactOS installation process. Use the
arrow keys to select the correct language, and then you can pretty much press Enter or click Next until ReactOS is installed.
Installing ReactOS on actual hardware isn’t much more difficult, as long as your PC is compatible. However, the list of compatible hardware is pretty short and almost exclusively contains hardware with release dates of between 1997 and 2005; see tinyurl.
com/364projects to check. You also have to burn the Boot CD ISO file to a CD or DVD. Whichever software you use to do this (and Windows 10 has the function built in), ensure that the disc is bootable. We had no success at all trying to create a bootable USB flash drive to install ReactOS from.
Insert the disc into your PC’s disk drive and turn on the PC, pressing Delete (or the alternative) to enter the BIOS. ReactOS will not install on (or from) drives that use the AHCI protocol, so ensure that the hard disk and optical drive are both set to IDE mode. Then change the boot order to check your optical drive first, and install ReactOS as detailed above.
We should note that we had no joy installing ReactOS on any of our old PCs, with hangs either during the install process or at first bootup; possibly having a PC that even offers the choice between AHCI and IDE mode will mean your PC is just too modern for ReactOS to accept. We instead used ReactOS on a virtual machine to explore its features and capabilities.
The first time ReactOS boots, it will probably ask you to install Wine Gecko (do so) and drivers for various bits of hardware. We found that the automatic installer rarely found anything useful, but that ReactOS ran perfectly well regardless.
Once you’ve installed ReactOS, you should be in a very familiar environment. There’s a teal-ish coloured desktop with familiar icons
⬆ A great way to test any new OS is to run it on a virtual machine using the free VirtualBox application
⬆ A journey back in time: ReactOS is pre-loaded with all those familiar Windows XP applications
⬅ Playing back videos is just as easy as it was on XP