How to Use ReactOS, the Open-Source Windows Clone

Aaron Peters 24-01-2018

If you wish Windows was open source, you should look into ReactOS!


Microsoft has made many strides towards being more open. This trend ranges from participation in industry groups to interoperability of its files and applications. Heck, it’s even released many of its own tools and applications as open source.

But one area where it’s yet to budge is the Windows operating system (OS). As the combination of Windows and Office provide a large portion of Microsoft’s yearly revenue, it may be a while until we can download the OS code for ourselves. As a result, some intrepid community members have taken it upon themselves to try to build their own Windows from the ground up.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what ReactOS is, how to install it, and how it handles some existing Windows applications.

What Is ReactOS, Anyway?

ReactOS is an attempt to build an open-source operating system that mimics Windows. This doesn’t just mean looking like Windows How to Make Windows 10 Look Like Windows 7 or XP Here's how to make Windows 10 look like Windows 7, Windows XP, or Windows 8 so you can restore a classic look and feel. Read More , although it does (well, older versions in any case). But it goes deeper than that.

The main goal of the project is to build an operating system that will run any Windows application How to Use Vineyard to Run Windows Apps on Linux Vineyard makes it easy to install and run Windows apps on Linux with Wine. Find out how to use it and get your favorite Windows software running in minutes! Read More you throw at it.


reactos review desktop

This is an immense undertaking. At a very high level, an operating system is made up of the following components:

  • A kernel, which translates between software and hardware.
  • Basic software libraries that provide common functions like writing a file to disk.
  • Services that run in the background. The Print Spooler is an example of this, as it waits for other programs to send something to the printer and manages that exchange.
  • Applications that use these components. This includes not only user-facing apps like Word or Chrome, but also system applications. For example, explorer.exe is a program that not only browses files (user-facing), but also provides the desktop, Taskbar, and Start Menu.

The job before the ReactOS project is to provide a set of libraries, services, and (system) applications that are compatible with the ones Microsoft has One Size Doesn't Fit All: Why Software Isn't Universally Compatible Software is the same on any operating system, right? Wrong. It might look the same, and function similarly, but it is different behind the scenes. Read More . In addition, these software components will normally make system calls directly to the kernel on behalf of user-facing programs. So ReactOS also needs to intercept these, process them, and reply, all while the app is none the wiser.

Hopefully, you have an idea of the scope of what the ReactOS developers are trying to do. And that’s why, based on the current state of the project, there are some things that work and some that don’t. In the below sections we’ll walk through the installation process in a virtual machine What Is a Virtual Machine? Everything You Need to Know Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems on your current computer. Here's what you should know about them. Read More . Then we’ll install three applications to see how they perform: one basic, one intermediate, and one complex.


How to Install ReactOS

The installation of ReactOS is very (very) similar to Windows. If you’ve ever installed Windows from scratch, such as on a PC you built yourself, you’ll be right at home. The initial stages are in “screen of death” blue, while the finishing touches use familiar-looking (if dated) dialogs.

If you’d like to follow along, start off by installing VirtualBox for your OS. Then create a virtual machine with the settings as shown in the below picture. Most of these are default settings, with the exception of the RAM (1GB) and hard disk space (10GB), which although low should be plenty for this lean system. If all this sounds like gibberish to you, take a look at our guide to VirtualBox How to Use VirtualBox: User's Guide With VirtualBox you can easily install and test multiple operating systems. We'll show you how to set up Windows 10 and Ubuntu Linux as a virtual machine. Read More to see what it’s all about.

reactos review virtualbox settings

Step 1: Installer Language

The first screen will ask you to select the language to use during the install process. Here you can see the lovely blue screens common to Windows installations. On this and the screens to follow, you can navigate with the arrow keys, use Enter to make a selection, and perform other actions with keys listed in the bottom bar.


reactos review install1 language

Steps 2-3: Welcome and Warning

Here’s a nice message welcoming you to ReactOS, as well as a note that it’s still under development.

reactos review install2 welcome

Steps 4-5: Devices and Storage

You’re safe to accept the default values for the devices, they’re all standard components that VirtualBox emulates.


reactos review install3 devices

On the next screen, the virtual disk you created for your VM should appear. You can tell if the size of the “C: drive” matches what you’d told VirtualBox to allocate for this VM. Unless you need a fancy partition scheme, you can just hit Enter here.

reactos review install4 disk

Step 6: Confirmation

On this final screen, select the middle option. It will completely format your disk, which you’ll want whether the VM is brand-spanking new, or you’re recycling an old virtual disk file.

Hit Enter on the next screen again to confirm.

reactos review install5 format

Step 7: Formatting

Depending on the size of your virtual disk, the formatting process may take some time.

reactos review install6 formatting

Step 8: Install OS

Next, the installer will copy the OS files to your virtual disk.

reactos review install8 installing

Step 9: Install Bootloader

Lastly, the installer will set up the VM’s bootloader to run ReactOS when you start it. Choose the first option here, which will install it to both the virtual disk as a whole as well as the C: partition specifically. A final screen will inform you that you’ll reboot your machine. Say goodbye to that awesome electric blue.

reactos review install9 bootldr

How to Set Up ReactOS

You should now boot into the ReactOS itself. If you’re a user of a certain age, the styling you see should look familiar. Now a wizard will appear to help you set up some aspects of the system:

reactos review setupwizard3 language

  1. A welcome screen.
  2. Acknowledgements, particularly to the open source project that ReactOS contains.
  3. Language Settings, including for the system (date/time, currency, and other formats) and for the keyboard (e.g. U.S. layout), shown in the above image.
  4. An option to add your name, and your company’s name.
  5. A name for your machine, and the password for the administrator account Windows Administrator Account: Everything You Need to Know Starting with Windows Vista, the built-in Windows Administrator account is disabled by default. You can enable it, but do so at your own risk! We show you how. Read More .
  6. Setting the date, time, and time zone.
  7. Selecting a theme. ReactOS contains two out of the box: Lautus, a dark theme, and Classic (which looks just like you’d expect), shown in the below image.
  8. Network settings.
  9. Indicating whether the ReactOS machine will be part of an (ad-hoc) workgroup or a company domain Home Network Tip: How to Share Files & Folders Between Windows User Accounts Sometimes computer can be physically very close together, but seem miles apart when you try transfer a file. Use this guide to help you fling files from PC to PC with the greatest of ease. Read More .
  10. A final progress screen while the OS works in the background.

reactos review setupwizard7 theme

Once all this is complete, your desktop will be ready for use. If you’re a regular Windows user, everything here should be very familiar. The “Start” menu, taskbar, system tray, and desktop icons all look exactly like Redmond’s OS. It all looks the same, but how well does it work?

Installing Windows Programs in ReactOS

We’ll be selecting three applications for use in this experiment, as follows:

Note: While the initial instructions listed 1GB of RAM to the ReactOS virtual machine, based on the selection of Chrome, I upped this to 2GB before doing the installations.

The following sections will detail how successful (or not) the install and execution of these programs were.

Installing and Running PSPad

After downloading an installer from the project’s website, a simple double-click kicked things off.

reactos review pspad install

The install completed without issue, and the installer launched the application. Some rudimentary testing (entering text and saving the file) went off without a hitch. One glitch I did notice was that the Minimize button on the title bar didn’t work. Maximize did work, toggling it back and forth between the size shown in the below image and full-size. But Minimize didn’t, while it did work on other windows such as the file manager.

reactos review pspad running

Overall it appears at first blush to be largely functional. So as our representative of a “basic” application, PSPad passes the test.

Note: ReactOS has an Application Manager, which more resembles the various package managers of the open source world than Windows’ “Programs and Features.” This is a sort of software repository from which users can select and install applications for ReactOS, much like the Windows Store. A pleasant surprise was that PSPad showed up as installed in this tool, even though we installed it manually. What’s more, the Application Manager has a (slightly older) version of PSPad for installation. It also installed correctly and even picked up the session I’d opened in the newer version.

Installing and Running QMMP

QMMP is also available for download from its website; just scroll down to the bottom of the Downloads page and look for the link for “Binary packages for Windows.” Pick up the installer for the most recent version, and double-click to run.

reactos review qmmp install

Things went downhill though once the application started up. It allowed me to start the application and add a song to the playlist, but it wouldn’t play. At this point, I noticed that the sound driver wasn’t set up properly for the VM, but even after doing so and confirming it, the app wouldn’t play an MP3 file. In fact, ReactOS began freezing when I tried to uninstall QMMP to re-install it. A fresh install of ReactOS, where I made sure to install the audio driver first, didn’t even solve the issue.

For this “moderate” application, we can evaluate it as not passing. Although it did install and start up, it didn’t actually perform its core function.

reactos review qmmp running

Note: Like PSPad, QMMP is also available from the ReactOS Application Manager. Installing this (again, older) version did work, as shown in the above image.

Installing and Running Chrome

Now for the coup de grace: the Chrome web browser. If you can get this installed and running on your machine, you suddenly have a wide variety of tools at your disposal. This ranges from desktop email to audio players (check out our guide to Spotify) to productivity tools (Google Docs or Office Online). But its ability to run all this great web-based software means it’s a complex beast under the hood. Can ReactOS handle it?

reactos review chrome install

Unfortunately, no. At least running the standard ChromeSetup.exe file was unsuccessful. The installer wasn’t even able to connect to the internet to download the browser itself, which doesn’t bode well for Chrome’s ability to surf the web on ReactOS.

Note: Although Chrome isn’t an option, at least not without applying some elbow grease to get it installed, Firefox is! It’s available from the Application Manager and runs well. Though the version was a bit older (v.45.0.1), it didn’t have any trouble opening the draft of this article in Google Docs after I’d logged into Gmail, as shown in the below image.

reactos review firefox googledoc

Should You Use ReactOS?

It depends. If you’re already a Windows user? No, not for any reason, unless it’s just curiosity. If you’re a Mac or Linux user? It might be useful to run the odd Windows application you need by running it in VirtualBox. Basically, if you’re in a situation where Wine won’t run something you want, and you don’t want to pony up for a Windows license. Just keep in mind its in-progress state and don’t make any big bets (e.g. don’t rely on it for any mission-critical programs without extensive testing).

That said, if you have some older hardware that doesn’t have an OS, and you need one, ReactOS might be a viable option. You should plan on sticking to what’s available from the Application Manager, which is not as bad as it sounds. While some of the manually-installed apps didn’t work out, ReactOS went “three for three” with Application Center installs.

In addition to the above utilities and Firefox, there are some heavy-hitting applications available. Like LibreOffice. GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus for graphics/publishing. GnuCash for finances. VLC for video. There’s even a demo version of Diablo II. Not too shabby for a group of community developers taking on Microsoft.

reactos review application manager

All told, you’d probably be better off with a Linux distribution in terms of software updates and general capability. But if you’ve got an older machine and a user that just can’t grok another operating system? In that case, even in its current alpha state, ReactOS is definitely worth a look.

Do you think ReactOS a worthwhile endeavor? Wouldn’t a completely free and open-source Windows-compatible OS be awesome? Let us know in below in the comments if you have any opinions!

Related topics: Install Software, Open Source.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Blaze
    September 5, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    I would love to make this a feasible option to move my office off Windows... right now my biggest hurdle is trying to get samba to work so I can map network drives... This seems to work best as a virtual machine.

  2. Ron MVP
    February 8, 2018 at 4:59 am

    For me, the big question is will it run Office, especially unsupported versions like 2007 or 2003.

    Running those older versions in a VM in ReactOS would be a great help.

    Do you know if anyone has tried to install and run any version of Office in React.

    • Carney3
      April 8, 2018 at 1:54 am

      Looks like 2003 works not perfectly, but actually pretty OK.

      Is it all that vital, though, when LibreOffice works already?

  3. Dale
    February 6, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    My biggest question (after will it run the program I want) is how does the security compare to actual Windows products; is it more resistant to malware or is it compatible enough to suffer from the same attacks?

  4. halfey
    January 30, 2018 at 12:54 am

    Hey! I don't mind with the 'classic' Windows look as long as it is able to run any Windows software and games. Unfortunately the development of ReactOS is too slow, it's almost comparable to GNU/Hurd. To a certain degree, I agree that ReactOS devs should have designed its own UI instead of mimicking the classic look but I think their priority is to make the core work before moving to the eye candy elements.

    • Aaron Peters
      January 31, 2018 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, agree on rate of progress. It's understandable though, volunteers working to reproduce and entire OS in their spare time. I think we all wish it would go faster.

      I'm not too bothered about the UI... in fact, I'd just as soon they made the UI optional! Some sort of runtime to launch Windows programs in Linux, not unlike what Shashlik or Genymotion provide for Android, would be great.

    • dragonmouth
      February 6, 2018 at 7:06 pm

      "ReactOS devs should have designed its own UI instead of mimicking the classic look"
      Linux and BSD devs designed many UIs that are different from the "classic look" but all you hear is "Linux sucks! It does not look or feel like Windows. Boo hoo hoo"

  5. dragonmouth
    January 25, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    ReactOS is in a perpetual state of alpha or beta. They have not come out with even one final release. ReactOS is falling further and further behind Windows in features and look and feel. I gave up Windows more than 10 years ago. Even if I suddenly developed the urge to go back, why would I want to go back to something that looks and works like W2K or XP?!

    • Aaron Peters
      January 31, 2018 at 2:53 pm

      That's a fair statement, although I'd agree with Halfey above that I'm not too bothered by the look... Win XP is still the best Windows IMO, and they do have a theme that would give that look to ReactOS. It's all about compatbility, and I'd still be in if they could deliver it on such a *lightweight* base.

    • Carney3
      April 8, 2018 at 4:57 am

      They moved slow for a few years, and then went stagnant for a long time, (for example the 18 months after 0.3.17 in Nov 2014, but since 0.4.0 in Feb 2016, they've sped up and kept to a regular schedule of a new release every 3 months

      0.5 is coming this year, which will finally move ReactOS from alpha to beta working state, where it will be essentially feature complete and the focus shifts to bug hunting and polishing.

  6. Gazoo
    January 24, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    The main goal of the project is to build an operating system that will run any Windows application you throw at it.

    And yet... they make it a point to duplicate all the annoyances too. Like small little configuration windows that don't expand, clumsy administration section, networking configs that are out of 1993, a rudimentary taskbar, no built-in search/filter within start menu...

    I like what they're trying to achieve but they should find a way of being inspired by something like Cinnamon (Mint/Linux) as a front-end base. By the time they hit 1.0, it's going to feel like running win3.x. Quite frankly, it already feels that way (I've run it on bare metal a couple of times).

    I don't ever intend to return to Microsoft's spyware OS but ReactOS is a different beast altogether. I especially like the shared work between the different groups bringing Windows Application compatibility to various OSes (especially how this effects WINE).

    • Aaron Peters
      January 31, 2018 at 2:50 pm

      I agree... to be honest all the graphical stuff could go in my opinion. But you're right, their contributions to WINE may help to create that stable, capable Windows runtime we've all been waiting for.

  7. NoFruitNoFlavor
    January 24, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    Did you try the Chrome enterprise .msi installer? I don't believe it goes out to the internet to download the rest of the installer.

    • Aaron Peters
      January 31, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      Hmm, I didn't, I'll give it a go when I have a few moments. It did seem to just be about the network connection, and since I think the Application Manager has Chromium as an option it seems like it should run...

      Thanks for the tip!