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|By Walter Metcalf © October 2004|
After many months of anticipation, eComStation 1.2 is finally here! This article covers the new
features, spotlights the many differences, and points out a few areas where there is still room for
Please note that this article cannot really be considered a final review--hence the title. Even as I write this,
the development team continues to work on a professional PDF manual, several last-minute changes, bug-fixes, and even
a few major features. I'll talk more about that later.
The Installer setup program
This appears pretty much unchanged from 1.1. There are a couple of significant new features, however. Both relate to hardware detection.
An easy-to-use sound card detection wizard has been added. In most cases, you'll find that your sound card chipset is accurately detected--even if it is built into your motherboard. However you should check the results, and change them if necessary.
Networking hardware detection and configuration have been considerably expanded. For the majority of eCS-compatible network cards (NIC's), you should simply accept the values chosen by the installer.
Note:There is one significant exception, however. Certain companies have been unwilling to give Serenity Systems permission to include the drivers for their NIC's on the eCS CD. Linksys (now part of Cisco) is one such company. In such cases, the installer obviously cannot find a driver, and you must insert the CD or floppy provided with the NIC into the drive, and load the driver from there.
New Multimedia Screen
The development team has been working very hard to improve the original multimedia package. In many cases, the original code was rewritten or thrown out completely. This new screen is the first evidence of that fact. The new software covers many of the new chipsets. Moreover, if your chipset--like that of my Thinkpad 390E--isn't listed on that page, just select the UniAud driver. This driver, somewhat like the SciTech video driver, detects your chipset, and loads the right software for that chipset.
The Minstall utility has been completely rewritten.
Multimedia classes are now allocated to private, rather than public, memory. This means that a problem in Multimedia shouldn't hang either your Desktop or the system.
Works in Progress
There are several exciting changes to the new system that the development team is still working on. If you purchase eComStation 1.2 now, you are eligible for a free update at no charge.
GUI interface to Minstall, making installation of multimedia even easier.
A feature that permits simple replacement of your sound card without reinstalling or resorting to Selective Install.
A feature that allows replacing the NIC with a different one, without having to reinstall or use MPTS.
This should resolve a longstanding thorn in the side of serious users. When attempting to change NIC's it has often been easier to reinstall than to use any of the tools provided with OS/2. This new feature replaces Multi-Protocol Transport Services (MPTS) which contains several bugs and is difficult to use.
A professional PDF manual.
Several new applications have been included with eCS 1.2. Some of these are "lite" versions; others are the full application:
Innotek runtime C library
Acrobat 4 Reader
RSJ CD Writer software. This is the full version except that the maximum recording speed is restricted.
Escape GL animated screen saver
VNC (Virtual Networking Software) is simple remote control software that allows viewing and interacting with a remote computer
Mozilla 1.7 (along with ubiquitous Netscape 4.61, of course)
IBM Web Browser 2.0.3, the latest version as of this writing
Although Mozilla seems to be preferred by most eCS-OS/2 users, in my experience the IBM Browser is more stable over a wider number of web sites than Mozilla. It also has an enhanced spell checker. So give it a try: you may like it! (Note however that you cannot have the IBM Browser and Mozilla both in your system; at least not without a tricky workaround. See Steve Wendt's document on Warpzilla for more details.)
Desktop-on-Call, both versions 3 and 4
There are also some trial versions of software packages available on the second CD. These include:
eCoSoft, a combination of PM downloader and Cool FM
Maul, the desktop publishing software package
The famous Graham Utilities, a powerful set of disk utilities
There are many others as well, far too many to list here.
eComstation 1.2 is available in larger number of packages than ever before, so that users can customize their purchase and not spend money on features they don't want or will never use.
The standard package is no stripped-down package. It consists of two CD's, which contain the entire eCS 1.2 operating system, and many applications such as Mozilla and IBM Web Browser. In addition, it includes "lite" or preview software applications, such as RSJ CD Writer and the Graham set of disk tools. It also provides access to the Internet and LAN's using almost every conceivable technology such as dial-up, broadband cable, xDSL, PPPoE, and ISDN. It also includes enhanced hardware detection and a completely revamped Multimedia subsystem.
This consists of Lotus SmartSuite for OS/2 Warp version 1.7.2, Open Office.org, and Serenity Virtual Station, Serenity System's replacement for the now defunct Connectix' Virtual PC for OS/2. This package is now available to all customers, not just users of eComStation customers.
eComStation 1.2 Academic
This new package consists of eComStation 1.2 and OpenOffice.org.
eComStation 1.2 Multiprocessor
This is a version of eComStation 1.2 specifically written to work with systems having more than one processor. It even runs applications not specifically designated "SMP enabled."
This replaces the old "Upgrade Protection" plan.
For more details on the above packages please visit the Mensys web site.
All right, now that we've gone over the information about installation and contents, it's time to tell you what I think of the product.
What hardware do I have?
I have two IBM notebooks, both of which IBM claims support OS/2. On my older one, a Thinkpad 390E, I never got any form of networking (LAN or Internet) to work on a large majority of the NICs I tried, except for one. I have two friends with the same or similar notebooks, and they experience the same thing. Most of the NICs I experimented with were of the Cardbus (32-bit) variety. I didn't get ANY of them to work!
This was made all the more frustrating by the fact I that downloaded the latest drivers and Cardbus software from the eComStation support site where the documentation says specifically that the software had been tested on the TI1225 chipset, the same chipset I confirmed that is used on the Thinkpad 390E. Moreover, two of the NICs I tested used the Realtek 8139x chipset. I apparently had all the right hardware -- so why didn't it work? It was all very frustrating indeed!
The only NIC that I ever got to work was the 16-bit Linksys PCMPC100. To get even that one working, I had to back-level the Cardbus software on the CD to the original PC Card Director software which I had to download from the IBM PC support site. By the way, all of the NICs I tried were said to support OS/2 or eCS.
I recently purchased a used Thinkpad T23 with a built-in Intel PRO/100 LAN chipset connected directly to the PCI bus. This one installed without a single hitch, and was accessing the Internet as soon as the automated eCS installer was complete!
This illustrates the important point that eCS 1.2 works great on some machines and very poorly or not at all on others. Before upgrading to eCS 1.2, or to any other mission-critical software package, you should do everything possible to make sure it is compatible with your hardware.
One very weak spot in eCS is the PCMCIA-Cardbus support for notebooks. Even if a NIC or machine is supposed to support eCS, it may still not work, and nobody on the eCS project seems to know exactly why. Consequently, if you are going to buy a new machine, you should try to get one that has a built-in PCI LAN (OS/2 compatible) chipset. This way you bypass that problem area.
I believe this problem (and possibly others) could have been avoided by Serenity Systems if they had taken the time for beta testing and debugging more seriously, even if it meant delaying the announcement of the product if necessary.
I am very impressed by the multimedia rewrite, especially the automatic detection scheme. See below for a screenshot:
Click on image for an enlarged view.
For all four of my systems I found that it detected the correct sound chipset, except that it sometimes on my 5+ year old Thinkpad. What's really nice is that if this should happen, it just takes a single click to correct the error.
Occasionally if the UniAud driver was chosen, the driver would misbehave. In my case I had to turn off System Sound Generation in the Multimedia. (The only machine on which I had this problem was the old Thinkpad 390E.) Of course, this is not the fault of Serenity Systems or the development team. UniAud is continually being improved so any reported problems should eventually be corrected.
The Multimedia class structure has been revised to use private memory so that a multimedia hang or crash should not hang the desktop or the system. I could not test this.
Other changes to the Multimedia subsystem include:
New JPEG codec to handle progressive JPEG's (used very often with digital cameras' progressive JPEG)
MJPEG video codec integrated
Open MPEG by IBM integrated
Quickmotion + Anpo AVI codecs
Base IBM video playback integrated (Ultimotion and old Indeo video playback)
OGG Vorbis and FLAG MMIO codec integrated
New CD player with FreeDB support (features CD titles)
New "truckload" of audio drivers
The few times I am forced to install MS Windows (any version!), I am astounded that Microsoft provides no help (or none that I can remember) throughout the entire installation!
By the same token, therefore, I have always been pleased at the amount of help provided with OS/2 both during the installation process and during system operation.
I have been very pleased, therefore, that Serenity Systems and its developers have continued this tradition, and included a ton of help, much of it so context-sensitive that no action, not even a single mouse click, is required to view it. This is one of several things that make eComStation by far the easiest operating system to install I have ever used.
Minor nitpicks and complaints
Lite RSJ CD Writer
If you choose this option from the Select Components window (see below)
Click on image for an enlarged view.
and already have a SCSI adapter in your system, the Installer may get confused and fail to install the SCSI driver for the RSJ CD Writer. It appears to leave the critical BASEDEV=OS2SCSI.DMD driver statement out of the CONFIG.SYS file.
IBM Web Browser
Since the IBM Web Browser is now part of the standard eCS package, why isn't it included as an option on the Select Components screen (see above) along with the other browsers? Doing so would make it easier to select the browser of their choice. This arrangement would also make it possible to include an interlock that would prevent users from mistakenly installing both Mozilla and the IBM Web Browser into their system. See the "New Applications" section, subsection B.1., above.
CDROM/DVD Installation Drive
If two CD/DVD readers or writers are on the secondary IDE channel, the eCS Installation CD is not seen by the installer if it is the SLAVE drive. You must insert the Installation CD on the MASTER drive. (This bug is a hold-over from eCS 1.1.) It should be a simple matter to have the installer check both drives.
This attempt at replacing WarpCenter is simply not ready to do the job. Here are only a few of its problems.
Regardless of the settings chosen, some OS/2 windows and utilities persist in appearing under (i.e., hidden by) the eCenter. This means that if, like me, you want the eCenter or WarpCenter at the top, the title bar of the window or utility is unavailable.
You can change the width of eCenter using simple drag and drop. While this sounds good (although in my opinion fairly useless), it can also be a huge pain. For example if you want to resize or move the ePager or a maximized window, it is easy to accidently drag the eCenter instead, and not affect the window you wanted to change.¹ This means you have an ugly eCenter and a large part of the window you want to see is covered.
Some important features of the WarpCenter, such as the Task List icon are left out. Sure it's possible to add the Task List feature if you know how, but why not make it standard?
Until these and other problems are dealt with, I continue to use the WarpCenter.
In case you don't know, MiniLVM is the program you now see during installation which is a simplified version of LVM, IBM's replacement for FDisk. In that role it is a very nice application and fulfills an important role -- new users who just want to get their systems running shouldn't have to face LVM which can be very intimidating, and can even lead to serious problems.
However, there seems to be a movement within the eCS development team to try to replace LVM with MiniLVM for all purposes. This can be seen in that LVM has moved from its former place of prominence in the System Setup and buried in Programs | Utilities. It can also be seen in the renaming of MiniLVM to a name that better describes LVM.
Replacing LVM and its Java counterpart LVMGUI with MiniLVM is a mistake. In the hands of experienced users LVM and LVMGUI are powerful tools that can do far more than MiniLVM was ever intended to do. Moreover, since eCS 1.1, IBM has upgraded LVMGUI to use Java 1.3 and has rewritten large sections of the Java code itself. To test the new version, I have used it intensively. Based on my experience so far, these improvements seem to have corrected some of the problems LVMGUI had in earlier versions of eCS.
One final note: in eCS 1.2 the installer has been changed to sort the CONFIG.SYS file according to driver type (DEVICE, BASEDEV, RUN, etc.) just before it terminates. If you prefer the previous format, which left the CONFIG.SYS sorted more or less according to feature and component, it has been saved in the ECS sub-directory of the system drive with the filename CONFIG.CFS. If you do want to use this file, remember to copy it into your installation drive's root directory before you add any features or applications to your computer!
When the professional manual and promised additions that allow replacing the network card and sound card without reinstalling the system are delivered, eCS 1.2 will be a significant advance over any previous version of either OS/2 or eComStation, with enough extra software that there is something for everyone. Although the weak BusCard and PCMCIA support for notebooks continues to be a worry, eComStation 1.2 is still, in my opinion, the best Operating System in the world! Now we just need to get more independent developers writing applications for it.
One final personal note: during the past few weeks, I have had occasion to install both the Warp 4 and eCS 1.0 systems. I found them to be absolute nightmares compared to what I have become used to with eComStation versions 1.1 and 1.2! We should all be thankful for the developers of eComStation, who are working so hard to make eComStation 1.2 the superior operating system that is.
¹ The borders of the eCenter and the window are, after all, only a pixel or two apart. If you are using a resolution of 1280 x 1024, this distance is pretty much invisible.
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