ArcaOS 5.0: Initial Impressions of the Latest OS/2 Distribution

I’ve been a fan of OS/2 since the 1995 release of OS/2 Warp 3.0. I stuck with it as my main operating system for around five years, by which time the difficulties inherent in making the sparsely-updated OS run on modern hardware forced me towards Linux, MacOS, and other operating systems for daily computing tasks. But, I’ve always tried to keep an OS/2 system around, even if not as my primary machine. An IBM Aptiva machine running OS/2 Warp Connect 3.0 was my OS/2 system from 2000-2004, and too many others to mention filled its shoes from then on.

I learned about eComStation a rather long time after its 2001 release, but was impressed with it right away. Especially the many improvements to its installer. I bought new licenses for eCS every time a new version was released, but always had to dig up relatively old hardware to support its limited selection of drivers. Laptops were typically a no-go.

When ArcaOS 5.0 was released, I picked up a license right away. Arca Noae’s online shop is quite straightforward: I simply added the personal license to my shopping cart, checked out, and waited to receive an e-mail saying that my personalized ISO image was ready for download. This was delivered in a compact 7-zip format, which expanded to approximately 1.1GiB. Too large for a CD-R, so I burned the image to DVD-R media and proceeded to begin installing it on my Lenovo ThinkPad T530i (2.4GHz dual-core i3, 16GiB RAM, 1TiB SSHD storage, Intel HD3000 graphics).

My first impression of the updated installer revealed that the ridiculously long product keys of the eComStation days have mercifully been removed in exchange for the personalized ISO approach, which embeds the license holder’s name in the ACPI driver (and possibly elsewhere, though I haven’t looked). I noticed that even in the installer, ArcaOS was running my laptop in full 1080p resolution. The installer detected the T530i’s on-board Ethernet NIC, and automatically set it up for DHCP configuration. Sadly, the on-board Wi-Fi was neither detected nor supported.

When I got to the part of the installer where you select a destination volume for ArcaOS to format and install itself onto, it became clear that something was wrong, as my 1TB hybrid hard drive was being seen as 511GiB and with a corrupt partition table. It took two more false starts to correct this, and the solution was in changing the SATA controller mode BIOS setting from AHCI to compatibility mode, and disabling UEFI entirely.

Once the system was installed–a process which took about half an hour–ArcaOS booted up to the familiar Workplace Shell UI in glorious 1080p. I immediately set about doing my usual customizations to make it feel more like my beloved OS/2 Warp Connect. However, not everything was perfect:

  • The MS-DOS and Win-OS/2 subsystems seem to be completely broken, both in full-screen and windowed mode. The command prompts for the former only produce a blinking cursor, and the latter locks up the system entirely. I’ve had problems before attempting to run DOS and Windows 3.x apps under OS/2 and eCS when they are installed on a volume larger than 2GiB, but have never seen them freeze entirely under any IBM release of OS/2 or in any release of eComStation.
  • While the Panorama VESA video driver supports my Intel HD 3000 GPU in 1080p resolution, attempting to increase color depth from 64K colors to 16M colors results in a complete system lock-up, requiring me to power cycle the machine in order to recover.
  • If the eCS-era tools for switching between Panorama, SNAP, and other video drivers are present in ArcaOS, I cannot find them. At one point, I tried to add OS components using Selective Install, which ended up resetting my display drivers to vanilla VGA: 640×480 and 16 colors. The only way I could find to fix this was to reinstall the OS from scratch.
  • The UniAud driver shows up in hardware manager, as does my on-board sound, but there is no sound from the speakers, save for the occasional high-pitched chirp.
  • MultiMac does not yet support my Intel Centrino 2200 Wi-Fi adapter. I expected this, as Wi-Fi chipsets are notoriously proprietary. I have high hopes for the forthcoming FreeBSD driver ports.

The improvements in video card support and Ethernet support, as well as in the installer, make ArcaOS a compelling update for any OS/2 user. However, Arca Noae has some non-trivial work to do in order to bring the product up to the same level of polish as eComStation 2.1.