Innovation

Yes, Windows apps will run on the Raspberry Pi: But why would you bother?

Using ExaGear Desktop to run Windows apps on the Pi drives home how little need there is to do so.

Google 'How do I run Windows apps on the Raspberry Pi?' and you'll get page after page of results.

But despite the appetite for running Windows on the $35 computer, the bigger question for me is 'Why would you want to?'.

I've been experimenting with ExaGear Desktop, software that indirectly allows you to install undemanding Windows apps on the Pi, the likes of text editors and 20-year-old games.

For me, using the ExaGear drives home is how unnecessary it is to run Windows software on the Pi, as many of the best apps are already available for Linux.

That's because ExaGear doesn't just let you run Windows apps, it also lets the Pi run various Linux apps that wouldn't otherwise work. These apps, combined with the array of Linux software the Pi can already run, cover most of what the average user needs.

LibreOffice software for work, Spotify for music, VLC for video, Dropbox for cloud storage, all run—either natively or with the help of ExaGear—on the Pi.

I could see little need to touch any Windows apps. And when it comes to the biggest failing of ExaGear running on the Pi, namely how much it struggles to run demanding software like modern games or even the Spotify client, then running Windows on the Pi won't help.

I'm not saying I can't see the point of running Windows full stop, that's a separate argument. But when the Pi can run many different apps on Linux-based operating systems, I can't see why you'd want to run Windows software on it.

The ExaGear software works by providing an emulation layer that allows apps written for the x86 chips typically found in PCs to run on the Pi's Arm-based hardware. It defaults to providing a Debian 8 guest OS running on an emulated i386/x86 system.

It's this approach that allows apps like Spotify and Dropbox, which have clients for Linux-based x86 systems, to run on the Pi.

It's not perfect by any means. While simpler programs like Notepad++ run with only a little bit of lag, running and installing software generally takes far longer than you'll be used to if you use a modern PC—expect to wait a few seconds after clicking a button in Spotify for the program to react—and I also ran into various instances where x86 software wouldn't work.

For instance, Microsoft's comms platform Skype no longer works by default on ExaGear on the Pi, because the new Skype for Linux client requires a 64-bit machine, while the ExaGear Desktop emulates 32-bit hardware.

Trying to install the x86 Linux client for the gaming platform Steam was similarly unsuccessful, generating errors about missing software libraries.

SEE: Hardware spotlight: The Raspberry Pi

Another caveat to bear in mind is that the Pi is not the most powerful computer in the first place, based as it is on ageing mobile phone technology. Running ExaGear Desktop further reduces the performance of the Pi, due its need to intercept and convert x86-instructions into an Arm-compatible form. This is why all but the simplest of apps running on ExaGear Desktop generally do so slowly.

Setting up ExaGear Desktop is also not wholly straightforward, you'll have to be comfortable using the command line, but there are guides available, including our step-by-step article and video. ExaGear is a paid-for product, costing £17.95 ($22.45) for a licence to use it with the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B.

Despite everything I've said about ExaGear's limited appeal on the Windows front, there are areas where its ability to run Windows apps on the Pi, when used in conjunction with the Windows-compatibility layer Wine, would have its advantages. For instance, there's a chance that Skype might work, as there is a 32-bit Skype client available for Windows. An easier option might just be to use the web client, however.

Another possible advantage of running Windows apps on the Pi might be allowing fans of retro-gaming to run classic Windows titles. For instance, I was able to get the 1997 Windows game Fallout running on the ExaGear Desktop via Wine relatively smoothly, and there are reports of other seminal games from the 1990s, such as Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, running on ExaGear.

All told, ExaGear Desktop broadens the scope of apps you can run on the Pi to include some of the most popular apps out there. What it doesn't do is address the understandable performance limitations of the Pi, and using the Pi with ExaGear will seem very sluggish compared to a modern PC.

But provided you keep your expectations in check when it comes to performance, the ExaGear does broaden the software the Pi can run, just don't expect it to transform your Pi into a Windows PC, especially when there really is no need.

spotifypi.png
Image: Spotify

Read more about the Raspberry Pi

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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