QNX is so fast you'll wonder how everybody else can stand those other operating systems.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983
QNX computer operating system: Faster than Windows or Linux, with a gorgeous interface
Nov. 12, 2000
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2000, Al Fasoldt
Copyright ©2000, The Syracuse Newspapers
Like to do your computing on the edge of tomorrow? Try out the hottest new operating system on the planet. It's free and it's faster than anything else you can click your mouse on.
The software is called QNX ("cue-nix"). It's been around in one form or another for 20 years as a specialty operating system, but wasn't available in a consumer version until now.
If you have a spare Pentium-class PC or have an extra hard drive on your current PC, you can install QNX easily and get online in an hour or so. You can download QNX without charge from http://get.qnx.com or you can order it on an installation CD for $30. The Web site has the details. (For a site that specializes in QNX news and software, go to www.qnxstart.com.)
QNX can replace Windows as your PC's only operating system -- a bad idea for most users, as I'll explain shortly -- or it can coexist with Windows on the same computer. PCs nearly always come with Microsoft Windows as their operating systems, but the "OS," as it is called, can be changed to a non-Microsoft operating system with a little work.
Operating systems give computers their brains, heart and personality. Without them, computers would not be able to do anything.
QNX comes from a Canadian company, QNX Software Systems Ltd. (QSSL), of Kanata, Ontario, a suburb of Ottawa. The consumer version is the QNX "Realtime Platform," or QNX RTP. In the few weeks that QNX RTP has been available to the public, 400,000 people have downloaded it. That's an amazing amount of interest in an operating system most people have never heard of.
I installed QNX on my hapless spare PC, which gets a different operating system every few months. (It's run nearly every modern version of Windows, six or seven versions of Linux and the Be operating system in the last 18 months.) It has a 233 MHZ AMD K6 processor (equal to a Pentium MMX of the same speed), 96 megabytes of memory, an ATI All-in-Wonder Pro video card, a Sound Blaster AWE 32 sound card, a Microsoft three-button mouse (the kind with a wheel in the center), two regular hard drives, two CD drives, a SCSI hard drive and a standard PCI network card.
The installation went well except for one glitch. Everything except the SCSI card was set up automatically. I didn't have to do a thing. QSSL says it is working on a fix for the SCSI problem.
If you're an experienced Linux user, QNX will delight you. Although it's not related to Linux, QNX RTP uses a Linux-compatible command-driven "shell" for many operations, and its file hierarchy (the organization and names of files and directories) is almost the same. That should make QNX RTP seem familiar to old Linux hands.
But what makes QNX visibly different from Linux is its beautifully designed graphical user interface. Linux computers use a sophisticated but creaky and finicky graphical interface based on the venerable X Window system. It's got pluses and minuses. But the QNX graphical interface, called Photon, has pluses and more pluses.
For one thing, QNX Photon is the coolest looking GUI (graphical user interface) this side of Star Trek Voyager. It's simply gorgeous, a model of how interfaces should look. (If the default desktop background doesn't make you swoon, have someone call a doctor. You're probably in a coma.)
Another thing: QNX RTP is so fast you'll wonder how everybody else can stand those other operating systems. It's clearly faster than any version of Windows on the same PC, and tops both Linux and the Be operating system in responsiveness. Mouse-and-window operations in QNX RTP are delightfully snappy.
This sounds exciting, doesn't it? And it is.
But hold your applause. If you're a geek and know it, jump into QNX and have fun. But if you have a life and need an operating system that can do your finances, juggle your spreadsheets and record your CDs, you'd better listen up. QNX RTP doesn't have enough software to make you happy. At least not yet.
Don't get me wrong. You can do a lot of basic operations. You get a calculator, a CD player, a media player that can play MP3 audio files, a Web browser, an e-mail program, a passable word processor, a simple image viewer, some Linux knock-off screen savers, a desktop background changer, a program-installation manager and a few other items. You even get a version of the Real Player, as long as you add it manually using the QNX Package Manager. You can also install Quake, the fast-action shoot-'em-up game that you can play across a network. Quake players say it runs faster on QNX RTP than on any other operating system.
Notice anything missing? On its own, QNX Neutrino does not have the usual solitaire-type games, databases, spreadsheets, financial software and CD recording programs. It doesn't even have a desktop that works like a regular desktop. (It's just a background. There are no icons on it and you can't drag things to it. You launch programs from what looks like a Start Menu or from a panel on the side that looks like it came from Linux. But there's no usable desktop.)
More bad news: QNX RTP doesn't even give you a sensible, graphically based way to adjust the mouse speed. Nor does it provide a way to hook up your printer unless you're some sort of command-line guru. Even the file manager's a loser. I can't even bear to tell you how bad it is.
How, then, could I find QNX RTP so enticing?
It's fast. VERY fast. Nothing else comes close.
It's safe. There are no QNX viruses, and QNX RTP is immune to the ones that plague Windows. It's also protected against casual hacking. Unlike all consumer versions of Windows, QNX RTP won't let anyone use the computer without typing the correct password. You can't break into a QNX PC.
It's got all kinds of Linux-looking stuff hidden in commands. It can run console Linux programs after they've been recompiled. This might be one of the best things about QNX, since you'll be able to run all those command-line programs that are otherwise missing. You can get many of them as extra downloads already, and QNX fans will be glad to help you get others.
It's got one of the best Web browsers I've ever used. The browser, called Voyager, is a rocket. It makes Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer look like coal cars. It's a little buggy, but QSSL is working on fixes. The worst bug seems to be a habit of crashing when you mail a Web page from the File menu. Another showed up when I had more than 100 Web pages open at once. Voyager vaporized all its windows when I clicked the mouse. (Yes, you're reading that right. I routinely open 60 or more Web pages at the same time under Linux and expect any other modern operating system to be able to do the same.)
But best of all, it's different. QNX Neutrino isn't like Windows at all -- a good thing, if you're tired of the Looney Tunes way Windows was designed -- and it is much easier to use than Linux. It installs like a dream and has a zillion minor features I haven't even hinted at in this short repor
If you're interested in trying it out, don't wait an extra minute. The QNX people want to know if the world is ready for a new PC operating system that runs smoothly, handles memory properly, looks great and is a breeze to use. You might end up responding in a very affirmative manner.