Developer: Serenity Systems
Previous HQ Reviews/Ratings: N/A
Test Configuration: #3
With all of the technological excellence and potential for greatness in IBM's OS/2 operating system, what the desktop PC world has needed for several years is someone to take the product to the "next level" in terms of installation, integration, and accessories. With eCS 1.0, Serenity Systems has done just that. In what is probably the software value of all time, this package includes two native OS/2 office suites, multiple desktop enhancements, an integrated software installer/manager program, and the finest OS installation routine of any platform on the market.
If OS/2 was a monopoly product, this level of bundling and integration would violate every principle of market regulation. But don't worry -- this baby is 100% street-legal.
Functionality (20%)Performance (15%)
An operating system's "functionality" is typically difficult to assess. Novell operating systems simply provide directory and file management, security, and backup capabilities, yet they are consistently lauded. On the other hand, eComStation's functionality is definitely at the high end of the spectrum and much more user-oriented.10
The fact that two native OS/2 office suites (StarOffice 5.1 and Lotus Smartsuite 1.6) are bundled with eCS makes all the difference. When combined with a healthy suite of Internet and network utilities, as well as the original OS/2 bonus pak, eCS is a full-on solution for desktop computing in the post-Microsoft environment. Netscape Navigator 4.61 and various third-party applications are also included in the mix.
HQ score for Functionality:
The performance of eCS is quick and nimble. Bootup time is approximately 35 seconds; the boot-time LVM scan of a 15GB partition is about three to four seconds. The built-in Scitech Display Doctor provides full resolution enhancement with no obvious overhead. Running the bundled Lotus Smartsuite was a joy; opening and closing documents occurs quickly and smoothly.10
An option for a full-blown SMP kernel (supporting up to 64 processors!) is also available for an additional charge. This SMP feature means that a single eCS PC (or, an "eCommerce Workstation") could double as a server for a large PC network as well as performing printer and website serving chores. OS/2's legendary multithreading makes this option a huge cost-saver.
HQ score for Performance:
The bundled desktop enhancements eStyler and eCS Theme Manager provide a wide variety of look-and-feel choices. A Windows95 look is available for managers who worry that a different screen design would cause increased training costs. VGA resolution change still requires a reboot, but scan rates can be changed in seconds using the built-in SDD VGA support.7
A significant element of OS usability is the ease of installation of various applications. Since OS/2 provides DOS, Windows, Java, and native OS/2 application support, among others, installation has always involved a smorgasbord of options and procedures. In an attempt to smooth out these variations and streamline the installation of applications, a collective app installer called WiseManager is provided. This tool is quite useful, given that even native OS/2 applications have several different install routines depending on who the developer is. There is also a section to aid installation of certain hardware drivers. It would be more useful to also see DOS and Windows installation routines and optimization steps integrated into WiseManager. I hope this is accomplished when eCS 2.0 arrives.
HQ score for Usability:
As usual for an OS/2-based system, eCS is almost bulletproof. I ran a half-dozen different applications simultaneously with no sweat. With the solid foundation of OS/2, eCS appears ready to tackle mission-critical work as well as home desktop activities. IBM spec's its OS/2 MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) as 9 months, but only a stringent long-term test under loaded conditions could verify this number. "Your Mileage May Vary."10
HQ score for Reliability:
Unlike Microsoft systems, OS/2 does not phase out older APIs and compatibility modules. So eCS runs DOS applications smoothly and effectively. Windows 3.1 applications have their own compatibility module as well. Java is of course built-in as a native API. The Project ODIN module for running other Win32 applications is also bundled with eCS. Xfree86 allows the user to run a subset of Linux applications, giving eCS the broadest platform support of any OS on the planet.7
ODIN is still in the development phase and was not tested as part of this review.
Hardware compatibility is a mixed bag. Most any VGA card will work fine, since three types of compatibility are provided -- Display Doctor, GRADD, or regular OEM VGA drivers. USB support is included as well. I decided to use a cheap PS/2 mouse instead of a serial port mouse, and eCS recognized it just fine. However, sound card support for PCI products is quite limited. I was able to get an ESS Allegro PCI card recognized in Hardware Manager, but no sound was emitted from the card. An authentic Sound Blaster 16 Wave Effects ISA card worked fine. We really could use a "Sound Doctor" to go with the excellent VGA card support. And of course Winmodems and Windows-only printers are definitely off-limits. But eCS works with just about everything else. A new DVD device driver (JJSCDROM) is also included and is currently being enhanced regularly, but it still does not provide DVD playback capability.
HQ score for Compatibility:
The eCS installation is light-years ahead of the standard IBM installer of Warp 4, which has not been significantly altered since 1996. The eCS installation has help display on each page, as well as a convenient "back" button to re-do any of the previous steps. Proper warning is given about the impact of using LVM (Logical Volume Manager) as a disk allocation mechanism. OS/2 HQ installed eCS on a blank hard drive, but eCS is also designed to install right over a base OS/2 installation as well.10
The eCS procedure does not require a boot diskette, provided your system BIOS supports booting from the CD-ROM. For older systems, a Warp 4.5 install CD is included with the system to provide backwards compatibility. Installation was done on a 2GB HPFS partition using "long format," which took 25 minutes. The remaining installation steps took just under 35 minutes for a grand total of just under one hour for the full install. Formatting the 15 GB JFS data partition took only a few minutes more. Format progress is conveniently displayed in 5% increments on a pie chart.
The most elegant part of the install was the fact that eCS loads a copy of itself -- including the main background screen and program folders -- into RAM. Therefore, it was not necessary to merely wait around during the Long Format phase. I was able to click on various folders and explore the operating system's constituent parts, and even read the help files, while formatting took place smoothly in the background -- a breathtaking accomplishment for a simple off-the-shelf home computer. I fully expect to see a couple of the bundled games active during the install phase of eCS 2.0, so that gaming can be enjoyed during the Long Format step.
Not only are various screen enhancements and networking features bundled with the OS, but they are also embedded in the installation steps as a menu-driven set of options. This is the perfect balance between Warp 4.5's one-at-a-time addon process, versus Microsoft's all-or-nothing approach. A tasteful and user-friendly set of tabbed feature options is available as the last part of the install cycle.
The only potential hang-up is the need to provide a registration code. This can only be obtained by logging on to the Serenity site (http://www.ecomstation.com/) and receiving it via e-mail or regular mail. Make sure to use the option to place it on a diskette, as the very long alphanumeric string is not easy to type in manually. It is possible to retrieve this registration before or during the install process from any Web-capable PC, so it is definitely not a significant problem.
HQ score for Installation:
No printed manual is provided, just a 4-page installation overview which was correct and informative. The bundled softcopy (PDF) instructions are quite good, and include several networking tips with help in establishing coexistence with alien legacy platforms such as Windows98 and Windows2000. There are also some FAQs provided on the Serenity eCS website.7
The online help feature is essentially the same as the OS/2 Warp help index.
HQ score for Documentation:
Instead of providing telephone or e-mail support, Serenity works through an online message forum and a small network of consultants. This limits support for non-commercial users to only what is available from the community at large. I wrote a message about the PCI sound card issue in the forums, but I only received one reply. Hopefully, VOICE's Warp Doctor project will help fill this gap in the support lineup.3
HQ score for Tech Support:
IBM continues to provide new and improved features, fixes, and enhancements to the base OS/2 system. A recent kernel modification now allows timing adjustments, which could be used to enhance multimedia performance. OS/2's inherent modular design makes most non-kernel enhancements relatively straightforward.6
The key issue for providing an upgrade path for eCS is the dedication and the financial stability of Serenity Systems. As Serenity lead spokesperson Kim Cheung said, "eCS will succeed no matter what!!" That's the kind of dedication and emotional commitment that I like to see. Now if we can get that level of support from device driver providers at hardware OEMs, software application developers, and providers of development tools, eCS will have a bright future. It is certainly on the right track technically, but there is still a question of attracting interest from non-OS/2 companies.
HQ score for Upgradeability:
The current upgrade price of $99 (including Lotus Smartsuite!) through September 30 makes eCS a ridiculously easy choice. Buy it now -- it's a no-brainer. Its regular price, however, will be a bit steeper. I'd really like to see a bundling deal with somebody offering high-end PCs with eCS preloaded. As a standalone product, however, it is a seriously good value.9
HQ score for Overall Value:
eComStation 1.0 Category Raw Score Weighting Net Score Functionality
10 0.2 2.0 Performance
10 0.15 1.5 Usability
7 0.15 1.05 Reliability
10 0.15 1.5 Compatibility
7 0.1 0.7 Installation
10 0.05 0.5 Documentation
7 0.05 0.35 Technical Support
3 0.05 0.15 Upgradeability
6 0.05 0.3 Overall Value
9 0.05 0.45 THE VERDICT
low 3, high 10 1.00 8.5