Running Windows apps on Linux with PlayOnLinux

Playing Nice

Article from Issue 175/2015

Getting Windows programs to work on Linux is difficult even if you're using the famous Wine Windows-compatibility environment. Fortunately, the PlayOnLinux graphical interface can ease some of the pain.

Linux developers have made great strides in their efforts to accommodate users from Windows environments. You now can play most video and audio formats, even Windows-specific formats, directly on Linux media players. Distribution maintainers package proprietary video card drivers, so a game that requires support for 3D hardware-accelerated hardware is only a couple of clicks away; and, even MS Office files are easy to open, edit, and save thanks to LibreOffice, OpenOffice, and Calligra.

Sometimes opening and importing files created in Windows is not enough, however. What if you want – or need – the exact same program you used in Windows. (Many hardcore Linux users would question whether you really need a Windows application, but let's assume you really do need to run it just one last time.)

PlayOnLinux [1] helps you run your Windows programs in Linux. Although PlayOnLinux might look like a simple graphical front end for the venerable Wine [2] compatibility layer – the classic solution for running Windows on Linux – but PlayOnLinux is actually a bit more. With Wine, you download the application you need to run, guess the configuration that will work, hit Enter, and cross your fingers. Granted, if something goes wrong, the Wine project has a comprehensive database of solutions, and the community is really helpful, but PlayOnLinux has the advantage of removing a lot of the guess work.

When you install an application using the PlayOnLinux catalog, it downloads and sets up a specific ideal Wine environment for running the application, giving you a better chance things will run smoothly. Also, each app is installed inside it's own virtual drive, sandboxed from all other applications. This separation guarantees that one program's environment won't overwrite and mess up another's. The downside is that the list of applications PlayOnLinux supports is not all that comprehensive.


PlayOnLinux works out of the box on most Linux distros. Many distributions even include PlayOnLinux within their repositories. In Ubuntu, for example, you can find it in the Software Center and install it with a couple of clicks. The version supplied with Ubuntu is only a couple of decimal points behind the latest stable version available from the project's website. At the moment of writing, Ubuntu comes with version 4.2.3, and the latest stable version is 4.2.6, so it is worth using the version in the Ubuntu repositories, simply because it will be automatically updated and you won't have to worry about doing that yourself.

If your distribution is not supported, you can get a generic package [3]. Unpack the package with

$ tar xvf PlayOnLinux_4.2.X.tar.gz

From the command line, cd into the playonlinux/ directory, and run the program by typing

$ ./playonlinux

on the command line.

Regardless of how you install PlayOnLinux, when you run the software for the first time, the installer will search for a working version of Python and, after a few seconds, bring up the PlayOnLinux main window (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The PlayOnLinux main window. The list of apps you install goes in the panel on the right.

Adding Software

How PlayOnLinux works is has the user create sort of a control panel for her Windows application. You pick the applications you want to add, PlayOnLinux takes you through a guided wizard to install them and then, when you want to run them, you bring up PlayOnLinux and click on the appropriate icon. Actually adding an app is easy: Press the big + sign in the toolbar and PlayOnLinux will take you to the catalog screen (Figure 2). Pick the category for your app and scroll through the options in the panel on the left. Click on the app you want and a description and screenshot will show up in the panels on the right.

Figure 2: Clicking on a category along the top shows the supported software within that category in the bottom left panel. The description appears in the panel on the right.

It's a good idea to scroll through the description, because it often contains notes from the developers with caveats or instructions. Photoshop CS6, for example, won't work with Intel graphic cards the developers warn – you will need the proprietary drivers for your Nvidia or ATI card. Bear in mind PlayOnLinux does not contain the applications themselves, nor does it provide its own repositories.

Instead, PlayOnLinux sets up the ideal environment for each app and installs it. If an application requires a CD or a DVD, you will have to provide it. If an application requires a file available online, PlayOnLinux can sometimes download it for you, but often you will have to hunt for it yourself.


If you're worried you won't be able to access your iTunes collection from Linux, don't be: PlayOnLinux has you covered… up to a point.

PlayOnLinux supports iTunes 10. Unfortunately, Apple, at the moment of this writing, has already pushed out iTunes 12 and, in traditional Apple fashion, older versions are no available on the official site.

I found an installer file online [4] and risked installing it (read how I felt about this in the Security Concerns box). You download the file, start up PlayOnLinux, press + from the main window, and pick the Multimedia category. Scroll down until you see iTunes 10 and click on the Install button in the lower right hand corner.

Security Concerns

To Linux users who are accustomed to verified, signed, certified, counter-signed, re-verified, re-certified, official Linux repositories, getting software from third-party Windows sites seems downright suicidal. Open source programs are distributed with the source code, which adds a layer of transparency that simply isn't available with closed-source proprietary software. And, because anyone can distribute an open source application, you are more likely to find the application you need at a trusted, familiar site, such as a distro repository.

Freeware Windows programs turn up in all sorts of unfamiliar places. The process of hunting down packages on the web, from dodgy-looking sites that offer no verification process, no guarantee they won't mess your system up, and no authority to berate if things go south, hails back to an era when walking out of your home without a big wooden club was a sure guarantee of death by sabre-toothed cat.

Since I had to test software that requires access to the computer's hardware (such as video and audio cards), I could not very well run things on a virtual machine, and setting up a chroot or docker jail to run iTunes or Grim Fandango seemed like overkill. So I played it straight and jollily installed directly onto a running vanilla Linux machine.

After I'm completely done with this article, I'll probably dump the hardware into industrial grade bleach for 48 hours, and then burn the remains, just in case.

If you're going to work with PlayOnLinux and the underlying Wine compatibility layer on a regular basis, you might want to check out the "Securing Wine" page at the Wine HQ site [9].

The PlayOnLinux iTunes installer starts up (Figure 3). Despite what the next screen says, USB synchronization does not work as of yet. If you decide to try and have the installer synchronize with your USB devices, installation will fail and exit, so click No. In the next screen, click Browse and navigate to the directory where you downloaded the program. Select it and click Open and then Next.

Figure 3: PlayOnLinux includes a customized installer for iTunes 10.

PlayOnLinux will create a virtual drive for the program and download some files and libraries to create the environment for iTunes (Figure 4). It is safe to click on Yes, Ok, Accept, Install, or whatever else PlayOnLinux (or Wine) throws at you during this stage.

Figure 4: PlayOnLinux will download and set up packages it needs for iTunes to run.

At this point, the iTunes installation is the same as if you were installing on Windows. (I did run into minor complication – I specifically told iTunes *not* to put an icon on my nice, clean desktop, but it did so anyway. When you're done, you can run iTunes (Figure 5) using the icon it places on the desktop or by opening PlayOnLinux and then clicking on the app in the main window.

Figure 5: iTunes works thanks to PlayOnLinux, but performance can be a big spotty.

PlayOnLinux let me run iTunes on my system, but was it worth the trouble? The iTunes application is necessary if you want an interface to Apple services such as the iTunes store, but once you have rescued all your music from your iThingies or the iCloud, you might find you are better off using a native Linux player, such as Rhythmbox [5] or Amarok [6]. iTunes performance was a bit spotty. First of all, iTunes seemed to take issue with other music collection tools and added each track twice to the library. Then some options randomly stopped working. Finally, playback caused some stuttering.

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