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Boot Loader Review: Six Boot Loaders Compared
Contributed by frozen on Sunday February 16, 2003 12:49AM
from the software-review dept.

What is a boot loader?

A boot loader is, at first glance, a menu that displays a list of operating systems. Before a computer boots, the boot loader allows a selection to be made from all available operating systems on the computer. This allows the user to have their computer installed with, for example, both Windows and Linux. The user can quickly choose between the two when the computer is turned on.

Choosing the right boot loader depends on the operating system that will be installed on the computer. This review covers six popular boot loaders, and the features and downfalls of each.

What is a boot loader (in more depth)?

A boot loader is the first piece of software used when a computer is booting. When the power switch is turned on the computer’s BIOS runs a series of checks it loads from firmware. When finished, the BIOS attempts to start an operating system from the hard drive. When a boot loader is installed it starts instead of an operating system. An increasing number operating systems install a boot loader by default, even if they are the only operating system on the computer.

In order for the BIOS to load an OS it looks for instructions on the first sector of a hard drive. On the first sector of the hard drive resides the master boot record (MBR), and is where a boot loader is initialized. Depending on the boot loader, additional files may be stored and read from a partition on the hard drive. After this step the boot loader begins to start the operating system, and is not used again until the next boot. If the computer has only one operating system, the boot loader may not ask for user input. Because of this, many people do not realize they have a boot loader installed.

Moving Beyond One Operating System

This setup using the default boot loader of the installed OS works well and never need to be configured or interacted with, until a second OS is to be added to the computer. Once the requirement of loading more than one operating system exists, many boot loaders, including the one shipped with Windows 98, no longer work. This is where a third party boot loader must be chosen. This page will help with that decision by comparing six popular boot loaders: LILO, GRUB, XOSL, System Commander, Boot Magic, and NTLDR.

Comparison of the Boot Loaders

LILO GRUB XOSL System Commander 7 (V Communications) Boot Magic 8 (PowerQuest) NTLDR (Microsoft)
Disk Support >1024 cylinders yes (after version 21.3) yes yes yes yes yes
Dedicated Partition Required? no no no no no no
Install through this OS Linux Linux DOS DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP
OSes able to be booted DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, Linux, BSD DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, Linux, BSD, BEOS, SCO Unix, OS/2, Solaris DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, Linux, BSD, BEOS, Solaris, VxWorks ALL DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, Linux, BEOS DOS, Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP, (Linux using bootpart)
Boot Linux Kernel? yes yes no no no no
Contained in MBR? no no no no no no
Filesystem Requirement (not contained in MBR)
Number of images supported 16 24
Resolutions Supported text text up to1600x1200 up to 1600x1200 640x480 text
Background images no yes yes yes yes no
PS/2 Mouse Support no no yes yes yes no
Licence GPL (free) GPL (free) GPL (free) 59.95/69.95 69.95 (comes with Partition Magic) Incuded with Windows NT/2000/XP
Website Lilo Homepage Grub Homepage XOSL Homepage System Commander 7 Partition Magic NTLDR Hacking Guide


LILO is short for LInux LOader. It is open source and has been around for a long time. Its strengths include strong support from the community, being able to load a wide variety of operating systems, being able to load the Linux kernel, and being free. LILO must be installed and configured from an environment that can run the LILO executable (normally Linux and BSD). Once installed, a config file exists on the hard drive that, when edited, will change the OSes that can be booted. After editing this file, the LILO command will need to be run to update the changes in the MBR. This is not required in GRUB. One nice feature of LILO is the ability to copy itself to a floppy, allowing normal bootup of the host PC if the normal MBR is accidentally overwritten. The LILO menu on bootup is text-only, and can be in the form of a menu or prompt. If nothing is displayed at the prompt, hit to display a list of booting options.


GRUB, short for GRand Unified Bootloader, is another open source boot loader. GRUB has been slowly taking over LILO’s place as the default boot loader shipped with many Linux distributions. This is because of several features GRUB has that LILO does not. The first being that GRUB can be configured from within itself. If configured wrong, the user is not stuck with a unbootable computer, as the configuration can be changed from within GRUB. GRUB, while being a text menu, also supports background images, giving it the ability to impress your friends. GRUB also supports virtually any operating system that will run on x86 architecture. The only downfall to GRUB is that it requires files on the hard drive, usually on a Linux (ext2) partition.


XOSL is short for Extended Operating System Loader, and again is open source under the GPL license. XOSL is different from LILO and GRUB because it is a graphical boot loader, supporting resolutions up to 1600x1200. Like GRUB it supports configuration from within itself, but has several serious drawbacks. XOSL requires installtion in a primary FAT partition, NTFS is not supported. XOSL also cannot boot the Linux kernel, making LILO or GRUB a required install along with it.

System Commander 7

System Commander 7 from V Communications is a great boot loader for all different operating systems, as long as one of them is Windows or Dos. System Commander supports installation in Fat, Fat32, and has the rare support of installation in a NTFS partition. Like XOSL it is graphical, supporting resolutions up to 1600x1200. System Commander is also the only boot loader to claim support every operating system created for x86 architecture. It is configured within itself, and supports automatic searching for installed operating systems. The only downfall to System Commander is its price is hard to justify next to the free boot loaders, 59.95 for the download or 69.95 for a shipped product.

Boot Magic

Boot Magic is a boot loader that comes only with the purchase of Partition Magic software. It differs from the other boot loaders because it must be installed in a FAT or FAT32 partition from within Windows. Boot Magic is also configured from within Windows, a feature making easier initial setup, but a more difficult recovery if a problem occurs. It’s limited support requiring Windows and a FAT partition make boot magic a choice only for limited configurations.


NTLDR comes with versions of Windows based on the NT kernel, including 2000 and XP. Hidden by default and not well documented, NTLDR appears to be designed only to switch between Windows 9x and NT. It has been discovered that it is possible to boot older versions of DOS and even Linux by editing the boot.ini file on the Windows partition. This is a great option for users wanting the change the least amount of options when installing a second operating system on their computer.

Written by Nicholas Brand
Copyright 2003 by Nicholas Brand. All Rights Reserved

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Comment Style: Order:
    Boot Loaders [59] (IP:
    by rodney on Monday August 18, 2003 01:09PM
    I found your review of Boot Loaders to be quite informative. Recently, I discovered the existence of yet another Boot Loader bundled with a product called BootIt NG

    This is a Shareware product that is NOT Windows-centric (which may/may not be a drawback to the commercial products System Commander 7 and Partition Magic).

    I have only used BootITNG is order to boot from its CD and partition the Hard Disk before installing a second Linux OS; and reducing the size of the existing Windows OS.

    If someone could try the Boot Loader that is bundled with BootITNG and add it to your review, I would appreciate it.

    Currently, I have 4 desktop X86 computers with an existing Windows OS; and am attempting to add a Linux OS. In the past, I have been using System Commander; and I have a copy of the latest version 7.

    With the most recent release of many popular distros, I have personally seen the migration of the distro installers to using GRUB by default, instead of the familiar lilo. Thanks to your review, I now have some info about the strengths and weaknesses of these boot loaders.

    If I decide to continue using System Commander 7; it appears that I have to use either GRUB or lilo as well.

    For some of us, the question is not which Boot Loader to use; but many of them, in what order (i.e., which one resides on the MBR)


    [ Reply ]

      Re: Boot Loaders [60] (IP:
      by Anon on Friday August 29, 2003 04:22AM
      To answer the question about order, for a while I ran System Commander installed on the MBR. SC had two options, Windows and Linux. When linux was chosen, it would load grub, which was installed to the /boot partition, and I could then choose my kernel options.
      [ Reply ]

      Re: Boot Loaders [63] (IP:
      by Bonnie Thoennes on Friday October 3, 2003 07:02PM
      I did find this very helpful, but I am looking for something that at the start up of the machine will that something will ask me which hard drive I would like to boot from. My first hard drive has Windows 2000, Visual Studio and SQL 7.0. I would like to load Windows XP, Visual Studio .net and SQL Server 2000 on a second hard drive. I would like to keep the development seperate. Is there somthing on a market that will solve my problem. You help will be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Bonnie.
      [ Reply ]

        Re: Boot Loaders [64] (IP:
        by Nick on Sunday October 5, 2003 08:45PM
        System Commander has options allowing you to hide partitions when booting from a drive. If you don't want to use a boot loader, there are hardware drive selectors such as this one made by Romtec:
        [ Reply ]

    XOSL [78] (IP:
    by Anonymous on Monday November 17, 2003 05:22PM
    I use XOSL to boot my system, and its worked really well.
    You should add FreeBSD to the list of supported operating systems for it, because it boots that fine.
    [ Reply ]

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