I’ve been a Linux user since 2006 or so. And ever since I first installed Linux, I’ve been dual booting. Usually I have Windows and Linux installed, but there have been times when I’ve had Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, all installed on the same computer. Setting up a computer for dual booting isn’t really any issue anymore. There are utilities that make setting this up a breeze. The problem, however, occurs because different operating systems use different file systems. Mac OS X uses HFS+ for its drives, Windows uses NTFS by default, and Linux uses Ext4, although other file systems such as Ext3 and Reiser4 are common as well.
In many situations this isn’t a problem. Mac OS X, for instance, is able to read NTFS drives by default. It can’t write to those drives, but there are FUSE modules available to enable that feature. Linux as well has NTFS-3G, which enables complete read and write access to Windows drives. The trouble comes for Windows users wanting to access file systems from “foreign” operating systems, in particular Linux. There has long been a kernel extension for Windows called Ext2IFS (Ext2 Installable File System), which enables transparent access to Ext2 formatted hard drives. But as the Extended File System has progressed from Ext2 to Ext3 and now to Ext4, the driver has fallen behind. It is able to interact with Ext4 partitions or drives, but treats them as if they were Ext2, so the new features introduced in Ext3 and Ext4 are ignored, which can cause problems if you use the default Ext4 settings with your Linux installation. So at the moment there are no native Ext4 drivers for Windows.
However, if you only want to be able to access your Ext4 Linux drives and partitions from Windows, and don’t need to be able to write to them, then ext2explore may help. I downloaded ext2explore a couple weeks ago, but just now got around to trying it. It definitely works, although the way you have to go about using it isn’t the best solution, in my mind. Still… it works, and that’s probably enough at this point.
Using ext2explore isn’t too difficult. It needs to be run as Administrator, so right-click the application and choose that option. It quickly scans your computer for partitions or drives it can access. Double clicking an option reveals the contents, so browsing through a Linux drive is much as you’d expect. Hidden files are visible, which adds a bit of clutter, but the same holds true when browsing a Windows drive in Linux, so it’s understandable.
When you want to access a file, the process is a bit different than I’d at first expected, at least when reading files on a drive with Ext4 formatting. In order to use a file, you must first save it to your Windows partition. So it isn’t as simple as opening the file in your normal viewer for pictures, music or whatever document type you want to access. You need to highlight the item, then choose the Save option and find a place on your Windows hard drive to save it. Now it can be used. Unfortunately, once you’ve made changes, you’ll find yourself unable to write the modified document back to your Ext4 drive. With Ext2 and Ext3, I assume (with the addition of the Ext2IFS), you would have a few more options. There are some grayed-out items in the menus (cut, copy, paste, rename and delete), which would become active if your Windows installation had Ext2 read/write access.
So… ext2explore isn’t perfect. Far from it, in my opinion. I’m not blaming the authors of the program for this. My negative comments are more my thoughts on the lack of native support for Windows users, and have nothing to do with the quality of ext2explore, since ext2explore does exactly what it claims to, and that is give access to Windows users needing to read from Ext2 (and Ext3 and Ext4) hard drives. If and when a native file system driver for Ext4 becomes available, ext2explore will for all intents and purposes become unnecessary. And I welcome that day, because it would mean a day of better and more transparent interoperability had arrived. Until then, however, ext2explore is the next best thing, and is well worth the download.