I’ve always been a huge fan of BeOS. However, there was no denying the fact that the BeOS was getting old. As many other BeOS fans, I closely followed two projects: Haiku, and yellowTAB’s Zeta. The latter released 1.0 a few weeks ago. Here are the findings of an old BeOS user.
yellowTAB was so kind to provide OSNews with several review copies. Mensys NL shipped mine, a clean DVD case, containing the disc, a quickstart manual and a card containing serial number and license key. The package looks professional, with a clear description and some screenshots. Minimum and recommenced system specifications are listed. The quickstart manual is bilingual (English and German) and is very easy to understand, even for newcomers to the BeOS platform. The serial and license keys are needed after installation; when you first boot up, a dialog pops up asking you for the keys.
The installation procedure is different from the old BeOS. First, the installer asks you which out of 25 languages you want to use (includes Russian, Chinese and Japanese). On faster computers, this change is instant, however, on my older PII 400 Mhz, switching languages took a lot longer (but that’s not surprising). After agreeing to the EULA, the partitioner loads up. This partitioner is powered by Paragon, but the functionality is limited. You can only resize partitions when there’s unpartitioned space available to do so (or when you only have one partition). You can’t delete partitions, which I find rather odd; especially taking into account that the partitioning engine is based on Paragon software. They should definitely improve on this.
A complete installation of all software on the disc takes up about one gigabyte. You can tweak the installation per package, so more experienced BeOS users can probably trim the installation quite a bit. When all packages are installed, which shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes, the installer asks you if you want to install the BeOS bootloader. This procedure is the same on all flavours of the Be, and it’s easy to use. It will correctly identify Windows partitions and make them bootable; however, BeBootMan cannot boot Linux without putting GRUB or LiLo on the Linux root partition (as far as I know, that is).
After all this, the installation is finished, and the CD is ejected and your computer rebooted. This is when the fun starts.
The first thing that anyone notices who’s not familiar with the Be, is boot time. Or better yet, lack thereof. In that sense, Zeta hasn’t changed a bit since r5. Booting is a matter of, say, 15 seconds, completely blowing away any Linux, Windows or OS X install. The short boottime is something that has always been a huge selling point for the Be to me, as I hate slow-booting operating systems (luckily OS X has good sleep/wake functionality, else it would be such a pain to use). The Zeta bootscreen is basically the same as the old r5 one, just the graphics have changed a bit. In fact, the row of icons is still the same; from the atom to the BeBox.
Upon first boot, Zeta presents you with the new preferences application. This application is the complete opposite of what we BeOS users are used to: instead of having one panel per preferences group (ie. network, appearance, etc), you now have all the preference panels loaded into one application. I’m not entirely sure if I like it or not; one of the things I liked about BeOS were those individual panels. However, I think that one application where you can configure everything is a must these days, it’s something the computer user will be looking for. I, myself, prefer having individual panels. But that’s mostly a matter of taste. My hardware, which isn’t all that fancy (cmi 8738 sound chipset, Ati Radeon 9000, RTL-8139 network chipset), was all working correctly out-of-the-box. Even my internal IDE ZIP-drive worked like a charm.
The preferences application itself has grown a lot when it comes to stability. In previous versions of Zeta it could be quite a buggy experience, but it seems that the developers at yellowTAB have taken that criticism to heart: it’s stable as a rock now. You now change your resolution, and configure networking. The latter is something that should be done during install, as far as I’m concerned. There is no warning or whatsoever telling you that your network isn’t configured.
Another noticeable change is of course the SVG icon set. They look crystal clear and extremely sharp, and can be resized to any size without looking ugly. An improvement over the old BeOS icons? To me, yes, but I’ve heard different sounds coming from the BeOS fanbase. The window decor of Zeta is also different from the old BeOS; the tabs are now a bit more shiny. I find this an improvement, but for those who don’t, you can easily switch back to the standard r5 decor. The same applies for the SVG icons.
I did encounter some visual remnants every now and then, especially after unmounting drives. Sometimes, after unmounting my ZIP disk, the ZIP icon remains on the desktop as a remnant. Same applies for the E140 MP3 player. A quick restart of Tracker will fix this, but it’s not the way to go. I also encountered a visual bug in Deskbar: sometimes, it would partially turn all grey.
Applications & Hardware
The applications in Zeta R1 are quite familiar. For office work, we have GoBE Productive 2.0.1. This office suite is full featured, but is of course quite outdated (2000). However, for normal users GoBE will certainly suffice. Doing a port of OpenOffice.org might be a good thing in the future, but for now, GoBE will certainly do.
As for browsing, we have Firefox 1.0.3. Firefox 1.0.3 requires no introduction, however, a few notes on it are justified: fast & stable. I do not know what the yT guys and girls have done, but they made Firefox on BeOS stable and usable. And that’s a great achievement. Firefox loads in 4 seconds, and scrolling no longer tears webpages apart. Firefox is also completely integrated into Zeta: copying/pasting works fine, and graphics/fonts-wise it integrates perfectly. Well, almost perfectly. One minor thing: when you click a locally stored html file, Firefox tries to load, but terminates itself.
For emailing, Zeta recommends to use Beam, even though some people will prefer the good old BeMail. Noteworthy here is that in BeOS, emails aren’t stored in databases, but on a per-file basis. Each email is a file in Tracker (‘Explorer’ or ‘Nautilus’ or ‘Finder’ or whatever), that way, you can use multiple mail clients without problems. This is also very handy for the query features of BeFS (which I’ll get back to later). Another advantage of this approach is that you will not have any problems with corrupted databases.
Instant messaging is an area in which Zeta needs improvement. The only included client is BeAIM (for the AIM protocol, obviously), so it lacks for instance MSN support. Seeing that yT has stated that The Netherlands is their next target, they should definitely include a MSN solution (MSN has close to 100% market share in my country). Even better would be to include the im_kit in Zeta– and I’m sure that in the future, when im_kit has matured a bit more, it will find it’s way into Zeta. I won’t go into details, as im_kit is so extraordinary, it requires an article of it’s own. Anyway, if you want decent MSN support in Zeta, download BME. There is no official release yet but a pre-built package from CVS can be found here.
Zeta comes with a bucketload of multimedia applications. Various video players, music players, movie editors, and so on. I’m not a very multimedia oriented person, so I didn’t have tons of video and music files to test all those applications with. DVD watching is easy (it uses VLC), MP3 files play correctly, and the video and image files from my cameras all worked mighty fine.
As for hardware support, Zeta is a relief over r5. My two digital cameras worked with BeDigiCam (now known as PhotoGrabber). It does require some guesswork: as it turns out, my old Kodak DX3500 is a camera of Type I, whereas my newer Canon PowerShot S50 is one of Type II. Oddity: downloaded movies get stored with the filetype attribute set to ‘image/jpeg’, whereas it should be ‘video/mpeg’. I quickly changed this using BeOS’ FileType utility, but for new users, this could pose a problem. The filetype attribute can be set to ‘image/donkeypoophole’, and it will still play, but not by double-clicking the file, as it will load the image viewer app and not the video player. But, it will play correctly when you first load VLC, and then use ‘Open…’
My Flash-based MP3-player, SanDisk’s Sansa E140, works fine in Zeta. All I had to do was plug the USB cable in, and the Sansa appeared in the Mount menu (which is located in the desktop’s context menu in BeOS). I could then drag/drop songs and normal files onto it.
yellowtAB has put significant effort into supporting printers; now was my time to test this. I plugged in my HP Deskjet 3520, and opened the Printer panel inside the preferences application. My printer was in the list, and it correctly found the printer on the USB port. Zeta also supports IP printing, and you can also print to PDF.
Next up was my Canon CanoScan LIDE 30. This scanner was a pain to set-up in OS X, so I hoped this would be easier on Zeta, but obviously, I had my doubts. The Scanner utility is located in the ‘/boot/home/Pictures’ directory, or in the Graphics section of the Be menu. This application (Sanity) is a front-end to SANE, and this is what worried me; as you can read in the blog entry I just linked to, my scanner did not work with SANE on OS X. Unfortunately, the same applies to SANE for BeOS. My scanner isn’t found, end of story. Too bad.
Queries & BeFS
I wanted to pay special attention to BeFS’ capabilities in this review. With Apple, Microsoft and Linux putting so much emphasis on search tools lately, claiming innovation all over the place, it is always fun to be reminded of the fact that BeOS had all those capabilities even before Apple started working on OS X. I’ll try to explain some scenarios in which BeFS plays a major role.
First of all, let’s say I’m having a discussion via email with Eugenia. Because each email is stored as a single file, I can easily set-up and save a live query with all emails from Eugenia, sorted with newest on top. If the discussion continues to develop, I can refine that query even further, by adding a query on the subject of the emails. All that without ever starting an email client. Remember, these searches are instant; a lot faster than Spotlight. Also, they are ‘live’ queries, which means that they are updated automatically and instantly. You can save those queries as if they were directories. Again, this requires no extra applications or whatsoever.
Another interesting scenario to use BeFS is when you are putting songs on your MP3 player. Want all music from Bruce Springsteen? Or all songs from the Devils & Dust album? All songs from the ‘rock’ genre? You can do that without ever touching a music player or other specialized applications.
You are only limited by your imagination.
In this review, I have hardly addressed all aspects of using an operating system. Still, I have a clear-cut impression of what Zeta R1 is: it is by far the best ‘distribution’ of BeOS currently available. The hardware support is, when compared to r5, significantly better. Stability-wise, Zeta R1 is a huge leap forward when compared to older versions. Some areas still need work; but they are mostly minor things, nothing that will stop you from using this operating system as your full-time, primary system.
Also as a secondary system, on an older computer, Zeta is a good choice. It delivers much more functionality on low-end hardware than any other operating system. yT lists as minimum specifications a 200Mhz processor with 64 MB RAM. I tested it on a PII 400 with 192 MB RAM, and it flew.
The gist: a complete, stable release, with good hardware support and amazing capabilities, that does require some minor tweaking here and there. For only 99,- Euro, a bargain.
This review was perfomed on an AMD Athlon XP 1600+ / 512 MB RAM / Ati Radeon 9000 128MB.
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