Even though I ordered Zeta from an official US reseller store, the product box I received was in the German language (at least part of it was). I recognized the company name, yellowTAB, and the name of the operating system, Zeta. But all other information printed on the box, including the system requirements, were printed in German.
The product box was sealed with a sticker that was also in the German language, so I couldn’t read what the seal said. I was relatively certain it just said something like “if you break this seal, you can’t return the product.” That is usually what a sealed software product says.
Fortunately the CD itself was multi-lingual. It even defaulted to US English during the install. The installation is fully graphical, and is extremely simple. I would even go so far to say it was the easiest OS installation I have ever seen in my life. I’m not going to say much about the installation process because I feel most articles spend way too much time talking about it. But I do have two quick things I want to mention.
1. As is usual, one of the first things you see during the install is the end user license agreement. I actually read the entire EULA. It’s well written and easily understood. Being a huge open source advocate, I cringed when I read the part that said (paraphrasing) “you do not own the copy of the product you bought. You are only licensing the right to use it.” That was to be expected though. The product is proprietary/commercial.
For the most part, the EULA was all common sense stuff. The only part of the EULA that I thought was strange was where it said that if you want to terminate your license agreement, you are required to destroy your copy of Zeta, and any backup copies that you might have made. That isn’t the strange part. The strange part was the next sentence where it then says that you also agree to return the product to the company if you wish to terminate your license agreement. I thought it was odd that you had to destroy the product, and return it. Moving on…
2. The only complaint I had with the installer was that the partitioning tool was too basic. I decided to install Zeta to a hard-drive that previously had Linux installed on it. The partitioner would not delete my old Linux partitions. That was not a big deal (for me). I booted my Damn Small Linux mini-CD, deleted the partitions, and then restarted the Zeta install. I had no further issues with the installer.
Up and running
The first time I installed Zeta, I did a normal install (the path of least resistance. Fewest questions anyway). The vast majority of programs that were installed with the normal install were pretty terrible, to say the least, and made the menu system appear very cluttered (during a subsequent re-install, I chose the custom option and eliminated almost all of the programs).
Most of my primary system hardware was found and was working properly. USB mouse, DVD-ROM drive, sound card, video card, and so on. However, Zeta did not find my Netgear 802.11b PCI Adapater (model MA311), nor my onboard ethernet NIC’s (i later noticed that the ZetaPC-Info tool, located under Zeta -> Software -> System -> ZetaPC-Info 1.1, did at least see that my onboard NIC was there. It was listed properly as 3Com – 3C920B-EMB – Integrated Fast Ethernet Controller. Apparently though, Zeta doesn’t have a kernel driver/module for that NIC at this time).
Fortunately I had an extra Netgear PCI 10/100Mb (model FA311) adapter sitting in a drawer which Zeta was able to use. I powered my machine down, unplugged the power cord, installed the NIC, and powered the machine back up. When Zeta rebooted, I went to the network preferences and proceeded to setup the network card. There was quite literally nothing to it. It “just worked”. I didn’t have to specify a kernel module, locate a driver, or anything like that.
I wasn’t thrilled about the default look of the system, so I visited the appearance tab in the preferences panel and tried out the various themes that were available. I didn’t really like any of the decor options, and there weren’t many to choose from, but I decided that “Smoke” was the best looking option (for me). The “Smoke” decor reminded me of the BlackBox window manager for the X Window System.
Shortly after setting up my decor, I saw a popup prompting me for my serial Number and activation key. I looked at my Zeta box and couldn’t find it. I looked on the CD and it wasn’t printed there either. I looked on the postcard that came with the CD and it said “ZETA Version 1.0 Activation Keys” on the top of it. However, down at the bottom where the serial number and activation key were supposed to be printed, there was only blank space. “Oh great. They forgot to include an activation key”, I thought. The popup option had a “later” option so I just clicked that and the popup went away. I went back to exploring the system.
One thing I found rather odd about Zeta was that it uses CTRL+TAB to perform the function that is “normally” done with ALT+TAB (Microsoft Windows uses ALT+TAB, as does OS/2, and most Window Managers that I’ve used with the X Window System). I understand the reason for CTRL+TAB in Zeta is due to the fact that BeOS was developed for Apple hardware in the 1990’s [ed. note: Mac OS uses Apple’s equiv. of the alt key as shortcut key]. Regardless, I didn’t want to get used to CTRL+TAB because I would only find it confusing when I sat back down at my Linux desktop.
Fortunately, there was a setting in the keyboard preferences for “shortcut key”. The default “shortcut key” is ALT. I changed it to CTRL (that probably sounds like I’m stating it backwards, but that’s really how it is). At that point, ALT+TAB would cycle through windows. If you press ALT and then press and hold TAB for more than a second, it brings up the “twitcher”. The twitcher is just a small window that shows you an icon of each application that is running. With the twitcher window open, you can press TAB multiple times to switch directly to a given application (personally, I would prefer that the twitcher was visible by default, without the need to press and hold TAB).
The ALT+TAB functionality didn’t behave quite how I am use to. In Zeta, ALT+TAB cycles through each application in order every time you press ALT+TAB. In the various window managers I have used with the X Window System, ALT+TAB usually starts with the last window that was focused. That allows you to easily ALT+TAB back and forth between two windows. With Zeta, if you have more than two windows open, you have to cycle through at least one extra window to get back to the previously focused window. If you have 8 or 9 windows open, it becomes quite cumbersome to get back to the previously focused window (if there is a way to change that behavior, I never found it).
Some people might be contented to right click the title bar of the window to send the top window to the back of the window stack [ed. note: default behaviour in BeOS/Zeta]. But I prefer to keep my hands on the keyboard whenever possible. So the idea of ALT+TAB’ing through a stack of windows is rather unappealing (to me). And taking my hands off the keyboard just to reach over to the mouse, position the mouse cursor over the title bar, and finally right clicking to send the window to the back is equally unappealing.
Zeta has support for virtual desktops built-in. Some people don’t like virtual desktops, but others, such as myself, can’t live without them. The virtual desktop support in Zeta feels well integrated. It’s obvious that virtual desktops weren’t an afterthought with BeOS. Rather the idea of virtual desktops was designed into the operating system from the beginning (some operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and OSX have 3rd party addons which allow for pseudo virtual desktop support. But they feel like a dirty hack to me). There is a desktop pager utility called “Workspaces” that is updated in real time. You can move windows between desktops simply by dragging and dropping them within the Workspaces utility.
Zeta 1.1 comes with Firefox version 1.6a1. It was good to see that Zeta had at least one major browser. Without a major browser, Zeta would be useless to many people. Zeta also comes with a browser called NetPositive. The inclusion of that browser seems utterly pointless to me. It’s so outdated that it can’t render any but the most basic of websites. It’s also rather dumb that you can’t choose to not install it, even if you do a custom install.
Zeta also comes with an office suite called Gobe Productive (‘go be productive’). Some people would probably take one look at Gobe, assume it was antiquated to the point of being useless, close it out, and never look at it again. In my opinion though, it’s quite useful. I’m a minimalist. An office suite like Gobe reminds me of how hopelessly bloated Microsoft Office has become.
Gobe doesn’t “look pretty”. In other words, it’s very fast and efficient. Gobe would certainly be all I would ever need in an office suite (granted, my office suite “needs” are pretty minimal). That said, I recognize the importance of being able to open Microsoft Office documents. So it will be nice to see OpenOffice ported to Zeta (an OpenOffice port is in the works). I also think Abiword is a great, full featured word processing program. It would be nice if Zeta were able to port that over [ed. note: Abiword has been available for BeOS for quite some time].
In my opinion, every operating system needs a simple text editor. Zeta has one and it is called StyleEdit. StyleEdit is just an extremely light weight text editor (think Windows’ notepad.exe).
After messing with StyleEdit for a few minutes, Zeta again prompted me for my serial number and activation key. I checked out my Zeta CD box again and still couldn’t find it. Finally, by accident, I happened to flip the postcard over. The one entitled “ZETA Version 1.0 Activation Keys”. On the back of that card I found the serial number and activation key. I typed in my key, clicked the button, the program “phoned home”, and just a moment later it let me know that my information was accepted.
In watching the activation process communicate back to the Zeta website, I was reminded of the fact that the EULA did say that a person was allowed to install Zeta onto multiple machines that they owned as long as they didn’t run them at the same time. For example, you could run Zeta on your desktop, and on your laptop, and you wouldn’t require a second license as long as you didn’t run them at the same time. Of course, there isn’t a technical limitation preventing you from doing so. It’s just how the license agreement reads.
Zeta comes with a program it calls “DVD Player” (which is actually a port of VLC). Calling it “DVD Player” is inaccurate though. VLC is capable of playing all kinds of video and audio files. Ironically, in my tinkering with Zeta, playing DVD’s was the only thing I could not get “DVD Player” to do :). With mpg, xvid, mov, or even vob files, the “DVD Player” program would at least play them. Sort of. The high quality videos I had were skipping really bad. It was as if my CPU was being choked. But according to the CPU utilization meter, the CPU wasn’t going over 50% usage. So I’m not sure what the problem was. It’s interesting to note that BeOS (hence, Zeta) is supposed to be the multimedia OS. Right?
Zeta comes with a music player simply called “Media Player”. It’s a very light weight player that is capable of playing many formats “out of the box”, including MP3. It handles streaming audio from the Internet and has the minimum features you would want such as repeat, shuffle, and playlists. For many people, anything more than that is considered bloat. Personally, I’ve kind of outgrown the ultra basic media player programs. I would prefer a program like RhythmBox that allows me to rate music and create a music library. But for my occasional Zeta usage, the included Media Player program works just fine.
All of my music is stored on a network attached storage device. By using Zeta’s WindowsNetworks application, I was able to mount my music share quickly and easily. The WindowsNetworks application provides you with a graphical tool to mount Windows or Samba shares. It has fields for username and password, share name, server IP address, workgroup, and server name. I entered in my username and password, the share name I wanted to mount, and the IP address of my NAS. I then clicked “mount network drive” and the share was instantly mounted.
The primary tool used in navigating the Zeta file system is called Tracker. Tracker is like Explorer in Windows, or Finder in Mac OSX. Tracker is extremely fast. Navigating from one directory (folder) to another is instantaneous. A directory full of images will show up as thumbnails. The thumbnails are large enough to get an accurate idea of what the image is. And each thumbnail has a subtle dropshadow to improve the aesthetics of the directory display.
By default, double clicking an image will open it in a program called ShowImage. As with all other Zeta applications, ShowImage is very light weight. It’s just an image viewer, not an editor. It has the option to go into full screen mode and it is capable of doing slide shows. ShowImage also has zooming options to make sure the image will be scaled down to fit within the confines of the window. And if you resize the window, the image is automatically resized to fit (that is such a basic concept, but I can’t tell you how many image viewing programs don’t do that. Or at least, they don’t do it well).
Zeta comes with a few basic servers such as ftp, telnet, and ssh. These are disabled by default (which is a good thing). They can be enabled by going to the network preferences, editing the profile for a given network device, and then selecting the services tab. At present though, these services seem to be intended to only ever be used by the owner of the system (i.e. yourself). You can only set 1 username and password for the entire services list. You can’t setup multiple accounts. You can’t even set up a different account for ftp and ssh! They aren’t totally useless though by any means. It is certainly nice to be able to securely copy files to/from your own machine when you are at a remote location. Zeta comes with OpenSSH. The other servers include finger, ftp, netperf, qotd, and telnet. I would just forget those even exist. They are just going to open your system up to potential hacking.
Zeta also comes with an obscurely named program called PoorMan. PoorMan is a basic http server. It’s not found in the same location as the other servers. It’s located under Zeta -> Software -> Network -> PoorMan. It’s not an extremely capable http server, but it is very simple to use. I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone use it on a publicly accessible network such as the Internet though. But if you are on a trusted local area network and you want to host a few HTML pages, PoorMan would get the job done (or if you are behind a firewall and you only allowed access to the server from known IP addresses).
I was disappointed, and a bit surprised, to find that Zeta is a single user operating system (but let me mention right up front that Zeta 1.5 will be multi-user). But at present, anyone that sits down at the system has full administrative access (“root” access). Running with full administrative access to the system all the time is a really bad idea. Microsoft has taught us that. I was surprised to see that a commercial operating system under active development in modern times wouldn’t be more security minded. In 1986, it was understandable. In 2006, it’s not.
When I plugged my 64MB USB thumbdrive into the computer with Zeta up and running, nothing happened. I didn’t get an icon on the desktop. At first, I thought I had disabled automatic mounting. If you right click on the desktop, and go to mount, and then choose settings, there are a few different options for mounting. Including the ability to disable the automatic mounting of devices.
But when I checked the mount settings, automount was enabled. So I then went to the preferences panel and brought up the USB tab. From there, I could see that Zeta did recognize my USB thumbdrive, but I had no options to mount it. I closed down the Preferences and then went to Zeta -> Preferences -> Drive Setup (it’s weird that all other preferences can be accessed from the preferences panel. However, drive setup and e-mail can only be accessed from the preferences menu hierarchy. I wonder what is up with that?). From the drive setup utility, I could see that Zeta knew my thumbdrive was formatted as Ext2, and I was able to mount it.
I later realized I could have more easily mounted the thumbdrive by right clicking the desktop, going to mount, and then selecting the thumbdrive device. I simply didn’t notice it before, even though I had gone into that exact menu location. Of course, once the device is mounted, you can drag and drop files to/from it using tracker.
I have a Canon PowerShot SD450 digital camera. When I plugged the camera into the computer with Zeta running, I noticed the camera was correctly identified by the USB preferences panel, which I still had up on the screen (though, had I not had the USB preferences in front of me, there would have been no other visual clues the camera had been recognized by the operating system. Personally, I don’t mind that. In fact, I prefer it. I don’t like popup bubbles, barking puppy dogs, and talking paper clips).
I then went to Zeta -> Software -> Tools -> PhotoGrabber to see if I could download the images from my camera (putting the PhotoGrabber program in the Tools menu seems like an odd place to put it in my opinion).
At first, PhotoGrabber didn’t seem to know my camera was there. So I selected the file menu drop down and went to preferences. In there I saw that the option for PTP USB camera was set to type 1. I set it to type 2 and then exited the preferences. I still didn’t see anything in PhotoGrabber so I exited the program and restarted it. When PhotoGrabber came back up, I could see my images. At that point it was a simple matter of clicking on the pictures I wanted, and then clicking the download button.
For another bit of hardware testing, I plugged my Sony DCR-PC5 digital video camera into the firewire port of my computer (again, there was no visual feedback to let me know anything had happened). When I went to Zeta -> Software -> Video -> dvg, and then clicked “video preview”, I got a nice large window showing me the video feed from my camera. I didn’t have to change any settings or configure anything. I didn’t attempt to download or capture video from my camera at that time. I’m not really into video editing that much. At that point, I just wanted to see if Zeta would find my video camera.
While testing my USB memory card reader, I managed to totally lockup the computer. There was no response from the mouse. The cursor was frozen in place on the screen. And when I pressed the num lock key on the keyboard, the LED didn’t go off. After a minute, I hit the reset button on the computer. The computer rebooted quickly. Zeta didn’t complain about an improper shutdown, but right about the time when you would expect to see your Deskbar, and desktop icons, the system did nothing. I moved the mouse and the cursor was responding, so I waited a couple of minutes. I quickly grew tired of waiting so I reached down and unplugged the USB memory card reader. As soon as I unplugged it, the system finished booting. Apparently there was some kind of hardware conflict.
I rebooted my machine, went into the BIOS and disabled the onboard firewire card. After rebooting back into Zeta, I was then able to plug in the USB memory card reader without causing the machine to hang, but it still didn’t work. The USB preferences panel confirmed that Zeta could “see” the memory card reader, but the machine was still behaving strangely (i.e. was laggy/unresponsive).
Finally, I got a popup message that said “Tracker: unexpected thread error. Should an attempt be made to continue running?” The options were “continue”, or “give up”. I clicked “give up” but I could tell my mouse input wasn’t being accepted. I clicked the Zeta menu just to make sure the system was still responding. The Zeta menu came up, so I decided to reboot, unplug the problematic hardware for the time being, and move on to some other hardware.
I have a Hewlett Packard OfficeJet G85 printer which is attached to an HP JetDirect 170X print server. Setting up my printer under Zeta was quite simple. I went to the printer preferences panel, clicked add printer, and simply completed the printer setup guide. The list of printers was extensive, and my printer was listed by exactly the right manufacturer and model number. When asked about my type of connection, I chose network -> HP Jetdirect, typed in the IP address of my printer, and then printed a test page. It worked beautifully.
I plugged my Logitech USB headset (model 250) into the computer. It did appear in the USB preferences panel, but I couldn’t make it work. I went into the media preferences panel and the Logitech headset did not appear in the list of output devices. My guess is Zeta doesn’t have a USB audio driver.
I think Zeta has a lot of potential. Zeta is very different from Windows, OSX, and the two “big” X Window System desktops, GNOME and KDE. If you like light weight window managers for the X Window System, you would probably admire Zeta. The responsiveness of the user interface is far better than what I’m use to with the X Window System or OSX. In many ways, it’s far more responsive than Microsoft Windows. And in general, the user interface is just “cool”, though some people might not like it. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of alternative operating systems and doing things in a variety of ways.
If you are all about desktop “eye candy”, where you are more concerned about your desktop “looking cool” than actually being useful, then Zeta is definitely not for you. I’m not opposed to a desktop looking great, as long as it doesn’t slow the system down. I’m quite excited about the development going on with X.org where it will take full advantage of modern video hardware. But for operating systems that don’t utilize the capabilities of modern video hardware, I’d just as soon have everything lean and clean. Low latency.
All said, as it stands right now, I can’t really recommend Zeta for anyone outside of someone that just wants to play. Most of the included programs are so bad that I wouldn’t even recommend installing them. And finding programs to do what you want is going to be challenging. But if you don’t care for Linux/FreeBSD, and your hardware is supported by Zeta, and you are able to find a program for each thing you want to do, Zeta is certainly worth considering!
If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.