Review: Syllable 0.6.1

Like many others, I was a long-time lurker on the atheos mailing list. I was happy to see it get forked, because it seemed to mean that some real progress would get made. In many ways that seems to have happened, and in others… Not so much. Note: This is the 3rd entry to our Alternative OS Contest which runs through 14th July! The last time I tried out Syllable was somewhere in the 0.5 release. The installation was terrible (but somewhat better than the original atheos install which required manual copying of files). Unfortunately, I never got the system to run on any “real” hardware that I have access to, which most includes Dell Optiplex systems of varying antiquity. I was finally able to use the system under VMware Player, and so that’s what I’ve stayed with.

The project makes it insanely easy to get the VMware image: its one of the standard distribution types for the project. I appreciated the effort that they went through to make it easy to try Syllable.

The pros of using the VMware image include not actually having to install anything. The system just comes right up. In theory you shouldn’t have hardware issues either, since the system uses the VMware normalized hardware interface. On the downside, it’s somewhat slower than it would be on real hardware.

What I Liked

The boot was pretty fast. I like all the kernel messages and initial programs spilling to the console: it gives me some idea what’s actually going on.

The GUI appears fully skinnable, and the default skin for my install was Photon, a QNX Photon-like appearance. I personally find this skin very agreeable. The rounded rectangle highlighting of selected items was also a nice touch. The GUI mostly seems to have a clean look to it, and uses attractive icons that seem to go well together.

Everything you need to use is available right from the desktop – which is good for newbies, even though I wouldn’t prefer that layout full-time. You don’t have to hunt for stuff.

The preferences menu is nicely laid out, and gives quick access to all the settings you need. The individual configuration applets still need some sprucing up, but they all seem straightforward enough.

The terminal is very friendly, has a good default color scheme, and supports everything I would expect in a modern console (like command history, command editing, backbuffer, etc.).

What I Didn’t Like

The interface feels clunky. I wish I could be less vague, but it’s just how it feels to me. In addition, the version I tested seems to have serious redraw problems that likely contributed to this feeling. While windows didn’t leave bits and pieces of themselves all over, windows that were under another window and were then raised did not refresh themselves. That left the interface in a strange state. Moving the mouse over the affected areas caused it to be redrawn correctly. In other cases, a brand new window (like the shutdown, restart, etc. windows) didn’t draw itself correctly in the first place.

The redraw problems may be related to the driver for VMware, since I noticed that sometimes minimizing the window and bringing it back up would cause a correct redraw to occur. I also suspect this to be the case since I experienced mouse issues, where I would click on some button, but nothing would happen. Several clicks later, it would work fine again for a while.

Networking didn’t work for me on boot. This was fine because I received an error message that I would have to reset networking. I quickly located the network preferences, but changing the settings there made no difference. I finally ended up rebooting the system in order to get networking to come up. If this is the intended functionality, a message informing the user to that effect would be appropriate.

That brings up another point: the quit window didn’t work. I tried rebooting using that interface several times, but nothing happened. I finally opened a terminal and typed reboot into that, which worked perfectly.

Bundled Apps

The basic package comes with a few basic apps, mostly what you’d expect: a browser, an editor, an image viewer, a calculator, even an e-mail client, and a chat program.

The editor, AEdit, seems to be a nice program. I was somewhat confused by the lack of Alt+XXX accelerators, but it does respond to the typical Ctrl+S type shortcuts. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get into the menu system without a mouse, but I don’t know if this was a conscious design decision, or just something that hasn’t been done yet. Other than that, I thought it was a useful program.

The e-mail client, Whisper, never did work for me. In fact, it locked up as soon as I tried to configure it. I didn’t investigate this very deeply, since my opinion is that the client should just work. Although, in its defense, it does claim to be alpha software.

The built-in browser, ABrowse, was functional but insanely slow. It also appears to have redraw problems. It’s better than nothing, but the project would do well to just port Firefox.

The chat client is a Jabber-based IM. It ran, but since I don’t have any Jabber accounts I didn’t try to connect and see if it functions. I did try to change some settings to see if it had problems similar to Whisper, but it worked just fine.

The distro also comes with a very nice calculator, called Albert. I appreciate that since, as a programmer, I often am annoyed when I want to do a moderately complex calculation, but can’t find any program in some OS to do it. You shouldn’t have to hunt for useful tools like that.


The OS has some promise, but it needs to apply some serious spit and polish to its general user interface if it wants to attract more users.

I keep trying to decide why I might use Syllable over, say, OpenBSD or Ubuntu… And I can’t think of any compelling reasons. The website lists five things that might be of interest to some people:

  1. Lack of legacy code
  2. Modern, queryable filesystem
  3. POSIX-compliance
  4. Fast boot
  5. Clean API

Of those five, the filesystem was perhaps the most compelling to me, but with projects like Beagle, it has become less so. The vast majority of their work, though, seems to be reinventing the wheel. At the moment, while I wish the Syllable team the best and I think it has real potential, I don’t find Syllable as exciting or interesting as I had hoped to.

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