In July 2005, OSNews reviewed the 1.0 version of what was then YellowTAB Zeta. I concluded: “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.” A lot has changed over the past 15 months; YellowTAB went belly-up, Magnussoft took over the development of Zeta, and to top it off, Zeta went multiuser. Not too long ago, Mangussoft released Zeta 1.5; here is my review.
As most of you will know, I am a huge fan of the BeOS. I still find that, relatively speaking, the BeOS is the best operating system ever designed. The addition of ‘relatively speaking’ is of course vital, since there is no way the original BeOS, Haiku, or Zeta can stand up to the behemoths of the desktop operating system world like Windows, OS X, and Linux. Therefore, I find comparing Zeta to these operating systems a pointless exercise; Zeta (or r5 for that matter) will suck compared to these two.
Hence, you must review Zeta in the proper context. The development team behind Zeta is small (I would hazard a guess that the design team behind Vista’s start button is larger), so you cannot expect them to achieve parity with the big ones. So, you must compare Zeta to comparable operating systems; however, which ones would that be? ReactOS? Syllable? SkyOS? That would be unfair to those projects; they are much smaller than Zeta in both userbase as well as developerbase. The conclusion one can draw is that Zeta 1.5 must be compared to its predecessors, like the 1.0 and 1.21 releases (as well r5). This is exactly what I will be doing in this review.
Installation and hardware recognition
Since I received the 1.5 update, I used the 1.21 install disc to install a fresh installation of Zeta 1.21 on which I could apply the update. Zeta’s installation has changed little between 1.0 and 1.21. It still uses the Paragon partitioning engine, with the same limitations as before: you can only resize partitions when there is unpartitioned space, and you cannot delete partitions either. In other words, you are forced to use a pre-existing partition. You can tweak the installation to only include those packages you want, but the defaults are in fact pretty sane (earlier versions of Zeta had a habit of installing lots of useless packages).
When the installation is done, you can reboot in order to apply the 1.5 update. The update uses an installer to perform its duties, and it works like a breeze. You are properly informed of what is going on (although the messages in English could use some love; the English is horrible), and during the installation you can continue to use your computer (by the way, for better-safe-than-sorry reasons, I would advice against doing that). When the actual installation is done, you are asked to enter a ‘root’ password, after which a reboot is necessary.
Upon reboot the first thing you will notice is that the artwork of the boot screen has been altered; newer icons, as well as the Magnussoft Zeta logo instead of the previous YellowTAB one. when booting is done, you are presented with a login screen, which supports user pictures. Since no new user had yet been created, it only showed the ‘root’ user. As a long-time BeOS fan I would have preferred it if the root user was called Baron, by the way. Bernd Korz also sent me a beta release of the first Zeta 1,5 service pack, due in the coming weeks. It fixes a few bugs found in the 1.5 release, and upgrades Zeta from version 1.5 to 1.51.
Hardware recognition is getting better with each release. Drivers are continuously added and improved, and Zeta is still the best ‘distribution’ of BeOS when it comes to getting it to run on your hardware. When it comes to peripherals, however, it is a different story. My printer works (as it did in Zeta 1.0), but sadly, my CanoScan LiDE 30 still refuses to give any sign of life in Zeta 1.5. My new digital camera (Pentax Optio 50) would not work either, for some mysterious, unknown reason. It is a standard camera, nothing fancy. The worst problem, however, remains Zeta’s inability to properly work with USB hubs. I have two of them (one 1.0 and one 2.0) but neither of them work. Zeta recognizes them; they are visible in the USB panel, but devices connected to it will fail to operate (i.e. my USB mouse which works fine when connected to my computer directly, but not when connected via a hub).
A few new applications have been added to Zeta, one of which is the CD burning applications MediaFire, which is based on the UNIX tools cdrecord, cdrdao, mkisofs, and so on. The “base” version can only write CDs, the “pro” version (which costs EUR 19,-) allows you to burn DVDs. This application does what it is supposed to do, and does it well.
Another new application I found more interesting: Audiotagger. This application allows you to transfer information found in .mp3 tags (such as artist, title, album) to BeFS attributes (on a per-track basis, or just all files at once). This is very important since BeFS can only find information stored in attributes. So, after transferring all information from tags to attributes, you can find your music using BeFS queries. The application also allows you to edit track information without copying between the two resources. The interface can be a little confusing at first sight.
The most important new application, however, is Communicator. In my 1.0 review, I stated that Zeta seriously failed in the instant messaging department; I advised YellowTAB to take a look at the famous im_kit, and they did. They gave im_kit an easier to use interface (im_kit required some BeFS query experience in order to be used properly). It can connect to AM, MSN, ICQ, Yahoo!, Jabber, GoogleTalk, and IRC. The application still needs some serious love though; I could not connect to my ICQ account, while MSN support is abysmal, at best (some messages do not arrive at my friends’ computers). The AIM protocol is well supported though. Since this is the first public release, I suppose it will get better over time. It has already improved a lot since the earlier beta versions I have used. In any case, I am anxiously waiting for it to get more stable because IM support was one of the two major roadblocks for me.
The other major roadblock is the lack of a decent office suite. Zeta 1.5 still ships the 7 (!) year old GoBE Productive, which is hopelessly outdated. I do not see this situation improving any time soon, since GoBE has no interest in BeOS anymore, and porting OpenOffice would mean little for me, as OpenOffice does not belong on the BeOS (that is the BeOS purist in me speaking). It is slow and heavy, and a port to Zeta will be riddled with bugs, rendering it even more unusable than it already is (you guessed it, I am no fan of OOo). Even though AbiWord was supposed to be in the 1.5 release, all I can find are its SVG icons; the actual application is not there.
For other tasks, Zeta comes equipped with enough applications to get you going. It comes with the BeAM email client, Firefox 2.0.2, as well as demo versions of Refraction, Wonderbrush, and Pixelshop. It has an iPod sync utility, as well as various audio editors. In the video department, it of course comes with YellowTAB’s own video editor as well as DVD Player (VideoLAN Client). Magnussoft has “integrated” VLC with Firefox, so that when you browse to a video file online, it will play in VLC when clicked. Oddly enough, they also set .sfw files (Flash) to be played with VLC, even though VLC cannot handle those.
Magnussoft also included a few emulators (including graphical frontends) in this release, two of which I want to highlight: DOSbox and Qemu. Using the DosBox emulator, I was able to play some old DOS games (Keen!), even though I had to edit the DOSbox config file in order to get some decent performance. The QemuVM frontend had problems in that it would not work correctly when using physical disks instead of image files.
WilmaCon is the application used to mount SAMBA shares on the Windows network, but sadly, it was unable to connect properly with my shares on my Vista machine. I blame this inability on Vista, by the way; I am assuming Microsoft has changed the way SAMBA works on Vista, and that Magnussoft has not yet had the opportunity to fix the issues.
The big new thing in 1.5 is of course the support for multiuser. Contrary to poular belief, BeOS was not a strictly single-user operating system; for POSIX compliance, a rudimentary form of file permissions was included. However, every file was always owned by ‘Baron’ (you). PhosphurOS, an illegal dano distribution, offered multi-user on BeOS in 2004, and now, Zeta offers the same functionality. Sadly, though, it does not seem to work as it should.
In the Preferences application, you can create new users, which will have their home directories in
/boot/users. You can then log out and log in as the newly created user.
There are numerous problems though. The file properties panel of a file created and owned by root says the file is owned by ‘thom’ (the new user) while this is in fact not true. There are more things that do not seem to make any sense. When you click the ‘home’ shortcut on the new user’s desktop, it will take you to root’s home, instead of the new user’s home directory in
/boot/users (see the screenshot).
There are things that do work, correctly. The desktop of the new user is indeed personalised, and the same goes for the Tracker and Deskbar settings. You also cannot edit/write outside of the new user’s home directory, but no messages appear when trying to do so; it will just not work. An alert of some sort would be appreciated.
In other words, multiuser in Zeta 1,5 still needs quite some work. This is certainly understandable (it is the first release, after all), but still, I do experience it as a slight let-down. A slight one, only, because I never really needed multi-user anyway. I mean, I am the only person who uses this computer.
General impressions and conclusions
Overall, stability has improved in ZETA. Especially Firefox does not crash every ten minutes anymore. The new applications are all stable (no crashes yet); the black sheep, however, of Zeta 1.5 is the Preferences application. In my Zeta 1.0 review I already complained about the fact that yT had chosen to create one Preference application, instead of the several individual panels used in r5. In Zeta 1.0 and 1.21, Preferences was fairly stable, but in 1.5, it crashes. A lot. Especially the Keyboard and Backgrounds sections are crash prone.
Slowly but surely, it feels as if Zeta is coming together. With each release, it is getting better, with better drivers and improved stability. Magnussoft and Bernd Korz are obviously listening to user feedback (the Communicator and multiuser being the prime examples of this), and on top of that, they are finetuning the amount of applications installed by default.
They are really trying to make the system as user friendly as possible, evidenced by the fact that even a major update such as 1.5 can be installed on an existing installation, without the need for a fresh installation. The service pack which upgrades zeta from 1.5 to 1.51 also installed in a breeze.
Is Zeta 1.5 a worthy upgrade over 1.0 or 1.21? I would say yes; the stability improvements, the multiuser support, and the new applications all add up to added value over previous releases. I would advice Magnussoft to make a full release available as soon as possible, instead of only the upgrade release. After the big ones (Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, BSD) Zeta certainly is the most viable alternative operating system.
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