Review: BeOS Release 3
Release 3 of the BeOS represents the first commercially available non-prerelease version of the BeOS. As a commercially available piece of software it is now subject to the excessively harsh reviewing standards of ATPM and its staff. However, reviewing an entire operating system in a few short pages is a difficult task. In truth it is far more appropriate to discuss the BeOS than it is to review it. The BeOS is not like most other products on the market for the Macintosh (or for the Intel platform for that matter). What I will do in the next few pages is attempt to outline the unique nature of the BeOS and discuss its features and behaviors.
The BeOS is a modern-day operating system in every way, supporting all of the wonderful features Apple promises to implement in future releases of the Mac OS. For example, the BeOS supports preemptive multitasking, protected memory, virtual memory (no not the slow kind...the fast kind!), a shell with a command prompt, fully native code (i.e. the BeOS code is 100% native PowerPC code), and a host of other features as well.
However, the BeOS is an entirely separate and distinct entity from the Mac OS, which is to say that the BeOS will not run Mac OS applications (actually there is an application called SheepShaver which runs Mac OS applications while in the BeOS but that’s another review unto itself!) and visa versa. The brains at Be have, however, designed the BeOS with the Macintosh in mind. HFS (not HFS+), DOS, and UNIX volumes, local or remote, can be mounted (see Figure 1), icons are preserved, and files can be copied to and from these mounted volumes.
Furthermore Be includes two helper files to ease the coexistence of the BeOS and Mac OS on your machine: BeOS Launcher, an application, and OS Chooser, a system extension. Double clicking the BeOS Launcher from within the Finder will shut down the Mac OS and launch the BeOS, a nice touch. The OS Chooser extension will, at startup, allow the user to choose which OS to load, Mac or Be, and if no choice is specified within five seconds the OS chosen at last startup will be loaded again. This is a tremendous time saver as the OS Chooser loads early in the Mac’s startup process. Unfortunately there is no way to switch from the BeOS to the Mac OS, i.e. there is no Mac OS Launcher application. Not a big gripe but it would be a nice touch. Also, I expect it would be fairly simple for the folks at Be to write a system extension enabling the Mac OS to mount Be partitions. As of yet there is no way to mount a Be partition, local or remote, in the Mac finder. You can FTP/telnet to your BeOS machine but this is not as slick. Again, a small complaint.
The CD which comes with the BeOS has Mac OS, Intel, and Be partitions on it, which is really snazzy. From the Mac OS you can install the BeOS by selecting a partition, or an entire drive, to initialize in Be format. Then the BeOS will boot from the CD and install the OS onto that partition, a somewhat time consuming process. The BeOS is compatible with most PowerPC-based Macintosh machines and clones. It is not compatible with PowerBooks however. To see which machines are compatible and which are not check out:
One noteworthy exception to the BeOS’ support of the PowerPC series of processors is the G3 processor. Be claims that the BeOS is in fact compatible with the G3 processor itself, but that Apple’s new logic board designs on their Power Macintosh G3 machines are incompatible with the BeOS. Of course, Apple has withheld information from Be which would enable Be to facilitate the new changes in these logic board designs. However, if you are using a system which has been upgraded to a G3 processor from a previous PowerPC processor you may be in luck! If your system, before the upgrade, is compatible with the BeOS, then your system, even after the G3 upgrade, will run the BeOS in all likelihood, although Be doesn’t guarantee compatibility with any G3 based system at this point in time. My system, a Power Macintosh 8500/120, which was compatible with the BeOS, was recently upgraded to a 275 MHz. G3 w/1 MB of cache with a card from Newer Technologies. This new machine ran the BeOS (and wow was it nice and fast!) with no problems. However, I chose to run the BeOS full time on a machine I have sitting next to my upgraded 8500, a PowerTower 240, a 604e with a 60 MHz. bus. This machine also ran the BeOS with no problems, although it wasn’t as fast as my G3 system was...oh well.
The BeOS seemed to deal with all of my Macintosh hardware flawlessly. It handled my internal video (I could even display 32-bit color!), internal Ethernet, multibutton mouse, hard drives, CD-ROM drives, floppy drives, everything. Not a hitch. I was able to setup my modem, a PPP connection to my ISP and surf the Web (see Figure 2), read news groups, send e-mail, browse FTP archives (see Figure 3), and even load up an ICQ client and chat with some friends. One problem I did encounter...I was able to print to my HP LaserJet 4000N using the generic LaserWriter printer description successfully, however when I tried to copy over my LaserJet 4000N PPD file from the Mac to the BeOS, the Be Print Server crashed on it. Not a huge problem but Be did claim that you could use Mac PPDs with the BeOS.
As a seasoned Mac user who absolutely cannot stand any other operating system, its GUI, or its behaviors, I was very dubious regarding my transition to the BeOS. My attitude towards the Mac OS can be summarized by the latest Levis Jeans advertisement campaigns: “Accept no substitute.” I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that the BeOS takes a strong second place to the Mac OS! The GUI is a bit different, I’m not sure if I find it that attractive in all honesty (it’s kind of like Windows, only after the Jetsons have redecorated it), but that’s really beside the point.
There are some nice touches. Text, for example, is anti-aliased throughout the OS. And finally: another operating system now exists in which, unlike Windows and other operating systems around the globe, the cursor actually moves naturally, as it does on the Mac. Unlike Windows, where dialog boxes offering three buttons “Yes”, “No”, and “Cancel”, also have a completely moronic close box at the upper right, the BeOS offers many of the same interface niceties of the Mac OS, but often improves upon them in many other ways.
First of all, as is now the case with Mac OS 8, a window may be dragged from any point on its frame. A really nice improvement is that any window can be resized. If there is no grow box, simply click on the frame in the lower right where the grow box ordinarily would be (there are two hash marks there for windows with no grow boxes, one on the right frame and one on the bottom) and resize the window! Of course, windows dynamically reflow their content as you resize them or move them which is very nice. Likewise, just as moving a window is a realtime event, so is scrolling one. Scrollbars are also proportional, as they should be.
Double clicking the title bar of a window will hide it. To retrieve it go to the Task Bar (I’m getting to this... give me a chance) and select it from the application’s window list. This is not as cool as OS 8's popup window scheme but it’s still handy. One other really cool feature I like, that Apple has promised for OS 8.5, is that the BeOS saves your all of your file searches. So if you search for “my thesis” it will save that in a file that you can double click to repeat the search. It’s a very useful feature.
The BeOS also has a wonderful feature entitled Replicators. This functionality behaves much like Apple had hoped OpenDoc would. For example, let’s say you’re typing up a paper in a word processor. Then you need a data table. Well rather than using a table feature in your word processor, you open up your spreadsheet and drag the spreadsheet window into the word processor’s window. No problem. You can still manipulate and utilize that data and that application’s functions as before, but now it is contained within the word processor. Basically it’s like Publish and Subscribe or OpenDoc on heavy duty steroids.
The easiest way to demonstrate this functionality is to open up NetPositive, the Web browser for the BeOS and drag a browser window to the desktop. Now you have that Web page and its window as a part of the Tracker application. It’d be like having a Netscape or Internet Explorer
window sitting on your Finder desktop under the Mac OS. It’s ideal for Internet links within other documents, presentations for example. A slide show could easily contain a live Web page. Similarly, the BeOS also supports clippings, as does the Mac OS. Simply drag a selected line of text or other object to the desktop and a clipping file will appear.
Making the transition from the Mac OS to the Be, both in terms of look and feel and actual behavior, is really not difficult. The Be equivalent of the Finder on the Macintosh is the “Tracker”. The tracker performs similar tasks to the Finder: it provides a GUI for organizing files and folders, it associates files with their respective applications, it enables applications to be launched, files to be moved and copied (Figure 5) and so on. In general the BeOS behaves more like the Mac OS than any other OS. Double clicking in a text field will select a word, triple clicking a sentence and so on. In fact the learning curve is so flat for the Tracker that I wouldn’t expect any Mac users to have difficulty switching. There are contextual menus (see Figure 6), and the mouse and keyboard commands are almost the same in every case.
Some of this complaining is a little uncalled for because Be applications boot so quickly it’s almost trivial. Furthermore, the OS is really designed to run multiple instances of one application to prevent you from losing a lot of work in progress if an application crashes. For example, it would be more appropriate to run two copies of a DTP application for the BeOS, each with its own separate publication open, rather then running once copy of the same application with two open documents, because if that one copy crashed you’d lose any unsaved work on both documents whereas if you ran two copies you’d never lose more than one copy’s unsaved work. However, it isn’t always desirable to go around running multiple copies of the same application, and it certainly isn’t always intuitive to have to leave a window open in an application to
prevent it from closing. In truth this is my biggest complaint with the BeOS. Most every other behavior and characteristic of the OS is a welcome improvement over existing ones.
The BeOS has some fantastic advantages over other operating systems. Its advantages over the Mac OS are obvious, preemptive multitasking, protected memory, virtual memory, etc. The advantages over other operating systems such as Windows are that the BeOS can harness the power of the PowerPC processor and do so in an entirely native operating system.
The good news is that the BeOS is really really fast. Not only does it crank big time but it’s a real showoff, too. It’s thoroughly threaded, which translates to such awe-inspiring demonstrations as running movies, fractal renderers, 3D renderers, MOD players, MIDI players, sound players, CD players, and an interactive Quicktime VR type movie all at once.
Now yes things tend to get a bit sluggish once you pile all of those applications one on top of another, (especially with my pathetically slow SCSI bus on the old PowerTower) but the BeOS handles it with exceptional grace. The Mac would’ve probably crashed or come to a screaming halt. Windows wouldn’t be able to do it as quickly unless you ran it on an Alpha or some other overpriced piece of hardware that isn’t plug-and-play. Windows NT and the other family of Microsoft products claim to support preemptive multitasking, but because threading is not as integral a part of the API as it is in the BeOS, there is really no comparison.
Every BeOS application from the simplest little text editor to the most complicated application is threaded to a significant extent, and that makes a tremendous difference. The BeOS is also designed with multiple processors in mind. The BeBox, the machine which Be designed to run the BeOS when no other machine could, was a computer with four PowerPC 603 processors. The BeOS appropriately divided up the workload over these four processors and even allowed you to switch them off one at a time, which was really cute. Pulse, an included system application will display the “load” on all currently installed processors (Figure 7).
The BeOS was designed from the ground up to handle intense workloads like no other OS can. And it succeeds. Virtual memory works exceedingly well, so well that you hardly know its there. Protected memory? Works like a charm. Crash an application and a little dialog box pops up (see Figure 8). Want more information? Click “Details” (see Figure 9) the BeOS can tell you where in the application the problem occurred. If you need even more information you can jump into the debugger. The BeOS is capable of handling extremely demanding workloads right on your current Mac hardware.
Part of that speed can be attributed to the fact that the BeOS has a very fast and sophisticated file system. The PowerTower machine I have the BeOS running on has an old sluggish SCSI-1 bus which crawls under the Mac OS. Under BeOS however it seemed to be nice and peppy. Of course an Ultra SCSI-2 drive would’ve seemed a lot more peppy! Furthermore, the file system on the BeOS is 64-bit, which means that it can recognize and deal with volumes of terabyte size or greater.
Mac users love the Mac OS GUI dearly, but some of us power users really do wish there were a shell. The BeOS was designed with that need in mind. The shell (Figure 10), which shares essentially the same syntax as the UNIX shell, is accessed through a little application called Terminal. As with UNIX if you Telnet into a machine running BeOS on a network, you will be logged into the BeOS shell.
Speaking of the shell, the BeOS has some really nice networking features. First of all, it has a built-in FTP/telnet server, which is great. I was able to FTP and telnet to my BeOS system from my Mac with no problems. The BeOS also comes with PoorMan, a personal Web server for the BeOS. While it’s not likely to run a large corporate Web site with great speed, and it can’t handle CGIs or scripting, it should handle a personal Website, or a school’s Website easily and is extremely easy to setup. While I was unable to run any benchmarks, I would wager that
PoorMan is faster than WebStar or NetPresenz, although it might not be able to compete with WebTen. Regardless it’s free and has an incredibly flat learning curve. When and if a serious Web server application, with CGI and scripting capabilities is developed for the BeOS it will absolutely crank.
The BeOS also supports IP forwarding (IP aliasing/gateways). If you have a classroom of computers and only one modem, or ISDN connection, or an Ethernet connection connected to a switched 56k line or T1 or whatever, the BeOS will serve as a router for all the other machines on the network. So essentially you can use one modem, or ISDN connection to serve an entire classroom or building’s Internet access. Ideally the machine running the BeOS with IP forwarding turned on would be used for nothing else, as this is a very demanding task. It is a cheaper option than purchasing Internet Gateway for the Macintosh, and it is almost certainly faster.
The biggest drawback to the BeOS is its support base. I am not referring to Be itself, for Be, every step of the way, has outstanding support. Their Website, their manual, and their nifty application, the “Software Valet” that automatically downloads and installs updates and applications for you are all outstanding. I am referring to the software library for the BeOS. While there are a surprisingly large number of applications available for the BeOS, there are no large software publishers currently writing for it. If, for example, Adobe came out with Photoshop, or PageMaker; or if Microsoft came out with Word or Excel for the BeOS there would be a larger migration of Mac or Windows users to BeOS.
Unfortunately there are only small software developers coding for the BeOS. The good news is that much of the software they are writing is really good stuff. The bad news is that none of it is really mainstream enough to convert professional users. I could switch to the BeOS tomorrow and while I would struggle, I would live. But could the pre-press lab down the street? No. They’d be out of business in 24 hours. That’s really the problem. The kind of performance the BeOS offers is deserving of more demanding software, which as of yet, is not available. This is the next big step for the BeOS in my opinion: gaining support of developers.
While the BeOS is in great need of support from large software publishes, there are some small software companies that are cranking out really outstanding applications for the BeOS. It is important to recognize these companies and their products because while the BeOS doesn’t have the support from developers that the Mac OS or most any other OS has, it would be a terrible mistake to state that it doesn’t have a software base at all, it merely has a small, tightly woven one.
One example of an outstanding product for the BeOS is Gobe Productive (Figure 11), a ClarisWorks-type application for the BeOS from Gobe Software http://www.gobe.com.
Another example of an outstanding product, which many of our readers may be familiar with from the Macintosh world, is GraphicConverter, which is available for the BeOS from Foundation Technologies, firstname.lastname@example.org. It offers the same fantastic support for dozens of graphic formats and functions.
Another great company that has developed several applications for the BeOS is BeatWare, http://www.beatware.com. BeBasics is another ClarisWorks type application, BeStudio provides paint and draw capabilities in a very slick package, and Mail-It (Figure 12) is a very nice Claris Emailer-like e-mail client for the BeOS.
Without question, however, the most impressive software publishes for the BeOS is Adamation http://www.adamation.com. This company is designing software that essentially explains why the BeOS was invented. AudioElements, their sound editing program, is an intensely powerful sound editing suite with an “element”-based interface unique to Adamation. ImageElements is their version of PhotoShop for the BeOS. Again, utilizing a unique “element”-based interface they have created a very impressive product.
Without question though, the product all BeOS users are amazed by is studioA, Adamation’s version of ‘Macromedia Director meets Adobe Premiere meets the BeOS.’ This application can utilize ImageElements and AudioElements as plug ins, so to speak, and promises unprecedented speed in the world of digital media (Figure 13). Many of these applications are available directly through Be’s own online software store: BeDepot http://www.bedepot.com. So, yes there is good software out for the BeOS, but the problem is that none of it comes from any of the industry giants upon whom professionals depend.
SheepShaver could easily justify an entire review of its own, but since this review has grown long-winded enough as it is, I’ll try to keep this brief. SheepShaver is a BeOS application which will actually run the Mac OS and its applications inside the BeOS. The two geniuses who wrote SheepShaver, Christian Bauer and Mar”c” Hellwig, state that SheepShaver is not an emulator, rather the Mac OS and its applications run native under the PowerPC processor and Mac ROMs which are still present on a Power Macintosh or clone running the BeOS. Now obviously you cannot use SheepShaver on BeOS for Intel to run the Mac OS, as there is a different processor on an Intel machine and there are no Macintosh ROMs either. Regardless, SheepShaver is a remarkable piece of software. I managed to boot my copy of the Mac OS (Figure 14) under SheepShaver (after turning off a few extensions such as RAM Doubler and Speed Doubler) and boot up some applications as well.
The biggest problem I ran into was that the window which contained the Mac OS was a bit sluggish to draw. However, when I switched to full screen mode (you must register your version to enable this feature) the pace picked up quite a bit. The coolest feature of SheepShaver is that, because the BeOS integrates Workspaces so well into the API, you can set it up in a separate Workspace and then use the keyboard to switch between Workspaces. So for example, you could be running Photoshop in SheepShaver in WorkSpace 1, and GraphicConverter in BeOS in WorkSpace 2. Just hit Command-F1 and Command-F2 to switch from full-screen Mac OS to full-screen BeOS in a matter of seconds. It’s very slick, much slicker than running the Mac OS in a window.
I ran Marathon and Marathon 2 and was able to achieve over 25 fps. in thousands of colors, which is close to what I achieve running under the Mac OS without SheepShaver. I ran Photoshop, ClarisWorks, and a number of applications under SheepShaver without fail. However, ZTerm was unable to open either serial port. The authors admit that serial port communications tend to crash or cause problems within SheepShaver. I did not attempt to establish an Internet connection with the Mac OS under SheepShaver, however I have heard that this does work well.
SheepShaver does have another small problem. It doesn’t draw colors accurately when in thousands or millions of colors. According to the authors, the only truly accurate color depth is 8-bit. Any higher bit depths are inaccurate because of different addressing modes in the BeOS and Mac OS. Regardless, this does present a problem for color calibration and Photoshop work under SheepShaver. However for most intents and purposes SheepShaver is a convenient addition to the BeOS. Data may be copied and pasted from and to Mac OS and BeOS applications. Also SheepShaver will enable you to use HFS+ volumes under the BeOS since it runs the Mac OS in a window, and the Mac OS can mount HFS+ volumes itself. For a mere $50 this is one amazing piece of software that helps bridge the gap between the BeOS and the Mac OS. No BeOS PowerPC user should Be without this!
Be will no doubt hang me for writing this but the BeOS is probably best summarized as the coolest toy I have played with in a long long time. The problem is that it’s not a toy at all...in fact it makes the Mac OS look like a toy! There are so many things about the BeOS that I absolutely adore. There are characteristics of it that don’t thrill me, and some that even irk me. In general, though, I find using it a pleasant experience. It really shows off the potential of the PowerPC processor when a modern, native operating system is run. It proves that there is no reason in the world that the Macintosh hardware should play second fiddle to the Wintel world.
However, because of its lack of mainstream support, all of Be’s brilliance, ingenuity and hard work is somewhat insignificant. Granted that is only true as of this moment. If tomorrow Adobe announced Photoshop for the BeOS everything would change. Or would it? With Rhapsody on the way soon, and Mac OS 8.5 and X in the near future, the BeOS is sort of a cheap thrill. I don’t mean that in a bad way necessarily. It’s just that most users won’t gain much by investing in the BeOS, other than thumbing their noses at Windows NT users who think that their 400 MHz. Pentiums are really hard-core.
Some readers are probably asking themselves what the point of the BeOS really is? I mean, let’s face it, there is no support for Apple’s latest machines, there is little software available, Apple is bringing many of the features of the BeOS into its forthcoming OS releases which will run current Mac applications, etc. Be states on the back of the box for the BeOS that it is a “Media OS” in the sense that it is the first OS ever designed from the ground up to deal with high-bandwidth multimedia demands. They are certainly correct in their statement. The BeOS has the greatest potential of any existing OS for multimedia applications and other high bandwidth and processor intensive tasks. If Adobe Premiere existed for the BeOS it would smoke like nothing else. But it doesn’t exist.
It’s important to recognize that the BeOS is not intended specifically for the purpose of replacing the Mac OS. It can co-exist on a Mac, occupying a partition of an existing drive. It can even exist on a Jaz drive cartridge or other high capacity removable storage solution, although it certainly won’t run as quickly. Since the BeOS is also available for Intel machines, running the BeOS on a network of Macs and PCs might be the easiest solution to maintain cross compatibility. Many applications for the BeOS are available in both PowerPC and Intel versions, so cross compatibility is essentially a non-issue. As discussed earlier, the BeOS provides some very powerful networking capabilities at an extremely low price, and no investment in new hardware. Most important is this: the BeOS is available here and now. It’s the most sophisticated OS ever to run on Macintosh hardware out of the box.
Personally I simply appreciate progress of any kind on the Macintosh platform. The BeOS represents progress in its purest and most intense form...it’s a revolution for the PowerPC actually, the first modern operating system written and commercially released, native for the PowerPC. Purchasing and using the BeOS is just a way of reassuring myself that the PowerPC, particularly as it is implemented by Motorola and Apple, is truly the wave of the future, regardless of what operating system is used.
My conclusion? The BeOS is an impressive operating system with enormous potential. What it really needs now is serious support from software developers. In the mean time, with Rhapsody and Mac OS 8.5 and X on the way, an investment in the BeOS, while a small investment, is certainly a questionable one. Regardless, sitting down and witnessing the BeOS is something no Mac user should ever pass up.