By Russell Albach; reprinted from the July, 2000 issue of the PC Alamode
If most of you are like me, you would like a viable alternative to the Windows operating system. My personal views on Windows are well known to all who know me, and I have referred to those views in other reviews. Does that mean I have abandoned Windows? Nope. As the saying goes, I am crazy, not stupid. I have far too much invested in Windows to quit cold turkey. What I am doing, is looking for an operating system that actually works, allowing me to make full use of a computer. When I find that (or those) system(s), I will wean myself off Windows for good.
Some of these potential alternatives are familiar. Everyone has heard of UNIX, a major player in business and the Internet. Very robust and plenty of applications, but costly, hard to use, and generally not for the desktop. This includes the variants such as Solaris, SCO, etc.. There are two variants that work great on the desktop. Probably the more popular is Linux, an enterprise grade operating system that is free to obtain and use. BSD, developed by the University of California, Berkeley, is the other. It has the same basic features as Linux. Okay, you likely know of, if not about these two, but how many of you have heard of BeOS? Like Linux and BSD, it is robust, cheap, resource efficient, fast, and available. Naturally, all is not beer and skittles. Like Linux and BSD, it is not easy to install, and, while rapid progress is being made, does not have near the number of applications available for Windows.
I tried BeOS version 4.5, a full version you must buy, and version 5 Personal, available free. Version 5 Professional is the latest version, and I also have that, but time constraints due to this review, and some needed and not yet installed drivers prevented including this version at this time. Be is somewhat different from Linux or BSD, in that it is aimed at and intended for multimedia use and development. With that in mind, it probably is not a realistic substitute for Windows for the average user. You certainly can do word processing, time management, spreadsheet work, and the same general things, but that is not what this OS is intended for. Apple has a new computer that is directed at many of the same things this does, and yes, that means that you need some pretty serious equipment to take full advantage of the capabilities Be brings to the table.
The installation process showed the real Achilles heel of these variants. It ain't easy! In fact, it can can be @&$#*&% hard! At a minimum, it is frustrating. Before the techie geeks tear into me, remember that the majority of computer users do not have a high level of expertise or experience. I have been involved with computers on and off for many years, and consider my level of expertise at an intermediate one, and I still run into time consuming problems. Think of what beginners go through.
The full versions of Be need to be installed into their own partition since they are not Windows compatible. The packet I received had a minimal install guide that was not written for new computer users. You need to have an understanding of disk partitioning in particular before you begin, as this is the first step to getting Be to install. 4.5 has a CD and a 3.5 floppy and uses both for the installation. You can begin from Windows 95/98 (also NT, Linux, and MAC OS) by placing the CD into the drive and closing it. If you have auto start enabled, a special version of Partition Magic begins to install itself. This is necessary to prepare your drive to receive Be. After PM installs, it instructs you to remove the CD, and then click ok to reboot. Problem one: I must have missed it, but while it told me to remove the CD, it said nothing about removing the floppy. This resulted in Be trying to install onto a drive not ready for it, resulting in a stoppage. Be sure to remove the floppy along with the CD. You need to start to reboot into Windows so Partition Magic can start. I already had an available partition, so selected to install into that one. As it happens, that partition was on my slave, or secondary drive. No complaints from Be, so keep going. Replace both floppy and CD, and restart. The Be splash screen came up, and presented my options. After selecting the desired partition, and the extras available to include, I hit the "gitit" button.
Approximately eleven minutes later, it asked me if I wanted to install a boot manager, with the suggestion not to do so if I was already using one. As I use System Commander, I clicked on no. My computer rebooted to System Commander and there was nothing there for Be. Strange, but not totally unexpected. I went into SC to bring Be into the menu, and rebooted. Up comes the SC menu, I select Be, hit <ENTER>, and my computer locked. Okay, back to Windows, and remove SC. Try everything again, except choose to install Boot Manager. Reboot and get the message that Be is nowhere to be found. I.E. not on a bootable partition. (Remember what I said about needing to know something about partitioning?) I went back into Partition Magic and set the needed requirements. Reboot and more of the same. I then decided the problem was I needed to install it into the master, or primary drive. Some operating systems can be installed into drives other than the master, but some must go on the master. This did not work either, as the special version of Partition Magic said I already had the max number of partitions (not extended). I cranked up my full version of Partition Magic and did the necessary surgery. Now I had everything set up for the needed partition. I rebooted and, when the Be menu came up, selected the new primary drive partition. I then selected the Boot Manager, said a fast prayer, and hit the <ENTER> key to reboot. Guess what? It worked!
The Be splash screen now presented itself in full color. I mention this because that was the last color screen I saw. "Fail Safe Graphic Alert!" proclaimed the first thing I saw upon entering the Be desktop. "Your computer's graphics card isn't supported by the installed BeOS graphics drivers. As a result, the default "fail-safe" driver, a 640x480 grayscale driver is being used...". I was given a couple of solutions from doing nothing, to trying a driver on the CD, to looking on the internet. If I was using a popular card and got that message, I would be properly p*****. Since I use a Number Nine card, which is not really mainstream, I rolled with the punch. (Windows had trouble with it too). I'll look for a driver later, and just try Be in black and white. This is a drawback as the best use of Be is in multimedia, which really needs color.
The desktop looks like a Windows one, with icons and a configurable color and theme scheme. Right click the desktop to bring up the menu system, just like Windows. Some of the included apps have interactive media when you click on the "About" menu, showing off the capabilities of Be. Too bad I had no color. Oh yeah, another drawback to the fail-safe grayscale is it negates the efficiency and speed of Be. It uses one half of the CPU cycles, slowing Be to a Windows casual lope. I will get the needed drivers, and do a follow up review. The system itself is as easy to use as Windows, so you will have no problem with it. There is really no learning curve, except for the applications, again, just as with Windows.
Some of the included capabilities are a 3dmixer, Internet apps, a camera function to be used with a digital camera, a CD creator, and Codycam, which supports one of those cameras that sit on the top of your monitor. Be careful with the Diskprobe as it is a disk editor for editing the drive. Expander is like PKZIP. People is an address book, and Poor Man is a web publisher. Software Valet is used to download and install updates and upgrades for software applications from the Internet. There is even a television app to hook up a TV. Be sure to scan through the online user's guide basics. One thing promised by the new OS's is greater stability. I did not crash Be during my testing. I need to note that there is no operating system that is crash proof. As far as applications for Be, other than those included in 4.5, you can go to <www.bebits.com> or <www.bedepot.com> to obtain software. I will include more on 4.5 in my follow up, but I need to say something about the free version, 5.0 Personal Edition.
Do not be put off by the above information on Be. There is a way to get the feel and use of Be without much trouble or risk. Go to the Be web site and download the Personal edition for free. It is a fully functional version, but does not include all of the goodies. The full version can be installed in as little as 212MB of disk space, while the Personal version must have 512MB.It is only 46MB to download, but expands to a single 500+MB file on your drive. It is only capable of single processor support, unlike the multiple CPU support in the full version. You also will not have add-ins like Real Player, Indeo, or the ability to play MP3 files. There is no visible difference between them on the Be desktop though, and you get the included internal applications. The best part is the ease of installation. I completed a no-problem installation in nine minutes, and when the test concluded, uninstalled it just as easily. After you download the file, place it in it's own directory. While running Windows, launch the Be executable file. When the BeOS Installer starts, simply follow easy instructions.
You can install Be Personal into any partition, as it needs no special format, and is harmless to Windows. After installation, reboot back into Windows. To start Be, simply double click the Be icon on your desktop. It will shutdown Windows and start Be. After using Be, simply shutdown and it automatically reboots back into Windows. Simple. I tried to get some screen captures, but have yet to figure out how to export them to Windows for editing and e-mailing to the editor. I even looked at some other web sites to see if they had some of the desktop in operation, but nothing, not even the Be site.
Be is from the same basic system as Linux, so is very similar. If you use Linux, you will be right at home with Be. After I get the drivers, I will do a permanent installation of Be, and use it along with Linux. Windows still wins in the installation, and number of applications, but loses in functionality and stability. Give it a try. The Personal version is free, and almost goof proof.
System requirements: Pentium class CPU (90MHz or higher recommended) 32MB RAM, minimum 512MB Hard Drive space for Personal, 212 for 4.5 Windows 95/98, 2000, NT4 for Personal (also Linux, MAC for full) Blank floppy for boot/rescue disk (I told you it was more efficient)
Be was not to be found locally when I checked. You can buy directly from Be, and some local stores will order it for you. The suggested price is, I believe $70.00 for the Pro version, so will not break the bank.
Be, Inc. 800 El Camino Real, Suite 400 Menlo Park, CA 94025 650-462-4100
With another operating system(s) that work(s), and a little luck, I hope to recover some of the lost hours from Windows.