Using BeOS on a Power Mac

In my past couple articles (BeOS or NeXT: Did Apple make the wrong choice? and User Interface: Mac vs. BeOS), I’ve described parts of BeOS. It’s a technically impressive OS that lacks some of the finesse that the Mac OS has.

Back and Forth

All the advertising about Mac OS X may convince low-end Mac users that they want to have a modern operating system. It seems like it would be nice to have preemptive multitasking, protected memory, and symmetric multiprocessing.

BeOS logoLet’s make an important distinction. Just because BeOS has a better foundation for stability doesn’t mean that it will be more stable. Mac OS X also has a much better foundation than the traditional Mac OS, but many users today are experiencing crashes and kernel panics. When I tried BeOS on my main computer, I was able to crash programs and effectively crash the hardware where I would have to reset the computer with the hardware switch. But over time, modern systems like BeOS or Mac OS X should tend toward reliability.

Besides BeOS, your other option for a modern OS is GNU/Linux. LinuxPPC, for example, supports a wide variety of Macs and has a lot of power and good performance. But Linux is more difficult to administer. When things go wrong, it can take a lot of time to figure out how to fix it. It’s definitely more complex than the Mac OS or BeOS.

Let’s dispatch two common questions first.

Where do I download the PPC version of BeOS?

With version 5.0, Be created two versions of BeOS. The personal version is free for download, but it only works with x86-based computers. This version has some special software that allows it install without repartitioning a Windows PC’s hard drive. In a way, it’s like a Trojan horse virus. Once the file is installed, it can run BeOS on a Windows computer.

Be could have done the same thing on the PPC version but decided to focus its efforts on the x86 platform. To use BeOS on a Power Mac, you need to get the professional version. It’s called professional because it includes some additional licensed software (like RealPlayer G2) and codecs (like the one needed to encode MP3s). It’s available for about $35 from gobesoftware.

Will BeOS work with my Mac?

I won’t repeat Be’s own compatibility page, but my general rule of thumb is that if your Mac is upgradeable to a G3 through it’s processor card or L2 slot, it’s probably compatible with BeOS. No 7200s, first generation NuBus Power Macs, and no PowerBooks are compatible.

Power Mac G4 CubeBeOS doesn’t support Macs that shipped with a G3 or G4, like the iMac or G4 Cube. Lack of support is probably the all-time question. There’s a lot of history to it.

The short story is that Apple refused to provide information about the motherboards. Be decided that it was too risky to build a business by reverse engineering Apple’s motherboards, so they put their efforts behind porting BeOS to x86 processors. But BeOS can support the G3 processor. I used BeOS on a PowerCenter Pro/G3 and had no problems. And talk about fast!

BeOS Compatible Macs

These are the only 8 Mac models that are compatible with BeOS. Compatible models all have a PCI bus and a PowerPC 603/603e or 604/604e CPU. Macs not on this list are not supported by BeOS.

All 603- and 604-based Power Computing models are supported. All Motorola StarMax models are supported. All Umax SuperMac models are supported. All DayStar Genesis MP models are supported, but some quad-processor models have a different logic board that is not supported.

Installing and Using BeOS

If you are considering using BeOS on Macintosh hardware, you need to realize that software is not binary compatible. That means that software that works on the x86 platform doesn’t work on the PPC platform unless it was designed to be compatible. The reverse is true as well. Since BeOS was available on the PPC before x86, it used to mean that Mac users had more options.

Now the x86 platform has more momentum, because Be doesn’t support newer Macs. This can be a problem. For instance, the best BeOS browser, Opera, is only available for x86 processors. If you feel like Macs are treated like second class citizens, wait until you switch to BeOS – you might soon get the feeling of a fourth class citizen.

Installing BeOS is as simple as installing the Mac OS. The installation CD loads up quickly and gives you a few options of software to install. I can’t mention any of the problems of installation, because I’ve only done it three or four times – and every time I tried it, it worked flawlessly.

In contrast, Linux has eluded me. I bought my first LinuxPPC in 1999, but I couldn’t get it to install from the CD, since I had a third party CD-RW that it couldn’t understand. Then I tried installing from the hard drive and could almost get things to work, but it wouldn’t actually install the files. I have used Unix before and probably could get it to work if I worked on it long enough. It just never seemed worth all the effort.

Using Mac Software with BeOS

If you are going to use BeOS on your Mac, Basilisk II is the most important piece of software you can have. Basilisk II is a Mac emulator that allows you to emulate up to a Quadra and run your Mac software within BeOS. (Another option is SheepShaver, but I think that’s been discontinued.) When I first tried Basilisk II, it wasn’t too reliable, but it is an open source program and has been steadily improving. When I last tried it on Windows 98, it was stable and useful.

Basilisk II has a lot of options that let you tune the performance to make the emulated Mac work well. It is not well suited for games, but it works fine with text-oriented programs like Quicken, WordPerfect, or a school grade keeping program. Because it is software that emulates a hardware Mac, it has different performance bottlenecks. Some things seem slow, but others are quite snappy. On a 200 MHz Pentium II, it performed about like a 20 MHz Centris 610. That’s a little slower than Apple gets with it’s 68k emulator, but it’s usable for a lot of software.

Worth Trying?

Should you try BeOS? For $35, BeOS offers a lot of things to try out and play with. Now that Mac OS X is out, you might want to play with that instead – it seems to have a much better chance at becoming a major desktop contender. If your one goal was to increase your productivity, BeOS would be a poor bet. Chances are that the time you spend on BeOS are not going to give you a big return on your investment.

But BeOS is only $35. If you have a compatible Mac that is just sitting around, this is $35 that will let you do some amazing things with the hardware. You could use the included routing software to make a BeOS router for less than the cost of IPNetRouter on the Mac. BeOS also has some cool audio software that could let you do things that would cost a lot on the Mac.

You might even want to try it just to give another point of reference for how things could work. The better informed we are, the more we can push Apple to realize the potential of Mac OS X.

Further Reading

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