BeOS was so incredibly powerful for its time. If you’d like to try a more modern take, Haiku OS is the spiritual successor to BeOS and is now getting very close to a release. It supports LibreOffice, web browsing, apps, games and works on (some) real hardware. Haiku is available here.
There are two things about BeOS that I remember very fondly.
First one’s about its famous real-time playback capabilities. I had a slow Pentium machine, 233 MHz Pentium II with an S3 Virge video card. And a CD rip of… Titanic, I believe, or some other cheesy movie? In any case, this was the golden age of CD rips and warez, and I ended up getting this one through some CD exchange thing and oh well.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to watch it with Media Player under Windows 98. It played, all right, but pretty much frame-by-frame. It was more like a badly timed slideshow than a film.
Then one of the local computer magazines put BeOS Personal Edition on one of their cover CDs. I tried it and it was pretty fun and they swore it had good multimedia capabilities and I remembered the rip thingie and I figured I’d try to see if it would play.
It played fine.
That’s not the end of it though. There was a famous demo where they showed BeOS play several films and sound files and whatnot at the same time so I figured I had to try that. I somehow made room on my 3.2 GB hard-drive which now held Windows and BeOS, and copied the whole film on the hard drive. I opened one movie player instance that read from the CD, one that read from the hard drive…
…and it worked flawlessly. On a 233 MHz machine. I think it was before I’d upgraded it so it had 32 MB of RAM (and if I’m wrong and it was after the update, then it had a whopping 128 MB of RAM).
Second one’s about the documentation.
The documentation was stellar. It allowed me, a young script kiddie with barely any programming knowledge under his belt, who’d never written something more advanced than a barebones, silly Rogue clone in extremely bad C++, to go from “just booted this on my machine” to “I wrote a MS Paint clone” in about a week. The APIs were pretty great but the documentation that came with them was absolutely amazing. It was a good, cohesive, flexible API that came with concise and detailed explanations about pretty much everything. It came with the OS, too, if I recall correctly – you could sit down and start hacking right away. Putting that next to any modern Linux box today is embarrassing. Only Qt comes sort of close in terms documentation quality and coverage (albeit I feel – but I never tried to measure it in any way, so I may be wrong about it – that it’s been going downhill lately).
I remember seeing demonstration videos of BeOS halving it’s glteapot (or something similar) frame rates when you turned off a CPU. It is a magnificent system.
I remember trying BeOS in ~1999/2000, around the same time as I’d started toying with Linux and FreeBSD. My desktop machine at the time was this Frankenbeast that I’d gradually cobbled together and at one point it had a whopping 1.1GB of RAM. (Why 1.1? I’d acquired two 512MB sticks and had a 128MB leftover, so thought, why not?)
When I tried installing BeOS on that machine, it’d panic on boot. I asked on a mailing list, and it turned out I had too much RAM. Dropping below 1GB made it work. It was a lovely OS to use - very slick interface compared to Windows and GNOME of the day. Alas, the lack of software (and all that RAM going to waste in a drawer) meant I didn’t use it for very long.
Similar fate as Plan9/9front