BeBox Page - Everything about the BeBox

BeOS was initially designed to run on one specific machine. That machine, the BeBox, was unique for its time. Today it is an incredibly rare piece of hardware. Very few BeBoxes were ever manufactured, especially by today's standards. A run of only 1,000 pieces would be unheard of today.

The BeBox was a unique piece of hardware. It was designed with digital media work in mind, and so had numerous benefits for a digital media professional. It came equipped with two processors instead of the single chip most other machines at the time used. This could be considered a precursor to today's multi-core processors. Two processors running and working together gave the BeBox an unusually high level of power for a personal computer.

The very first computer created by Be wasn't even a BeBox. It was their in-house development computer, a machine made up of little more than a logic board, I/O interface and processor.

The BeBox was centered on a main circuit board. The BeBox motherboard was uniquely developed with some components, such as the processors, soldered directly to the board. Others, like graphics cards, were left completely for the user to install. This allowed the user to pick a graphics card of their choosing, from a list of compatible cards.

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Two processors. In the in-house development model, these were AT&T Hobbit chips. When AT&T closed that product line, they switched to PowerPC 603 chips, of the 66 MHz variety. Later in the evolution of the BeBox, these were replaced with 133 MHz models. Because the processor was soldered into the motherboard, an upgrade involved a complete replacement of that board. Be offered conversion kits for this process.

Eight RAM slots of the SIMM specification, 72-pin. Even today, very few computers have that may RAM slots. Of course, each individual stick of RAM back then was 8-32 MB in size, where today much, much larger chips can be had. Be claims the BeBox can handle up to 256 MB of RAM, but in practice larger chips could be installed with no issue. The catch was that each two slots were paired and required identical RAM chips. BeBox could accommodate up to 128 MB SIMMs, though little testing was ever performed by the company.

The BeBox mainboard supported both IDE and SCSI devices. It contained space internally for two 3.5" drives. It also had exposed bays externally for two 5.25" drives, usually filled with floppy drives or CD drives. The two external bays could be simultaneously removed as well, leaving room for a single full-height 10.5" drive.

The BeBox board did not have on-board networking capability. Be did not want to limit their developers to any one form of networking, be it via modem or ethernet. Instead, they allowed each individual user to install their own ethernet or modem at will.

The case itself was something of a beast. The machine was rather bulky: 16" tall, 8" wide and 18" deep. Many of the earliest developer models did not even have a front bezel, which was shipped separately later. Users would have to install their own. The front bezel itself was somewhat special due to the Blinkenlights.

The Blinkenlights were a pair of LED strips running vertically along the edges of the front of the case. These lights, when connected to the motherboard properly, were a visual indicator of CPU load. When more lights were lit up, the processors were working harder. All lights on meant the CPUs were maxed out. Numerous accounts exist of initial developers testing the CPU almost immediately and watching the lights max out, but only after a surprising number of video applications were running simultaneously. For a computer from the late 90's, this was very impressive.

The most daunting and most useful aspect of the BeBox was the I/O board. This board of ports on the back of the machine contained virtually any I/O port a developer could need. Here is the list:

1 Geekport. More on this port later.
4 9-pin D-shell Advanced serial ports.
1 6-pin mini DIN PS/2 mouse port.
2 15-pin D-shell joystick ports.
2 5-pin DIN MIDI in ports.
2 5-pin DIN MIDI out ports.
3 6-pin mini DIN infrared I/O ports. These ports were for remote control applications only, not data transfer, as more modern IR ports can be used for.
1 internal CD audio line-level input.
1 internal microphone audio input.
1 internal headphone audio output.
2 input RCA jacks.
2 output RCA jacks.
1 stereo microphone input.
1 stereo headphone output.
A 16 bit stereo sound system included on the board.

As you can imagine, this was a massive array of ports for input and output. Be intended for the BeBox to be used for any digital media, and so included as many ports as possible in order to give developers as wide a range of possibilities as they could. They did not want to dissatisfy customers by limiting the options when it came to peripherals and inputs. Size was the tradeoff, as the BeBox was huge and the I/O board massive.

The Geekport is the other completely unique selling point of the BeBox. It is a special port found only on the BeBox and nowhere else in computational history. The goal of the Geekport was to give geeks -- the primary BeBox audience -- a port they could use for anything they wanted to create. They could design a piece of hardware and program their own controller for it, and the Geekport would accommodate it.

The Geekport was a 37-pin monstrosity situation on the right side of the I/O board. It allowed both digital and analog I/O transfer as well as DC power. The Geekport contained:

2 bidirectional data ports that could be configured for either input or output. 16 input, 8/8 input/output or 16 output.
4 A/D pins connected to a 12-bit A/D converter.
4 D/A pins connected to an 8-bit D/A converter.
11 pins of power and grounding.

The 37-pin connector was specifically chosen to minimize accidental shorting of hardware should the wrong kind of connector be plugged in, as well as being readily available to the experimenter should they want to create something of their own.

All of this combined to make the BeBox one of the most unique pieces of computational hardware to come about in the 90s. It was only a series of unfortunate decisions that kept the BeBox from becoming the foremost digital media computer available. The machine was powerful, the OS was reliable and responsive and there was plenty of interest.

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