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New RISC OS machine coming soon

There's more to life than Windows and Unix
Tue Nov 22 2005, 09:50
IT'S NOT EASY deciding when to announce a forthcoming product. Sometimes you want people to know something's coming, to get them interested and whet their appetite, perhaps even to intimidate your competitors. On the other hand, there's the "Osborne Effect" - even though it's an urban myth that pre-announcing its new machine did for Osborne Computers, it has done for others.

Stuart Tyrrell of STD admitted last night at the RISC OS User Group of London meeting that he rather regretted announcing the A9 as early as he did, but regardless, he's hitting the road promoting his forthcoming new machine: a tiny low-power high-performance desktop RISC workstation running RISC OS.

RiscSTD is part of AdvantageSix, one of the few remaining vendors of Acorn-compatible computers, along with Castle Technologies and a few companies selling x86 PCs running emulators. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Acorn, one of the foremost British microcomputer manufacturers and designers of the BBC Micro, were planning the successor to that classic 6502-based 8-bit machine which powered a thousand British schools.

Dissatisfied with the offerings then available, such as the cheap but gutless Intel 8086 and powerful but expensive Motorola 68000, Acorn designed its own processor to be the basis of its new machine. The result, the Acorn RISC Machine or ARM as it's known today, is now one of the most popular and widely-used microprocessors in the world; it powers millions of cellphones, it's the embedded chip in all manner of appliances and in recent years it's the preferred platform for both PalmOS and Windows Mobile.

Windows CE (as the latter used to be known) once ran on SH4 and MIPS and other embedded processors, but ARM trounced them all with its high performance, low cost and meagre power requirements.

What most people forget today is that ARM was conceived as the heart of a complete system. It had partner chips in the form of VIDC, MEMC and IOC, forming a complete motherboard chipset from expansion slots to graphics, and the ensemble ran its own operating system, RISC OS. The result was a curious mélange - it had elements resembling 8-bit micros, such as a small tight hand-coded-in-assembler partly-BBC-Micro-compatible OS running from ROM, complete with BBC BASIC interpreter, and elements from the world of 16-bit micros, like a multitasking desktop GUI and an open, expandable hardware design.

When it came out, the Acorn Archimedes was the fastest micro in the world and the first RISC-based personal computer. The software was remarkable, too - the wicked fast hardware was coupled to a small, tightly-coded GUI OS, leading to other Archimedes firsts: anti-aliasing of onscreen fonts, solid window dragging and a task bar across the bottom of the desktop with icons for each running program. Applications came as special directories containing all the supporting files, resources, translations and so forth, just like Mac OS X programs today. The Archie wasn't all proprietary, either: the machine used standard cheapo PC ST-506 hard disks and Shugart 3½" floppies, sported vanilla serial and parallel ports and used an ordinary CGA monitor.

After a succession of models and upgrades, it looked like it was all going to end in 1998 when Acorn ended production. However, it has not only lived but prospered in its quiet little way and still is today. After Acorn was split up and sold off, Pace got the OS and continued to develop it for set-top boxes. A new company, RISC OS Ltd., was formed to develop the desktop version of the OS. Castle Technology got the rights to continue producing the Acorn hardware, but other companies soon joined in with compatible machines, including MicroDigital and RiscStation.

Just under two years ago, Castle upped the ante with a new machine, the Intel XScale-powered Iyonix computer. This uses a 32-bit version of the OS from Pace, given a desktop makeover - the original Acorn version and all the previous compatibles ran in the older ARM chips' 26-bit mode. RISC OS Ltd., meanwhile, supplied an updated and improved version of Acorn's 26-bit flavour of the OS, which has recently been selling well on VirtualPC, a Windows-based emulation environment allowing RISC OS applications to run on modern x86 hardware faster than on any Twentieth Century ARM machine.

Soon, though, there will be a new contender. AdvantageSix is trying to differentiate itself from Castle's offering. The Iyonix is a standard ATX motherboard with an nVidia graphics card; Castle sells it in a variety of desktop cases, just like a modern PC. The fact that the XScale runs at a puny-sounding 600MHz is offset by the efficiency and speed of RISC OS, which can run rings around bigger OSs such as Windows, Linux and Mac OS X - although it lacks some desirable features of these systems, such as virtual memory, memory protection and full pre-emptive multitasking.

Instead, AdvantageSix's new machine is a tiny blue fanless aluminium box about the size of a couple of floppy drives - 168x103x53mm. The A9 Home is a sealed unit - it comes with 128MB RAM and a notebook-size 40GB hard disk - which you can't upgrade, not that you'd want to; this is masses for RISC OS. It has two USB ports front and rear, plus audio jacks on the otherwise near-featureless front plus serial, Ethernet and twin PS/2 ports at the rear. There are no removable media, but the company offers an external USB DVD/CDRW combo drive and plans to add floppy drives and others later. There is a small external power supply brick which puts out a stonking 20W. It has to be that much to power a few USB peripherals - the machine itself draws about 3W under load. "That's actually quite a lot," observed Tyrrell. "We haven't enabled most of the power management yet."

It's so tiny it makes a Mac mini look obese, especially alongside that machine's honking great power brick, half as big as the Mac itself. The Mac can do more, it's true - it has an onboard optical drive, Firewire, a modem and can accept internal RAM expansion as well as Bluetooth and WLAN. The A9 offers none of these, plus it's more expensive and significantly less powerful - the current version's Samsung ARM9-based system-on-a-chip CPU runs at a scant 400MHz. However, the A9 runs its entire sleek little OS from some 4MB of Flash ROM, as opposed to several gigabytes of UNIX-based complexity underpinning Mac OS X. It's very, very quick in use, as are most RISC OS applications. (Even if you have never been a RISC OS user, you might have seen some of these, incidentally; this is the native platform of Corel's Xara graphics program and the music composition package Sibelius.)

The A9 Home will be the first in a line of A9 machines: others will run Linux and offer different capabilities. The Home model is a sealed box without options, cheap to produce and easy to support.

This is a radically different kind of home computer: abundant power and capabilities to surf the web with Firefox, read email, do news and chat, cope with wordprocessing, spreadsheets, arts and design, play music and games and so on, but without redundant complexity or power. Packed in a flight case with PSU, keyboard and mouse, it's still smaller and lighter than many bare notebooks.

It's not quite finished yet - this is the first 32-bit version of Acorn's RISC OS 4 and there's a fair bit of work still to do producing drivers and polishing the OS. For now, it's rather unstable, there's no sound, no graphics acceleration and it can only read FAT16 floppies and memory cards. However, STD expects that this will all be finalised and finished within six months.

The A9 Home will be £499 from Acorn reseller CJE Micros when it's finally launched, which will be "when it's ready and not before", as its designer puts it. The external USB combo drive will be £75 extra. However, experienced RISC OS users who are willing to tolerate an unfinished machine can buy them now, direct from AdvantageSix. There's actually a discount on preproduction hardware - early adopters can optionally pay the balance when the final version ships to have their pre-release units upgraded to release specification.

There are new things under the sun. Here is a very smooth alternative to AMD's underpowered, limited PIC "Personal Internet Communicator", running a friendly GUI OS that had thousands of users and applications before Linus Torvalds left school, let alone started work on Linux. This OS had a taskbar before Windows 3.0 came out and it's not stopped moving since - these days, it uses the same CUPS printer drivers as Mac OS X and understands USB2 and wireless LANs. Naturally it talks TCP/IP and can network with Windows.

It's not going to be for everybody, but it might be a taste of life after today's huge monolithic multipurpose desktop computers. µ

See Also
Semiconductor industry no wrinkly at 60, ARM says
Broadcom licenses ARM technology

L'INQS
Stuart Tyrrell Developments
A9Home at AdvantageSix
RISC OS
Castle Technologies

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