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RiscPC 10 Years Old Today

By Peter Naulls. Published: 16th Apr 2004, 23:08:31 | Permalink | Printable

10 pizza oven cooked slices

funky 3d RPC logoToday marks 10 years since the RiscPC launch on the 16th April 1994.

To the London event hosted by Acorn, were invited various RISC OS enthusiasts, who were encouraged to post to Usenet, including this detailed report by David Ruck. The RiscPC, whilst not by any means Acorn's last production machine, was its most powerful. It remained their flagship product for 4 and a half more years, until the closure of the workstations division and the cancellation of the ill-fated Phoebe.

The RiscPC, although remaining essentially the same, underwent significant performance and functionality changes via processor and RISC OS upgrades from Acorn, and the plethora of expansion cards, PC cards, memory upgrades from other parties. This was aided by its novel, yet infamous and often cursed, slice system, allowing the case to be easily expanded, but often also, items in the lower of the machine became hard to reach without taking the whole machine apart.

a riscpc photoDrobe.co.uk spoke briefly today to Jack Lillingston, of Castle Technologies, which took over production of the RiscPC and A7000 from E-14 after the dismantling of Acorn. "It was a fantastic machine", Jack says. And indeed, it continues to be so - asked about how long he expected his customers to continue using them, he cited people still using Electrons, now around 20 years old, so we could easily expect RiscPCs to be well used machines for another 10 years. Jack also says "it was a bread and butter machine" - not only for Acorn, and Castle, who produced a range of expansion cards, but for many other hardware and software developers who made products to take advantage of the features of the RiscPC over older RISC OS machines.

And it really was upgrades that determined the longevity of the machine - that is, apart from its rugged design and relatively lightweight OS. The StrongARM processor upgrade being the most significant, giving up to 10 times speed improvement over the original 33Mhz ARM6 processors. There were also other important upgrades - the 2nd processor PC card meant many users were able to avoid (for a time at least) getting a real PC. Also later, the ViewFinder card, which for a considerable number of users, gave a new lease on life to their (already then) aging machines.

RISCOS Ltd, too, did their part, taking over development of RISC OS 4 and then progressing with Select, adding many features, and fixing considerable numbers of bugs, as well also providing a major focus for RISC OS development, and breathing yet more life into the RiscPC.

As for contenders for the RiscPC replacement, the saga of attempts shows just how difficult it is to top the machine. There was of course Acorn's Phoebe, which was oh-so-nearly completed. RiscStation's Evolution, which never saw the light of day, MicroDigital's Omega, horribly late, and although finally released still lacking important functionality and of course Castle's Iyonix, not without its own share of problems. For the time being, most RISC OS users will probably continue to have RiscPCs as their primary machines, although there's certainly a growing body of Iyonix users, and indeed, VirtualRPC users, who've escaped the hardware, but certainly not its legacy.

One of the most famous RiscPCs was of course Peter Bondar's "Rocket Ship" RiscPC, featuring numerous slices including most famously, a pizza oven. Not something he got to keep, however, when he left Acorn.

With reference to my own venerable StrongARMed RiscPC 700 with numerous upgrades, it is merely 8 years old. When I purchased it, I was scoffed at for claiming I would still be using it in 5 years' time, although even then, there was plenty of evidence that Acorn machines don't die easily; such as the BBC Micros still seen doing service in odd corners. I also have a second RiscPC rehoused in an A7000 case, and of course, an Iyonix. Oddly, my Iyonix has yet to replace my RiscPC, because it happened to turn out to be an excellent ARM Linux development machine. So, my RiscPC lives on, for many years more I expect.

I had hoped to receive my RISC OS Select ROMs today, for which I had recently been charged, since that would certainly have been fitting, although I expect the significance of the close dates has not been lost on RISCOS Ltd.

Finally, we have a history of some significant dates in the RiscPC time line. Errors in this are all mine.

16th April 1994
RiscPC 600 Launch with RISC OS 3.5
March 1996
First StrongARM card powered up.
July 1996
RiscPC 700 launching, including 16-bit sound on a Mark II motherboard with an ARM710 processor. The 202 Mhz StrongARM upgrade was available around this time too along with RISC OS 3.7.
Mid 1997
233MHz StrongARM RiscPC (J233) machine available, up clocked from the original 202 Mhz.
September 1998
Cancellation of Phoebe and closing of Acorn Workstation division
Early 1999
Castle sign licence with E-14 to distribute and produce A7000s and RiscPCs.
March 1999
RISCOS Ltd acquires RISC OS 4 licence from Pace.
July 1999
Release of RISC OS 4 by RISCOS Ltd.
May 2001
Select Scheme Announced by RISC OS Ltd (Begun in October 2001)
May 2001
First Viewing of the Omega at the Wakefield Show.
May 2002
Select 1 released
October 2002
Select 2 available
30th November 2002
IYONIX pc launch at the South East Show.
May 2003
Select 3 available
June 2003
Nominal Omega launch with hand out of machines at Big Ben Show in The Netherlands.
July 2003
Castle announce purchase of RISC OS from Pace.
November 2003
Iyonix first birthday.
November 2003
Castle confirm no further plans for RiscPC production due to hard to get parts.
February 2004
Adjust ROMs officially announced
16th April 2004
RiscPC 10th Birthday


Acorn History

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Wow, what a wonderful history the RiscPC has had. Hmm, will I ever get rid of mine? Er, NO!

 is a RISC OS Userfylfot on 16/4/04 11:11PM
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Am I keeping my RISC PC? Of course I am. Why? Because it's never been nailed by a virus. While all the PCs were getting clobbered by Blaster, my RISC PC just sat there, still capable of grabbing my email off the server. RISC PC: Ten years young and still just as useful as it was ten years ago.

 is a RISC OS Userphilpem on 17/4/04 12:16AM
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God that take me back, I'd completely forgotten about writing that article on the launch. It was back when my only access to usenet was via dialup at work to a friends demon account.

How things have changed in 10 years though; Schumaker beating all the competition, the most significant news event of the decade turning in to a usenet argument about pound signs, and I'm still after those dancing girls phone numbers :)

Cheers ---Dave

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 17/4/04 12:21AM
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Happy Birthday My RiscPC, nine y.o. and going strong from Whyalla to the dead heart (near Ayer's Rock) and this year finally retiring to Adelaide (South Australia)!

 is a RISC OS Userpipalya on 17/4/04 1:50AM
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Pipalya, have you gone south yet? We'll be at Ayers on 2nd if you are still about.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 17/4/04 2:19AM
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What an achievement! A truely remarkable machine which is hugely underrated by un-RISC OS people. A real shame it's not still in production to see it's birthday.

The case design is nothing short of brilliant - there's nothing else like it. Castle ought to start selling Iyonixes in RISC PC cases.... (I know it's impossible but oh well)

 is a RISC OS Usertimephoenix on 17/4/04 2:22AM
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RiscPC supreme. Never had a virus. Starts at the push of a button everytime. My sons pc running windows keeps crashing and has now been discarded after only three years. Any aussies who run Riscos care to communicate -buchanan@axtrix.co.nz

 is a RISC OS UserAlexander on 17/4/04 8:01AM
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Hey are you sure those dates are right, I thought I had my A3000 when I started GCSEs, and it was practically new then, and the RPC600 was nowhere to be seen, I'm 26 now, so that's what '93, oh that's right I guess. I must have got the SA-RiscPC for 6th form, in about '96, it was one of the first Mk3 boards with SA202K and 3.70, got my Clan discount, wow so that's 8 years old then!

I then got a 233T/4.02 in 2000 I guess, that was a Castle machine, not a J233, I'd just left CJE Micro's but still got my staff discount! ;)

Both of them are still going strong (one of them has a tendancy to eat HD's) after many hardware/OS upgrades and overclocking abuse, in fact I cherished the *two slice* 202 so much, that I brought it with me to California on the plane as hand luggage 3 years ago (whilst the PC's got destoyed in the mail thanks to UPS).

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 17/4/04 8:21AM
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My own RPC will be 10 years old in September, purchased through my pal Chris who worked for Acorn. I have 11 RPC SA's at school - all with up to date software. Macromedia Director and Flash 6 will prolong their lives even further. Anyone listening? Seriously good computers - thanks to a well developed operating system which is still a joy to use.

 is a RISC OS UserDaveW on 17/4/04 8:43AM
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Ooh, I might plug mine in today, just to celebrate :)

I wonder if it still works...

 is a RISC OS Usercbcbcb on 17/4/04 8:44AM
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Mine isn't quite ten yet, but not far off. Bought with my winnings from an industrial tribunal case against my last employer. Mind you, I think the only original bit is the bottom case slice, and maybe the PSU...

 is a RISC OS Usermikeg on 17/4/04 10:34AM
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BTW, contrary to what the article says, the Risc PC 600 had a 30 MHz ARM610 processor. Chocky, please correct ;-)

I think the 33 MHz one was planned to be an ARM600/FPA combination.

 is a RISC OS Userhubersn on 17/4/04 10:52AM
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The 33Mhz Arm6 was issued with the "improved" Mk2 RPC600 that came out at the same time as the (40MHz) RPC 700. Incidentally, this was July 1995, not 1996 - I bought my 700 series in August 1995, and it's still going strong!

As I recall, the FPA combo was mooted to go with a faster (48MHz) ARM710, about the time that the StrongARM cards became available in 1996....

 is a RISC OS Userchrisj on 17/4/04 11:41AM
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The RiscPC and the PowerMac, both ten this year. Obviously 1994 was a very good year :)

 is a RISC OS UserDougal on 17/4/04 11:57AM
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Except of course, Apple did the right thing with the PowerMac - they moved to a better CPU. Shame Acorn didn't do the same.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 17/4/04 12:06PM
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I wonder what proportion of the original 60MHz Power Macs are still in use though...


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 17/4/04 12:38PM
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Apple didn't really do that hot if you look at the stagnation that happened with the G4 over the last few years. Acorn also did right with the StrongARM at the time, it just didn't work out in the end.

I'm not using a 60MHz PowerMac, but I am using an original blue and white PowerMac to write this :)

 is a RISC OS UserDougal on 17/4/04 12:53PM
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I also powered up my RPC which sadly has been inactive the past few weeks due to a KVM problem. I would say mine is at least 8 years old, being a MK1 RPC 600. Nice to see that this durable machine is still in everyday use after 10 years!

 is a RISC OS Userarchez on 18/4/04 2:06AM
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Dougal: Stagnation only occours when a platform manages to do exactly what the userbase wants, and they see no need to upgrade.

Look what happened to the RiscPC. Fantastic platform with damn good software, so no-one bothered(or needed!) to upgrade for donkeys years. Effect: greatly smaller cashflow through the companies developing the hardware.

Now look at the PC. Doesn't do what the user wants, fools upgrading this that and the other part on it every few months - Effect: one hell of a lot more cash being thrown at hardware/software :)

And now look at what Microdigital are up to...

 is a RISC OS Userpiemmm on 18/4/04 9:30AM
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piemmm: I very much doubt that's what drove Apple's stagnation :) that was purely a function of Motorola's lack of interest in the desktop processor market and no one else producing faster desktop class PowerPC implementations at the time.

Unlike the Intel world, where the CPU supplier's primary business is delivering fast processors, the performance of which happens to be an important selling point for computers, Apple's CPU provider was less interested in it and had other major problems to worry about.

I'm not sure how that compares of what happened to ARM/Acorn. But Apple certainly didn't stagnate due to not wanting fast CPUs. You just have to look at their advertising both before the G4 drought and the dubious claims of just how good the G5 was to see that.

Certainly it's true that for the last five years at least ARM have had no interest in the desktop processor world, concentrating instead on being very successful in the embedded systems world (similar to motorola, just without the very successful bit :).

 is a RISC OS UserDougal on 18/4/04 10:33AM
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piemmm: The reason people didn't upgrade from the RiscPC for years probably has more to do with the fact that there was nothing to upgrade to! When the Iyonix finally arrived a huge part of those that needed to and would have upgraded had already left RISC OS.

 is a RISC OS UserGulli on 18/4/04 11:03AM
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Very nice article Peter !

The first time I heard mention of the RISC PC I was bowled over, remember we were coming from a time when the PC-esque A5000 was the "best" Acorn had to offer... and then the RPC (what a shock to the system that was).

It succeeded in no small part to good engineering, expandibility and originality. It was also helped in no small way by the fact that (in those days) people weren't so blinkered as to think the "PC" was the only way to go.

It's a real pity that Acorns "marketing" and "business savvy" didn't quite match the engineering otherwise things might have *not* stagnated for so long (but hey we could dwell on might of beens forever....), best thing that can be said is "happy birthday RISC PC"



 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 18/4/04 2:27PM
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I have just been rearranging my computers before I read this - RPC is now centre stage (handling emails&viruses alike), RPC600 (dusted down and ready to do some more work, PC (Win95) relogated to 3rd position with not much to do. 10 years on - says it all really...

 is a RISC OS UserTTX9 on 18/4/04 4:36PM
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I think this whole "look, 10 years on and I'm still using the same computer" thing is being assumed to show the design excellence of the RiscPC a little too seriously.

Yes, the fact you can still get life out of it and find it useful today is fantastic. But, there's no particular reason why someone can't say the same about a Windows PC or a Mac of similar vintage - if it does what you want and still goes, fanastic, but the same can be applied to all platforms to some degree.

I guess the only difference is that application designers for RISC OS have been forced to work withing the contrains of old hardware, so you're more likely to find apps that still run great on your RiscPC. And lets face it, people in the RISC OS market have always been noted for writing lean code, so if anyone's going to be up to the task it's them.

But you also lose a lot. As an owner of an old Mac I wish I had a machine capable of playing modern games, being fast enough to get decent performance out modern multimedia apps.

The computer market is screwed up on a speed lust, thanks to the marketing division of the syrius cybernetics corporation^w^w^w^wIntel. Otherwise most people would be happy with older hardware.

So the fact that you're running 10 year old hardware really says nothing, other than Acorn went tits up and I'm happy to stick where I am. The point is that other platforms have progressed and that allows for some new fun and interesting applications. But for a lot of people they'd be fine with older hardware too, running that period software.

I think you're right to celebrate the birthday of the RiscPC, a fine machine. But, don't act all high and mighty because Acorn died and there was nothing to replace your machine with for years.

 is a RISC OS UserDougal on 18/4/04 6:03PM
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Dougal wrote "I think this whole "look, 10 years on and I'm still using the same computer" thing is being assumed to show the design excellence of the RiscPC a little too seriously. "

Yep i agree. I gave a 25hz 486 to someone on an expidition to save some rare turtles. I said "hold on, you dont need that I have 10 500Mhz machines lying around (and an A5000 that I dontated to dougal I think for porting some of the unix stuff), take that" But he said the old metqal cased 486 waas lees prone to breaking, that was why they wqanted really old computers.

cheers bob; who shouldn't be here because it is frowned upon.

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 18/4/04 9:19PM
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Yep that sentence was straight from allo allo

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 18/4/04 9:20PM
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The RiscPC was an astonishing computer. No computer I've owned has given as much satisfaction. The 'family' RISC PC was bought a couple of months or so after release from Mike Gilbert's shop in Wellington and is therefore nearly 10. It still has the same 420mb hard drive, PSU, but is upgraded with SCSI II, a whopping extra 16mb SIM and a 233mhz SA. My Mum still uses this as her main machine, in spite of having a very nice 500mhz G3 Powerbook, which mainly gets used for driving a modern inkjet and for the net. She still uses an LPB4 Laserdirect - orginally attached to our old A3000 - which must have cranked out zillions of pages without a hitch. Heck, everything from that era was just so damn solid, so damn good! None of today's flakey junk that always feels like a yogurt pot about to buckle.

My RiscPC was bought when I went to Uni about 96ish. It was one of the first SA machines, where you had to buy a RPC 700 and have the SA swapped in. This was from MicroLaser designs in Bath. It didn't get that upgraded - just more RAM and an extrenal Zip drive - although recently it has had an ethernet card from ebay added. It cranked out zillions of essays and countless student posters and one shot alternative mags - all done in Impression. When I needed to use a local print shop, the Postcript I generated usually worked fine. The Mac stuffof the day I used at Uni were so stone age - especially Quark, which I still think is far too lame in many regards at version 6(inDesign is much better). People at Uni were usually clueless about Acorn - even computer fans - and the RiscPC often blew them aaway for speed and coolness. It was like some exotic fruit no one had ever seen.

Happy birthday RiscPC - best computer ever made.

 is a RISC OS UserJessFranco on 19/4/04 9:25AM
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JessFranco: "People at Uni were usually clueless about Acorn - even computer fans - and the RiscPC often blew them aaway for speed and coolness. It was like some exotic fruit no one had ever seen."

Surely that's some exotic kind of nut? :)

 is a RISC OS UserDougal on 19/4/04 9:39AM
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Nice that the RiscPC got an upgraged OS in ROM for it's tenth birthday. That exotic nut is still flowering.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 19/4/04 10:00AM
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Nice nostalgia! Of course, Acorn could have done an Apple-style OS X makeover back in the early to mid-90s and, had they done so, we could all be using a RISC OS-like interface on Linux or some UNIX variant (or even something more exotic) now, but instead they fumbled it and concentrated on "MOS for ARM" until their demise.

It's rather sad, really, because the Risc PC put Acorn back into competition with mainstream hardware, although we didn't appreciate that back then - Acorn having been the performance leader for a while, and everyone expecting engineering miracles in order to stick it to those Intel boys.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 19/4/04 10:21AM
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