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Lifting the lid on the A9

By Chris Williams. Published: 21st Oct 2004, 15:01:22 | Permalink | Printable

Or at least, trying to lift the lid

Without a doubt, the announcement of Advantage Six's A9 is an exciting one. We've learnt that the A9 was announced a few days ahead of schedule after Advantage Six feared information on its existence was being leaked to the outside world. Although Advantage Six are for now playing their cards closely to their chests, having had a lengthy chat with them yesterday, we'll attempt to lift the lid on the new ARM9 platform for 32bit RISC OS 4.

The clients
Advantage Six are moving away from selling to end users and heading towards dealing with OEMs, who in turn have their own clients. This means Advantage Six can pitch their kit to larger OEMs, who then re-sell this onto their own customers which enables greater market penetration. Advantage Six, better known to RISC OS users as STD, don't particularly want to abandon the RISC OS desktop market, as they will still sell hardware through STD and other retailers - more on this in a bit. In essence, the survival of the desktop RISC OS market is essential for them, as new software developed for desktop machines could find their way into smaller devices and also, the market needs to sustain its RISC OS developer population and hopefully grow it.

Advantage Six had successfully gathered a group of interested clients with the launch of the A75 and had tempted many with the specification of the A9. However, the dispute between Castle and RISCOS Ltd. led to many OEMs walking away from the platform because at the time, supply couldn't be guaranteed. With a new agreement signed, and once Advantage Six have verified the agreement between Castle and ROL, it's hoped that there will be no further disruption.

Incidentally, the A5 and A6 ranges were also developed to introduce clients to RISC OS and eventually, the A9. We imagined that the name 'RISC OS' would turn off a lot of interested parties, purely because no one could consider investing in a product with 'risk' in its name any more than one would consider a product with 'insecure' in its name. However, many of the OEMs considering the A9 are either aware of the term RISC and the advantages that entail, or have previously dealt with Acorn and RISC OS in the past and know the status quo.

The OEMs were impressed by the A5, but wanted a more ruggable, wall mounted version and hence the A9 was produced. While the A5 uses emulated RISC OS hardware, the A9 runs RISC OS natively on new electronics. Unlike end users who want everything finished, polished and shipping immediately, OEMs prefer to 'test drive' kit and give back feedback before buying in bulk. Advantage Six have a 3 month turn around with their clients, giving them working sample versions to play with and then using feedback to improve and finalise their product.

Interestingly, profiling software is employed to check on the fly exactly what components of the Adjust32 operating system are being used by a particular customer. This means individual modules can be identified and disabled and removed when they are not required. This is the prime difference between Embedded RISC OS and desktop RISC OS: having modularised the OS since the start of Select, it's now easy to disable and remove components that aren't needed by end customers, thus boiling RISC OS 4 down to its key, essential features. OEMs want reliable operating systems with a low 'footprint' - basically, software that takes up a small amount of storage space. By reducing the number of OS components to the bare minimum required, you also reduce the possibilities of software faults.

Exactly who are Ad6's clients is still a secret for obvious commercial reasons, but Advantage Six hope to eventually reveal some of them as reference customers.

An early ARM core
Embedded ARM cores must
be low power whilst
giving high performance
The hardware
The A9, we're told, is a range of machines and therefore has a range of applications and configurations depending upon what a customer wants. What we do know is that the A9 is powered by the ARM9 processor, ARM's core that's aimed at low power, high performance solutions. We're told that our initial processor speed range for the ARM9 (180-250Mhz) was way below the actual range. Samsung, for example, have 400-533Mhz ARM9 processors in silicon, and Advantage Six have hinted that they have access to new ARM cores that have not yet been made public. ARM9 cores typically deliver 1.1MIPs/MHz and do not experience the bus contention issues that the 600MHz IOP321 suffers - which are later resolved in the 800MHz IOP332 part.

Ad6 were reluctant to reveal the new chipsets that they're using with the A9, as previously RISC OS 4 had been tied down to the Acorn era VIDC20 and IOMD ICs which are no longer in production. Ad6 and ROL have worked together to abstract the hardware dependencies in Adjust32 and write the necessary software, so that the OS can run on the A9 platform. Also, some but not all of the A9 circuit boards were designed by Simtec.

We do know that the initial A9 model, the A9loc features an 8.4 inch or 3 inch LCD screen, which does not require a graphics controller beyond a simple frame buffer. The A9loc will also include GPS for position finding and and GSM/GPRS for communication with the mobile phone network.

Models in the A9 range carry a price tag stretching from 400UKP to 1500UKP.

The applications
Where do we start? The possibilities are large, but Ad6 aren't revealing any specific applications just yet.

First there's the A9rm, a rack mountable unit that's ideal for monitoring sensors and equipment and performing industrial control. Its low power nature means it can run off an emergency back up battery if the main power supply were to fail and its swift reboot time means it can recover quickly in the event of disruption or failure. It's also compact and being in a half-wdith 1U means it won't take up too much precious rack space.

The A9loc, equipped with a small LCD touchscreen, can be fixed to a wall, bulkhead or mounted on a stand. We're told that RISC OS works very well with a touchscreen. Ad6 particularly stressed the fact that the A9loc will be moving around a lot, using its GPS to sense where it is in the world. This could lead to moving museum displays, in-car travel information and other such applications. Advantage Six wouldn't rule out a handheld also being developed, as another source told us that it depends on how small the A9 can be shrunk before a portable version is considered.

Finally, we move onto the retail model - a desktop version of the A9 (dubbed the A9home), which is rumored to be hopefully distributed by CJE Micros. Ad6 stressed that they don't want to pre-announce the desktop version in any way and are waiting for the details of the A9home to be finalised. The desktop version is many months away, and it'll be interesting to see exactly what processor the hardware will be using. Ad6 commented that not every user wants the highest processor speed, but we're told that we can't draw any conclusions from this just yet. Some form of the A9 may be on show at this weekend's South East show in Guildford, but don't hold your breath.

We've also learnt that Archive magazine will shortly be publishing an exclusive look at the A9, as editor Paul Beverely will be shown an OEM version of the computer on the express condition that the nature and details of the OEM are not revealed. We avidly await Paul's dissection to uncover more of the mysterious A9.


The A9 website

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A faster version of [link] ? Simtec, ARM9 & Samsung

 is a RISC OS Useregel on 21/10/04 3:22PM
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An exciting report. This could become very big: Good on you Stuart Tyrell.

I disagree with (only) one comment; "Ad6 commented that not every user wants the highest processor speed". In my experience, sooner or later you want the extra speed.

Unless the manufacturing costs are very much higher, go for the max.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 21/10/04 4:36PM
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so wheres the Laptop A9 then? :D still nice to see things are moving along

 is a RISC OS Userem2ac on 21/10/04 4:49PM
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em2ac: perhaps you'd like to read the article before making inane comments.

 is a RISC OS Userjmb on 21/10/04 5:59PM
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jmb: perhaps you'd like to lighten up and look at the smileys before getting offended at every little thing.

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 21/10/04 6:22PM
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A very inoformative article.

It looks like Advantage6 are making new ground for RISC OS. Lets hope the sell well.

 is a RISC OS UserRevin Kevin on 21/10/04 7:07PM
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martin: your comment is true for desktop users, but not for embedded customers.

If you have a fixed application for a product, you have a fixed requirement for speed. That in turn relates to energy consumption and cooling requirements. Of course cost will be an issue - why pay more for something that will do the same job in a 'fixed' environment?

Example - most washing machines used to have 6502s in them (don't know if that's still true). Why? They're powerful, but they're also cheap. Your average washing machine doesn't need to play MP3s, but it does need to do some basic computation, and that was a good balance of cost vs performance.

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 21/10/04 7:41PM
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md0u80c9: The quote was in reference to the A9home, which is not designed for embedded customers.

Also, considering some of the things washing machines do now, I think they might use slightly more advanced chips now (although I'm not saying that's necessary - the 6502 powered many micros admirably. It's certainly capable of more than a washing machine is!).

 is a RISC OS UserSmiler on 21/10/04 8:14PM
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Sounds like a positive move to get more RISC OS into the market. If the 6502 are very cheap, maybe that's why PC's are so cheap (and wishy washy!!). ;-)

 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 22/10/04 2:14AM
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Thanks for the great report, Chris. It's all very intriguing, who Ad6's clients are, whether they are EU clients, or overseas.

I'm somehow reminded of the POSsum EPOS terminal, does anyone know what happened to that?

 is a RISC OS Usersascott on 22/10/04 2:31AM
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Sawadee The 6502 was the processor used in the BBC Micro in the 1980s. It was also in one of the very early Apple machines when Steve Jobs famously held back $3000 and thus prevented Woz from using a more powerful processor at the design stage.

Clocked at 2MHz, no modern PC's are based around the 6502, although md0u80c9s point about it being adequate, even now, in a washing machine is valid.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 22/10/04 7:54AM
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I was also told (at the time), that the ARM processor was used in the top Apple performance machines in the later '90s. Interesting, but not personally knowing about the 6502, I assumed that if used in many of devices including washing machines, hence thought this may have been a reason why PC's were so much cheaper (mass volume?). The A9 offering a wide range of machines and applications (sounding like a good move), and Castle are saying they want to concentrate more on the embedded market. Can anyone define embedded market? Is the embedded market Washing machines and devices alike that are not desktop computers?

 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 22/10/04 9:29AM
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Apple only used ARMs in their Newton PDAs and definately not in their top performance machines in the late '90s. PowerPC has been their processor since the mid '90s.

Definition of embedded I'll leave to others...

 is a RISC OS UserGulli on 22/10/04 11:47AM
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To Sawadee & Gulli: the PowerPC chip is, and has been, a better desktop option than any contemporary ARM chip, including the S/ARM, which is why Acorn briefly flirted with the idea of porting RISC OS to it in the mid-90s. That's not to say the same of Mac OS >9 however!


 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 22/10/04 1:14PM
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Sawdee - loosely defined, embedded systems are essentially computers in places where a computer is used, but not in the way that a desktop machine is used.

Often they are used for monitoring, POS systems, that sort of thing. Washing machines are possibly a slightly off-the-wall idea, but a processor used in a washing machine to control temperatures, spin cycles and the UI between the operator and the device would class as an embedded system. Clearly there are LOTS of embedded devices in medicine, as we use a lot of monitoring equipment. You don't know that there's a PC there, but it's there, and it's doing lots of maths for you behind your back.

RISC OS makes a nice embedded machine because it's fast, efficient, has rock solid stability and you can use low power consumption chips which don't need crazy cooling. Unlike desktop machines, factors like lack of a web browser aren't really issues.

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 22/10/04 1:32PM
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bucksboy: I wouldn't dream of suggesting that ARM is a better desktop option than PowePC.

 is a RISC OS UserGulli on 22/10/04 5:36PM
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Sawdee: Embedded systems are designed for a specific job, unlike general purpose systems like your desktop where you can install whatever applications you need. If I'm still correct the ARM is the most used processor as it is used in a lot of embedded systems like printers, copying machines and mobile phones.

 is a RISC OS UserJaco on 15/12/04 5:33PM
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