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A9home emerges in beta form

By Chris Williams. Published: 21st May 2005, 15:43:32 | Permalink | Printable

Specifications, analysis, photos [Updated]

A9homeHoused in a tiny metallic blue box, the a9home was modestly presented to the crowds at Wakefield 2005. Its developers, AdvantageSix and Simtec, looked decidedly exhusted, having spent the week building a9home units by hand after a parts supplier let them down. Yet, as the machine was unveiled and powered up, the applause from the floor and rush of questions from users spurred the proceedings on.

On Saturday morning, CJE Micros confirmed that they were the Ad6's retail partner, the company that will deal with sales and end user support whilst Ad6 and their developers concentrate on the technical side of business. The machine is currently not for sale, unless you're a developer and want to help AdvantageSix in beta-testing the machine. Otherwise, the system is priced at 499UKP not including VAT or carriage, although no release date has been revealed. Those signing up to the developer scheme can claim back 50 quid from the retail price.

The system uses a Samsung 400MHz ARM9 processor, similar to the S3C2410 as apparently the chipset is aimed at touchscreen based mobile applications. The graphics processor is a Silicon Motion off-the-shelf chip for embedded applications. At the moment, it's being used merely as a framebuffer, although the chip can provide hardware acceleration which the Simon team are reportedly working on. In fact, we're told that a lot of the A9home's chipset has yet to be taken advantage of by RISC OS 4 - the machine will increase in speed once systems such as motherboard DMA are enabled and used.

From a few minutes of toying with it, the machine feels a lot faster and more responsive than a StrongARM RiscPC. Dragging windows around the screen is a lot slower than expected, although AdvantageSix said this would be addressed when the on-board hardware is fully utilised. Booting up into the desktop is smooth and certainly less than 30 seconds. The device is silent too and consumes just 20W of power from a 5V external supply. Also, we're told that sound output is non-functional, although networking, USB and other sub-systems are.

AdvantageSix are said to be discussing with Spellings Software, to arrange for a version of Aemulor for the A9home: because the A9home is running a 32bit only ARM9 processor, 26bit software will not run on it, as we saw around the launch ofthe Iyonix. Aemulor currently provides a 26bit environment and ARM610 emulation for the XScale powered Castle Iyonix, and at the show, am a9home compatible version of Aemulor was briefly trialed and run - long enough to deomstrate a 26bit copy of DTP package Impression running on 32bit RISC OS 4.

A9home Specifications
168x103x53mm in a blue metal box
400MHz Samsung ARM9 processor
Embedded graphics processor
2.5" laptop sized 40GB hard disc
4 x USB sockets
Microphone in
2 x PS/2
10/100MBit network
RS232 serial
5V power supply, 20W power
32bit RISC OS Adjust
Simtec USB stack

26bit Impression running on 32bit RISC OS 4
Adrian Lees, Aemulor author, stunned and shocked that his a9home build of Aemulor worked first time and so well
A9home boot up screen
Artworks Apple rendering in 3-4 seconds on the a9home at 1024x768 in 32bpp
The a9home computer, from behind
The AdvantageSix tent
Another photo of the a9home. On the front there are 2 USB sockets, a status LED and the reset switch. On the back there are another 2 USB sockets, video, serial and PS/2 outputs
Punters getting stuck in, using the a9home


AdvantageSix website
Thanks to Ian Jeffray and Alex Macfarlane Smith for the photos

Previous: Live news from Wakefield 2005
Next: A9home beta will give Ad6 some breathing room


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 is a RISC OS Userhelf on 21/5/05 3:48PM
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> The machine is to retail at 499ukp not including VAT - for developers only who wish to beta test the > unfinished system.

I am not sure I understand this sentence? Are you saying that it will eventually retail for more than 499ukp+VAT to ordinary punters? Sorry, i used to be a bean counter in my last profession.

 is a RISC OS UserTTX9 on 21/5/05 4:08PM
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no. The "developers only" bit applies to current sales.

 is a RISC OS Usercharles on 21/5/05 7:59PM
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Current pricing is 449 + VAT for the Developer Issue (not quite finished one - free upgrade to finished version), with 499 being the retail price for the finished version.

Optional extras include: - external dvd drive 79.75 + VAT Colour matched wireless keyboard/mouse 39.75 + VAT Flight Case (purchased with) 10.00 + VAT Flight Case (purchased later) 30.00 + VAT Carriage on machine 15.00 + VAT

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 21/5/05 9:22PM
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I beleive I was the only one walking round the show with the A9 flight case, having purchased one with Flight Case and external dvd drive. The A9 itself will be sent out to me in the week.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 21/5/05 9:24PM
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I'd rather a cheaper machine than a smaller machine, wonder if they'll do one in a larger case with 3.5" HD, normal DVD drive, room for expansion etc.

Does it come with a keyboard and mouse?</macmini>

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 21/5/05 9:47PM
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Wired PS2 keyboard and mouse are standard.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 21/5/05 9:57PM
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Is the A9home running RO4 / 32 bit like the Advantage Six says?

If it could run !Sibelius7 music software, is there room for a MIDI card or would it need an external MIDI card?

The small size and the flight case part is interesting as a portability feature, does the flight case have not only have some room for the A9, keyboard, mouse, but also a flatscreen monitor and some extra external devices?

 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 21/5/05 11:05PM
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In reply to Sawadee:

The A9 is running 32 bit Adjust, RO 4.4. There is no room for internal expansion. External expansion is via the Serial or USB ports You might be able to squeeze and 4"or 5" screen in the case. a fold away keyboard would fit, but not a standard one. Mouse may also fit. Will see what I can fit into it when the A9 itself arrives.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 21/5/05 11:55PM
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mavhc: Considering the RISC OS market, I think 500 is a pretty good price. Having said that, I was too impatient to wait and walked out of the show with an Iyonix.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 22/5/05 12:08AM
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I am looking for a new Risc os computer but the A9 doesn't seem to fit the bill. If futher expansion became available it could turn into a rash of little blue boxes. Iyonix then

 is a RISC OS Userjlavallin on 22/5/05 2:05AM
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What about Sound? I see "Microphone in" mentioned, but no line out?

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 22/5/05 2:07AM
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In reply to JGZimmerle:

There is no line out,but it does have a head phone socket.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 22/5/05 9:25AM
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Blooming heck....

I looked at the we picture and thought that there was a blue bit on the side of the main casing. However, I just clicked on the picture and saw that, in the large image, the blue bit is the whole computer. WOW.

What kind of weight is is. I as impresseed with the mac mini but thought it was a bit heavy. Is the A9Home a lot lighter than that?

cheers bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 22/5/05 9:41AM
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Looks like we're on slashdot.org, the box is getting nice and toasty.

 is a RISC OS Userpiemmm on 22/5/05 12:32PM
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I picked up one of the machines at the show to see how heavy it was. I was expecting it to feel like a block of lead with everything crammed in.

As it turned out it I was pleasantly surprised. As well as being tiny, it's also quite light and wouldn't be a burden to carry around. Unfortunately I don't know the exact weight though.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 22/5/05 2:03PM
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The small case is nice for traveling ... but since it needs the external power supply and a monitor I guess a bit bigger case with the power supply built in and a built-in CD/DVD drive (and be it a slimline one) would be a good idea and they exist as CD/DVD writers too.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 22/5/05 2:48PM
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Anyone noticed the module list from the pictures on IconBar? The addresses are the same as in 26-bit. I guess that at the moment it's 32-bit OS in the strict sense of making it run on a pure 32-bit hardware and that they have morework to do before they can offer large wimpslots.

 is a RISC OS Userandretim on 22/5/05 5:17PM
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We have been slashdot-ed:



 is a RISC OS Useralex on 22/5/05 5:34PM
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Yes, and as usual the /. Community think they know enough about RISC OS to slagg it off, even if they know next to nothing about it and have never used it.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 22/5/05 5:47PM
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IMO, a majority of the ./ comments was rather well founded. Unfortunately, they compare the A9home with a Mac Mini, just because the machines have similar dimensions.

 is a RISC OS Usermaus on 22/5/05 9:30PM
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Maybe the A9home could soon have a choice of a "2 slice" set box for those who want to expand later?

The "2 slice could even be only half the thickness again if double is too much?

 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 22/5/05 11:43PM
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The majority of the /. comments seemed to think that the only thing that matters in a computer is the price : MHz ratio.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 23/5/05 1:01AM
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They also miss the point the base Mac mini needs a ram upgrade to make it really usable, which ups the price. The A9 has enough memory as is......

 is a RISC OS Usermarkee174 on 23/5/05 9:02AM
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In repy to sa110:

I'm pretty sure there was a line-out on the front, it's just it doesn't work yet. There were definitely two jacks on the front anyway.

 is a RISC OS Userolster on 23/5/05 9:37AM
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I wonder if they should double the memory given the expected requirements of Firefox?

 is a RISC OS UserArchie on 23/5/05 11:13AM
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Am I wrong to be wondering if that 8MB of framebuffer RAM is going to be sufficiently futureproof? Could the resolution of LCD screens rise that much in the next few years - certainly higher dpi LCDs exist already, though I haven't seen them in 17" and larger sizes.

Still, I'm happy with a 1024x768 display on my Risc PC. So long as there's enough video bandwidth to cope with an 8MB screen mode at a decent frame rate, I'll be content.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 23/5/05 1:49PM
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The A9home would be pretty interesting for certain embedded Linux projects, I suspect. Are there any plans for a non-RISC OS version of the product? (In other words, does Linux run on it yet?)

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 23/5/05 2:23PM
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The price:MHz ratio is important. Being a RISC OS user I love the look of this new machine but what does it offer a PC/Mac/Unix user that they can't already get for less money in their own world? Sure, the UI of RISC OS is nice, but if you aren't used to it then it's a pain to swap over. I mean, how many of us still don't get on well with Windows? :) -- Spriteman

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 23/5/05 5:16PM
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To answer my own question, if the video chip is what it is rumoured to be, the biggest screen mode should be 5MB or thereabouts - so until that changes you'll have VRAM to spare.

You couldn't have two screenbuffers of the biggest mode, but drop the colour depth or resolution a notch and you'd be able to run games in those modes.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 23/5/05 5:44PM
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Noone gets on well with Windows. Apart from the Nunlad, and his magical crash-preventing stick.

With regard to the Mhz thing, I think some of the defenders on slashdot go a bit too far. OK so maybe an ARM does more per clock tick in integer arithmatic (although perhaps not nowadays). But I'm fairly confident that the real difference in responsiveness is down to the load on the machines by their respective operating systems. I think we really are going to need wads more power in the not so distant future, simply to crunch the data we want. But for now, the RISC OS world looks to be doing well.

 is a RISC OS UserLoris on 23/5/05 5:49PM
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Not particularly wanting to take this off-topic, but hey, it's in the forum now...

Absolutely, the perceived responsiveness of RISC OS now is due to the lightweight multitasking model. This means that software has to be written to do very, very little in between every poll. In the future, if we go down a data-intensive route in our apps, we may find this being stretched.

Already, when I use Netsurf, I notice this. I tend to browse in multiple windows. So I'll load up a page, and keep bringing up links off that in new windows and sending them to the back to load. It's a trick I learned in my old dial-up days, so you can get pages and pages of stuff loaded up then disconnect.

However, with Netsurf, because it doesn't poll while it's rendering, every time it finished loading a page it freezes for maybe half a second. When you've got ten pages loading simultaneously, this is quite noticable.

Now it's only half a second, and that's no biggie. And if I were to have a computer from this millennium, it'd be ever quicker. But my point is that as we start to interoperate with complex, large data structures (such as complex web pages) we might find RISC OS' simple multitasking model being stretched. We shall see.

Of course, RISC OS' simple multitasking has led to the development of lean, efficient data formats in comparison to certain other platforms, so it's not all bad.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 23/05/05 6:58PM
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I don't see a problem with web pages at all, as far as processing power is concerned. The problems you describe must be down to other issues, as web-pages are actually quite small. The real problems start when you want to process large amounts of data, and by this I mean multi-gigabyte data wich is not avoidable with things like movie-editing or 3D graphics.

Actually for the former we may be alright with 1.2 GHz class ARM CPUs and really fast IO-subsystems, as it's mostly IO based load. But for 3D graphics we would need a lot more processing power. I am currently working on a relatively simple animation with a brick wall, a sky and a few plants on a lawn in Maya 6. The scene file (without textures) is currently around 50MB in size and the animation is about 400 frames long. But before I will be able to render it completely on my dual processor (AMD Opteron 64-bit 1.8GHz) PC I will have to upgrade my RAM (DDR-400) from 2GB to at least 4GB, if not more. And even then it will take about two days to render the complete sequence.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 23/05/05 9:02PM
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On the contrary, the RISC OS "multitasking model" sucks, and a proper PMT model would lead to much smoother performance, and not impact speed. The speed is down to a number of issues, and the RISC OS cooperative multitasking is only incidental to that.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 23/05/05 11:31PM
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JGZ: I'm afraid your anaylsis of performance requirements for web pages doesn't stand up to scrutiny. You might be correct if we were talking about older RISC OS web browsers where rendering was linear and largely straight forward, but modern browsers have to do a very large amount of work to support many standards. It would simply be false to make simplistic remarks about how they ought to perform.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 23/05/05 11:34PM
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Loris: Don't be silly. I don't actually use Windows all that much. All I'm doing is bring a bit of perspective - Windows isn't anywhere near as bad as most of you lot think, and RISC OS isn't anywhere near as good as most of you lot think.

On the subject of multitasking, co-operative multitasking, if done right, can yeild higher throughput, but normally also has higher latency. PMT gives you lower throughput, but also lower latency. The issue here is that users want low latency and high throughput, as they don't want to wait and the machines they're using aren't actually all that quick. It's a delicate balancing act.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 24/05/05 11:42AM
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Indeed, as the man Naulls says, Web pages are no longer just small chunks of text blasted liberally to the screen with the occasional inline graphic - even the smallest of pages are subject to some pretty involved layout constraints that would tax those 1.2 GHz ARM CPUs that lurk perpetually over the horizon. While your Web browser of choice "thinks about" how that layout is going to happen (see the CSS specifications for an idea about what goes on) you and other processes might want to be doing other things, and unless the Web browser developers have been so kind as to go totally event-driven with their code (side note: I wonder if coroutines ever made an appearance in any RISC OS programming environment) you can forget the low-latency world of the desktop clock and icon bar "funnies".

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 24/05/05 12:58AM
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In reply to nunfetishist: Well I do actually have to use windows for my job, have for some time now, and have to say I'm not impressed by its stability, speed, intuitiveness, or general capacities. What I'm criticising here is not any particular architechture here, but the implementation of windows itself. Basically it is a polished turd. RISC OS certainly has room for improvement, I don't think anyone disagrees with that.

I think you are right about the theory of the two different styles of multi-tasking. But in practice windows seems to occasionally have very long latency. This isn't an isolated problem, I've experienced several PCs over the years which are quite happy to stop for a minute or more. This is an absolute disaster in usability terms, because there is no indication of what is going on. In synergistic combination with the occasional decision to ignore button-clicks, this really hammers productivity. RISC OS is much better in this regard, in that usually you will at least get an hour-glass if there is a processing delay. I suppose the lesson here is that you also need very good feedback to the user of what is happening, which Windows doesn't manage. I guess the apparent usability difference us weenies see is down to the different design philosophies. Acorn had a very strong desire to make a usable system using minimum resources, while Microsoft wanted to pack in as much functionality as possible, and didn't really worry about usability.

I wonder, does Windows give apps the option of how much of a timeslice to request, or how often it needs to be called? Could an app say, for example, "I only need to be called a minimum of once every minute, but I'd like a full slice", or "I need to be called as often as possible, but I don't need much time". I know that UNIX can 'nice' tasks, but that isn't quite enough. Ideally this could be changed by the program during execution. I'm thinking that maybe there is a middle way with elements of both cooperative and preemptive multitasking. Suppose programs could indicate the minimum useful time before the next call, as it surrendered the remainder of a slice. This would reduce the amount of needless swapping that would otherwise go on. This is of course in addition to events for button-clicks and so on.

 is a RISC OS UserLoris on 24/05/05 2:11PM
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I know that web-page processing has become a lot more complex over the years. Still, some browsers manage to support modern web-standards and still achieve good performance on 300MHz ARM processors. Just take a look at some of the PDA browsers.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 24/05/05 2:41PM
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I have to admit, I don't know how Windows preemptive multitasking works, and in practice it does occasially seem to behave very oddly indeed. However, you can prove it's still multitasking - if you set off a IO heavy task, once you finally manage to switch to a spare DOS box, you can type away on it perfectly happily, and latency is very low. Try doing that on RISC OS, and you might get into your task window quicker, but the characters appearing on screen will be far from fluid and usable.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 24/05/05 2:44PM
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Loris: In that case, I think you've been blinkered so much that you couldn't acknowlege it if it were perfect. (Which I admit it's not - nowhere near.)

Windows's multitasking isn't perfect. Neither is Linux's or MacOS X/Mach's. But they seem to get it better. I think to say Microsoft don't worry about usability at all is extremely unfair. From the available evidense, it would appear that ROL and CTL care very little about stability or development. But this most likely isn't true at all. Most people I know are perfectly happy with Windows, and when they're shown Linux or RISC OS, really don't like it all. People who say that RISC OS's GUI is intuative are missing something important: Lots of the state is hidden until you do something that isn't actually obvious. (ie, pressing the middle button for menus.) While I like that idea, because it saves screen real estate, and means moving the mouse less, it certainly isn't intuative.

Windows uses a prioritised scheduling system, like most pre-emptively multitasking OSes. When a process wants to run, the sheduler puts it on a "run" list. It knows when it wants to run, because the OS knows if it has received an event, or if data it was requesting from the disc or IP stack is now ready. The list is then sorted in terms of priority - different processes have different priorities. It then works through them all, giving them all a slice of time. Obviously, this is a hideous simplifcations of how it actually works. Read Tanenbaum if you're more interested on the subjection of multitasking and scheduling algorithms. It's amusingly written, and quite easy reading considering the horrific complexity of the subject. Unix allows processes to change their priority at run time. But obviously, if the process has work to do, you want it to do it. Unlike RISC OS, if no processes want to do anything, Windows and Unix essentially turn the CPU off until one does. It isn't eager to do something if nothing needs doing.

A process can surrender the remaining time in its allocated time slice by "blocking" - ie, asking the OS for something that isn't available instantly. This could be to read some data from a file, waiting on a socket for activity, or waiting for a specific time to occur. It's quite easy for a Unix process to say "Don't return to me for a tenth of a second" for example, but there's little point. The whole idea of PMT is that processes rarely need to concern themselves in multitasking at all. They all act if they're going full-pelt all the time. Which also simplifies programs quite dramatically, leading to fewer bugs.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 24/05/05 2:45PM
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In reply to nunfetishist: "I think you've been blinkered so much that you couldn't acknowlege it if it were perfect." I'd like to think not. I'm merely working from my experience. By the way, don't think I'm just talking about the user experience when it is working, at least in some sense. Windows doesn't seem to be stable in the sense that it is very easy to break, or rather, for it to break itself.

"I think to say Microsoft don't worry about usability at all is extremely unfair." I agree, it would be, but if you read carefully I didn't say that. This was a comment on the initial GUI design, which still lingers on in many respects, and indeed the odd new stupidity. Apple, on the other hand, did a much better job. I once found a very interesting article by someone involved with the original Mac GUI, and the trials and experiments they'd done.

Your comment about pushing the middle button is in a sense true - it isn't obvious from first principles. But I think that is not really the appropriate level to consider. Remember that scene from a Star Trek film where Scotty picks up a mouse and speaks into it? The thing is, the menu button, and indeed RISC OS generally, is all described by a style guide so as to be consistent. Acorn were quite explicit as to how things should function, and to a large extent they did a good job. The right button on Windows has various context sensitive effects, and sometimes you can only (as far as I can tell) get certain functions using it, rather than the other set of menus along the top of each window. Which is more intuitive; one menu system or two overlapping sets? (actually, three..) I'm not really sure about the amount of state hidden by RISC OS, it doesn't 'feel' like that much to me; could you elaborate? (particularly, where Win/Lin/Mac is superior)

We shouldn't really get into the details of multitasking here, but thanks for the info, it is an interesting subject. I agree that PMT makes programming easier, but am not sure about your comment that there isn't much call for 'blocking'. I would have thought that many interactive programs would need to update at regular intervals. Time must increment, cursors must flash, time-dependent data must be updated and so on. If it is easy then of course good.

 is a RISC OS UserLoris on 24/05/05 5:52PM
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I have to admit that my experience of RISC OS vs. Windows multitasking is much like Tony's. Although I'm aware that pre-emptive has lots of positive aspects compared to co-operative, the final experience of Windows simply doesn't cut it (and I use both OSen on a daily basis).

I've been trying to figure out what the reason is for ages. Partly it seems to be because although technically Windows will still multitask when it's busy, more often than not it's busy paging a program from the hard drive which takes an age. In the meantime it's impossible to use any of the other programs because they've also been paged to disc. What's really unhelpful is that after a while, Windows (XP) will notice that the program has stalled and will replace the unresponsive window with a 'fake' version of its own. This is just *so* unhelpful. I'll often end up with multiple programs all of which have fake blank windows that can't be used.

I think there are other reasons too. Redraw under Windows can appear sluggish compared to RISC OS because whilst RISC OS is guaranteed to give the task enough time to complete the redraw, Windows will often poll other tasks in the middle. Similarly with mouse clicks: it can often take a while before there's any response after clicking on a button. In RISC OS, wimp messages are prioritised quite carefully to give the appearance of responsiveness (e.g. responding to mouse clicks very quickly).

Finally, programmers use pre-emptive MT instead of writing state machines, so that even though you can use the rest of the desktop, often what you really want to do is use other functions within the same application, which becomes impossible (coupled with the fact that Windows won't necessarily buffer mouse clicks when a task is in a busy state). Modal dialogue boxes are a classic example. Obviously this comes down to individual programs working badly or well, but PMT doesn't encourage better program design.

The result, in my experience, is that Windows *feels* less responsive and more unpredictable, which personally I find annoying. I suspect this may be why many people here think that Windows is as bad as it is and RISC OS is as good as it is.

Sorry for the rant.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 26/05/05 8:36PM
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