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Archive booklets review part one

By Chris Williams. Published: 12th Dec 2005, 00:42:49 | Permalink | Printable

MessengerPro, VirtualRPC, simple networking and programming guides

In time for Christmas and this week's RISC OS roadshow, Archive magazine have published a number of booklets covering a range of software and topics. The first four mini-tomes, which contain articles previously published in the pint sized publication, are available now and a few more are coming hot off the printers. Booklets one to four introduce a few of the core issues surrounding the platform: VirtualRiscPC, networking, email and writing desktop software.

The printed guides are A5 in size, stapled, and run to 48 or 44 pages of black and white. They are designed pretty much in Archive magazine's house style: two wide columns per page, with the text broken up by bold headings and images. This format is down to earth, being the very antithesis of today's glossy IT magazines. If you like your information presented in a straightforward and informal manner then it's likely you will see past the lack of colour and the plain layout design, and enjoy the compilations for what they are. As the titles are made up of content previously published in the magazine, the books will probably appeal most to people who haven't subscribed to Archive or have lost or missed particular issues and want to complete a series of topics. Below are a few scans of the booklets to show some typical spread layouts and to illustrate the density of knowledge contained within them.

Scan of MessengerPro book
MessengerPro booklet

Scan of networking book
RISC OS and networking booklet

Scan of VirtualRiscPC book
VirtualRiscPC booklet



Here's how each of the booklets fared.

'MessengerPro in action'
Written by Paul Beverley and other contributors, this title runs through versions 2.50 to 3.29 of R-Comp's application package MessengerPro. Each part aims to build up the user's confidence in the email and usenet client and gradually reveal the software's features. The booklet begins with an introduction on how the bits and pieces of R-Comp's Internet suite fit together, and how to use Dialup. Together with screenshots and a visual tour of the application, the guide explains how to configure filtering and set up kill files to block undesirable content; shows how to migrate from ANT's Marcel and Microsoft's Outlook to MessengerPro; follows an email as it moves from being written and edited to the outgoing queue to it actually being sent; shows how to manage and archive databases of messages; explains headers and how they can be used; demonstrates how information can be sorted; walks through how the display of archives and discussion threads can be customised; how attachments are handled; and many more hints, tips and pointers besides.

The sections aren't arranged in any logical order other than a gradual increase in complexity. For example, a section about kill files is followed by tips on dealing with identical emails and how to add addresses to the CC field once you've begun writing an email. On the one hand, this would make diving in the booklet quite fun as you can find any kind of tidbit while leafing through it. Whereas on the other hand, if you're after something specific, you'll need to have read through the guide in order to remember where it was mentioned. It's not a major problem - this treasure trove of detail just deserves a full topic index.

Paul is a heavy user of MessengerPro and writes from the perspective of informing others of his successes and losses during his adventures with R-Comp's application. The guide is seemingly aimed at people who are relatively new to Messenger Pro or want to see if there are any hidden power tricks that they may have missed.

'Cross-platform networking'
This booklet is particularly aimed at users who use computers other than RISC OS powered ones and want to network their machines together. Windows 95/98, Windows XP and Mac OS X are covered, along with an article on how to network RISC OS computers to other RISC OS machines. The pieces are written by a number of authors and they each aim to address the issue of interoperability between platforms, which editor Paul Beverley describes as "something of a black art". The 48 page guide is packed with screenshots, step by step instructions and quotes from configuration files. The booklet describes how to configure IP addresses; how to share printers and files with other computers using ShareFS, Omniclient, LanMan98 and FTP; and the equipment needed to set up a network. Overall, the guides are pretty clear and extremely thorough in catering for users of simple networks. The booklet is a friendly guide for users of versions 4 and 5 of RISC OS, including Select.

The booklet skips over explaining how to set up your network so that a non-RISC OS computer can share an Internet connection with a RISC OS machine. For this level of information, you'll have to turn to one of the many online resources and guides. Also, alarmingly, every guide uses static IP addresses. Pages and pages are used up by explanations that involve running !Configure, opening up various windows, typing in DNS and IP addresses by hand, clicking buttons and resetting machines; meanwhile, desktop RISC OS has included a DHCP client since 2002, and the most you have to do on RISC OS 4 and 5 is select 'Use DHCP' from !Configure and click on ok, and then a few steps in Windows and Mac OS X to turn on the DHCP server or use a broadband router's DHCP server.

If you're struggling with networking and just want your RISC OS machine to work with your PC or Mac and don't care how it's done then this guide will be like a bible to you. If you want to take advantage of things like broadband wireless routers or set up local DNS, proxy and DHCP servers, then there's always Google search to help find the information you're after.

'VirtualRiscPC in use'
Written by an anonymous group of users, this 48 page compilation includes an index although fewer illustrations than the others. This booklet is a complete guide to using VirtualAcorn's RiscPC emulator from VRPC-SE to VRPC-Adjust, covering everything from performance to removable storage devices to hints and tips. Much like the MessengerPro booklet, the booklet is close to what could be best described as a non-fiction story with the lead character wandering through a VirtualRiscPC landscape. If you've just bought the software, particularly after being away from RISC OS for a while, the range of articles within will act as a terrific mentor in getting to grips with the platform. From configuring RAM usage to screen redraw speed to email attachments to UniPrint, there are too numerous topics to list here. The booklet is not so much a manual or tutorial for using VirtualRiscPC, it's more of a casual collection of tales and advice from users of the emulator. Anyone looking for a table top companion should look no further.

'Wimp programming in C'
Complete with screenshots, listings and tables, this booklet tries to be a step-by-step guide to creating a rudimentary multitasking application, designing and creating windows and icons, and writing code that responds to typical user interactions.

While there are books floating around that teach people how to write RISC OS applications in BASIC, and there are many fine publications on explaining the C programming language in general, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet put together an exhaustive combination of the two: how to write desktop software in C for the RISC OS platform. Paul Johnson's guide, as published by Archive, at least makes an attempt at this. Instead of using existing software libraries, such as Desklib, he presents his own functions and structures that communicate with the operating system to create and control windows and icons. A zipfile of example source code is available for download, which is just as well because the few bugs present in the printed listings aren't in the archive.

The problem with Paul's guide is that the quality of his source code is arguably sub-par to put it politely. Any intermediate to seasoned programmer will flinch at the lack of enums and overuse of magic numbers, the terrifying use of strcpy() and similar functions, the superfluous use of a null-zero at the end of strings, makefiles for 26bit and 32bit systems, and other oddities. You might think this is a case of severe pedantry and all programmers, myself included, will admit that they have at some point written loose code - except not everyone publishes their source code to teach beginners. If you do decide to use Paul's articles, have a stack of good C books and the RISC OS PRMs - the platform's technical sacred scriptures - by your side, ready to swiftly extinguish any bad habits and to double-check API calls.


Each booklet costs a fiver, and, on the whole, if you're looking for a helping hand in any of the covered topics then Archive's offerings should provide you with a useful stocking filler. It's unlikely that you will find any of the covered topics elsewhere so neatly brought together in such a way as Paul Beverley and his writers have managed.

Links

Archive booklets webpage

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Discussion

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Even the most basic of the C tutorial examples contain grievous problems. I urge people to avoid this at all costs. Unfortunately, there isn't any obvious alternative - there is the material on riscos.info of course, and some good examples in DeskLib, but there's never been any freely available and comprehensive RISC OS C programming tutorial.

The situation hasn't been helped by the proliferation of Wimp libraries, such as the one in the the above tutorial.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 12/12/05 1:17AM
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I have just started C programming, as from the outset decided to use the WIMP. I downloaded the DeskLib library and find it does exactly what I want extremely well. The StrongHelp file which comes with it is superb. I think anyone with some previous experience of WIMP programming in BASIC (and possibly on other platforms, although only my assymption), would find this system very useful. Together with a good book on C programming and the boundless help of c.s.a.p. new C programmers should be able to pick it up reasonably quickly.

 is a RISC OS Userdemondb on 12/12/05 9:12AM
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Thanks for such an in-depth review, Chris; I wasn't expecting anything quite so detailed.

Just to say about the Virtual RiscPC booklet, Volume 2 is in prepartion - we're just doing an index which will cover the two volumes. Hopefully, it should be ready before Christmas, though probably not in time for the RISC OS RoadShows.

 is a RISC OS Userpaulbev on 12/12/05 9:18AM
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I learnt C from the long-running series in Acorn User many years ago. I still consider it to be the friendliest introduction to C (and RISC OS related too!) that I have ever seen. This is available online at [link] (thanks to permission of the current copyright holder, John Cartmell).

 is a RISC OS Userkrisa on 12/12/05 9:21AM
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Sorry, missed a dot off that URL. It should be [link]

 is a RISC OS Userkrisa on 12/12/05 9:23AM
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Nope. Seems to be the Drobe comments system?

 is a RISC OS Userkrisa on 12/12/05 9:23AM
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Try [link]

 is a RISC OS UserPete on 12/12/05 9:28AM
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Ok just type it in manualy with a .com at the end, it does work.

 is a RISC OS UserPete on 12/12/05 9:30AM
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one missing point:

There are 5 booklets - buy all 4 and get a free number 5 volume:Internet searching.

For me I found it extremely good value for my money and I'm looking forward for the next volumes.

 is a RISC OS UserEasyKees on 12/12/05 11:41AM
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I quite agree Desklib is a good Library for people starting C Programming under RISC OS, although the StrongHelp file 2.5 I think needs to be in sync with the Desklib Library 2.7.

The networking booklet looks interesting.

 is a RISC OS Userfizgog on 12/12/05 4:35PM
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The trouble with doing published tutorials in C is that it's so verbose. So unless you have some Yellow Pages for listings with minute print it's hard to lay out an article on paper with the listing nearby. Even more so in A5 format. Either you write everything very compressed:

#include "window_defs.h" typedef struct window_size{ int minx; int miny;} Mine; int myfunc(Mine *awl){ return awl->minx*awl->miny+getwindowsize(ICONBAR); }

or don't define things properly as in BASIC

int myfunc(int *awl) { return awl[0]*awl[1]+gwindsz(-2); }

Especially if you're trying to program everything from first principles without using libraries. This is particularly bad in a magazine article, but less so in a book where there's hopefully more space. It depends how much effort has been spent reworking the original articles. I can't remember what the originals were like to comment on them specifically though.

 is a RISC OS Usercaliston2 on 12/12/05 7:08PM
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krisa: Do let me know which of the articles you find most useful and what needs updating. We have a programming series ready for Qercus for the new year but, if there is anything that can be added to the Acorn User C series, that could very well follow on later. caliston2: There are problems even with Yellow pages - but we're interested in all suggestions for getting listings right!

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 12/12/05 8:27PM
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Whilst we're on the topic of VPRC, I gave it a spin under Wine. Sadly, it's too slow to be usable - it's not clear if that's due to the acceleration on my video chipset, which I just got working very recently, or if it's some function of the way Wine works. Also, the mouse pointer is not moveable under it - this has been reported with VA5000 also. Personally, I'd very much like to see a native Linux version; I appreciate there are still support issues, but these can be worked through if the targeted Linux distributions are limited to Debian and Fedora. VA is now the _only_ reason I still need to use WinXP.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 13/12/05 3:30AM
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You still need to use Win XP occasionally to remind yourself how lucky you are the rest of the time ;-)

 is a RISC OS Usermarkee174 on 13/12/05 7:54AM
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mrchocky: I second that. I wouldn't mind too much if there was an 'it's unsupported, it's up to you to make it work' release that users could support themselves. Maybe as a supplement so you have to buy the Windows VRPC as well (which /would/ get support so you aren't completely in the cold). If there was enough documentation on exactly what is going on underneath so users would be able to understand the issues rather than make guesses (as is often the case with Windows) then user support should be feasible.

 is a RISC OS Usercaliston2 on 13/12/05 1:36PM
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My toolbox topics series of 15 or so articles in RISC User garnered some fan mail back in those heady days when I were a young pup spending afternoons writing articles to fund my excessive drinking round the seemier ends of my uni campus. They're available from the RISC foundation and unlike PFJ's stuff conform to normal standards coding and general sanity.

List of articles here: [link]

PFJ for me has become synomynous with the coding style of a crack addled monkey.

 is a RISC OS UserChimpy on 15/12/05 10:55AM
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Hi Chimpy.

I cant seem to download them from the site. the icons dont have a hyperlink.

cheers bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 15/12/05 11:58AM
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nijinsky:

That's just a list of what's available from RISC Foundation. In other words, a financial transaction is probably involved. Contact details at [link]

 is a RISC OS Userfylfot on 15/12/05 1:30PM
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Aye, you have to buy the CD from RISC Foundation. Should be noted that I don't get any money from this - the articles & code were bought outright before publication. I didn't even get a complimentary copy :)

 is a RISC OS UserChimpy on 16/12/05 10:03AM
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I would like to network a Risc PC to an XP box and a Win 2000 box. My desire has met with total defeat - is there somthing percular with win 2000? Will the network book above help here?

 is a RISC OS Userjlavallin on 19/12/05 3:28PM
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