StrongARM card turns ten years oldBy Chris Williams. Published: 26th Mar 2006, 23:30:34 | Permalink | Printable
And a decade on, we're still using 'em [Updated]On this day ten years ago, the first prototype StrongARM processor card was powered up by Acorn engineers. The experimental kit managed to run at a cool 228MHz, running software nearly six times faster than the 40MHz ARM710 processors used in RiscPCs at the time. The card, which drew one watt of power, would later go on sale in September 1996.
"Everyone was amazed with the speed when it first came out," said Chris Evans of dealer CJE Micros. "By the time the first delivery arrived we had back orders of well over 100. They have sold steadily ever since."
Steven Pampling was one of the first to receive the card from Acorn, who offered it initially to Clan members, and immediately upgraded his RiscPC 600 machine.
He said: "I compared it to driving a car with the handbrake on and then suddenly someone showed you how to remove the handbrake. You were used to clicking and having a slight pause, suddenly it just happened."
Using Impression and ArtWorks, real ale fan Steve would produce a guide to local beers on his RISC OS computer.
He said: "At a time when people told me that you needed a full professional printer's DTP setup costing tens of thousands of pounds, I was exporting from a Squirrel database straight into Impression and putting together multi-page items with multiple columns and entries not splitting over column or page boundaries. With the StrongARM that took a few minutes to feed the data to the PostScript file - I still haven't seen a PC based setup that can do the same."
Steve recalled how various applications, such packages developed by Computer Concepts, had to be patched in order to work with the StrongARM card. He now uses an Iyonix, alongside his StrongARM RiscPC, A5000, and a PC laptop from work.
Steve said: "All in all I expect that in five years time either RISC OS will use a HAL on a motherboard with a zippy fast processor, or we will all be looking back on an interesting OS that isn't available anymore."
VirtualRiscPC and Iyonix user Dr Peter Young held off upgrading until 1997. He said: "As I'm not technically knowledgeable, my main memory of upgrading to StrongARM, and before that, from RISC OS 2 to 3 on an A420/1, was of the terror inspired by having to delve into the computer and the extreme relief that it all worked OK afterwards.
"I was impressed by the speed increase, but not, as I remember, as much as I had expected to be. Certainly not as much as I was by the increased speed of the Iyonix."
Tony Still, author of OHP, also picked up a card from the Acorn Clan, and remembered a website being set up around the time to track the distribution of the upgrades to end users.
He said: "We also had the fun of StrongARM-incompatibility with software. A bit like the transition to 32-bit that we've had with the Iyonix and the A9. The StrongARM CPU architecture has a different cache arrangement that broke some software - seemingly there is always a price to be paid for progress.
"I think the StrongARM was essential in giving the RiscPC its longevity. It took the performance right back into contention when Acorn seemed to be being left behind and gave us a machine with quite a respectable absolute performance. I can still bear to use my RiscPC whilst I couldn't cope with anything slower; I don't understand how people cope with non-StrongARM or pre-RiscPC computers."
A StrongARM card and RISC OS 3.7 ROM set would set you back almost 300 quid. The public got a glimpse of the pre-production card at the WROCC's Wakefield show, held in May that year.
WROCC event organiser Chris Hughes said: "The StrongARM card was shown to the public at the first Wakefield Show, at the Cedar Court Hotel, where it was unveiled. It was in a glass display, but was still the prototype."
Third party companies, such as Castle and APDL, later produced their own StrongARM card upgrades, by driving the processor at a much faster speed or strapping extra memory to the daughter card.
It was at 11.12am on March 26 1996 that boffins working for Acorn's technology division, ART, switched on the pre-production StrongARM chips from Digital Semiconductor. In February 1995, Digital licensed the blueprints of the ARM processor designs to produce a family of high performance 32 bit RISC chips. The move came about the time electronics industry analysts began realising that the ARM architecture was ready to take off in a big way. A year later in 1996, Digital presented the SA-110 StrongARM to makers of PDAs and set top boxes with predictions that they will sell billions of the new processor by the end of the century.
Digital later handed over the StrongARM designs to Intel as part of a lawsuit settlement; the architecture was then grown into the XScale family by Intel, who at the time fancied the idea of using RISC ARM-compatible processors for particular applications.
A poll in August 2005 revealed that 65% of drobe.co.uk readers still actively used a RiscPC - a computer which itself turned ten years old in 2004.
For a further nostalgic trip, see these two official Acorn documents about the StrongARM and the changes it brought about.
StrongARM developments from Robert McMordie's Acorn history guide
StrongARM processor photo by Richard Olivey
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