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How to upgrade an A9home's hard disc

By Kees Meijer. Published: 29th Oct 2006, 13:46:20 | Permalink | Printable

Don't try this at home

We almost didn't publish this article, and have been in two minds about it. On the one hand, it is unsuitable for a newbie to attempt. On the other hand, it's difficult for us to justify censoring information about a publicly available product.

In this piece, Kees Meijer describes how to open, no, force your way inside an A9home, and replace its relatively tiny hard disc. This process should only be undertaken if you seriously know what you're doing, and you accept that if you mess up, you can't ask AdvantageSix or anyone else to bail you out. Check and double check your warranty. Read through the entire article first before taking a screwdriver to your A9home. Follow these instructions at your own risk. We take no responsibility. Be aware of the rules of handling devices that are highly sensitive to static electricity, and handling sharp metal.

The AdvantageSix ARM9-powered computer, the A9home, ships with a 40GB hard disc, which can quickly fill up with music, source code, images, photos, videos and other documents if you're a power-user. If the A9home was any other computer, the user would be able to easily upgrade it, say, by fitting a second disc. The A9home, however, is in a small sealed box, and delving inside is non-trivial.

The compact electronics inside the blue box of tricks is said to be highly sensitive of static electricity, and Ad6 designed the custom case so that users couldn't get into their kit. It minimises their end-user support because they know exactly what OS and hardware will be on the customer's machine if a problem is reported. However, this is a barrier for anyone who wants to expand their RISC OS 4.42 and soon to be RISC OS 6-powered computer. Even if you, hopefully, don't follow these instructions, at least it will give you an idea of what lurks inside an A9home.

The first thing you should do is backup your A9home's hard disc contents, such as using ShareFS to copy everything across to a second RISC OS machine, or using FTP to a non-RISC OS machine. It's also worth pointing out that the A9home uses Simtec's IDEFS, rather than the traditional Acorn ADFS, for its filing system, which makes things slightly more complex.

How to open the A9home

All the work is done from the back of the machine
Remove the four screws from the serial (RS232) port, and the video (RGB) connector
As you can see, there is a sticker mounted on the back of the A9home. Remove it with a small flat screwdriver or a sharp knife. On each corner there is a little screw that you have to remove. In the photo, you can see one, but if you do this for the first time, you have to remove the surrounding blue paint with a sharp knife
A picture showing where you can find the four screws
When you have removed the four screws, you can remove the backplate
Now you can carefully pull out the complete printed circuit board. The hard disc is mounted on the other side of the PCB - you have to remove the four screws first, as marked with a red arrow
The underside of the hard disc. The disc is directly mounted onto the connector - there is no ribbon cable. You can now remove the hard disc and replace it with a new one.

Preparing and initialising the new hard disc
There is currently no format utility available for the A9 and !Hform from RISCOS Ltd won't work. I had to reformat my original hard disc about eight months ago, so I wrote a little formatting utility for myself - but I'm not a real programmer, so the program was built from various bits and pieces of source code I had lying around. To initialise the new disc yourself by hand, you'll need:

- Aemulor if you haven't already bought a copy for your A9home
- Simtec's IDEtool (1.11f) (webpage)
- Another RISC OS computer connected to the A9home using ShareFS. It needs to have your copy of Aemulor and IDEtool installed on it, and available via a ShareFS shared directory. We need Aemulor because the original Simtec IDETool is not 32bit compatible.

  1. Start your A9home with the new blank hard disc fitted
  2. After a while you will reach the green RISC OS Select BootMenu screen when RISC OS detects it can't do anything with the unformatted disc
  3. Press 'X' to exit BootMenu, and enter the desktop
  4. Create a RAM disc from the Task Manager, and make it about 2MB in size
  5. Using ShareFS, copy from your other RISC OS machine Aemulor and IDEtool to the RAM disc
  6. Press CTRL+F12 and type the following commands to initialise a simple choices system on your bare A9home:
    *Set start$Dir <Obey$Dir>
    *CDIR <start$Dir>.Choices
    *DIR <start$Dir>.Choices
    *CDIR Default
    *CDIR Users
    *DIR Users
    *CDIR Single
    *DIR Single
    *CDIR Aemulor
    *DIR Aemulor
    *CDIR Modules
    *DIR <start$Dir>
    *SET Choices$User Single
    *SET ChoicesDefault$Dir <Start$Dir>.Choices.Default
    *SET Choices$Write <Start$Dir>.Choices.Users.<Choices$User>
    *SET Choices$Dir <Choices$Write>
    *SET Choices$Path <Choices$Write>.,<ChoicesDefault$Dir>
  7. Double click on Aemulor, and then IDETool. IDETool is very easy to understand. Just create at last one partition, and make sure you tick the RISC OS format option, and make the drive bootable - 'RUN at startup'. You have to confirm all your options by typing 'Yes' into IDETool. If all went OK, you'll get a message signalling that the operation completed.
  8. Shut down the A9home by powering it off.

Restoring your data

Using IDEtool to format the new hard disc. Now you have to decide how to put your data back on the new hard disc. One way is to use ShareFS. First, reassemble the A9home and power it up. The system will not be able to boot a blank disc, so press X to enter the desktop from the BootMenu, and make sure ShareFS is active. Set up your A9home's network address so that it can talk to your other RISC OS computer. For instance, if your second RISC OS machine has the IP address, then set the A9home's IP address using *ifconfig ex0 Now you can transfer your data back to the new drive on the A9home via ShareFS.
Alternatively, connect the old 40GB disc with a small 2.5 inch IDE cable to the second IDE port on the A9home, and power up the A9. Again, press X to enter the desktop from the BootMenu. The system will see both drives, and no configuration changes should be needed. Then simply copy the entire old 40GB disc's contents to the new larger hard disc.
A filer window copying files to the new hard disc. The only thing you have to look out for is the naming of the two hard discs, as you can't have two discs with the same name connected. Make sure you rename the old hard disc before plugging in a second one, and make sure your second drive is given the 40GB disc's original name before you startup the A9home after copying everything to the new disc. If you forget this step it is almost sure you will get errors while booting up for the first time, mainly due to pathnames being hard coded into choices files for applications.
A finished, partitioned disc. Leave just the new disc in the A9home, and reassemble it.

As you can see, this rigmarole is not for the faint hearted.


A9home website

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As there is a 2nd IDE socket as shown in fig10/jpg, wouldn't it be possible to use this for a an external second hard disk (and also for a CD drive)? The cable from the connector could be brought out via a slot cut in the top of the backplate.


 is a RISC OS UserAlanDawes on 29/10/06 3:45PM
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A second IDE disc fits easily in the case of the A9. ( I had one for a few weeks in the case)

With a Small IDE 2 IDE 44 convertor it must be possible to connect a so called slot in small CD/DVD burner but then you are faced with 2 problems:

Interrnal a CD player won't fit You need a driver for it (CDFSSoftAtapi ? )

2.5" IDE cables are usually 5 cm long so you can't bring them outside the A9home case. (Beside of that there are no CD/DVD players with a 2.5" IDE connector. - they are all 50pins SMALL IDE)

 is a RISC OS UserEasyKees on 29/10/06 11:55PM
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In reply to kees: However if you were to relocate the A9home into a difference case, could you not simply use a convertor to use a standard hdd and dvd drive. Only problem then would be the CD driver.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 30/10/06 11:52AM
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In reply to EasyKees:

Might there also be a heat issue as problem number 3? It might work OK but might cause reliability issues or lower the MTBF.

 is a RISC OS Usersnapper on 30/10/06 1:47PM
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My RiscPC was getting full......until I used an old unwanted W2K machine as a central file server using a USB2 external hard drive. Now I play all my music on my RiscPC over the network from that drive. All my photos are also on the drive.

This has the advantage that you don't need a large drive in your main machine and that all your music,photos, documents etc are centrally available to all machines in the house (RiscPC + 2 XP's). Oh and one printer as well.

With a multi port switch I use once screen and one keyboard for my RiscPC and the "server" when I need to. Useful for flipping over to access a web site that can't be accessed properly under RISC OS.

 is a RISC OS Usermripley on 30/10/06 4:41PM
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In reply to Kees Meijer:

Wow, that is indeed a nice and clean description which should be easy for nearly everybody to follow if that user has some basic+ skills.

Just a tip for the case the backup of the harddisc goes via FTP to some server. I recommend to put the disc contents into ZIP archives first to be absoultely sure that not file types etc. get lost.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 30/10/06 5:31PM
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In reply to mripley: Why use an external USB2 harddisc. An internal IDE one usually is cheaper and faster...

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 30/10/06 5:32PM
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in reply to hzn Or why not just cut out the middleman and use a networked hard drive. Portable and accessible from every machine (if you pick the right one).

in reply to SA110 By putting an A9 in a bigger box, don't you lose the main advantage of the A9 that is its small size?

You might just as well start off with an Iyonix in an Aria Cube case :) At least that has a CD and drivers included.

 is a RISC OS Userblahsnr on 30/10/06 9:11PM
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indeed - cje have a nice (reasonably) RISC OS friendly NAS solution.

Although filling up Iyonix drives is a bit different.... ;-)

 is a RISC OS UserROHC on 30/10/06 10:18PM
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