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A9home first impressions review

By Paul Stewart. Published: 5th Nov 2006, 21:08:20 | Permalink | Printable

Getting up close and personal with an A9home

A9home hiding in some peppersLaunched in 2005 for developers to beta test, the A9home went on general sale in time for the Wakefield show in May this year. The machine is still missing a few features, but seeing as it is mostly complete, it's high time a review was published. Having ditched his aging RiscPC for an A9home, Paul Stewart reveals his first impressions with AdvantageSix's ARM9-powered computer and its 32bit build of RISC OS 4.

Produced by Advantage Six, the A9home is their first native RISC OS powered computer system on sale to desktop users. With a striking cobalt blue aluminium case, the A9home is surprisingly unobtrusive, and coupled with its small foot print, it's the ideal companion for users in dimensionally challenged working areas.

The desktop
As it stands, the version of RISC OS shipped with the A9home is RISC OS 4.42. This is a 32bit build of Adjust with various additions, such as hardware abstraction and other features. Details of what is in RISC OS Adjust can be found in previous drobe.co.uk articles and discussions. Some of the extra bits and pieces bundled with the operating system include the hardware driver modules, some new debugging utilities to assist programmers, and EDID support - pictured left. This feature enables the A9home to automatically detect and configure RISC OS to automatically recognise the capabilities of modern EDID-compatible monitors. It is available to the user in the form of a Configure plugin, but it can be disabled allowing the previous monitor configuration tool to take its place.

EDID screenshot

I tried the new EDID system, pictured above, with my BENQ T904 monitor, although I found it doesn't quite get it right, and I switched back to using my old mode definition file instead. I also tried a ViewSonic VA1912w, which is usually connected to my Microsoft Windows XP PC. However again, EDID failed to fully detect what the monitor is capable of, and does not offer any wide screen modes. This utility should allow users to plug in any modern monitor, and immediately use it in an appropriate screen mode without fiddling with any configuration options or hunting for a suitable mode file. At the moment, it is a promising tool, that in my opinion needs a little bit more work.

Image Viewer screenshotImage Viewer screenshot

The Image Viewer application, pictured above and tucked away inside !Boot.Resources, has also been updated. It is now possible to export images in formats the ImageFileConvert sub-system understands. The ability to rotate an image within Image Viewer is sadly missing, and hopefully this will be added during the next update - in the meantime, images can be exported as sprites and manipulated in Paint.

For those of you not familiar with the Image Viewer, this is an application in RISC OS Select that can display any image format currently known to the ImageFileConvert system. Currently, it can handle JPEG, BMP, PNG, RISC OS Sprite, PNM, Clear, PCX, XBM, ArtWorks and ICO formats. Paint also uses this system to export pictures in JPEG and PNG formats, and import supported images. Pictures dragged onto the Image Viewer can be scaled, and have their gamma, brightness and contrast adjusted - it's kind of like ChangeFSI on steroids. It is also not quick. You will find that if you load an image into the Image Viewer, and then move the image around, the screen updates are not particularly fast. There is a very noticeable slow down in system performance if you have the viewer maximised, although the same image loaded into Paint suffers no such slowdown.

Both Paint and Draw have had a few enhancements. Paint can now directly import Draw and Artworks files, while Draw also can now import ArtWorks files, thanks to the ImageFileConvert system. This is a welcome addition to these two versatile applications.

The RISC OS shutdown window, opened by pressing Control-Shift-F12 or using the Task Manager, supports the following keyboard shortcuts to control the operation of the machine: O to shutdown and power off the device, R to reboot, S to perform a shutdown as per normal, and Escape to cancel. Apparently RISC OS 4 has had these shortcuts for a while, but they were only recently documented.

The hardware
Continuing on the shutdown theme, the A9home has a single red front-mounted power and reset button. To turn the unit on, plug in its 5-volt mains power adapter, and a quick tap of the button will suffice. To perform a hard reset, simply hold in the button in for a second or two, and once released, the system will then restart. To turn the system off, hold the button for five seconds. Upon release, the system will power off. The power button on the supplied keyboard can also be used to switch off the unit, although the sleep and wake buttons do nothing at this time. The computer uses the Simtec ABLE bootloader to kick start RISC OS from the on-board FlashROM - this can be seen briefly before the A9home splash banner is displayed.

One of the nice things I like about the A9home is the compactness - it measures just 168 mm by 103 mm by 53 mm. It sits neatly in the tray of my 19" LCD monitor. This makes it very convenient, and easy to unplug when you want to move it to another location. The A9home could be ideally mounted on the underside of your desk, as then it's totally out of sight and takes up no desk space at all. The downside of its size is the lack of internal expansion. You can't have your cake and eat it.

The computer sports a 400MHz Samsung ARM9 processor with on-board graphics provided by a Silicon Motion SM501, which can hit resolutions as large as 1600x1200 in 16 million colours. The system comes with 128MB of RAM, 8MB of video RAM, and a 5400RPM 40GB hard disc. For peripheral ports, it has two PS2, one serial, one VGA, one 100Mbit ethernet networking, four USB, one microphone in, and one headphone socket. As is common with many embedded products, it is a sealed unit with no internal upgrade path. You cannot add more memory or a faster processor, unless the system's designers Simtec produce a new CPU daughter card. The system's RAM is mounted on the same circuit board as the ARM9 system-on-a-chip processor.

My advice is, don't walk blindly into purchasing the A9home without considering what you want from your RISC OS computer. Your A9home will most probably die with the same specification it was born with. This may put some people off, but not me. You may notice that laptops and other mobile kit have similarly limited upgrade paths, for instance. Let us not forget that back in the days of Acorn, their entry level computers were not exactly highly expandable either.

On the plus side, the A9home does come with four USB 1.1 ports - two on the front, and two at the back. Although I do think that, for a system that relies on USB for expansion, the lack of USB 2 will be a major issue for this unit, not to mention the lack of plug-and-play floppy disc drives. A slim CD/DVD drive is supported, however.

A quick guide to setting up a new mass storage device with the A9home USB system
First, enable USB support from Configure. Go into Configure, then USB, then Core, and ensure both boxes are ticked. Then go into Configure, then USB, then Drivers, and ensure both boxes are ticked. Plug your gadget into a free USB socket. If you device does not automatically appear in the iconbar, you will need to add it to the OtherDevs file.

To do this, keep the gadget plugged in, open a task window using Control-F12, and type USBDevices followed by Enter. From the list of numbers and text, locate your device and make a note of the Vendor and Product hexadecimal values. Then open the !Boot.Resources.!MassFS.OtherDevs file, and follow the instructions at the top of file on how to add a new entry for your gadget. Save the file, and in the task window, issue the command RMKill MassFS. Double click on !Boot.Resources.!MassFS to restart the USB sub-system.

The device should now pop-up on the iconbar. You may, however, need to try different flag combinations in the OtherDevs file. Also, not all devices are supported by MassFS, but if you do get the device working, it should automatically pop-up when you next plug in the gadget. Don't forget to safely dismount the device before unplugging it.
The A9home uses the popular Simtec USB stack, as does the Unipod. You can use the USB sockets to easily connect gadgets including memory sticks, the Ad6 supplied USB DVD-ROM drive, digital cameras, and portable MP3 players. Unlike the Windows USB system, not everything works straight away. For many devices, you simply need to edit the MassFS OtherDevs file to include details about the new device, and you only have to do this once per gadget. This is a very straightforward process, and novices will find editing it as easy as pie provided they read all the instructions.

However as stated earlier, not every USB device works. As supplied, the A9home will only work with the DVD-ROM drive available via by Ad6, and its RISC OS driver does not support the playback of audio CDs. However, there is no reason why some enterprising third party developer could not write their own driver, and sell a different brand of external drive.

I, for example, have connected to the USB system a keyboard and mouse, a Konica KD-400Z four megapixel digital camera, an Olympus FE-180 digital camera, and a Creative MuVo V200 music player - all of which required the OtherDevs file to be edited and tweaked. I did try connecting a USB floppy drive, but I had absolutely no luck in getting it to work. Either it is simply not supported, or I didn't find the correct combination of switches in the OtherDevs file.

I think one improvement Ad6 can make in the future with regards to USB is to provide a fully-fledged Configure plugin with a user interface, rather than force punters to adjust their OtherDevs file by hand in a text editor. The current manual method, although admittedly easy, is rather tedious, and hit and miss. When the system detects something that it does not recognise, it should automatically open an 'add new USB device' wizard-style dialogue box. This wizard could automatically query the device, and find out the necessary manufacturer and product identification codes, as well as cycle through all the permutations of the switches as defined in the OtherDevs file until it finds a combination that works.

If none work, it should report the device as incompatible or similar. A third party coder could write the necessary utility to do what I have outlined, however I reckon this type of interface should be standard in this day and age.

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A little correction. Other USB CD/DVD Drives are working. I have here a LG DVD Drive with an cheap IDE to USB adapter in use.

 is a RISC OS Usercaveman on 5/11/06 11:48PM
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Nice article. As an A9Home user, this strikes me as a good, balanced review of the machine. It's not going to be all things to all people and Ad6 have always been open about the lack of expandability, but personally I've not felt this has held my use of the machine back. I'm sure many other people would find the same.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 6/11/06 3:10AM
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Thanks very good review, I really would like to buy one but I really have tooo many computers already, not even room for a little one.

 is a RISC OS UserPete on 6/11/06 4:59PM
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Good review Paul, As for the printing issue: RPFS does work here on the A9home ( with printers+ and the Castle printerdriver) And thanks to the duplex pdf fromPaul Vigay I can even print both sides at once with my HP4550 color laserjet ) :)

 is a RISC OS UserEasyKees on 6/11/06 8:24PM
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Very interesting article . . . I am rather tempted but already have too many computers. If I didn't already have an Iyonix, I probably would order one though . . .

 is a RISC OS UserRickCB on 6/11/06 11:26PM
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In reply to Pete and RickCB:

Sorry, but how exactly can one have "too many computers"? :-)

 is a RISC OS Usergdshaw on 7/11/06 12:03AM
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Ah, it's purely a question of time and space - not enough of either! At last count I have my main Kubuntu Linux workstation, Windows XP Workstation, RISC PC, Castle Iyonix, AmigaOne, Amiga A1200 Tower, BBC Master 512, BBC Micro B, Sinclair QL, Amstrad PPC640 . . . too many already!!!

 is a RISC OS UserRickCB on 7/11/06 12:07AM
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For RickCB: You have a BBC B and A BB MAster 512. Throw away the BBC B and you have space for at least 3 A9home computers. :)

Don't take me too serious... but is easy to create space for an A9home.

 is a RISC OS UserEasyKees on 7/11/06 12:36AM
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I couldn't possibly do that . . . it's the BBC B I had from new . . . and is probably why today I am an IT Consultant by profession!

 is a RISC OS UserRickCB on 7/11/06 12:54AM
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In reply to RickCB: You can always strap the A9home underneath your desk!

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 7/11/06 7:18AM
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Now there's a thought . . . actually, the only thing putting me off at the moment is the lack of USB2!

 is a RISC OS UserRickCB on 7/11/06 7:45AM
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In reply to RickCB: With all those other computers, would the lack of USB seriously be a problem. Besides, there is not really any USB devices that is available for RISC OS that requires USB 2. Card readers and memory sticks all work fine with USB1, just a little slower for accessing your files.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 7/11/06 8:12AM
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Good point! But it's really the data transfer speed that bothers me!!!

 is a RISC OS UserRickCB on 7/11/06 9:25AM
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