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A9home: two years on

By Paul Stewart. Published: 4th Dec 2007, 22:28:40 | Permalink | Printable

We review the machine in its current state

Two years after the launch of the A9home, Paul Stewart looks back at life with the little ARM9-powered computer. Paul, who recently produced a home-made laptop using an A9home, previously reviewed the machine for drobe.co.uk.

Introduction
It's hard to believe that it's over two years since I purchased my A9home. It was from the first batch for developers. I remember travelling to a Wakefield show with the assumption that a new RISC OS computer capable of running RISCOS Ltd's branch of RISC OS would be available. The Advantage Six stand had plenty of bits under covers. They did not take them off until after their theatre presentation.

The presentation was, as expected, rather packed. Everyone was eager to see this new machine. I doubt people were disappointed either. At the same time I don't think it was what punters had expected. I know I certainly had no idea that the new RISC OS powered computer would be such a petit affair.

Driving away from the event at the end of day I was happy with my purchase. Well, not totally. At that point the only items I had were the flight case (a vanity box minus the mirror and make-up tray), the keyboard and mouse. The A9home home arrived about a week later.

The A9home in peppersI was quite impressed by the little machine. My ageing RiscPC most definitely dwarfed the little blighter. Being one of the first batch out, my unit did suffer major hard disc-related problems and I eventually sent it back due to it file system faults. The next A9home I received contained Flash ROM update 1, which thankfully, for me at least, fixed the issues that were causing the hard disc errors. In December that year I sold my StrongARM (APDL Turbo) RiscPC. I was more than surprised to get £180 for it, and I moved over to the A9home full-time.

So has it been plain sailing?
Yes, but no but yes but... Let me explain. For the most part I have been very happy with it. Flash ROM update 2 was released in March last year and included RISC OS 4.42. This delivered EDID support, allowing monitors to be automatically detected and configured, and the executable compatibility tool, which tries to prevent the system from running dodgy programs and crashing.

I believe the compatibility tool was an own goal: no mention of this utility was made prior to the Flash ROM release and it surprised many users because it blocked some legitimate programs from running. It can be tamed from a configuration control panel. The EDID support, whilst not perfect, was a new addition to RISC OS and this can be used with RISC OS 6 and Viewfinder hardware that supports it.

USB
I have found the USB sub-system to be very easy to use although compatibility with some devices is, as always, dependent on having the right driver available. For example, USB devices that are of class 8 and sub-class 04 are not currently supported by MassFS.

Right now I have a USB keyboard with an integrated touch pad connected rather than a full-size one with a separate mouse. Before that I used a full-size Lenovo keyboard and integrated USB hub with a USB mouse plugged into it. This combination required a USB driver update from Ad6.

One area I have commented on in a previous article was the need to manually fiddle in the OtherDevs text file to add support for USB memory sticks that are not automatically recognised. Kees Meijer has developed USB-util, a user friendly utility for detecting and automatically updating the OtherDevs file as well as provide other useful features such as formatting and the backing up of memory sticks. It's well worth a try if you do not already have it and it's available from the downloads section on my A9home compatibility website.

Staying with USB, an area which has started to get on my nerves is the physical position and placement of the USB ports. Sometimes plugging in and pulling out devices can be quite a fiddly task. With the rear ports located right next to the power input, I have also found it common to end up yanking out the power while swapping USB cables - this is not something I would recommend.

System stability
Again, on the whole, I have found the system to be stable. It is with regret I am not able to say robust. My only remaining niggle is the reccurring file system errors. However with the help of Disc Knight, these do not usually cause me too many headaches - although they have given me sparked the odd tantrum and rant at Ad6.

The file system faults usually manifest themselves as dreaded and unexpected 'Disc not understood - has it been formatted?' errors on boot-up. A repair job by DK is required to restore your files. The problem is that these faults are not encountered by all A9home users - only an unlucky few.

It is therefore my view that this is more likely to be caused by some software I am running. I am currently in the process of eliminating each program I use until I found a suspect. If I discover anything conclusive, I will let you all know.

Printing
The !Printers application was not supplied on my A9home. I was advised by RISCOS Ltd's Paul Middleton to use the 32bit Castle !Printers software, which I have done. Strictly speaking, I use !Printers+ with some of the 32bit modules from the Castle release.

I have successfully printed from both USB and the network via RemotePrintFS. But what about an official 32bit !Printers+ release from RISCOS Ltd? Now they have finished and release RISC OS 6 for 26bit machines, is this going to happen? I have sent an email to Paul Middleton regarding this matter but I have not had a response as of this time.

Documentation
Another area that has yet to be tackled successfully is documentation and manuals. I could understand when there was a lack of documentation when I purchased my own system as an early user. However when normal users are purchasing the machine, I would at least expect there to be some basic documentation included.

Testing
Advantage Six only appear to have a handful of people reporting bugs. If you currently own an A9home and have a bug but have not reported it, then please follow the instructions that came with your system and report that bug via the appropriate email address. If it is a bug that has already been fixed, you may even get the updated module before RISC OS 6 is made available.

Remember, if you come across what you think is a bug, don't assume someone else has come across it and reported it. Advantage Six want to hear from everyone who has found a bug.

Please don't forget the official A9home mailing list is the place for discussing A9home-related issues and not the place for reporting bugs. Bugs reported via the mailing list most of the time will not be picked up by the development team.
For example, to print via USB I had to use Google to locate the relevant bits of information on how to actually do it. This type of information should be provided as part of the system documentation in either electronic or print form. According to Advantage Six, all A9homes do come with basic documentation including support information, a basic hardware guide and a RISC OS user license number - so make sure this is provided when you buy.

Audio
A mystery that could confound fiction's great detective is the A9home's ability to lose its sound output. This problem could be a show stopper for some users. However contrary to popular belief, Advantage Six have released an updated SoundDMA module to a few lucky beta users who have been in touch with them over this issue. While this module is not yet available for general release, it would appear it has indeed fixed this issue.

The playback of sound can also be a bit messy sometimes. For example if you're playing back your favourite MP3 collection with AMPlayer and you happen to drag a window, the sound can break up and distort until you have finished moving the window.

Operating system updates
This is another talking point. What will be the finished OS? Is it RISC OS 4.42 or can we expect RISC OS 6? From my own dealings with Ad6 I know they are busy making various A9home drivers fully compatible with RISC OS 6. With the dwindling resources available to RISC OS companies this will inevitably take some time.

Communication
It appears that too many RISC OS related companies have problems communicating effectively with their customers. Why this is, I have no idea, but Ad6 also have this rather weird phobia.

With no official word in public for over a year, one can't help but wonder if the fate of the A9home will be the same as the Microdigital Omega. To be fair, when Microdigital suggested a release date for the Omega or a date for when a certain aspect of the machine would be finished by, the date would sometimes come and go several times.

So no, I don't believe the A9home will have the same fate as the Omega just yet. But what would be great is a reassuring message, to the A9home mailing list or to the various news portals and magazines, revealing the current status of the RISC OS 6 port and perhaps a list of all reported bugs that have been found in 4.42 and their state of play. It may take someone half day to compile this email, but at least it would be something to let punters know things are still progressing.

Without official news people tend to make up their own mind as to what is happening. Then we get fear, uncertainty and doubt - commonly known as FUD. In our niche marketplace it is this that drives people away while those who remain wonder why we carry on. I'm sure this is not something that Ad6 or their retail partners want.

Conclusion
Drawing to a close, Advantage Six, in my opinion, should start to make available for general release the various modules that have been tested by beta testers and show no signs for causing stability issues. Certainly this would go some way to keep the doom sayers at bay.

When a definitive answer to the file system fault issue emerges, the A9home will take its place in a long line of distinctive and robust RISC OS-based computers. It may not be for everyone, but if you are on a tight budget and not after the extra expansion that you get with an Iyonix, the A9home (even without RISC OS 6) is an ideal replacement for your ageing RiscPC or A7000-class RISC OS computer.

Links


The A9 website The A9home versus the Koolu

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Discussion

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I am a lover of the RiscOS system and would really like to stay on board. However the comment regarding communication from AD6 is spot on and despite my strong preference for RiscOS I'm not totally certain that without some idea of what is going on that I will remain for ever patiently waiting.

 is a RISC OS UserAlexander on 5/12/07 5:28AM
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Interesting article - thanks.

Sadly enough I have to agree that the way the odd company treats their customers by keeping them in the dark about progress - be it ROL or AD6 in this case - is bad news. OK, we all know that lack of resources does mean that some companies fail to give sensible release dates (others like MW do manage though), but to simply not even keep their customers informed would make me feel as not being wanted as customer... I agree that I do not think that A9home will follow the Omega ... but yes, AD6 should offer some official statement as for their progress.

In any case this kind of silent non-development is probably part of the reason why more and more users decide to move to a different platform. The emphasis here is mainly on the "silent" BTW.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 5/12/07 8:04AM
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Nice balanced article. I'm still hit by many of the bugs in the A9's OS, but on average it's still a great machine. It's very convenient (I'm amazed exhibitors take RiscPCs or Iyonixes to shows, other than CTL, obviously), the performance is acceptable, it's quite, cute, and I love its industrial styling.

Given they've had over a year, I'm hoping an OS update will be forthcomming that will fix the few remaining issues - this may give A6 time to work on hardware upgrades or a replacement model!

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 5/12/07 8:16AM
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Another splendid Drobe article that informs me more of progress (or non-progress) of products than the people who produce the things.

Since moving in July I have been eager to get back on the A9 mailing list with my new email address to see what's going on, but it seems my pleas to AD6 go unheeded. Unless someone gets me onto the list soon I will miss out on the flash update, should there ever be one.

 is a RISC OS UserGeoffP on 5/12/07 11:07AM
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A good, balanced review. I'm not an A9 user, but I hope it gets sorted out soon; it just demonstrates (again) how much more work is involved in developing a fully consumer-ready hardware product than a prototype. However tempting the prototyping route is, the damage done to the market by launching under-developed hardware is /always/ greater than the benefit.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 5/12/07 11:21AM
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Good article. As an a9home owner myself, I can recognise all of this. It's a nice machine, and I can confirm that the SoundDMA changes have cured my sound problems. The most frustrating aspect is the lack of a visible, credible plan for taking the machine forward. If ROL/Adv6/CJE were able to provide this, ideally via a proper support website, I feel a lot of confidence in the programme would be restored.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 5/12/07 4:32PM
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In reply to lym:

What would you like to see on the support site to make it "propper"?

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 5/12/07 4:39PM
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Arguably, some of the stuff on your very useful Compatibility Site should be on an official A9 site, like the useful downloads and FAQs. As you point out yourself, it's not obvious how to print on an A9, and some official advice on this posted in a central location might have been helpful. But I was really thinking of things like press releases and publicity, giving some indication of the state of development, etc. It can, at times, feel as if CJE and Adv6 have forgotten about the product, which I'm sure isn't true.

I don't mean to be over-critical: Adv6 are very helpful on the phone, and clearly are working hard on some difficult OS issues. And it is a nice machine in lots of ways. The intention of my comment was merely to point out that a bit more effort on PR, with some clear commitment to progress on the remaining OS matters, would do a lot of good.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 5/12/07 5:31PM
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It would not be difficult for someone from A6 to post a status report to the A9Home list once a month. Even a one liner saying " not a lot to report" would indicate that the project is still alive.

I find it amazing that bugs mentioned on the A9 list may not be picked up.

The lack of communication is is just bad manners. The machine however, is a delight. I get occasional disk errors fixed by DiscKnight. There is an obscure problem with !Hermes which sometimes gets stuck sending mail, and HOMM2 doesn't work. Otherwise it does the biz.

 is a RISC OS UserJohnR on 6/12/07 10:04PM
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In reply to JohnR:

Advantage 6 have always said the A9home list is not the place for reporting bugs. Other people one the list have also said this. Specific email addresses have also been given in the paperwork that came with the A9homes.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 7/12/07 9:06AM
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Tight budget? But it's £600 - that's more than a second-hand Iyonix which is streets ahead. Too much I'm afraid, just too much.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 9/12/07 1:03PM
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In reply to AW:

What do you expect in such a niche market? I'm sure Advantage 6 would have loved to be able to sell them at half that price.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 9/12/07 2:00PM
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Well I'm sure it's not just me who thinks that its £600 that A6 will never get from me compared to, say, £350 which they could get next week. That's about the same as a s/h presumably but there's no point if I can't support the market.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 9/12/07 9:15PM
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AW: Personally I'd buy a copy of Vista at £2, but Microsoft won't sell it to me at that price either, so there's £2 of my money that Microsoft will just never have. The question you have to ask is: did they want that £2 in the first place?

Remember that you have to build custom kit, and get small-scale component production done. Then you need to buy a copy of the OS for each one. Then you must pay for the significant development time and resources taken or for future R and D (depends whether you look forwards or backwards!) Finally you have to earn a bit to live on. Economies of scale kick in: I'm sure if you wanted 1,000 of them or so and paid up front, and you had a few mates who also wanted a couple of thousand units apiece, you might just negotiate that £350 per unit you wanted. But I'm guessing you only want one.

It would be extremely safe to assume they would be making a hefty loss at the price you're suggesting. So if it costs them a loss to sell goods to you, is your custom actually worth it?

 is a RISC OS Usermd0u80c9 on 9/12/07 9:47PM
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In reply to Ad6/ROL:

I just had the chance to take a look at a brand new A9home a friend just purchased.

I must say that it is amazing what you get: ArtWorks Viewer 1.74 dated mid 2004, NetSurf dated November 2005, no Printers and not even OmniClient to ensure you do not connect to some Windows PC. A nice surprise was in the Welcome directroy where a r/o SparkFS was hidden. And please do not expect much of use inside the Docs directory ... unless you're into reading the change log e.g.

Considering the price tag I think everybody can expect that the free software included is at least reasonably current ... and not well over two years old with newer much more versatile versions of the software being available for download! And to still not deliver Printers ... rediculous!

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 7/1/08 10:50AM
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