A9home: two years onBy Paul Stewart. Published: 4th Dec 2007, 22:28:40 | Permalink | Printable
We review the machine in its current stateTwo 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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