Omega sighted in ScotlandBy Ian Jeffray. Published: 7th Sep 2002, 18:27:06 | Permalink | Printable
We went to Livingston. We saw the Omega. Were we impressed? Read on...The "RISC OS world" seems like an extremely southern affair and save for Liquid Silicon we don't get to see much happen up here, so it was a very welcome suprise (and thanks to Alan Gibson of Liquid Silicon) that we saw Microdigital come to Livingston. Setting off from Edinburgh down the A71, we mused as to what we'd see actually operating. There's been so much FUD and rubbish in newsgroups and soforth that it's hard to keep track of what's going on and Microdigital's weird website doesn't really lead to a productive understanding of the system. So, now was our chance to get some "hands on" action - great!
We arrived at the place and followed the paper arrow trail up to a small room in the school. And waited. And waited. Microdigital eventually turned up just before 2pm. Hurrah. Omegas were set up and afer some brief fiddling and blaming of the "PC digital projector" being unable to handle the resolution Omega was trying to feed it, we finally saw the beastie booting up! A rather garish splashscreen replaced the normal RISC OS 4 / Select loading panel and then the desktop arrived. All the icons had been redrawn for no apparent reason, but yes, it was RISC OS, running at a not inconsiderable speed. A large bitmap was loaded in to some application or other (1280x1024 on a 4 foot screen viewed at 30 feet distance is pretty useless for seeing what's really going on) but the screen redraw was very nippy indeed. Then they dragged the window... uhoh. The screen redraw is definitely much slower than the RISC PC's VIDC20, which is to be expected given that Omega uses slow main RAM for the screen wheras VIDC20 uses the fast, dedicated VRAM. It's also a vast amount slower than ViewFinder at dragging windows. (Obviously faster than ViewFinder at drawing that big sprite, though!)
David Atkins began speaking, occasionally prompted by Stuart Halliday and deferring to David Prosser when things needed technical qualification. Lots of issues were talked over, and unfortunately this news editor nodded off during some of the more mundane questions (eg "What is an X-something chip") but all questions were given equal standing and answered appropriately. Appropriately, that is, except for the issue of which version of RISC OS the Omega would be shipping with. A lot of waffle basically boiled down to nothing but they didn't convince anyone they were going to be shipping with 4.0 or Select or anything specific. We shall wait and see on that one, but to my mind if Omega doesn't run RISC OS Select then it's not worth anything - we need all RISC OS companies working together, not splitting apart! Weird, though, that they'll be showing Omega at the RISCOS Ltd AGM. (link)
Some more hardware details emerged. The IDE interface is currently running in "legacy" (PIO) mode which gives out about 7-8MB/sec burst. MD said that they'd just about got UltraDMA working (always "just about" with most things!) and that would give up to a cool 40MB/sec which is great. Sound is provided by a PCI soundcard but doesn't work yet (Replay locked up because the soundcard wasn't doing the DMAs properly). No CDROM or floppy were shown, allegedly to stop folks putting dodgy software on to the Omega, but it doesn't look good having never shown an Omega with a working CDROM or floppy now does it? Other tidbits included the faster than originally specced FPGAs for the graphics stuff, 6 (six!) USB ports available, Firewire apparently in the offing etc. No evidence of USB or PCI actually working, though, which is a great shame.
After the main presentation/chat was over, we were allowed to get our grubby mits on the machines and try them out. A simple BASIC drawing test showed a 35% speed gain over a standard 200Mhz StrongARM RiscPC (22% faster than 242Mhz RiscPC, but a nice 42% faster than a 242Mhz RiscPC with ViewFinder!), which is understandable given the 306Mhz CPU. (They also showed FQuake running at an average 20fps, compared to 16fps on a 200Mhz RiscPC and 17fps on a 242Mhz RiscPC)
It was only when you get up close to the wee "Omega 1" case do you realise how gorgeous it really is (it's tiny!). If you're considering an Omega you really must consider getting this version rather than the bland midi tower.
Microdigital said they expected customers to be playing with their new Omegas "Well before Christmas" and hinted at the timeframe based on the Omega price rise due for the start of October. As with everything else, we shall wait and see.
If everything works as they suggest it will, and you've not got a StrongARM RISC PC with ViewFinder yet, then Omega has to be the obvious choice. If, like me, you do have a decent spec RiscPC, then why would you shell out £1300 on Omega? It gets you PCI, but that's only valuable if you have drivers for what you need and personally I've got a USB podule, SCSI, 100baseT ethernet and soforth so can't see any PCI cards I'd want that aren't already available as podules. The RISC OS Select issue really bothers me deeply, too.
You can't fault Microdigital for enthusiasm, though. They're single minded with their view and that's a good thing. Here's hoping they come up with the goods.
Images from the day, here
Microdigital have decided to be somewhat rude about this article and its author on their website. I've persistently tried to phone them to clear this up, but they never answer the 'phone (I hope that's just becuase they're too busy building Omega ;-). They have put up a second article on their site suggesting that this article "misrepresents" the meeting which it reports. We're very confident that it doesn't, and would very much like to clear up anything which Microdigital feel is in error, but they won't talk, and everyone else who was at the meeting and has expressed an opinion to us, is of the view that this article does indeed present a fair view of what happened there, so I think it's very unfortunate for Microdigital to be taking this rather bizarre stance and attack on their prospective customers. Make of it what you will, but speaking personally, it's really putting me right off Microdigital wheras once I had hope of buying a couple of great machines. Come on, guys. There's no need to be like this.
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