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Shipping Omega first impressions

By Chris Williams. Published: 8th Aug 2003, 17:17:26 | Permalink | Printable

What works, what doesn't, who has it and is it worth the wait?

Omega motifDrobe reader and Liquid Silicon customer, Stewart Brookes has today written up his first personal impressions of his new MicroDigital Omega for drobe.co.uk. In the absence of fanfares from MicroDigital, we've felt it's best to hear from end users directly to get their views and comments.

Eureka magazine did publish a review of sorts of the Omega the ARM Club won at Wakefield 2003. However, we gather that the ARM Club's Omega wasn't a production quality machine (no fault of Eureka though), so Stewart's comments offer a public insight into exactly what Omega end users are receiving.

Stewart writes, in his own words,
"Thankfully, the Omega is finally shipping! I've had my Omega for about three weeks now, ordered through the ever-helpful and knowledgeable Liquid Silicon.

First impressions?
It's RISC OS (no surprises there), only faster, smoother, more colourful, how I've always wanted it to be. From the outset, MicroDigital have said that they were producing a 'go-faster' RiscPC, and that's precisely what they've done. Flexible and upgradeable, meeting currents needs while retaining an eye to future expansion.

But how does it perform? Was it worth the wait?
True to their word, MicroDigital have produced a remarkably compatible machine: to my delight, all my existing software has performed flawlessly. From my point of view, this is of crucial importance: in the last stages of cobbling together a PhD thesis, I simply haven't got time for hassles with software being incompatible, or a crucial module not working. Amongst those applications that I've been using most intensively are EasiWriter, RiScript, Vantage, and the invaluable bibliographical reference manager Citation. Similarly, I've encountered no difficulties when using Insignia, WordWorks, and Impression.

Just to be difficult (and take a welcome breather from thesis-cobbling!), I tried a few games, thinking these might prove too stiff a challenge. Rather impressively, Omega took these in its stride too, and coped ably with Alone in the Dark, Zool, Gods, Pacmania, TwinWorld, and Bubble Impact. For games titles that can't be coaxed to work under the StrongARM/RISC OS 4 combination, then A310Emu rides to the rescue, working well with Pipemania and Lemmings. Oh, loading from floppy! Oh, such nostalgia!

Clearly, then, software compatibility is not a problematic issue. In terms of increased speed and performance, this varies from application to application, but a general expectation of upwards of twice the speed of my RiscPC (StrongARM 233Mhz) seems fair for most 'real world' tasks. In several cases, the speed increase is much greater than that, and this is especially so for those applications which rely on hard disc access.

For instance, with Photodesk, a typical operation can be as much as five times faster than my RiscPC. Indeed, this is where the machine really comes into its own: gone are the days of frustrating three and four second delays while the next 'chunk' of the picture is loaded from Photodesk's virtual memory system. Rather, all scrolls smoothly and effortlessly on the Omega, in a 1280 x 1024 mode with 16 million colours (more than my RiscPC can manage). The desktop looks truly gorgeous on my 17" GNR TFT, and there were no problems setting up the monitor because MicroDigital have created a good range of 'generic' MDFs.

thumbnail of Omega desktop screenshot
Screenshot of an Omega desktop

I should, perhaps, note that the machine ships with RISC OS 4.03. I've not subscribed to Select as yet, but RISCOS Ltd have announced that they are working with MicroDigital to resolve any remaining glitches. Now that machines are in the hands of users, I'd expect a speedy confirmation that all is rosy in that regard. In terms of support from MicroDigital, they have issued a steady stream of updates to improve the Omega's performance, and that bodes well for future advances. Things seem set to get better still over the coming months when 2D graphics acceleration becomes available, and the XScale makes its public debut on Omega. It's been a while arriving, but now Omega is well and truly here, and I'm glad to have such a capable and impressive machine sitting on my desk."

Stewart later told us that networking and USB is still not working however the floppy drive and sound are. It's of course hoped that these missing sub-systems are addressed as soon as humanly possible.

The aforementioned updates to the Omega design are, according to Stewart, carried out by using supplied software to reprogram the much hyped on-board FPGA chips, an exercise that takes about 20 seconds. MicroDigital are incidentally using the Simtec USB stack. A modem is supplied with the Omega but this can be optionally exchanged for a network card.

"Certainly from my perspective, I'm happy to have a working machine now, that I can use now, and to wait a few extra weeks for the finishing touches to appear", Stewart added. Having waited nearly three years for the Omega, MicroDigital's customers must be pretty eager to get their hands on machines right now and hold out for later updates to arrive to enable technologies and interfaces promised by MicroDigital.

Essentially, Stewart confirms what Liquid Silicon had been telling us, that Omegas are shipping to end users through selected dealers. Pause while we take a sigh of relief.


Liquid Silicon (on holiday, we think and recovering from email loss) Don't forget to contact us if you have any news or information on MicroDigital or the Omega

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This really is great news. I'm glad to hear that the Omega runs smoothly. Hopefully users will now be able to make an informed choice over which machine to buy now that a *real* choice is available.

 is a RISC OS Userfylfot on 8/8/03 7:22PM
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/me waits for benchmark comparisons with the IYONIX ;)

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 8/8/03 7:49PM
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I'm looking forward to a speed comparison too. I can't imagine that the Omega has more processing grunt than a StrongARM RiscPC but I'm ready to be surprised.

I'm hoping the Omega will have a working ethernet interface soon. I'm sure they can expect more sales when they get that going.

Overall it's great news, though! -- Simon Wilson, Boulder, Colorado

 is a RISC OS Userksattic on 8/8/03 8:16PM
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And of course whenever the omega benchmarks lose they can always claim an update is in the pipeline which will make it faster.

In conclusion: a) hah to all the people who said it would never be released, b) The stupidest machine launch in Acorn history.

Are they just building the machines by hand and don't want a flood of orders? It did cause Acorn problems with the BBC once demand fell.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 8/8/03 9:01PM
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First po.. oh bugger, got beaten again! :)

This has got to be the quietest product shipment ever - we kept hearing the BS stories and now it's true, we don't get any announcements!

-- #include "sig.h"

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 8/8/03 11:55PM
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Omega USB and networking not working yet....not much chance for a Mico is there. It would be nice to trade in a Mico motherboard for an Omega one though it would cost a few hundred.

 is a RISC OS Userjlavallin on 9/8/03 3:44AM
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My feeling (2 cents!) is that benchmarks for the two machines are not really the main deal. If you read the article above, the author has hit the nail on the head - software compatibility.

For many users, compatability is more/as important than raw benchmarks (especially as most current RISC OS apps are optimised for RiscPCs - much like the way software is written for consoles).

That's not to say that both machines don't beat the RiscPC (!!) and also that the Iyonix is a slick machine if you use 32bit apps. Just try and assess the machines on more than just CPU speed, after all, we're not running Windows on them !!!

 is a RISC OS Userarawnsley on 9/8/03 9:50AM
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Now all we need is a side-by-side review of the Iyonix and Omega (although to be far to MicroDigital we'll have to wait for the updates). I don't mean benchmarks - they can't always tell you which is best in a real life situation. We need a grouptest in actual use - how a user thinks they compare. -- Smiler - :D Alex Melhuish

 is a RISC OS UserSmiler on 9/8/03 9:56AM
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arawnsley: If compatibility is paramount, and performance is less important, why not just stick to RiscPCs?

Also remember, that the CPU in the Omega is pretty much the same as a StrongARM RiscPC - it's everything else that yeilds the speed increase.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 9/8/03 10:42AM
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For my purposes, I have no compatibility worries; I would be perfectly happy only using the software that works properly with the IYONIX - software that is still being developed.

Other people may have different needs; but I would have thought Aemulor would take care of a lot of them.

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 9/8/03 10:57AM
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Is (Iyonix + Aemulor) more expensive than a single Omega? If I were still a mainly RISC OS person, I'd still be quite content with my RiscPC, as I assume many are. Software houses must be careful to take account of their needs and wants too - not everybody wants to, or can afford, to own one of these new spangled machines. So software authors: Don't go around making exclusive use of all the fun toys in newer RISC OSes - you'll penalise the majority.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 9/8/03 12:16PM
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If the above represents wide availability of Omega, great (and congrats to all involved) !

As to Omega's famed compatibility do bear in mind it is the case with the machine as shipped - whether it will be still as compatible when the xScale/ArmTwister upgrade is fitted may be an issue to be revisited.

The xScale is a 32bit only processor how this will co-exist with a 26bit only RISC OS is going to prove interesting.

nutfetishist makes a very relevant point (unanswered) that if compatibility is all that matters (and not speed) why not stick with a RISC PC ?

Roll on the benchmarks (RPC Kinetic 300, Omega and Iyonix) and also comparisons then and let's see what the overall concensus is....

-- Annraoi McShane,

 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 9/8/03 12:29PM
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I'm very pleasantly surprised by the compatibility of the Omega. Remember, it doesn't have any of the custom chips that the RiscPC has (VidC, etc). Critisism has been leveled at MD over their ability to effectively program the FPGAs on the machine. Well, to my mind, this proves they /do/ know what they are doing. Taking a long time in doing it, perhaps. :-)

Now, what they must do is come good on the promises of whizzy bits for the Omega. I'd lay money on them getting networking going very soon. But what about 2D acceleration, mpeg decoding, 3D stuff and the ArmTwister?

-- Spriteman.

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 9/8/03 1:44PM
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The point is compatibility is *more* important than speed to some, therefore a machine that's compatible and faster is better for them than a machine that's not so compatible and fastest.

Does Sibelius work on Omega?

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 9/8/03 2:00PM
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Good to read that finally Omegas get to the users. I remember the presentation at RISC OS Expo in June 2002 (yes, well over a year ago) where it was said that they're ready for production and just neet to get all parts together... Must have mis-understood that since I assumed "parts" didn't include the odd hardware driver i.e. the software.

Anyhow, I'm glad it is there so that now those eager to upgrade can do so. Opposed to a Risc PC I guess for things like Photodesk the speed increase comes from the availability of lots of RAM mainly (no need to chache parts of the image on disc).

Well, now comparisons are what we all want to see I guess. And please don't wait too long with them stating that MicroDigital or Castle are still enhancing their Omega or IYONIX pc. With that statement you'd have to wait for ages with a side-by-side review because both are making their system better all the time.

Bascially I have the impression that Omega is better for those who want some more power with no hassles (fast harddisc, more RAM, a bit faster StrongARM). IYONIX pc with a twice as fast processor will be faster even, but you need 32 bit software and/or Aeumlor for 26 bit thus there is the odd compatibiliy issue.

I do hope for fair reviews on the net comparing the two so that all of you out there wanting to upgrade can decide which system to go for... it's too late for me due to my account not allowing for an Omega in addition to my IYONIX pc but I'm happy with it and hope the up-coming reviews don't make me feel I picked the wrong one...

BTW as for compatibility issues, there is one which will affect Omega like it did IYONIX pc: The odd application wasn't working as it should with 512 MB RAM in the computer since the programmers never expected that high size values. But those things have been sorted out by now, ARAIK.


 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 9/8/03 2:14PM
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Castle should be quicker at solving problems like that as they are writing their own OS whereas MD will have to ask ROL to fix things.

Of course if you want Select you've only got 1 choice ATM.

Now the generation 4 machines are available, what's in store for generation 5? Castle would seem to have the lead here, although they're relying on a chip with in built everything. If a similar faster chip appears they're fine.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 9/8/03 2:35PM
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Nice to see it; but is competition good for the RISC OS market at this stage? As a newcomer to the scene (or recent returnee, depending on your perspective), I'm all at sea as to which one I should potentially spend money on.

 is a RISC OS Userribbit on 9/8/03 10:23PM
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Newcomers to the RISC OS scene in my opinion are most likley to be computer literate. I don't think that there would be much issue in Joe Bloggs with a European Computer Driving License or similar expertise to differenciate between the two. This mostly should be done by advertising and promotion anyway... :D

 is a RISC OS UserSnig on 9/8/03 11:16PM
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Surely it doesn't matter if newcomers are computer literate or iliterate - RISC OS is easy to pick up (specially with the welcome tape and welcome guide to hand :p

 is a RISC OS Userandypoole on 10/8/03 10:58AM
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Well, we need to give newcomers all the help we can get, of course.

And to decide which computer they should buy, we need a side-by-side comparison of the IYONIX and the Omega. It's a great shame Microdigital isn't helping with this; it's almost as though they're ashamed of what they've produced.

No doubt a comparison will happen at some point, however; as more machines get delivered, you can't hide it forever :)

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 10/8/03 1:42PM
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The problem is that ultimately, people will be looking for a comparative review of the Iyonix and Omega that will in the end recommend a machine to them. And even after that, Omega supporters will say that the Omega is in continuous development and the Iyonix has had a head start etc etc., thus playing down the review.

End users will ask, "What do I want? Iyonix or Omega?"

Whoever writes the review needs to have the balls to stand up and say "If you're a graphics user, you'll want ... If you're a games player, you'll want ..." and so on. And also be prepared to address any criticisms of bias.

I know that if/when we do a comparative review, we'll not treat the article lightly.

Chris, drobe.co.uk

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 10/8/03 2:05PM
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First stage is getting accurate information about what's available today, neither website tells the whole story, maybe a Current Spec page for both computers is needed, explaining what doesn't work, what's mostly working, what's been fixed, and when.

For the iyonix a what software doesn't work and what software doesn't work with aemulor section would be useful.

Then you could go over the top and get people voting on what needs completing before they'll buy the system so the creators can concentrate on the important parts.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 10/8/03 3:07PM
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It's going to be awkward to do a comparative review alright (I don't envy you).

The notion that "omega is in continuous development" may well be true, though the less circumspect might uncharitably say "never finished".

A review has to be done as a "snapshot" at a given moment in time - what is true *then* is all that can be used in the review.

If (later) new features are added to either machine then that can be used as a follow-up to the review at a later date - if people are expected to buy a given machine *now* then the review can only realistically be made above features that are available *now* (otherwise such a review would be misleading).

Hopefully MD will see fit to provide a machine for review with all the latest FPGA updates in place so that a fair comparison can be made.

Can't wait to see that review !

-- Annraoi McShane,

 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 10/8/03 3:11PM
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Castle and Aemulor publish lists of compatible software so you just need to rifle through those to find what software is known to be compatible.

To show how compatible the Omega is with the RiscPC, remember that it booted RISC OS 4.33 (only aware of RiscPC-esque architecture) with only a few glitches.

Chris, drobe.co.uk.

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 10/8/03 3:17PM
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I think as long as the review simply states the facts about what was included in the box, and what is forthcoming, we can all use our imagination as to which is the better machine for us as individuals.

It great that it's available, and also great that Stewart likes his new machine, but I'm still a bit concerned like moss about why MD is not singing and dancing about it.

I'd be interested to hear what Stewart has been told about FPGA updates and XScale etc. I can understand the MD would not want to be drawn on such things, but Stewart as a paying customer has a right to some answers.

 is a RISC OS Userthegman on 10/8/03 6:28PM
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MD won't speak to the press, they don't do publicity. fylfot (Ian C) phoned MicroDigital recently and that's their official line. You can phone them too, all of you preferably, and find out what's going on.

It's not a situation we're entirely happy with but that won't stop us covering the machine. As long as it runs RISC OS, it's something we'll cover.

Chris, drobe.co.uk

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 10/8/03 6:50PM
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There is a review on the Omega in the latest Risc World Cd mag.

IT stated that every programe that worked witht the Strongarm RISC PC worked with the Omega but only faster.

And in the case of Photodesk a lot faster as the Omegas faster disc interface.

 is a RISC OS UserRevin Kevin on 10/8/03 7:50PM
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I think everyone knew that the Omega would be faster than a StrongARM RPC. It's the comparison with an IYONIX that we all really want to know about. A pity RISC World didn't do that :)

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 10/8/03 8:03PM
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Benchmarks between machines might be interesting, as Omega has the potential for codesign (ie the FPGA's could be used for hardware acceleration of inefficient algorithms).

As a "general purpose" machine, perhaps the Omega has a way to go, but for some specific applications it *could* be a scorcher. Imagine having hardware accelerated database searching, pattern matching, encryption, parallel decryption etc. Not the sort of thing a general desktop user might need, granted....

 is a RISC OS Userstdevel on 10/8/03 9:14PM
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Not only is the disk I/O faster than the RISC PC but so is the memory bus. This would also have a positive impact on applications like Photodesk.

Thanks Stewart for giving us your thoughts.

Cheers Steve

 is a RISC OS Userknutson on 10/8/03 9:19PM
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I want a list of incompatible software, much more useful, and hopefully much shorter.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 10/08/03 10:27PM
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But then, if it isn't on the list it doesn't necessarily mean it works.

So, your comment is unhelpful and should be moderated. :P

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 11/08/03 00:54AM
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I did a considerable amount of software compatibility testing. Admittedly I didn't try everything in the APDL library, but I did try a lot of things. Naturally this assumes that the program works on a normal S/Arm RiscPC. The list of software that didn't work follows.

 is a RISC OS Userapdl on 11/08/03 07:44AM
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But if it's on the other existing list it means it does. If 90% of stuff works a not works list is useful.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 11/08/03 08:10AM
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I disagree. Lots of stuff on a not works list will be old programs which have had a successor.

 is a RISC OS UserSnig on 11/08/03 10:11AM
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So point out the successor.

"Why don't you buy an Iyonix" - "Because software x doesn't work"

The "Doesn't work" list of popular software shouldn't be that big, easier than going through everything you use and searching a list of all the software that does work.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 11/08/03 11:15AM
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@David Holden: I was just on your website, did not see Omegas for sale, are you going to be a dealer for them? I ask because you may be able to provide more info to potential customers (like me) than MD are willing to give. Thanks.

 is a RISC OS Userthegman on 11/08/03 11:28AM
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I am a 'dealer' for MD, that is, I'm on the list on their web site, but mainly because they asked me. I have never been a major supplier of new machines, so I don't promote APDL as such.

 is a RISC OS Userapdl on 11/08/03 12:14AM
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David: Fair enough, I was hoping that APDL may be able to serve as the 'voice of MD' as they are quite reluctant to answer emails etc. I think there are so many unanswered questions about the Omega, which I would not want to trouble users like Stewart with.

It's a real shame that MD don't want to publicise their efforts as it seems they have a sound computer by what Stewart says, and he seems perfectly happy with it, so I don't see why MD does not start telling us all about it.

 is a RISC OS Userthegman on 11/08/03 3:31PM
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The article says that Liquid Silicon are shipping machines, but do they have them in stock? Roughly how many machines are in the hands of users now? Have MD cleared all existing orders by deposit holders?

I haven't seen so much as a notice on csa.announce to say the Omega is ready. Shame.

 is a RISC OS Userksattic on 11/08/03 6:19PM
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No one has publically stated how many Iyonixes have been shifted. No one has publically stated how many Omegas have been shifted. If we knew, we'd shout it out.

MicroDigital have told us that they don't do publicity and they don't do anything with the Press. End of story. Note that they aren't exhibiting at the October RISC OS show although Dave Atkins appears to be quietly touring the user groups. Feel free to phone them up and then email us.

The Press exists to gather and report information and present it to the public. One obvious advantage of this is that companies can send releases to outlets, who then tell everyone else and this saves everyone phoning up individual companies to ask for info.

So in the absence of this flow of information, feel free to all phone MicroDigital and ask questions. Every time you look at drobe (or another news outlet) for MicroDigital news, and there's none - phone MicroDigital.

We're currently relying on end users and dealers to tell us about MicroDigital stuff - which is unfair on end users (although Stewart's writeup was very, very much appreciated) and it's unfair for us to hound dealers with questions that really MicroDigital should be answering.


 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 11/08/03 7:15PM
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Chris, I would not want you to think I was criticising Drobe in any way by my comments above, I appreciate that if MD do not answer your questions, then there is not a lot you can do.

The reason I want MD to tell us about it that I don't want to hassle dealers to give me info about a machine which I am fairly unlikely to buy.

I hope MD are reading this, because as someone who feels their RiscPC cannot cut it anymore, I'm considering buying an Iyonix,Omega, or other computer. Currently, I can get all the info I need about the Iyonix simply by browsing the web, but the Omega is a riddle wrapped in a mystery enclosed in a shroud. I mean, you see the 'Lynx' internet suite mentioned, but no explaination of what it is. We know that lots of features do not work yet, but no indication of when they might work.

I don't really understand MD's attitude, I know they feel burned by the press, rightly or wrongly, but this helps nobody, especially themselves.

 is a RISC OS Userthegman on 11/08/03 8:11PM
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Cheers for the clarifications, Chris. I would phone Microdigital, but I don't currently intend to buy an Omega and it's prohibitively expensive for me to phone England. My interest merely stems from the fact that I like to be kept up-to-date with all RISC OS offerings.

 is a RISC OS Userksattic on 11/08/03 8:30PM
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Stewart Brookes' comments are very welcome, but they raise as many questions as they answer: for example, he's implicitly comparing the Omega with a non-VF Risc PC with limited memory, if his comments about Photodesk are anything to go by. As someone who /has/ a VF2-equipped Kinetic with lots of memory, I probably wouldn't see the particular improvements he describes. OTOH, for those for whom compatibility is the big issue (and I'm amongst them), I need to know whether the undoubted performance increase offered by the Omega over my present machine warrants spending /a lot/ of money, and (equally important) whether ongoing support and development effort will offered by MD (whatever the pros and cons of the Iyonix, Castle are undoubtedly actively supporting & developing it).

So IMO MD (or one of their dealers-Liquid Silicon?) would be wise to offer a current-spec machine for independent evaluation by, for example, EUREKA or ARCHIVE, and, without necessarily quoting a timescale, state what is on the to-do list for the Omega.


 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 12/08/03 11:11AM
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Considering Chris's comment that MD aren't even turning up at the October RISC OS show (like only the *biggest* RISC OS show of the year) one has to wonder what MD are playing at.

I suspect the odds of MD releasing an Omega (or even authorising a distributor to release one) for review is probably quite slim. This is rather sad - because if Omega is *actually* nearly complete surely they'd have something to show and something people would want to see.

Not satisfying this demand from potential users and other interested parties is (IMHO) damaging Omega. Nothing the press (or people) could say could damage Omega *more* than this carry on.



 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 12/08/03 8:32PM
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Just buy an Iyonix and be done with it. It's probably the better machine anyway.

 is a RISC OS Userfwibbler on 13/08/03 3:25PM
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