Alpha, VirtualRiscPC revisitedBy Chris Williams. Published: 16th Aug 2003, 02:19:54 | Permalink | Printable
More detailed end user reportAs a follw up to a previous article reporting end user opinions of the MicroDigital Alpha portable, Alpha user John McCulloch has written up his own report on the MicroDigital laptop solution. John 'recently' grabbed the headlines by publishing a set of RISCOSmark benchmarks of RISC OS running on the Alpha. The benchmarks showed that the Alpha significantly outperformed a 200MHz StrongARM RiscPC in the memory and harddisc access tests.
We know that any reviews or reports on the Alpha are largely going to be reviews of Virtual RiscPC. The Alpha is a disturbingly average 2GHz Celeron WindowsXP non-badged laptop with all the standard expected features and interfaces. The important point is that Alpha features Virtual RiscPC to emulate a RiscPC in order to run RISC OS 4 on it. Virtual RiscPC is brought to you by the same people who developed and marketed Virtual A5000.
Emulation is a bit of a taboo subject and it's probably something we just might have to get used to. Is it better to run RISC OS over emulation on some gigahertz wielding i686 hair dryer, or should we remain purists and stick to the ARM cores? What if emulation speed overtakes top speeds attainable by the latest ARM cores? One of our own pet niggles against emulation is seeing people running legacy versions of RISC OS 3.x on their PCs.
Screenshot from John's Alpha
However, VRPC has shown that it's possible for RISC OS 4 and Select to be properly licensed and run over emulation. VRPC is unfortunately tied down to the Alpha and a standalone version of VRPC doesn't appear to be arriving any time soon. VRPC also unfortunately doesn't allow RISC OS to talk to the laptop's network interface and a solution to this, we've learnt, is beyond the horizon too.
On with the report. John writes,
As you may recall I submitted benchmarks for my MicroDigital Alpha, just after I took delivery of it. At the time I promised that I would report more fully on the machine once I had got to know it better. I have read with interest and not a little dismay, the ramblings of the many who no doubt feel that it is wrong to use emulation to achieve a workable RISC OS Laptop. Well I can only say that the product is living up to my expectations and has encouraged me to keep up to date with RISC OS developments.
I have since upgraded from RISC OS 4.02 to RISC OS Select 3i1. I wish that I had done this from the start. As I backed up my files and programs to CD ROM using !CDBurn on my StrongARM RiscPC and copied over the files and programs, only to realise that RO 4.02's CDFS does not preserve the file names in upper and lower case - thus causing me to have to convert oodles of files and applications from uppercase only to mixed case. I would suggest that if you intend to acquire an Alpha, and have a RiscPC or A7000, make sure they are all upgraded to Select before transferring files across with CD ROMs.
A fair amount of the last 5 weeks have been spent learning about Windows XP Professional and optimising it and making it as efficient as can be achieved. It loves filling harddrives. The 15GB harddrive was nearly two thirds full when I realised that Windows generates back up copies of itself called restore points, these have to be deleted and limited in size, in order to protect your drive space.
There are advantages in having Windows there all the time. Access to the internet is achieved using Internet Explorer and email/usenet using Outlook Express. I did download Gemini but couldn't seem to get the news side to work.
As far as Windows software, in general, is concerned I won't be hurrying to migrate. All of the photo retouching applications I have so far tried on Windows would make the proverbial dog yelp. The user interfaces are pathetic. I have downloaded Sun Microsystems StarOffice 6.0, but only as I need access to an Excel workbooks type spreadsheet as most of my pals are dyed in the wool Windows users.
Ok, Windows plus points above, negatives far out weigh the advantages. Its file handling is a joke. File saving is naff. When it comes to my other hobby amateur (Digital) photography, RISC OS shines. All my work in touching up and editing of images is done firmly in RISC OS and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. Yes, the Alpha allows me to download images from my Fuji FP602 Zoom to it via USB, but from then on its RISC OS all the way.
I have found that the speed of the IDE bus has transformed applications like !Studio_24Pro and !Photodesk. They no longer stall when loading large JPEGs. I routinely save 6 mega pixel images as 2.4MB JPEGs and load them into the above for processing. The machine's speed, as far as RISC OS is concerned, is a selling point on its own.
It well out performs my much loved and upgraded RiscPC. I still have retained it, as it has the advantage of being able to display large 24bit graphics on emormous resolutions thanks to a ViewFinder card. But with this upgrade, the Alpha positively appears to fly. According to the User Manual, the Alpha is capable of displaying up to 1920 x 1200 x 24bit natively on a suitable monitor. This I haven't as yet tried.
I would encourage anyone who is wondering about an Alpha to visit a local dealer and see one demonstrated. If anyone in the West of Scotland wants to see one in operation, email me I am willing to arrange a suitable demonstration. I am not a dealer. I have no axe to grind, just a well pleased owner.
Word of warning though: the Alpha should really be seen as a mains powered laptop. Yes, it will perform with the battery only, and there are a raft of battery saving schemes that destroy the performance of the Windows side as much as the RISC OS side. In maximise battery usage mode, the RISC OS machine is more like an A5000 than a StrongARM powered RiscPC.
John later told us that he can contact his local dealer for technical support. MicroDigital also offer a one year return-to-base guarantee if a major fault occurs. Incidentally, we pointed out to John that he could have zipped up his files before he transfered everything to the Alpha (and therefore escaped the upper case name problem).
MicroDigital - tell them we sent you
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