Manchester RISC OS JauntBy Martin Hansen. Published: 21st Dec 2003, 14:58:11 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen does Northern dealersOpinion It was with some surprise, as we live in Shrewsbury, that I listened to my wife, Andrea, announce that she wanted to go Christmas shopping in Manchester. It typically takes just under two hours to make this trip but, with five days left until the Lord's birthday; traffic and the city would most likely be chaotic and frenzied. I was enthusiastic about the idea. She was immediately suspicious. I decided to confess: several of the RISC OS "big names" live in Manchester and two, in particular, are based there that I'd been wanting to check out for a while.
Firstly, in Oldham, (to Manchester's east) there is Stuart Tyrrell who has recently been running full page advertisements in Acorn User for his A6 computer. Inside the guts of this controversial machine is not the hardware which RISC OS is designed and optimised to efficiently run. Instead, are the microchips, used to promote rival Microsoft's Windows Operating System. In the A6, RISC OS runs under emulation using a very clever software product called Virtual RiscPC. So, in the A6, RISC OS is an extension, built on top of Windows XP. Stuart claims that users of the A6, "can expect day-to-day RISC OS performance which meets or exceeds the fastest traditional StrongARM machines".
Although sometimes difficult, I try to embrace new ideas, and wanted to judge this machine for myself. More than that, I wanted to try it out to see if one could seriously use it to develop RISC OS software. At home, a year or two ago, I installed the free first version of Virtual RiscPC, "Red Squirrel" onto a Microsoft laptop running Windows 2000, and provided by my work. I managed to get a large RISC OS application running but only at around one third of the speed of an A5000. This was hardly surprising as the laptop crawls along at what, for Windows, is a pitiful speed of 333MHz. However, when I tried to alter the BBC BASIC code from within Red Squirrel all sorts of strange things started to happen with the cursor and the mouse. I persisted, with the laptop crashing every half hour or so as I explored what was possible and what to avoid. Re-booting Windows is painfully slow and each crash sent me to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Four hours later, awash with tea, I deciding that actually writing code within this environment was not a practical proposition.
However, Red Squirrel had hinted at what was possible, which now, after two years of intense development and running on the 2.5GHz A6, has allegedly been realised. As we sped towards Manchester I, (not driving !) gave Stuart a call. Answer Phone. "Hi, I'm in Manchester for the day and would like to come and see the A6, hopefully to buy one and take it away today. Please call me."
Also in Manchester, but this time on the Western outskirts, was what I imagined to be a real RISC OS enthusiast's shop, run by Roy Heslop of RiscStation and CTA fame. To my shame, I've never been in any RISC OS shop, buying all my kit instead either by phone and mail order, or from one of the annual shows. Today, while Andrea visited the City Centre, I'd check out Tyldesley, where Roy's shop was situated. Roy has been advertising a range of similar products to the A6 desktop cube, but in laptop form. Called the Chameleon, the top specification machine runs Virtual RiscPC on a PC at a little over 3GHz. I was also curious to see how the Iyonix was being promoted by a high street outlet, and was interested in seeing a selection of LCD monitors running with RISC OS machines.
As we drew close to Oldham, Stuart Tyrrell called. I was delighted at his prompt response to an answer phone message, but he had bad news. Christmas had been a time of controlled panic from the business point of view, he explained, with only three top spec machines left and none of the complementary black LCD monitors. More than this, Virtual Acorn are being extraordinarily careful with the digital keys that had to be turned each time a copy of Virtual RiscPC was issued with the owner's name embedded within. So, buying an A6 off the shelf on a Saturday when Virtual Acorn are shut, was not possible. I was pleased that sales were going so well for him. Alas, he was also already fully committed for the day and even just a visit to play around with an A6 was not possible. I must have sounded very disappointed because he eventually agreed that, such was his confidence in the machine, he'd send me one on a sale or return basis. I left him my email address, but not a firm commitment to buy.
Roy's shop with large "RiscStation" signs was easy to spot as I drove down Elliott Street. I asked myself, "What was I expecting ?" Up until a year ago, CTA reliably posted a two page advertisement in Acorn User magazine featuring the latest RISC OS kit as well as intricate Aladdin's cave type lists of the surrounding paraphernalia. CTA felt like a major player, and was on a mission to give us what Acorn with its Stork project had failed to do: the first RISC OS laptop since the A4 in 1992. Regrettably it all fell apart. First, RiscStation's desktop sales slowed drying up profits. Then, the project ran into technical problems in the design stage. Time passed, technology moved on, and the project become obsolete before completion. The CTA adverts vanished until recently, when an isolated half page affair announcement the Chameleon.
I walked in, but there was no RISC OS kit on display other than a Phoebe case in a corner; a reminder of the unfinished project that broke Acorn in 1998. In fact, there was little of anything. For Roy, this was good. Christmas had cleared the shop out. All in-stock Chameleons had been bought, set-up, and shipped out to their new owners the day before. So, once again, my desire to try out, and probably buy, a Virtual RiscPC machine had been thwarted. And again, I wasn't going to commit without having tried out the product first hand.
I quizzed a talkative Roy on the Iyonix. This too is on my wants list although I don't quite feel it's a big enough jump on from my Kinetic RiscPC to justify the cost. I'm also hoping against hope that Castle launch a laptop Iyonix although, least I start a rumour, I must emphasise that I have got no reason to think that they will.
Roy did have one Iyonix in the stock room. "Why was it not on display ?" I asked. "Jack hasn't yet agreed to a mark-up that would justify the window space", was his honest, if cheeky, reply. I bought my Kinetic from CTA and Roy could tell I was thinking that maybe now was the time to take the plunge with an Iyonix and buy the Virtual RISC OS machine another day, once I'd read the forthcoming Qercus magazine review. "Like everything else I had in for Christmas, it's sold", he ruefully told me, sensing that a sale had been lost.
When I met up with Andrea later she had filled the car with shopping. She could not believe that I'd spent been out so long and returned with nothing. However, I was not a frustrated man. I'd concluded my visit to Manchester by ordered a rather smart LCD monitor, with Roy's help, from Iiyama, for my Kinetic RiscPC, and transferable to an Iyonix later on. For me, the main joy of the day had been in sensing at first hand the current surge of interest in RISC OS products, where suppliers are rushed off their feet and selling stock fast. We're rather used to the good times not lasting, so all the more reason to enjoy them while they are here.
And so, how to conclude my Manchester RISC OS ramble? - By wishing all drobe readers, "A Merry RISC OS Christmas", of course. The new year is going to be an interesting one. There is much to be positive about and I'm looking forward to reading about, trying out, and buying some of the prolification of the emerging new kit, both hard and soft.
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