A6 review part 1By Martin Hansen. Published: 16th Jan 2004, 01:42:19 | Permalink | Printable
So what's it like living with a desktop PC and VRPC?Review There are times in life when the technically correct words just get in the way. When my twelve year-old daughter asked what type of computer her new machine was, understandable words prevailed; "It's a Windows RiscPC". Behind the words sits the truth: I've bought one of the new Windows XP machines that automatically boots up into Virtual RiscPC. I am a RISC OS charlatan.
I opted for a top of the range A6 from Advantage Six. It is said that you shouldn't judge a book by looking at the cover, but the truth is, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. From the first moment I saw the A6 publicity shot I knew I wanted one. Black keyboard, black mouse, black monitor atop a black boot-box sized main case. Shallow reasons, I know, but it did look rather good on the cover of the magazine.
As it's love, "it" is a she. She arrived with a crime already having been perpetrated upon her skin. Glued to the shiny black metal flesh were two stickers: "This is a fully licensed copy of RISC OS 4, serial number 300413" said one; "Windows XP home edition" said the other along with a "you'll never fake this" sort of bar code thing, presumably a part of Microsoft's anti-piracy regime.
With any new electrical product, there is always the dilemma over the high adrenalin option - rip it out the box, wire it up, and switch it on - as opposed to the sedate - let's take an evening or two to read the manual first. A covering note from Advantage Six proprietor Stuart Tyrrell resolved the quandary for me. I skim read; "I ... apologise ... still waiting ... user guide ... not to difficult to set up...".
So, I had two hours of free time but no manual to help me set up the most sophisticated and advanced machine yet to enter my life. I decided to go for it.
Twenty minutes later RISC OS was running in full screen mode. The longest delay had been caused by my curious inability to ascertain where the power on switch was. Would you believe me if I told you that I have a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering? The "switch" is actually an entire section of the front facia that moves when pressed on its right hand side. So, RISC OS was running with next to no problem. Not so Windows. XP needed registering over the internet which was accessible to me only via my work's network. Life passed in a blur as I talked to IT about "machine physical address", "proxy server", "LAN settings", and "punching a hole through the fire-wall". I did it; one hour from cold to be on a network, and on the internet, and viewing drobe.co.uk. through "Internet Explorer". Oops - No anti-virus software installed - better pull the plug on that one.
No RISC, more fun?
With time to spare, I started to install "SiMs - Deluxe Edition". This is currently the number one PC game. For the first time in my life, four weeks ago, I had walked into a shop called "Game" and bought some PC software. Obtaining my A6 involved a bit of a wait: My daughter's been fondling her SiMs present since Christmas day. To be blunt; quality, graphicly intensive games are what youngsters want from a computer. It's what RISC OS cannot provide.
Remember my two hour deadline? Well, I know I'm showing off now, but the installation of "SiMs"was effortless and easy. In fact, the main delay was caused by "Enter the serial number from the back of your manual". I eventually found the manual by my daughter's bed where it has fallen late the previous night as she dozed off after a torch powered midnight read. As she arrived home from school, I had to depart. So I left her to it. SiMs is a great game. "Will reviews of PC software now appear on drobe.co.uk ?", I asked myself. Behind this game must be millions of hours of software development; a massive investment to create jaw dropping graphics that requires tens of thousands of copies be sold in order to pay back the developers and fund the next initiatives. But my daughter, bless her, still took time out to design a pinboard backdrop for RISC OS, and to leave me a message. I took a low resolution screenshot; how cute! [drobe.co.uk, the caring family portal - Ed]
Oh yeh, RISC OS 4
The next day, I started to use the machine for serious purpose, and by that I mean staying firmly on the RISC side of the OS divide. Virtual RiscPC comes with a lot of free RISC OS software but I was keen to stick with what comes in the (Virtual) RISC OS 4 ROM. I called up Edit. Edit generated textfiles can be read by any RISC OS machine since the Archimedes in 1988 and, like Draw files, they are a part of the glue that holds the RISC OS world together. My daughter had already configured Edit, the day before, to write yellow text on a blue background in Trinity Bold at font size 20, with wordwrap on. I typed out the start of this review, saved it on a ADFS format floppy disc, and reloaded it from the floppy into my Kinetic RiscPC. The aspect of this that I find so hard to grasp is the total compatibility of two hardware systems have always been regarded as opposites and rivals; Windows v RISC. Now they are a blend. RISC OS on the A6 acts and feels exactly like RISC OS on my Kinetic. Sure, the RiscPCs have been reading DOS format floppies for years, but inserting an ADFS disc into a Windows machine feels wrong.
Of course, Edit is not a wordprocessor, but when you write an article destined for online publication, you just want content and not any complex layout or format, and Edit is absolutely up to the job. I suppose I could give 40UKP to Icon Technology so extend my TechWriter license across to another machine, but I'll wait first and see how I get on without. It has been said that the A6 and its ilk may well be the thin end of a wedge, and maybe this is so, for already I am thinking that the 40UKP would be better spent buying Word for Windows which my daughter uses at school. The A6 is her machine, after all, and I still hanker after an Iyonix.
The monitor that comes with the A6 is a TFT. I've got the 17" version and the LCD screen is capable of displaying 1280 x 1024. I found it surprisingly bright but really clear in the higher resolution mode. Messing around with old software running in some of the older RISC OS screen modes, I thought the display slightly fuzzy and not as clear as on a CRT screen. It's not just the A6 monitor either; another that I'm trying out on my Kinetic RiscPC has similar characteristics. Maybe I'm being unreasonably fussy.
Last year, I bought a lovely StrongARM RiscPC, from the Head of IT at a school, through ebay. I asked him why he was selling it. His reply was that he now had Virtual RiscPC. At the time, I took this to mean that he was abandoning the RISC OS scene, with Virtual RiscPC providing a way of accessing old files in the unlikely event of them being needed. But there is more to it than this. Virtual RiscPC comes across as a rock solid, robust replacement of a real RiscPC and whatever the differences are, if there are any of significance, it is going to take time for them to become apparent. The StrongARM was sold because it took up space and the replacement, which was "virtually the same", was just as good.
I realised this for myself when I dragged my current software project across to the A6. Its main part, the !RunImage file, is now over 450 Kilobytes of BBC BASIC code, by far the biggest thing I've ever written. Within Virtual RiscPC I've been editing the code, adding bits; repeatedly running the program and then modifying it with around six Edit screens, showing various sections of the program code, open at the same time. The only difference I've noticed compared to doing this on my Kinetic is that if I list the program from within BASIC it takes around four times as long to rattle through from top to bottom.
I'm not a RISC OS 4 Select subscriber, but I may become one. To me the idea that the RISC operating system can continue to advance as a virtual entity is fascinating and, presumably, at some point in the future, RISC OS 4 could move past the point of being runable on a real RiscPC. With the Iyonix going down a different route, I see at least two RISC OSes evolving in the years ahead, and although I'm sure ideas will pass between them, the code itself will, surely, become increasingly divergent. In the Iyonix, RISC OS 5 with its 32 bit compatibility was a necessity to match the physical hardware of the CPU. But in a virtual machine, why go 32 bit with little pressure from hardware to do so? Is this another nail in the Omega's coffin?
Ok, ok, I'm pleased with the A6. On it, I can demonstrate my software running on mainstream hardware whilst still working with conviction within an operating system that I believe is second to none. It is smart of RISC OS 4 to hitch a ride into the future in this way; it had to evolve in order to survive. Like most things in life, we are only going to get out of emulation what we put in: For the first time in years, I think there is a real incentive for enterprising individuals to get programming and everything you need to start experimenting comes with Virtual RiscPC.
Next part: Benchmarks, specifications, VirtualRiscPC and screenshots
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