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A6 review part 1

By 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.

A6I 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.

A6 screenshotRemember 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


A6 website Virtual RiscPC

Previous: The passing of community friends
Next: Archiology finds new home


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So, after buying a RISC OS emulator computer, the first software to buy is... a Windows game and Word for Windows? What happened to the argument that emulators allow RISC OS software development to continue?

Nice review though. :)

 is a RISC OS Usermonkeyson on 16/1/04 9:26AM
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Hey, give the guy a break - at least he IS working on a RISC OS program:

Quote: 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.

BTW - how does one quote here on drobe?

 is a RISC OS UserGulli on 16/1/04 10:04AM
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please, if you can get ARMSI to function under this set up, include memory transfer results in your benchmarks. i am fed up with seeing 'the desktop is noticeably quicker', or 'redraws the artworks apple x times faster' in 'benchmark' results. a while back i lashed out and bought a risc pc so i could move development of some software from an a4x0 machine - reached an impass regarding bus speed and video data volume. i was aware that the risc pc has a higher clocked bus, and would solve my problem. (this project has stalled at the mo. holidays, you know :o) there may even be others out there still using large software/data files on RISC OS systems, and probably want to hear about improvements obtainable from both software emulation or new hardware solutions. (essentially interested to see if VRPC slows memory access to RPC like timings :o) for interrupt/timer use). would be great to see iyonix and omega figures too. multiplying the bus speed by bus width does not often give an accurate idea of how quick a computer is going to be able to shuffle data in memory, and some of us old fogies still use mips and cpu <-> memory MB/sec values to compare computer systems. (after all, look at the pc world where a 2.2GHz processor with a slower bus from amd can give intel's wonder chip at 3GHz such a fright - one system is great for games, the other is good for multi-media). since the RISC OS market has become so diverse now, are we going to see if the situation is the same for us ? probably not if the half baked benchmarking continues.

it's all very well saying things happen quicker on screen, we want to also know what is happening behind the scenes too.

(oh, if this has been covered in the printed media, i've missed it - please direct me - and sorry for the rant !)

 is a RISC OS Userlostamarble on 16/1/04 10:50AM
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In reply to lostamarble: Boring! Nice little rant, but as it says at the bottom of the article "Next part: Benchmarks...". Benchmarks arent for real users, and they'd probably just put you in a fit of depression.

I thought this article was great, a real good enjoyable read.

 is a RISC OS UserSnig on 16/1/04 11:26AM
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"Hey, give the guy a break - at least he IS working on a RISC OS program"

This is true. I think VRPC is well suited to development (even more so with Linux running arm-gcc). But from the end-user perspective, it might be that they'll be spending money on new Windows software rather than RISC OS stuff (Martin gives the example of TechWriter).

I'm really interested in what this 450K BASIC program is!

 is a RISC OS Usermonkeyson on 16/1/04 12:40PM
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"for already I am thinking that the 40UKP would be better spent buying Word for Windows which my daughter uses at school"

NOOOO. (Isn't it far more than that anyway?). Take a look at openoffice.org , free, better at rescuing corrupt office docs than office itself. For normal use, not any more different from office than a different version, and it exports PDFs.

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 16/1/04 12:47PM
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"Isn't it far more than that anyway?"

That's *what* I thought. :|

 is a RISC OS UserMENTAT on 16/1/04 3:44PM
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Just testing the quotation and bold text functions (which haven't always seemed to work in the past :| )

 is a RISC OS UserMENTAT on 16/1/04 3:45PM
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Yeah, I should have put something like; ... "the 40ukp would be better used as a part payment towards the cost of" ..... I was actually a little annoyed to see that I was expected to pay a further 40ukp to use a program that I've already payed a lot for on a second computer. I'm sure Microsoft do the same but that doesn't make it right. Even worse from the "user paying through the nose" point of view is the Microsoft dream that we never own any software but pay a monthly rental to use it. (Don't get me started...)

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 16/1/04 4:27PM
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Use ""s, and/or click the SHOW HELP button, below. I think you have to use the quotation marks at the begining of a line etc though - be explicit (moss).

 is a RISC OS UserMENTAT on 16/1/04 5:33PM
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With M$ you'll probably have to pay the full whack. Maybe they'd let you have easiwriter for 25?

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 16/1/04 5:36PM
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try www.richardspencer.freeuk.com/riscosmark/

or email me what you want testing and how on a proper RISC OS computer and not some 2 bit junked up pile of rage

 is a RISC OS Userepistaxsis@work on 16/1/04 5:54PM
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According to the Icon Technology website ([link]), their licences can be extended to cover a PC for just 30:-

"Existing users - you can extend your licence to include a PC as well as your Acorn for just 30.00 inc"

This seems pretty reasonable to me.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 16/1/04 5:55PM
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I've got some benchmarks somewhere that I did, and basically Artworks redraws and !SICK/!ArmSI benchmarks where as good as my SA-287 on my 1.6GHz Athlon's. My 400-500MHz PIII's aren't great, but still usable (gotta be faster than an A7000+!)

So 1.5GHz will get you SA performance in my experience, these new ~3GHz machines must be beating the Kinetic/Omega and in some ways, Iyonix

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 16/1/04 6:58PM
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Very few ways. It depends entirely on the test you run. I have a test which determines the clock spped of the processor it runs on (200mhz, 233mhz etc...) On my XP3400 I have achieved about 330mhz. So whereas it will certainly beat a Kinetic in most (all?) cases, it has some distance to go to beat an Iyonix (based on this particular test). Cheers!

 is a RISC OS UserThe Doctor on 16/1/04 7:27PM
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I think this review shows us exactly where RISC OS is heading.

When it comes to replacing the RISC PC I can't see many people beings satisfied with new native hardware given the increasing deficiencies with our software. Anyone who needs to use multimedia or the internet will be going down the emulation route unless they are rich enough to be able to afford two machines (and a desk big enough to take them).

The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter how good our user interface is if we can't run the software we need.

Much as I hate the Windows user interface I'm certain that my next machine will have Windows as the base OS. I'll run Virtual Risc OS, of course, but eventually I'm sure I will find me doing almost everything on the Windows side. In the end most people will learn to put up with the Windows interface because the software does what we need - and we'll give up using RISC OS, not because the OS or the hardware is a bit dated, but because the software doesn't deliver.


What a pity that we can't get a RISC OS style built into Windows....

 is a RISC OS Usercynic on 17/1/04 9:07AM
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Avery good review - not biased either (not that I noticed).

If somebody is going to pay ### UKP for a Windows XP PC then you're going to want software (other than VRPC) to use this. Besides, The Sims is an excellent game - my sister has several expansion packs and I enjoy it at times too! :p

OpenOffice is an excellent package - I'm surprised MS haven't done something about the uncanny similarities to the MS Office interface.

As for software liscences - what's the point? The IT technician at school said something to me once that seemed very apparent; you never own the software you pay for. It makes you wonder what the point in paying for software is? If you actually read liscence agreements you find you never actually own the software, merely the right to use it. MS could come and take all your software whenever they feel like it. That MS dream is already here, except we're paying a one off lifetime rental, not a monthly rental.

 is a RISC OS UserSmiler on 17/1/04 9:16AM
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Only if you break the licence agreement, of course having never signed such an agreement it's invalid anyway.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 17/1/04 12:02PM
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The licence is something you must follow to use the software, so if you don't feel the licence is valid because you didn't sign anything, it simply means that you're not allowed to use the software.

This sort of thing relies on copyright law: basically you're not allowed to copy the program from the CD to HD or RAM without the copyright holders' permission. I've often wondered how this copyright argument applies to RISC OS, given that it's in ROM and doesn't need to be copied into RAM. Perhaps Castle can't stop you using it if you break their agreement?

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 18/1/04 2:04AM
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cynic: "What a pity that we can't get a RISC OS style built into Windows...."

It's not a pity at all. It would still be rubbish, slow, crashy, clumsy etc :-(

 is a RISC OS UserMENTAT on 18/1/04 1:05PM
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flypig: You don't copy it if you run it, it is a necessity to use it so you are simply using it, not making a copy. That particular issue has come up many times and every time I've seen it torn down by the people who seem to know about law. Of course I'm not a lawyer, but a search should turn something up from one.

 is a RISC OS Userjohn on 18/1/04 1:48PM
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If memory serves me, Software End User Licenceses were only introduced after a District Court Judge decided that buying software was not like buying a book or a record, and therefore a licence was neccessary. As I understand it, this decision has never been challenged by a higher court, or re-inforced with legislation.

So it strikes me that Microsoft would never dare confiscate someone's software, citing licencing infractions, as if an appeal court overturned the original judge's descision, a multibillion dollar industry would come crashing down like a house of cards.

 is a RISC OS UserJWCR on 18/1/04 3:17PM
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> john

I'm no lawyer either, but I was basing what I wrote on an article in the Register:


I have no idea whether this is really accurate or not, but thought it was an interesting explanation nonetheless, with potential implications for programs running from ROM.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 18/1/04 5:49PM
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Having had Virtual RPC on my lap top for a few days (I have a problem with it at the moment - entirely my fault - the speed at which it runs is already making me want to sell my StrongArm RPC (almost 10 years old) and my son's 500MHz PC when he upgrades. Then I could buy an Iyonix!

 is a RISC OS UserDaveW on 18/1/04 9:51PM
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flypig: Yeah searching I seem to have loads of pages that say that the US courts keep building on rulings that copying into RAM is an infringement and saying that thet's wrong in great detail! I can't find any test cases in the UK/EU though. If your program is running from ROM you still have to copy it into the processor one instruction at a time where it is stored for a fraction of a second. Any ROMPatching would copy pages into ram etc. Hopefully the EU courts will rubbish this argument if it ever comes up though. If they remember what copyright law is for it's designed *not* to stop people using it freely, it's only designed to stop them spreading it around and thus devaluing the copyright holders right to copy and distrubute.

 is a RISC OS Userjohn on 19/1/04 10:34AM
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john: "Hopefully the EU courts will rubbish this argument if it ever comes up though."

I wouldn't be too sure about that. Especially since various "representatives of the people" seem to be so keen on introducing US-style legislation into the EU whilst making vague claims about "intellectual property" and "economic benefits" that one could justifiably wonder whether they've been bought off.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 19/1/04 11:14AM
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