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A6 review part 2

By Martin Hansen. Published: 29th Jan 2004, 20:04:30 | Permalink | Printable

Benchmarks and opinion

Part 1 of the A6 review

Overhead shot of A6Review Welcome to part 2 of my confession. As you may recall, I previously admitted on drobe.co.uk to buying an A6, one of the new "hybrid" computers that is set up to run RISC OS 4 as easily as Windows XP. Either operating system can be given the full screen, although RISC OS can also be run within a window of the XP screen. These "Windows RiscPC" machines have prompted heated debate within the RISC OS world, not least because of the long held view that a user has to choose; Are you using RISC OS or Windows?

I though it would be interesting to open part 2 by first looking more closely at the two modes in which RISC OS can run - either as full screen or in a window. Moving from one to the other is no big deal; simply press the two keys "Alt" (held) then "Enter" to toggle between. After some thought, I decided to dig out one of my ancient software masterpieces (he said, modestly). It's a program called Laser Bounce that I sold to BeeBug magazine in 1989, for the princely sum of 50UKP. I selected Laser Bounce because is does not multi-task on the RISC OS desktop, and does not use a mouse to drive its menu system. The code is pure BBC BASIC; simple to write and, looking over it now, highly readable.

VirtualRiscPC to virtualisation?
I have thought a few times about making it multi-task on the RISC OS desktop. But this takes time and effort and there will be nothing elegant about the resulting listing. Now, under Virtual RiscPC there is no need, for, with RISC OS running in a window on the XP start-up screen, Laser Bounce 'multitasks' and the menu, one of the old press the number of the item you want types, works fine. I have often thought how useful it would be to have an option to run BBC BASIC in a window on the RISC OS desktop so that some of these gems from the BBC Micro days could have a new lease of life. Under VirtualRiscPC we have, sort of, got this for free.

Maybe in the future, VirtualRiscPC, or some rival software, could run two or more RISC OS programs in seperate windows and multitask them in the WindowsXP desktop. This "moving of the goal posts" is, to me, typical of what Virtual RiscPCis about. As a further example, let me ask you this; Why now rewrite, as a Windows XP version, any RISC OS application? Is it not now more sensible for the major applications authors to throw their endorsement behind VirtualAcorn as the way to "convert", without doing anything, RISC OS' 'killer apps' to work under WindowsXP? In full screen mode, you can even forget that WindowsXP exists, underneath, supporting the emulation.

Thumbnail of WinXP screenshot
Laser Bounce running in WindowsXP

Part 1 of my A6 review prompted a lot of drobe.co.uk readers to cry out for benchmarks. Ever keen to please, I decided, on their behalf, to benchmark the new machine. To do this, following the advice posted, I downloaded RISCOSmark from Richard Spence. Quite reasonably, some readers were not satisfied with comments along the lines of, "It feels much the same as a Kinetic RiscPC". They were after an opinion founded upon the indisputable truth that arises from hard, cold, unemotional numbers. Compare and contrast: What should we be pitching against the A6? Well, obviously, a standard 202MHz StrongARM RiscPC. This is, after all, what the A6 is an emulation of. How well does Advantage6's "Barton-cored 2500+ CPU" newboy match up to an eight year old StrongARM? As I've got a Kinetic RiscPC handy, I've got a second comparison on offer. And just in case Advantage6 is thinking this is going to be a walk over I shall add in the figures for an Iyonix. The stakes are high because it's not just the A6 under test here, it's VirtualRiscPC itself and the whole dazzling caboodle of machines now being sold with it pre-installed. In many respects, on drobe.co.uk, the A6 has become their representative.

The table of results from running the ten different tests of Richard's program is presented below. In this table all figures are percentages and as the A6 is trying to be a base StrongARM RiscPC, I've related each machines performance to that of "being a 202MHz StrongARM". This also explains why the SA202 results are 100%.

Benchmark table
Benchmark results - all figures are in percentages and relative to the SA-RPC base machine

Consider the top row, the one labelled 'processor'. Richard describes this as being closely related to MIPs; a measure of how fast the instructions are being processed by the (virtual) CPU. The real CPU on the A6 is running at 1.8GHz to emulate a 0.202 GHz StrongARM machine. The A6 is clocking up under half (41%) of what the StrongARM can manage. I was a little surprised by this. It didn't seem like a very promising start for the A6. Had I wasted my money?

The second row suggests where the A6 may be making up on lost ground. Under emulation, RISC OS on the A6 is accessing memory 13 times faster than on StrongARM. Now that is impressive. Round two to the A6, perhaps? Next, the speed at which a rectangle can be copied from one part of the screen to another is probed. Here, again, the A6 shines: it's almost ten times faster than StrongARM; the Iyonix managing to be six times faster again making it 58 times faster than the machine it succeeded. In the creation of a simple 16 colour icon with mask and palette, it is the Iyonix that looks embarrassed, whilst, remarkably, it's the Kinetic that is top dog at plotting thin lines and then filling in the area between them.

Confusingly, on his website, Richard stops using percentages at this point, but I'm sticking with them for the last four tests which probe the speed of access to the hard disc. Windows machines are well known for their persistent use of the hard drive and for the disc interface being fast. The figures here show that if one gives the A6 a 1 MB file to read or write to the Hard Disc under RISC OS, then it's over 52 times faster than StrongARM: It is only by reading or writing the file one byte at a time, that we can slow the A6 access time to 'only' four times faster than StrongARM. VirtualRiscPC seems wired to take advantage of what Windows XP can do well.

Benchmarks often get criticised for not being relevant to real tasks and therefore productivity in the real world. I don't agree. For example, I recently realised that the A5000 has a real Achilles heal if you ask it to write, in my case, a long string of results from a mathematical algorithm, a byte at a time to hard disc. I'd programmed the code on a RiscPC600 where the byte by byte write to hard disc took a couple of seconds. On the the A5000 it took a ridiculously long time of thirty-five seconds. These last few tests would have picked up that weakness.

Furthermore, the fast memory access figure for the A6 made me think again about my previous (in part 1) observation regarding the listing of a 450 Kilobyte BBC BASIC program. Why was it so slow when the benchmarking suggested otherwise? I retested; 6 seconds to list the program on the Kinetic, 44 seconds on the A6. Then I realised that on the A6, BASIC had fired up in a 16 million colours mode. I switched to 256 colours and it took -pause for effect- just 4 seconds.

As in any good scrap, none of the combatants have emerged without having their dignity ruffled. However, it is easy to become microscopic about the figures. In fact, I would say that it is only once something is around twice as fast or as slow, that it becomes an issue worth talking about. Keeping a sense of perspective, I didn't buy my Kinetic RiscPC because it was 25% faster than a StrongARM. I bought it because it was 2900% faster than my best machine at the time, an A5000, and it could drive modern monitors properly and was vastly more expandable.

The benchmarks confirm that the A6 is worthy of RISC OS 4. What it lacks in MIPS, it seems to pick up elsewhere. So from the speed point of view, which is what benchmarking attempts to examine in isolation, the A6 is right in claiming to be; a software emulation of a StrongARM RiscPC.

Resolution, resolution, resolution
Let me start by reminding you that the latest version of VirtualRiscPC routinely works in 16 million colour modes and, with the monitor supplied, at 1280 x 1024. What you may not have considered is that a screensave will now result in a 5MB sprite file. To match or exceed this the StrongARM would require a Viewfinder graphics card. Even with 2MB of VRAM fitted a StrongARM machine can only manage 256 colours at this resolution, and with 1MB of VRAM, or none at all, only 16 colours. Not good at all if you are into digital photography.

So long podules
At least with the StrongARM you can add on additional hardware such as Viewfinder. Users of Virtual RiscPC will find that the vast array of podules for RISC OS are not accessible to them. No 1MHz bus for that LOGO floor turtle. No teletext card. [Best point out that the WinXP side of the A6 will be able to handle PCI cards and devices that provide things like this, although you'll have to use Windows - Ed]. To be fair though, I asked for R-Comp's "UniPrint" to be included with my A6. This provides access for RISC OS to many printers through WindowsXP for which pure RISC OS drivers do not exist. Not until, that is, Martin Wurther's GemPrint project kicks in. On the A6, networking works from within RISC OS, access to the internet is not a problem either.

Martin's daughter using the A6It has been an interesting experience to buy a Windows XP machine. I would not have done so where it not for the inclusion of VirtualRiscPC. My twelve year old daughter is wildly enthusiastic about her new computer. She gives the A6 a score of 9 out of 10, and the StrongARM RiscPC she has left behind, 1 out of 10. I asked her why, and it was down to how it looks, and the games available. Of course, she is not into programming or after a deep understanding of the inner workings of her machine. Windows seems to place several layers between the user and what's really going on which I find annoying. I, to my daughter's delight, will probably only occasionally want to use "her" A6 for demonstrating and testing software. For my day to day computing needs, I remain very happy with my Kinetic RiscPC, and feel no urge to use WindowsXP other than in a casual way. Switching to VirtualRiscPC would be a sideways move and, to me, the upgrade machine I aspire to own remains the Iyonix.

I do admire the cleverness of VirtualRiscPC on the A6. One does feel that this is a robust and professional piece of software with great strength of design behind it. All of the substantial extra free software is carefully catalogued and includes some "big name" items. The electronic User Guide too is of a high standard. The emulation of one computer within another can never be exact in all respects, but the A6 is very impressive in how close it has come.


A6 website - specifications, pricing etc. VirtualAcorn website - VirtualRiscPC, etc.

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What's the difference between a so-called "hybrid" computer, and an ordinary Windows PC that has had Virtual Acorn installed on it?


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 29/1/04 8:13PM
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Thanks Martin for giving us this excellent review. It answers many of the questions I had about VirtualRiscPC.

Cheers Steve

 is a RISC OS Userknutson on 29/1/04 8:51PM
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Regarding the point about running BBC BASIC programs in a window, IIRC !GraphTask ([link]) can do this.

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 29/1/04 9:43PM
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I am a bit worried about using timings within an emulated environment. My laptop running VRPC runs on a slower clock when not running on mains. VRPC does not always pick this up (I think it only checks when it starts, but I'm not sure), and the clock then takes about 2 seconds for each second. I suppose this is going to have its influence on the results of the benchmarks running within the emulator. So how sure are we that the clock is something to depend on? The real time clock only seems to give some vague indication of the current time here....

Anyway, VRPC is fast enough for me... The Iyonix is more responsive though.

 is a RISC OS Userjjvdgeer on 29/1/04 10:15PM
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Yes jjvdgeer - I've always thought that benchmarking programs on emulators doesn't make sense - as they must be counting the seconds slower (or faster?) surely?

The only way to really do it, is with a stopwatch I'd have thought.

If you want true emulation heresy (sp?) last night I installed LindowsOS under VMWare on WinXP - and it actually worked better than RedHat Fedora!

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 30/1/04 1:22AM
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Are you sure you used the same screen modes for the icon plotting tests? Perhaps a comparison of the graphics related tests in a range of different resolutions and colour depths would be instructive. For instance, is it fair to compare an Iyonix running at 2048x1635 in 16 million colours with a RPC at 640x480 in 256 colours? The Iyo will be doing much more work, although a lot od it will be delegated to the graphics card. And what is the optimum screen mode for the A6? This might be difficult to do. In any case the Iyonix really shines at resolution/colour depth combinations that are beyond the scope of a RPC, and perhaps of most PC laptops.

 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 30/1/04 9:19AM
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For reference, the optimal colour depth for VRPC performance is usually 32000 colours, due to the way the software has been optimised. There isn't usually anything to be gained from 256 colour modes (quite the contrary) so I'm a little surprised by the finding that a 256 colour mode helped in the tests. In terms of resolution, performance drops with resolution/refresh rate, but when demonstrating a RISCBook (running on battery) at the Manchester user group last week, it beat the Iyonix at Artworks 2 rendering, even when running at 1600x1200 resolution. I will say we use a special MDF (monitor file) set up for the laptop LCD, which helps. And I'm sure Iyonix would win different tests.

To answer DGS, the difference in the hybrid machines is in choice of components and in configuration. Those of us who have spent time with VRPC know that choice of components has a huge impact on system performance (and device compatibility), as does how the Windows back-end is configured (and RISC OS/VRPC itself). This is why it takes a build time of about 24 hours for each RISCube/RISCBook that we sell!

 is a RISC OS Userarawnsley on 30/1/04 10:03AM
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It's not surprising in the slightest, no matter how it's "optimised". 32k modes require more bandwidth, by simple virtue of being larger. Furthermore, RISC OS code won't make use of the LDRH/STRH instructions, meaning there's no atomic 16-bit access to memory, which is clearly going to be slower than a single byte access in 256 colour modes, and comparable to a single 32-bit access in 16M colour modes.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 30/1/04 11:01AM
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These benchmarks are all very well, but they don't tell me how much faster it is when doing things like zipping files or opening/rotating one of my 5MB Jpegs on my RiscPC.

Is a A6 faster than a Iyonix for every day tasks?

 is a RISC OS Userquatermass on 30/1/04 12:12PM
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"Those of us who have spent time with VRPC know that choice of components has a huge impact on system performance ... it takes a build time of about 24 hours for each RISCube/RISCBook that we sell!"

Wow, I'm really surprised by that. These days when building a PC it makes very little difference to the average user which components are used. It's more a matter of choosing a reputable brand and buying the fastest component you can afford. Basically put an Asus or MSI motherboard together with an AMD or Intel processor, graphics from ATI or Nvidia, any soundcard from a tenner, random harddisc and memory and you have yourself a respectable computer. (apart from the fact it's a PC) How respectable is just a matter of how much you spend. You can build the thing in an hour and install windows in an hour more.

So, what am I missing?

This is also an argument for buying single brand platforms such as Apple (or CTL I suppose). They control the hardware and the os. Things are bound to work.

-- Spriteman

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 30/1/04 12:33PM
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simo: "last night I installed LindowsOS under VMWare on WinXP - and it actually worked better than RedHat Fedora!"

Not too surprising - Fedora is a cutting-edge, user-supported distro. Lindows is a stable, vendor-supported distro. You'd expect the stabilities to be the way you found them. But if you want the features of Fedora, you'd have to do quite a lot of updating of Lindows.

 is a RISC OS Userjohnpettigrew on 30/1/04 1:51PM
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It works me up when people say that Debian's buggy and unstable, and a pain to install. Then you find out that they're running the "unstable" release rather than the "stable" release.

(Bob, running unstable extremely happily on his laptop to post this, and will just shrug if it crashes, as he know's whose fault it'll be.)

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 30/1/04 2:07PM
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jjvdgeer & simo The issue "is a second still a second under emulation" is very interesting. On the A6 I think it is but I don't know if this is so in all situations. Further investigation needed ! arawnsley In fact, I did use a stopwatch to time the interval to list the BBC BASIC code and I can confirm that changing to 256 colours from 16 million made the massive difference described. hutchies You are five star ***** I now have Laser Bounce running in a !GraphTask window on the RISC OS desktop. (The latest version of the shared C Library is needed - see recent drobe news item on 28th Jan for a link) mrtd As per Richard Spencer's instructions, all testing was at 800 x 600 and 256 colours. I stuck with this so that readers could compare my benchmarks with those for the wide variety of machines benchmarked on Richard's site. [link] quatermass It is rumoured than rotating a large JPEG in Photodesk is twice as fast on the A6 as on the Iyonix. I don't think the A6 is intended to be in competition with Iyonix but these rumours are bound to grow if PC hardware speed can continue to march onward. There are some very real problems with extracting the heat from CISC processors as more transistors are packed in and higher clock rates used. Will RISC OS hardware may get a chance to catch up ?

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 30/1/04 2:08PM
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Chocky, you missed my point. I was saying that 32k colours was generally preferable on VRPC to 16m or 256colours. Average users would most likely assume 256 colours would be faster than 32000, but (certainly in desktop apps), 32000 gives best performance level. This was really advice for potential RISCube/A6 customers, so they get the best out of their computers. 16million works nicely too, BUT 32000 gives best performance (at least in the tests I have run here).

 is a RISC OS Userarawnsley on 30/1/04 2:42PM
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You made several points. I wasn't commenting on general usage, or user expectations. I _was_ commenting on your "surprise" at the improvements given by 256 colours from a purely technical viewpoint, which, as I mentioned, have more than reasonable explanations, although there are always exceptions.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 30/1/04 2:51PM
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ISTM that you think that this has much to do with CPU performance. in the case of the Iyonix and A6, it is probably the graphics card performance that is more significant (both use "PC" graphics cards).. The RPC is much more dependent on the CPU for graphics performance. PC Graphics cards are optimesd to work well at typical PC resolutions and colour depths. These have long left things like 800 x 600 in 8 bit colour behind, and if they can do it at all probably operate quite inefficiently in these modes. A fairer comparison would be somthing like 1280x1024 in 24 bit colour. then the RPC would struggle, if it can do it at all, Since the CPU has to do all the work. The Iyo and A6 would do much better, since they offload the work to a grahpics card that is designed to handle these resolutions. This just goes to show the false picture that benchmarks give. Nobody with an Iyonix would choose to work as a rule in 8 bit colour, although those with older RISC OS machines might well do so. Andrew says, 16 bit colour works best on VRPC, but I think it would depend on which graphics card was used on the PC. With the Iyonix my default mode is 1920 x 1440 in 24 bit colour. The RPC cannot do that. I don't know about the A6. But is is very usable on the Iyonix. I think different VRPC systems with different graphics cards will perform differnetly, according to the performance of their graphics cards in whatever resolution and colour depth is chosen. It is much less dependent on CPU speed.

 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 31/1/04 12:23AM
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mrtd I could run the Richard's benchmark program at 1280 x 1024 and 16 million colours on the A6, and a Kinetic Risc PC fitted with ViewFinder. Would you like to do likewise on your Iyonix and email me the results ? (See the "About Drobe" page for an email link). I'll email you any draft of an article that results, and we'll see if we can make sense of what the benchmarks tell us. I'm game if you are!

It is important to remember that the A6 is not being marketed as an alternative to the Iyonix - It is sold as a machine that can match a base line StrongARM RiscPC. The benchmarking above, in my opinion, shows that this is a valid claim and not just advertising hype.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 31/1/04 2:07AM
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I don't think anyone has pointed out that at the same resolution and colour depth, using 1024x968 at 32k colours, the quality of the screen display is very much better - sharpness and general legibility - using VARPC on a machine with an NVidia graphics card than on a standard RiscPC with 2MB VRAM.

 is a RISC OS UserMartinD on 31/1/04 5:59PM
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Which standard RiscPC? There's 4 or 5 motherboard varients with various degrees of video quality

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 31/1/04 9:00PM
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I didn't think the Iyonix actually used the acceleration the Geforce permits, so it's not going to get much of an advantage (not even using the alpha blending by the looks of the icon plotting figures).

A Kinetic can't use DMA for a Viewfinder, so it'll be dog slow (VF is slow enough without turning off DMA too!)

VARPC uses DirectView IIRC, so will inherently use the full speed the graphics card allows under Windows, but these graphics cards are heavily optimised for 16+ bits, so running Iyonix/VARPC in a 256 colour mode will slow it down, not speed it up (kinda the case with the VF too, except it has more data to shift across the Podule bus, so gets slowed down in the end).

I found that running fullscreen as opposed to windowed gives you a fair speed up with graphics, and a slight slow down with FS read/writes....

Can anyone run this on an Omega? I'd be interested in the memory timings compared to the Iyonix.

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 31/1/04 9:33PM
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Martin, I'll have a look at running the benchmark as you suggest. I can't do it right now as I am posting this from my Iyonix using Konqueror under Debian Linux, installed on my Iyonix today. Be interesting to see how well it works. The Penguin lives! I am happy to try to help you with your article if I can. I do not consider the A6 to be in any way a competitor of the Iyonix, but years of experience in software engineering have taught me that benchmarks need to be handled with care. They do not always show what you expect, and in the case of graphics related tests I'm not sure what is revealed by comparing the graphics performance of a standard SARPC with machines that have separate graohics cards (in the way that the particular machine uses them). I think that for the most part comparing the graphics performance of a PC running RISC OS under emulation against Iyonix will mostly show the relative performance of the graphics cards, nothing to do with CPU power or the efiiciency of the emulator. The RPC on the other hand, uses the CPU to do most of the work, and therefore graphics performace will relate directly to CPU speed (compare ARM 600, ARM 700 and SARPC for example). This is not so for the Iyonix or the "hybrids".


 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 31/1/04 10:47PM
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Simo: "Can anyone run this on an Omega? I'd be interested in the memory timings compared to the Iyonix"

According to RISCOSmark, it would seem that the Omega *outperforms* the Iyonix in six of the ten tests listed:


Memory on Iyonix = 201 Memory on Omega = 240

Icon plotting on Iyonix = 32 Icon plotting on Omega = 130

Draw fill on Iyonix = 75 Draw fill on Omega = 154

At least the Iyonix wins in the processor department, 261 vs 151 -- if it had lost that category too it *would* have been embarrassing :blush:

The Iyonix is also *exceptionally* good at Rectangle Copy: 5786 vs 149!

PS It'll be interesting to see how an Omega with graphics acceleration and XScale compares ;-)

 is a RISC OS UserStewy on 31/1/04 11:53PM
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Clearly, the HD benchmarks give a skewed image because the emulation software buffering this type of HD access... No standard windows PC gives you 202MB/s of HD performance (as stated on the RISCOSmark website). Regular usage will give you a cache miss and give you normal performance...

 is a RISC OS Userzakalwe on 1/2/04 12:14AM
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Which is exactly the reason benchmarks should be taken with a pinch of salt. All they measure is how quick a machine runs them. Not what you'd consider the "real" performance of the machine, 'cause only a human can measure that, although not very accurately, or precisely.

 is a RISC OS Usernunfetishist on 1/2/04 12:46AM
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Stewy: Have they told you when the X-Scale upgrade for your Omega is likely to arrive?

(Have you asked for one?)


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 1/2/04 12:59AM
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Can someone briefly explain why VirtualRPC's performance will depend that heavily on the graphics card? This sounds like a blatantly stupid question, I know. I'm asking it anyway because I'm wondering why the emulated processor isn't still going to be emulating doing graphics work, somehow getting the graphics card to do it instead - isn't it still going to have to emulate how the RiscPC did graphics, just getting the card to render the final result?

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 1/2/04 1:54AM
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arawnsley: It's good to hear that such thought goes into selection of components and configuration of Windows operating system for each "hybrid" computer that is sold.

But I feel that it would be better if "hybrid" were a term saved for computers that genuinely deserve it.

Selling a computer as "hybrid", that could otherwise just as well be sold as "a nice Windows computer in a small form factor", seems slightly misleading, do you think...?

I do know a Drobe reader that could review a "hybrid" car...


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 1/2/04 3:59AM
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mavhc: This particular RiscPC is one of Castle's SRP series but with the HF-cut capacitors across the video output removed. At school there are 120 RiscPCs with motherboards of all ages (before upgrading) but not one is anything like as good as the NVidia GForce 5400 with VA.

 is a RISC OS UserMartinD on 1/2/04 9:18AM
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"Have they told you when the X-Scale upgrade for your Omega is likely to arrive?"

Que? Do I take it that you weren't utterly convinced by the 'prediction' that your fellow Drobe contributor made a few weeks back? ;-)


Rest assured, as soon as I have received an XScale upgrade, I'll post benchmarks, etc. In the meanwhile, I'm still enjoying the increase in speed the Omega has brought, and its remarkable compatibility. And it's so nice to have so many options for new machines to run RISC OS software, whether it be the Iyonix, Virtual RPC, or the Omega. Very pleasing!

 is a RISC OS UserStewy on 1/2/04 6:38PM
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In reply to dgs

Yes, I agree. Hybrid is not the right term.

Or should I now start referring to my Iyonix as a "hybrid Iyonix", having installed Linux?


 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 2/2/04 9:07AM
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