Iyonix Review Part OneBy Peter Naulls. Published: 5th Dec 2002, 20:48:36 | Permalink | Printable
The hardware, the alternatives, the history.Well, it's here. And what a whirlwind too. Who would have thought that there would be a new machine just 6 weeks after its announcement. After so many broken deadlines and promises - Phoebe, Evolution, Omega, RiscStation laptop - we now have a machine that's ready; and precisely when we were told it would be. Ok, if you weren't a developer with early access to a machine nor one of the first 50 to order one you might have to wait a little while for more to be made, but it seems certain that you'll have an Iyonix under your Christmas tree.
And the timing couldn't be better - timed with 2 days of one of the major shows - it trumps its major rival, still trading on promises.
Now, don't get me wrong - I don't want to diss Omega - we'll return it to shortly, but this article primarily is about the Iyonix, and in this, the first of a two part series, we'll start with its hardware. In the second part, we'll discuss the operating system and bundled software.
The machine is housed in a rather nondescript beige mini-ATX case. The only distinguishingfeatures are the pale blue power button, and if you turn it around, the podule slots in the custom metal work of the rear panel. It's true that photographs don't do it any real favours, and there's been something of a division of opinion about its outward appearance. It's certain people can and will rehouse the machine - after all, it's really just a PC case - but the question is what you might do to convince people that that's precisely what it isn't. Acorn's most significant cases - the RiscPC and bright yellow Phoebe - certainly had their fair share of good and bad commentary. What's really only certain is that you won't be able to keep everyone happy.
Some people have expressed interest in getting bare motherboards from Castle with the intent of populating the board themselves and supplying their own parts. Personally, I think this is a rather bad idea - at least in the initial version there are potential support nightmares, and a variety of things that can go wrong, due to a few minor issues that Castle will make clear in the fullness of time. The amount of money you might save with this route is questionable - if you really must, I suggest waiting, and see how things pan out. I expect a RISC OS dealer may offer a solution in the future.
The motherboard really isn't that interesting. Modern PCs inside are dominated by huge fans and associated ducting - the Iyonix has none of this. There's a single fan in the low noise PSU, which makes almost no sound. There's a single RAM slot which is filled by either 128MB or 512MB, depending upon what you order. The XScale processor just looks like another large surface mount IC. The mostly striking features inside, oddly, are the brightly coloured graphics and USB cards.
Photo: Inside the Iyonix case
The lack of AGP, the single RAM slot and non-socketed processor might raise a few eyebrows, but remember a few things - this machine was designed to be simple, and work as soon as possible - Castle's time to market might have been much longer had they toyed with all these things. I fully expect that when Castle turn their attention from the immediate frenzy of activity, they'll be considering return to base processor upgrades (when and if Intel make faster compatible chips available) or full motherboard replacements. I'm certain that people will be quite happy pay for faster and better in the future knowing they can have a machine right now that works.
Expansion and Peripherals
On the back you can spot two serial ports, USB for keyboard and mouse, video, three audio connectors and no parallel port. The latter is a reflection both of the aforementioned aim for simplicity, and the noticeable lack of new printers with parallel connectivity. Having two serial ports instead of none or one is in deference both to the fact that many RISC OS users have external modems, and that if you have one serial port, adding a second is very cheap. Also missing are PS/2 ports - the mouse and keyboard are USB. This might be a bit of a pain for KVM users, but adapters exist and may be a solution.
The machine actually has 6 USB ports - two provided by the motherboard unfortunately do not work due to a hardware bug (and what machine didn't ship with one of those) hence the PCI slot used by the USB card. This leaves two PCI slots for future expansion. This might seem a little paltry, but note a few things. There aren't yet any drivers for cards you might want to plug in, and many things you mightwant to plug in (such as networking) are provided on the motherboard. Plus of course there's the 2 slot podule expansion. Unfortunately, to use this with the existing case, you'll have to get a 50UKP backplane.
USB is of course a popular choice of expansion these days, with many devices available. The Iyonix design helpfully provides two of the USB slots on the front of the case for ease of access, and of course you can add many more slots with hubs. What's missing right now is drivers for all these wonderful devices. But now that the machines exist, these should pop up quickly. Firewire too, is popular, and although lacking from the Iyonix, it might be an obvious choice for a PCI card to add to the machine.
The networking is slightly unusual - it's not only 10Mbit and 100Mbit, but also 1000Mbit (referred to as Gigabit networking) - which you find on very few PCs right now. This might seem excessive, but I suspect for Castle it was quite cheap to add just because they could, and in as little as a year, you might be thankful that you can go that fast when that speed becomes widespread. For the time being, for the enthusiastic, you'll have to buy two machines and connect them back to back to realise this full speed. In many practical cases, you may find yourself talking to a RiscPC (ShareFS in particular) on which 10Mbit is most common, so you'll only get this lower rate.
What will also initially seem excessive is the harddrive - 80GB. I bet most RISC OS users don't have more than 1GB of programs and data (not counting large media files). This is a respectable size for even a high end PC where games alone reach into the GBs. But again, this is really a pragmatic choice - obtaining large quantities of these drives for Castle was probably quite cheap. And remember last time you bought a new drive for your RiscPC - surely the drive you replaced seemed to have endless room when you first got it. And finally of course there's MP3s and movie files. The former, many users will already have GBs of, and it's not that hard to find people who could fill the 80GB with their collection. As for movies, we're likely to see more of these taking up space as the new found computing power makes these sensible to view and manipulate.
The video system is nothing to be sneezed at either. The NVidia card is a touch higher rated than the Xpert2000 Pro found in 32MB ViewFinder cards. This time however, overall performance is not strangled by the 16Mhz RiscPC bus, and the machine makes good use of it, as evidenced by dragging a few windows round the desktop. In time, we might see support from 3rd parties for alternate video cards, 3D APIs, or perhaps use of cards with TV and so forth. But don't hold your breath too much - developing these things is rather complex. The card is also PCI, somewhat restricting your choice of alternatives as these become rarer as they are replaced in the marketplace by AGP cards. It's for this reason, I would expect that any future Iyonix will certainly have an AGP socket. The choice of a PC video card does mean one things for RISC OS - no card support for low colour modes. This will mostly affect games and educational software. However, it's likely we'll see solutions for this - such as buffering via a sprite, or mode emulation of some type.
Photo: Red nVidia video card
As you'll know by now, the CPU is a 600Mhz XScale, with integrated support for PCI and so on, and 200MHz bus. The alternative processor that Castle might have considered for the Iyonix is the 733Mhz, but this only has a 100Mhz, and is probably less suited to a desktop machine. For a 25% speed improvement, I'd rather have the faster bus.
There's been much controversy in the PDA world with the 400Mhz XScales running slower than equivalent 233MHz StrongARM PDAs. This has been blamed upon software not being optimised for the XScales - although the slow PDAs are real enough, the argument is specious. The real reason for the slow down remains unclear in wider world, but it's sufficient to say that the 600Mhz Iyonix suffers none of these issues, which quickly becomes clear after a few minutes use or a quick benchmark.
Although of course Mhz is a poor measurement of relative performance, it is pretty close for CPU bound tasks when comparing the Iyonix's XScale with the RiscPC's StrongARM - that is, we can expect a minimum of 2.5 times faster. Of all the speed improvements over the RiscPC, this is the smallest - so for many tasks, the speed may be much quicker.
There's no denying that 1300ukp is a lot of money, especially when a monitor isn't included. It's in a similar price range to Macs (for which you may or may not get a monitor depending upon what you choose) and for high end PCs, for which you most likely will. Of course, neither of these systems runs RISC OS in any comparably meaningful way (I'm talking emulation of course), but there is still some worth in considering them.
I'll gloss over Unix operating systems on PCs, simply because most PCs have Windows; but compared to the Iyonix a PC will have much more grunt for tasks requiring hefty CPU usage, and of course the range of software is much greater. You of course have to contend with the headaches that Windows often brings and if we consider past performance, we could expect the RISC OS machine to last at least twice as long, which can considerably mitigate the much lower price of low-end PCs. Unfortunately the life span of a PC is not a factor most consumers are aware of when buying a new machine.
As for Macs - well, it's hard to do an accurate comparison since it's not often tried. Again, a dual processor G4 Mac is of course going to outclass the XScale at raw CPU tasks, but Mac OS isn't known for being the most spritely in the desktop. It suffices to say that a Mac certainly is a match, but the actual choice will depend much upon user requirements.
You knew this was coming right? The oft-heard refrain of "when laptop" is all too common with it now approaching 3 years overdue (depending upon what you count). And many people who might have bought one have since purchased a PC laptop, such as the Vaio picturebook on which this is being written - and which has surprisingly comparable features. As for its comparison with Iyonix, it's obviously much slower, and it's very tempting to consign 7500-based machines to the dustbin. And the machines have very different target usage, so any real blow by blow comparison is difficult. Of course the possibility remains that it'll come to market - which is why I mention it - the pricing is quite similar to the Iyonix, and could certainly become a contender for your hard earned cash.
Is this a contender? Well, on paper, with the addition of an XScale class processor it is, but despite assurances from RiscStation, the legacy of their laptop ensures that this machine seems rather far from being tangible. As such, I don't think it's really worth dwelling on technical comparisons until it exists in a more substantial form.
No surprises here. Omega is of course the Iyonix's real contender to be the flagship RISC OS machine. Unfortunately, as yet we've not seen the machine in any non-developmental version. Unsurprisingly, these machines have had a few deficiencies - indeed, the Iyonix had many of the same during development. We'd love to do a comparison, really we would, but lack of access to a machine, and only MicroDigital's word to go on, it's hard to draw any real conclusions.
Might we see a price war with the machines so closely matched? Well, perhaps, but I don't really think so to any degree. Both machines have made their features clear, and manufacturers have to sell at sensible margins. Castle have said they have potential customers for their machine outside the RISC OS market, and it's most likely this will be instrumental in bringing down the price of Iyonix in the long term.
And what of your trusty RiscPC? If you've upgrading from an older ARM3 or ARM7500 based machine, you might think it wise to finally retire that machine. But for owners of StrongARM RiscPCs, many are likely to keep them around - at least in the short term, especially when they remain such a viable machine. The existence of Iyonix by no means instantly makes your RiscPC obsolete in any technical sense, although practical space or financial concerns may well do.
The approach of new machines has certainly caused the price of second hand machines to fall recently, and I sincerely hope that those desperately squeezing the last life out of ancient ARM2 and ARM3 machines will take this opportunity to obtain a much loved, but still very usable RiscPC, especially when 1300ukp for a new machine is currently very much out of the question.
If you want a machine right now that works, will have good support, is fast, be useful for many years to come, and you can afford it, then most certainly. Obviously, there's a pragmatic choice of waiting for the Omega (and then waiting more for its second processor) and then making a comparison, which drobe.co.uk hopes to do in the future. I do think, however, that MicroDigital will have to play an unseen ace to swing the balance - for the moment in my opinion, the Iyonix is the clear winner.
In the next instalment, we'll look at the operating system that makes Iyonix tick, and the bundled software, including the range of software that is now able to run on the machine as well as speed tests and pictures.
Peter Naulls [www.chocky.org]
Part two of this review.
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