For a computer that's been around for over a year now (to beta testers), the A9 has had relatively little detailed coverage in the RISC OS world. This makes it hard to judge whether or not to spend hard-earned cash on the little blighter. Having owned one for a few months, I've recorded my impressions of the A9home. It's not complete by any means (I've not got round to hooking it up to a printer, for example), but I hope it's helpful for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.
People wishing to run RISC OS on reasonably modern hardware have three choices at the moment: emulation on a PC (Virtual Acorn, or RPCEmu), a new Iyonix, or an A9home. When I decided to upgrade my creaking RiscStation recently, it took a long time to decide which option to go for. From a purely financial point of view, it's hard to argue against emulation: VA costs much less than either of the ARM-based solutions, and running on a modern PC is much quicker as well.
However, I decided against it in the end, for sentimental as much as sensible
reasons. Despite the calls of logic, and a positive experience with Virtual A5000 a few years ago, I decided I wanted the 'real thing': an ARM-powered computer running RISC OS, free from the problems Windows brings. Perhaps not the world's most logical decision, but I doubt that any decision involving RISC OS these days is entirely logical: I was buying a machine for fun, not just practicality.
The next problem was which native computer to go for. This was made doubly difficult by the stupid OS split between Castle and ROL: choosing between the Iyonix and the A9home is not just about selecting the best hardware, but also about betting which OS version is going to continue to see development in the future. As I imagine may be the case with most RISC OS users, the frustration caused by having to make an unnecessary gamble in this way is a real deterrent to investing in the platform. In the end, though, the A9home narrowly won my vote, for the following reasons:
- it was slightly cheaper;
- it could run Select, which I've got used to;
- it was very small, thus saving valuable desk-space.
First impressions were pretty good. The A9 comes in a sturdy little blue case which feels solid and professionally assembled. Most of the ports are at the back, and for a small computer you get a decent range of options: serial, four USB, network, video, audio in and out, and PS/2 connectors for the keyboard and mouse. Everything felt well put-together when I inserted the various cables. The biggest disappoinment was the slightly cludgy front-end: the audio sockets look a little out of place, and the reset button is a bit amateurish: a very small red button with a couple of LEDs behind it.
With a slight rise in blood pressure, I connected my PC's flatscreen monitor and powered-up. I fully expected to have to spend the next half an hour fiddling with MDFs and shift-power-ons to get a picture. Delightfully, however, the A9 booted straight-up into 256-colours at 640x480. As it happens, with the latest versions of Select, the OS detects the monitor type automagically, and it knew about my Dell monitor without any prompting from me. I selected my chosen resolution (1280x1024 @ 32k) from the new EDID configure plugin, and the biggest RISC OS desktop I've ever used popped into view. Very nice: my good first impressions continued. Other users haven't had quite this level of success, but for me at least this was extremely positive.
That was, until I realised the mouse pointer didn't move. Unplugging and re-plugging the PS/2 connector sorted out the problem, but on subsequent sessions the problem repeated. I'm now aware that the issue is widely-spread, and has something to do with timings at boot-up. A6 are looking into it, and hopefully a fix is on the way. In the interim, this is of course a real pain, and looks pretty shoddy. It seems to have been fixed for me by switching the keyboard and mouse cables around, but it's not entirely reliable.
Otherwise, things were OK hardware-wise. The network port worked well and seemed very quick, and the keyboard was responsive. My USB pen-drive popped-up when I put it in, just as one would expect. There's no doubt that the transfer speeds of the USB 1.1 system are on the slow side: a USB 2 system such as the Iyonix enjoys would have been much better. For my purposes things are normally fast enough to be satisfactory, and the system seems reliable and easy to use. But many A9s (including mine) have to use USB solely to communicate with the outside world if not on a network. When I zipped some bigger files for transfer, including copies of some apps I wished to use, the speed was a bit rubbish. If I dealt with digital cameras a lot, I'd be a bit worried. I hope that in the future A6 might be able to consider an upgrade to USB 2: once again the moronic OS split means that only some RISC OS users benefit from the best features, to the detriment of all.
I was just getting positive about things again when I realised I didn't have any sound. Using two different sets of PC speakers, I got a strange, underwater-sounding rendition of some samples using PlayIt, followed by silence. This appears to be a major issue with my A9, although not shared by others. A full power-down seems to restore it, but only temporarily. Again, A6 are still working on the sound system, but in the meantime my little blue box is mute: very frustrating.
Putting a brave face on the sound issue, I decided to explore the OS a bit to see what the A9 was capable of. Again, first impressions were pretty good. The Desktop is very responsive, with window dragging and resizing feeling solid and smooth. Artworks files and bitmap graphics render speedily. Using the version of NetSurf supplied, I downloaded the latest iteration and got online quickly. NetSurf really is superb: sites like the BBC and Wikipedia load quickly and professionally. For those which it can't handle, there's always Firefox. This is naturally slower, but it's faster than WebsterXL was on my RiscStation, which was all I had before!
I was cheering-up again. For my purposes (programming, word-processing, design and some internet), the A9 felt nice and fast. I haven't run any benchmarks for comparison, but the Desktop is certainly a pleasant place to be. At the South-east Show last week, an A9 was even seen playing a movie file smoothly and with sound, so I feel the speed is perfectly adequate for the tasks I'm liable to set it.
One of the biggest surprises when the A9 specs were published was the absence of a CD/DVD drive. I opted not to buy an external one, and see how far I got using a USB pen drive and the internet. As many of the most useful applications these days are free downloads, my hard drive was soon filling-up with no fuss at all. For others, such as ArtWorks and Messenger, zipping them on my RiscStation and tranferring by pen-drive worked fine. As many RISC OS users will have access to PCs, or at least able to borrow USB drives of one sort or another, I believe that the lack of a dedicated CD drive shouldn't be a fatal objection to buying an A9; so far, it's not greatly inconvenienced me. It would be especially painless if more companies started supplying their programs zipped (as ArtWorks is), which retains all the filetype information if a PC needs to be used to get the CD contents on to a USB drive.
Stability seems good too. I've not had the OS crashing randomly on me, and most applications seem to get on well with it. Annoyingly, Zap is an exception: all sorts of flakey minor things happen using the text editor, which I hope will be resolved with a new, long-awaited stable release. Otherwise, ArtWorks, NetSurf, FTPc, Firefox, Messenger Pro, EasiWriter and other apps appear to run perfectly happily: impressive, given that some of these are only in beta-form themselves.
For anyone familiar with recent versions of Select, there's not much obviously new in 4.42 - the work has no doubt been concentrated on getting the OS to work on 32-bit hardware. The monitor detection feature is very welcome, and there is a new compatibility plugin for dealing with older applications not conforming to the latest guidelines. Some of the much-maligned cosmetic features do come into their own on a 32k colour display, such as icon blending and transparency. The Image Viewer is now a very handy tool for graphics conversion, and will be even more so when GIFs are included. I wonder why this has been hidden away in the Boot structure: it would be better as a proper application in the Apps folder (!View, perhaps?) - as it stands, ChageFSI keeps popping up when I load a jpeg, and I'd much prefer to choose which viewer I use without opening up !Boot.Resources, especially as the Image Viewer is now so capable.
The only real niggle I've come across so far is that several configuration settings don't seem to save properly, such as the window appearance flags and keyboard settings. Once again, A6 are aware of this and are working on it. Otherwise, RISC OS is a pleasure to use on the A9.
As mentioned above, my machine is part of the beta programme, and not bought from CJE as the full retail model. As such, I'm happy to try and sort out most problems arising myself, with help from nice people on usenet and Acorn forums. That said, on the few occasions I've emailed A6 with an issue, they've been helpful and responsive. There is also an A9 mailing list, which has been an excellent source of friendly help, and an unofficial compatibility website with a big software database.
Nonetheless, I remain a bit surprised at the lack of a single authoritative website for the computer. There is a slightly weary-looking page on the CJE site in the usual drab style favoured by RISC OS companies, and some pages here and there from A6 and STD. However, I'd have thought it would have made much more sense to have a central A9 support page with a forum and some FAQs on the key issues. Frankly, no-one from outside the RISC OS community is going to stumble across A9 publicity on the web and be tempted to buy one. Although it doesn't affect me, I'm mystified as to why people whose livelihoods depend on selling a product don't put more effort into professional marketing and support: the ball's in CJE's court, I guess.
So, all in all, did I make the right decision? Well, it's slightly difficult to come to a firm conclusion on the A9 at this stage. A6 are perfectly honest about the status of the machine: it's still in beta, and there are a few glitches to iron out. I was aware of this when I bought the machine, and to be honest I've been generally impressed with its speed and stability. All the major issues I've had with it have been mentioned above, with sound being the worst headache. There's no doubt that if these were all fixed in a reasonable amount of time, the A9 will be a very nice little machine indeed. There is at present no set date for the next OS release, but my understanding is that work is ongoing and once will be made available when all the known bugs have been squashed.
My recommendation? If A6 are able to fix the residual issues with sound, configuration saving and mouse freezing, I'd happily recommend the A9 for the RISC OS enthusiast. It's small, it's silent, it's zippy, and it's a nice shade of blue. But I'd hold off buying one until this is the case, and it's publicly announced as being so. I can't say I have enormous confidence in ROL to deliver OS updates in a timely fashion, given the last twelve months, but I'd love to be proved wrong.
In sum, I'd be keen to see the A9 succeed, both for its own merits and for the RISC OS market as a whole. If A6 and ROL can finish off the OS relatively quickly, and CJE go a Marketing 101 course, then it deserves to do well.