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The Icon Bar: News and features: Wakefield 2004 show report
 

Wakefield 2004 show report

Posted by Phil Mellor on 00:00, 15/5/2004 | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
 
This is a report from the first day of the Wakefield RISC OS show. It may contain opinions or rumours as well as facts: separating the two is an excercise for the reader. Pictures are available from our roving reporters.

Castle and Oregano

Castle were showing off their new additions to the Iyonix range. The Panther is quite swish; the front door swings open to reveal the CD rewriter and floppy drive (which are also in matching black plastic.) There's an LCD temperature display on it, which for most of the day was at 26'C, although I did see it creep up to 30'C later in the afternoon. Jack Lillingstone said that it generally rises no more than 4'C above ambient room temperature.
 
The X100 case was also on display; it's about the same size as a Risc PC case. Jack pointed out that this would be very useful for people with their desk/workstation/furniture layout designed around the Risc PC.
 
More important than a pretty case is new software and drivers. John Ballance had USB2 on his Iyonix; this is still in beta but already supports mass storage devices. Hubs are not at USB2 speeds yet. They haven't decided how or when the USB2 drivers will be released, but it will probably be a chargeable upgrade.
 
The operating system has the full attention of their programmers. It's mainly being worked on for non-desktop use, since that is where their big money is made, but a lot of those changes - particularly USB - filter through to our desktop market.
 
Castle shared their stand with Oregano UK, who had received a new alpha version of Oregano 2 only yesterday from Oregan's developers. I tried it out, but it was difficult to get a feel for it without an outside internet connection. It did feel faster redrawing the screen, especially on table layouts, although there was still a delay rendering the toolbar furniture when opening a new window. Apparently the new version includes lots of bug fixes, and has the potential for Flash 5 (rather than version 3) and CSS 2 support. These advanced new features are likely to be at cost. No dates or prices, but there's probably 2-3 months of bug fixes to go yet. Although the RISC OS market is small fry compared to the likes of Sony and other Oregan clients, it is very useful to Oregan's developers for getting useful bug reports and testing. They do read the support mailing lists and act upon what they read.
 
The future of RISC OS? Castle see it squarely with ARM hardware. Most of their commercial customers do not use the desktop; running a stable OS on an ARM processor is what interests them, and RISC OS is ideal for the job. Jack said in his talk that "we all liked RISC OS, and that it's great to see it used anywhere", but it was only the ARM selling point that would really move it forward. Virtual Acorn is not advancing the technology. Jack said he owned a PC laptop for the occasions when he needed it, and he didn't like using Windows. I don't think he ran an emulator on it.
 
Also in his talk, Jack mentioned briefly a big project they were working on which, if successful, would mean 50,000 units guaranteed. This is more than the RISC OS market has sold in quite some time! When asked about new, faster XScale computers he would not be drawn: "We'll let you know when we have one."

RISCOS Ltd

Paul Middleton's presentation mainly demonstrated the booting and configuration options of RISC OS Select/Adjust. He inadvertently demonstrated the multi-lingual facilities when the login-screen appeared in German: someone had been fiddling with the computer on the stand prior to the demo!
 
The trial batch of 150 RISC OS Adjust rom sets sold in the first 10 days. Thanks to the sourcing of new OTP roms he envisages RISC OS Adjust to be on sale for the next couple of years. The Select softloading subscriptions will continue, with version 4 aimed for the autumn. It will feature a brand new filer (with keyboard control), while the interface will provide 3D and see-through buttons. They are also working on a replacement for ADFS called ATAFS which will provide support for hard drives larger than 128GB.


 
Paul also explained a little about Embedded RISC OS, as used on the A75 (more about this later.) Basically this is RISC OS Adjust cut down to fit the hardware as required. As a simple example, CDFS may be removed.
 
I'll talk a little about emulation now that I've now tried out several "hybrid computers". My first thought is that the speed is pretty good - it's not in the same league as the Iyonix for general desktop use, dragging windows around and so on, but on the whole lives up to the claims of StrongARM-class performance. Of course I'm being subjective here, but one thing I don't like is that it still doesn't feel like a "real" RISC OS computer. I think this is mainly due to the mouse pointer, which isn't particularly smooth and has a knock-on effect for all mouse operations. I'm sure I have other intangible reasons for feeling this way. But if you can cope with minor points like this (which may be fixable?) - and I'm sure most people aren't as strange as I am in this respect - then currently only your heart and wallet can help you decide.

The Omega?

The Omega displayed on the RISCOS Ltd stand seemed a little buggy. Often when dragging a window around the screen, or scrolling it, the moving area would become offset resulting in a distorted, repeated image. Perhaps this is an early version of some hardware graphics acceleration - which is certainly needed because it felt very sluggish when dragging windows around the screen in higher resolution displays. Another problem was that the mouse pointer would sometimes disappear when changing to a different screen mode. This appears to be a low-level issue since a MOUSE ON or *Pointer 1 command would not bring it back.
 
Frankly, this wasn't a good advert for the computer: I couldn't have used it as my main computer. All I can hope is that it had early firmware that has been superceded on customer's machines. Perhaps if there was someone on hand to demonstrate and explain the situation I could be more positive. I didn't see an Omega to try out on any other stand; in comparison there were Iyonix PCs in abundance and even the odd A6 on third party stands.

Stuart Tyrrell / Advantage 6

I had an interesting chat with Stuart about the new A75. It's designed around the ARM 7500FE chip - a deliberate decision as it meant they could run RISC OS on it straight away; negotiating licences for a 32 bit OS or making a compatible version would have taken too long. They do plan an ARM9 variant to run Linux, but this won't have what they consider the main advantage of RISC OS - BBC Basic.
 
Stuart knows many of his engineering peers grew up with BBC Basic. It's very quick for knocking up software and prototypes, and easily allows access to the hardware and interfaces. Of course there's a particular contract with an unspecified company that let the A75 come about, but Stuart gave the example of logging a turnstile and uploading stats to the web. He said this could be developed in BBC Basic more quickly than in C on Linux.
 
The casing is an important factor too: it's very strong and sturdy. Quite heavy too: the top is very thick! It wouldn't make a laptop in its current form; and using a swish laptop case would raise the price too high. That said, I'd love a laptop with the A75's strength, because I'm such a clumsy oaf.
 
It's also interesting to think that, like the A75, the A6's main purpose isn't for the RISC OS enthusiasts market. I think Advantage 6 see it more of a platform for A75 developers; and a useful stepping stone for becoming a RISC OS sub-licensee. The A75 wouldn't have come about without the A6, and vice versa.

X-Ample

What a fantastic bit of kit they had on display: an electronic Enigma in kit form. It was shown fitted inside a fliptop wooden case, about the size of half a shoebox. There's a complete keyboard which buzzes when you press a key; this links to a parallel display which lights up the encrypted letter. There's also a large red led display which displays the four rotor settings. You can connect it to a computer via the serial port to transfer text, or even to another Enigma to demonstrate the whole system working as it did in the war (British interceptions aside). It can also interface with the RISC OS Enigma simulator.
 
They were also demonstrating their HID software: this is really good. Of course there's only so much excitement you can get from some mouse and keyboard drivers, but this was so well implemented. You can assign actions to special keys, set up multiple keyboards and mice with different actions, and even use playstation style joypads (either for the Acorn Joystick/ADVAL interface or as a replacement mouse). You can also have fun using more than one mouse at the same time.

Denbridge

Another excellent display here. You may have read about their radar systems before; this was the chance to see them in action. There was an Iyonix busily churning through radar data (this was on videotape, unfortunately not live) off the coast of Plymouth, and serving it to a Risc PC and a Linux laptop for display, tracking and analysis. The software on both systems is highly modular: there were about 30 applications running simultaneously, each one performing a specialised process and passing the results to another. The Iyonix was fitted with a huge expansion card which it used to pull in the radar signals. The systems have to run non-stop for months on end; this is where RISC OS and ARM hardware rules. Denbridge have had to conscede to using a Linux laptop for some of their customers as there is no RISC OS solution (emulation on Windows isn't what they're after).
 
The team gave an enthusastic and informative walkthrough of the system, and I saw Castle's Jack Lillingston clearly interested in what they had achieved.

The software scene

Neil Spellings and Adrian Lee were promoting Cino and Aemulor Pro. Cino was still under serious development; the show presentation outlined the lengthy processes in implementing DVD playing on RISC OS. The player seemed to be performing at about half of full frame rate; it's only when the significant changes and additions to ADFS are made that we'll see the full potential: currently all disc/CD read operations are blocking, which means that the processor has to wait while data is fetched. With non blocking input the XScale can get on with decoding the movie while more data is being read.
 
Aemulor Pro was shown too: low colour modes even work in the desktop, which suprised me. Software sits between RISC OS and the Iyonix HAL which converts RISC OS's 16 colour modes into the 256 colours that the graphics card requires. At times the desktop looked a little jerky; the team hope that work spent on Cino's fast screen updating can be applied to Aemulor Pro too. I was impressed when I saw Sibelius running.
 
Stefen Huber had his CDburn software on sale, and next door MW software had Artworks 2. The new ClipView facility is as great as it looks; and really fast too (although this was on an Iyonix.) Martin demonstrated ClipView and Crystal in the show theatre, and also talked about his involvement with TechWriter. After being approached by Icon Technology to add ArtWorks image importing to the word processor family, he offered to do some bug fixes and asked users for new feature suggestions. He's now busy working on it all!
 
There were lots of stands where I didn't get chance to do much more than have a quick peer at: R-Comp looked busy; David Holden had his range of APDL rebranded software and booklets; the NetBSD team were showing progress of their Iyonix port. John Cartmell had a well presented stand with new issues of Qercus for sale and some older Acorn Users (three back issues for a fiver; excellent value).

Final thoughts

This was a good show. Great atmosphere; and although it got quieter late afternoon, a decent turnout. I got a real impression that developments were ongoing. There were fewer piles of dusty, elderly equipment, compared to a year or two ago when there was precious little new hardware or software on the scene. Every stand had prospects. Finally, it really feels like something is on the verge of happening in the RISC OS market.
 

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The Icon Bar: News and features: Wakefield 2004 show report