I bought a RiscPC in April this year. I seem to have a knack for alternative options. Back in 1984 I got my first computer for my birthday, It was a MSX1 computer, which promised to become the standard system in the world. Well, that was proved wrong. Of course, there was the Commodore64 and Spectrum, which were nice, but still not capable enough. On came MSX1, which boasted 16 colors and 64KB RAM. It was amazing what you could do with those little machines.
More powerful computers were developed in the following years, and soon the Amiga was top of the range. However, the MSX was my choice, and I upgraded to MSX2. By then it was 1988, and the Amiga was just getting some publicity. Then a period of silence, I started studying, and got more to do than fool around with my home computer. In that same year, I laid eyes on the Acorn Archimedes, which was running some sort of RISC processor. It was supposed to be faster than the other machines (back then, a PC ran on a 286 CPU and Amiga had the 68000 processor). It looked very much like the Amiga, and promised a lot more.
No-one I knew had heard of this computer. Was I running while others were strolling around on their Amigas or slow PCs? Then again, those weird RISC computers were hardly available, except in the UK, and they were very expensive. The sky was not my limit, cash-wise.
In 1994 I finally bought my first computer - a PC. Until then I had worked perfectly with my MSX, editing c-code and compiling it on the little compiler, but all of a sudden, people expected you to make flashy Word documents, with pictures and tables. So you had to buy a PC. The nightmare began.
From 1994 onward, after I finished university and started working, I got into the PC crowd. My PC was running linux, freebsd, windows95, os/2 and other fun stuff, and I actually liked it. Still, everytime I needed to write a document I was stuck in windows with its all-too-familiar BSOD and its endless swapping of memory. Hooray, in 1998 an obscure company released BeOS, which was not only fast, but also stable, and did not use as much memory and harddisk space as Windows (by then windows 98 was released or about to be released). Still, there was this PC running the whole bunch. What I never liked on a PC is all the misery of IRQs and DMAs. Who invented this? Why wasn't I able to put in another extension without getting caught up in IRQ conflicts, or spontaneous reboots?
I had finally had enough of the whole PC world. I didn't like the linux community, since they were too radical in their ideas ("duh, if there is no software for it, just write it yourself" or "OpenSource will save the world", and other exclamations which were sometimes not really true). I didn't like the Windows world either, since I was not planning on buying new hardware every bloody new release.. so I turned back to Acorn.
Little did I know (we're already in the year 2000) what happened the past years. No more Acorn, RISC OS was now owned by a company with the same name, Castle built RiscPCs, so did RiscStation, except they didn't use the StrongARM processors. Did the RISC OS/Acorn world cease to exist? On the contrary, it was alive and blooming. I noticed this when I searched on the web for 'RISC OS' and 'Acorn'. Usenet was flourishing with posts regarding new hardware and new software, and there were even plans for a completely new motherboard. Meanwhile, RISC OS was at release 4, and it looked quite appealing.
I decided get some more information. A friendly RISC OS usergroup (BigBen) in the Netherlands helped answer some of my questions: "which RISC OS machine to buy", "where to pay attention to", "what about software", etc. After just two weeks, I stumbled across a usenet post that stated that there were RiscPCs for sale, from a school which switched to PCs. That's where I got my RiscPC from. Okay, it cost me £400 and I had to import the whole thing myself, but I was very happy when it finally arrived. The first thing that struck me was that it was small. Really small compared to my PC. Also it was light, only 9 kilos. I looked into the casing and noticed that there was no fan on the CPU (a StrongARM rev K), no fan and such a small case? This was asking for trouble. Of course, later I found out that ARM processors only use a fraction of their Intel equals, and no additional cooling is neccesary.
Firing up the RPC resulted in one beep, and even before my monitor was finished with DEGAUSS, the machine was happily waiting. The RISC OS 3.7 UI was familiar from pictures in magazines, and internet sites, but I had never seen it 'in real life'. Some random clicks resulted in a couple of opened windows, but in contrast to Windows (and even BeOS), there was no rattling of the harddisk. Just click and the window pops up. Amazing, even my BeOS running on a dual 366MHz computer was feeling sluggish.
A very neat feature was the task overview, where you can actually dynamically change your memory usage. Wow.Of course, this sounds silly to hard-core RISC OS users, but as a PC person, I was amazed. The ease of installing software, with the directory based executables was also very neat, no more lost ini, dll or registry files (although RISC OS uses modules, which have to be placed in the !Boot structure and sometimes get conflicting results - something I learned later). It was clear that RISC OS was written for *users* and, apart from some minor issues (I am used to virtual memory which isn't in RISC OS; the same for pre-emptive multitasking, but I quickly got used to these small details) did its job very well.
Right now I am writing this article in !Zap, and I am using my RiscPC as the main workhorse. In about 2 weeks I will buy RISC OS 4, and some more memory (I like to work with large image files). Now I use my PC only as a gateway for internet (which was a pain to setup, using windows2000 and internet sharing - crap!) and for some scanning and video work (hmm, does anyone know if FireWire is supported on a RiscPC? :) I guess not, with the throughput it needs.. maybe the Imago?).
That's it for my introduction piece, in my next column I'll be talking about 'the feel of things'.