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The Icon Bar: News and features: Iyonix: first birthday review

Iyonix: first birthday review

Posted by Phil Mellor on 00:00, 5/2/2005 | , , , , , , , ,
Imagine the conversation I had in the pub the other week:
"So, I got my new Acorn on Friday. It's arrived!"
"Is this the one you've been waiting three years for?"
"No, this is the other one..."
"- so what's it like? How much RAM does it have?"
"512 meg. And a 120 gig hard drive."
"What about a monitor?"
"No... I could have got a 19" one but I thought I'd save 90 pounds..."
"No monitor? What about speakers? A printer?"
"Errr... no."
"A modem?"
"No, but it does come with gigabit ethern-"
"So how much are you paying for this thing?"
"About thirteen hundred pounds..."
"Thirteen hundred!"
"Yes, but - "
"What processor does it have?"
"A 600Mhz XScale..."
"600Mhz!?! Hey, come here, listen to this! He's paid nearly one and half grand for a 600Mhz computer!"
"Yes, but you can't compare different processor families, it's not just about clock speed..."
"- what operating system does it run? Is it that Linux thing?"
"No, but I could install Linux if I wanted. It runs RISC OS."
"RISC OS? What's that? Can I play Flight Simulator on it?"
This is what you're up against when you're buying native RISC OS hardware. So, Mark and James, and for anyone else who's interested, here's the detail behind the madness.

Hello, good evening, and welcome

The computer comes in a large white cardboard box with the Iyonix and Castle logos emblazoned across it. Opening it reveals more boxes - one for the keyboard (unfortunately one with Windows keys; I'd really liked to have seen these replaced with Iyonix keys), one for the mouse (a three button Belkin, no mouse wheel, with ball), and the free card reader. There's a few pieces of paper - parts list, Oregano registration card, and so on - a CD backup of the hard disc, and the recently produced Welcome Guide. Oh yes, and there's the Iyonix too - protected by a further cardboard structure. The packaging isn't too bad for the environment - it's mainly cardboard that can be recycled, very little plastic or polystyrene.
Box Documents
Showing remarkable restraint, I left the Iyonix wrapped up and spent some time flicking through the Welcome Guide. It comes as white plastic ring binder and a set of shrink wrapped pages that you have to clip in to the binder yourself. The pages are slightly larger than A5 and the frequent illustrations and screenshots are in full colour. The page layout is reminiscent of the old Acorn manuals, but the content is bang up to date. It begins with an introductory letter from Jack Lillingston, followed by safety guidelines in a range of languages, before leading you through the installation and providing tips on posture and avoiding eye-strain. The following chapters lead you through the RISC OS desktop - pointing, clicking, dragging icons and windows, using menus - all of which are familiar to old hands but it's so well presented you end up reading it anyway. Later chapters become more Iyonix specific, covering topics like shutting down, using Configure, and setting up the network and modem.
The Welcome Guide is a worthwhile inclusion in the Iyonix package. Sometimes it is rather brief, it refers to the non-existant RISC OS User Guide on numerous occasions (perhaps Castle have another print job on the horizon) and a few typing mistakes have slipped their way past the sub-editor. The design means additional information can easily be added later, and corrections or alterations (if a software component changes, for example) can be made without having to reprint the entire guide. Importantly, it shows Castle's professional attitude - such a comprehensive document didn't need to be supplied, and it hasn't been produced on the cheap. Top marks.
Bits and pieces
The system I'm reviewing is the top end model - 512MB RAM, 120GB hard disc, CD writer. I didn't take the 19" monitor option as I've already got one - but when my wallet recovers I may upgrade to a nice TFT monitor. Besides, the £90 saving can be put towards some new software. For the record, my previous Acorn computer was an A5000, so the speed comparisons cannot be anything other than impressive, and more recently I've been using Linux on a 2GHz PC, and dabbled with the Red Squirrel emulator.

Setting up

Putting the system together didn't take very long. You connect the monitor up to the port on the PCI graphics card, plug in the keyboard and mouse into the two USB sockets at the back, and stick the power cable in too. I was disappointed that I couldn't power the monitor through the computer's power supply, since it meant wasting a valuable plug socket. With speakers and an external modem to plug in too, I had to go without my sound system and lamp until getting a six-way extension lead.
Iyonix case Iyonix back
The Welcome Guide recommends plugging the keyboard into the left-most USB socket, as otherwise the computer cannot be shift-booted (ie. start the computer without running the boot sequence or any applications.) The USB stack isn't set up at the time the computer is switched on, there is only the opportunity for a simple keypress check (which is all that is required to initiate a shift-boot.) In practice I found I couldn't get the shift-boot to work at all, irrespective of which socket the keyboard was plugged in to. Apparently, if all works correctly, the Escape key can be held down instead of Shift, which allows the options of retrying, cancelling or booting from floppy. As it is, I am loathe to fiddle with the Boot sequence in case I end up with an unusable machine; I have yet to resolve this issue.

Getting started

With the system set up, it was time to switch it on for the first time. I let the monitor warm up first so that I wouldn't miss anything important, and then pressed the oval soft power on button... and nothing happened. The monitor continued to report no signal.
After about five seconds of wondering what to do, I heard a reassuring system beep and the monitor clicked into frequency; the Iyonix was already showing the desktop banner in the couple of seconds the monitor took to bring up the display. The short pause occurs every time the computer is switched on, reset, or Ctrl-Break is pressed - I didn't find it annoying once I'd got used to it, and the fast boot sequence certainly makes up for lost time.
The first step was to set up the monitor as the initial resolution was a measly 640x480. Well okay, this was the second step. The first was to whirl the mouse around the screen like anyone presented with a new computer and mouse simply has to do! Stop it. That's enough.
Up and running
Here we go: run Configure by double-clicking !Boot, and go to Screen. I needed to select the correct monitor type - I was using a 19" IIyama SM190MT1 which I'd bought from Castle at a Wakefield show a few years ago - but it wasn't in the list. Not knowing what specification the defined monitors were, I plumped for a Vision Master 1451 which gave me a comfortable 1360x1024 at 70Hz. The Iyonix is capable of far better resolutions and performance than this, if connected to a suitable monitor.
Shutting down an Iyonix is a little different to other Acorns: instead of the 'it is now safe to switch off' message, you get 'The computer will switch off in five seconds' - and after five seconds it does just that, unless you click the restart button in time. The whole shutdown process is remarkably quick even compared to my old A5000 which took a couple of seconds to think about it. Compared to the Windows box at work (well over a minute if you're lucky), and my Linux system downstairs (at least half a minute), it is unbelievable. (On the other hand, the Iyonix doesn't have hibernation or standby modes unlike some PCs.) When you've got to copy a file onto floppy in the morning dash before work, for example, you really appreciate using native RISC OS hardware.

In use

First impressions are that the Iyonix is rather quick. Dragging windows around feels very fluid; scrolling is fast and the desktop is responsive. Which is everything you've already heard and expected. I can still notice the windows redrawing - for example, in a 16M colour mode I can watch the desktop texture being plotted in the Task Manager, and I can see the background sprite (a 5MB image) slide down the screen when a full size window is closed. But none of this is particularly noticeable in everyday use and the redraw is still near enough to instantaneous as to avoid annoyance.
The Iyonix has been described, depending on which source you consult, as "silent", "whisper-quiet", "near-silent", "quiet" and rather than resort to a thesaurus I'll try explaining in another way. Take a blank cassette, put it in a cassette player, and hit play. The sound of the motor turning is fairly close to how the Iyonix sounds. It's not absolutely silent, but you really have to listen out for it once you start typing. And unlike many modern PCs, the air surrounding the computer hardly warms at all either.


The RISC OS 5 desktop is a pretty familiar sight. In fact, it's a pretty, familiar sight. The icons all follow a consistent design policy and make good use of the full colour desktops that the Iyonix allows. I don't run my Iyonix in anything other than 16 million colours, as there's no reason not to.
In the Apps folder you'll find the usual suspects - Alarm, Chars, Draw, Edit, Help and Printers, along with some other regularly used applications - BookMaker, CDBurnLite, FireWorkz, OmniClient, Oregano 2, PDF, SparkFS, Squash and Writer+.
Configure is similar to the RISC OS 4 utility. I was disappointed not to see options for 3D windows or system-wide font blending in the Windows section, since the Window Manager supports these. Neither can you remove the coloured blocks behind the text of pinboard items. An Obey file containing an appropriate *WimpVisualFlags does the trick when added to the Boot sequence, but it shouldn't have to be this way. It's irritating to see omissions like this that have been solved in RISC OS 4 or Select but are still present on the flagship machine.
I've already mentioned that the keyboard has the Microsoft Windows logo and menu keys. The Keyboard configuration allows you to assign *commands to these keys - the most useful option is to *Filer_Run something, although I've also found it useful to map one key to open a task window. Something I do find really irritating is the inconsistency of the Delete and End (or Copy) keys. Depending on the context these will either perform in the old Archimedes style (where Delete works like backspace and Copy deletes the character after the caret) or the PC style (where Delete deletes after the caret and Copy moves the caret). Although it depends to some degree on application writers, it needs to be sorted.
The Task Manager has some intriguing new entries - the Iyonix Update Watcher task, and the PCI shared memory dynamic area. The Screen Memory is always set to 0K - you can still allocate memory to it, but it serves no purpose and I expect only exists for backwards compatibility. The Font Cache is capped at 32MB rather than 1MB. I've always considered RISC OS a very frugal operating system, and it surprised me to see comparatively large chunks of memory allocated to system functions - 4MB for the OS, another 3.5MB for memory management, 9MB for the module area, another 2MB for the Toolbox and Wimp sprites - perhaps I've been away from the cutting edge for too long. Having 512MB RAM in the Iyonix seems a bit of an overkill though - it's unlikely that I will see less than 440MB free (although I haven't tried working with any really large image files yet)! With so much memory available, it's good to see the restrictions on wimp slots have been removed - you can now allocate up to 512MB per task, which removes the need for applications' dynamic areas in many situations. At the fine end of the scale, you can allocate slots in chunks of 4K.

Iyonix Update Watcher

So what's this application running quietly in the background? Well it does nothing until you connect to the internet - and then it periodically checks for any updates to the operating system, !Boot, and the major bundled applications. When it finds something, a window pops up, giving you the option to find out more or leave it for later. Updates are fairly regular: they may be small updates like additional printer or monitor definition files, or module updates; occasionally larger upgrades will be released but I'm yet to experience one.
Update Watcher choices Configure Configure
The Update Watcher isn't spyware or a Big Brother application - you can remove it from the Boot sequence if you wish, and also configure it to permanently display an iconbar icon or to provide discreet update messages. That said, it's unclear precisely what information is being given away by the program, and I see no specific mention of any privacy policy.
The downloading process is integrated into the Update Watcher, although you may be directed to look at a web site first. The upgrades come as zipped applications: HTML documentation pops up when you open the zip file, and you usually just double-click the !DoUpdate icon to do the job. You don't get to see an agenda of operations like you do with SysMerge, but you can see a log afterwards and the old files are copied into a unique OldStuff directory.
Despite the Iyonix being out for a year now, updates are still appearing. The latest upgrade I received was version 2.27 of LanManFS.

No Select

I don't wish to exaggerate, as what I'm about to say has been argued a thousand million billion times already, but forgive me as I reiterate it one more time: we need Select features for the Iyonix.
I've not had many opportunities to play with Select 3 but its feature list - especially the ImageFileRender module, alpha transparent sprites in Draw and the spangly new Paint, PNG support, the improved desktop appearance, and the thumbnailed Filer - is almost too good to be without. The Iyonix has the performance to make some of these features really come alive, and it is really frustrating to be denied them for political reasons as much as technical ones.
I think it would be hard to recommend the Iyonix to any user who couldn't go back to RISC OS 4 after using Select full time. The RISC OS 5 experience doesn't feel special any more, and Castle need to keep pace with developments elsewhere: they're no longer competing against old Risc PCs and half finished Omegas, Virtual Acorn are on the scene and there are working products offering good performance at cheap prices, so the ability to use Select might tip the balance for customers currently sitting on the fence. The Omega, too, despite what nay-sayers put about, is catching up and can run Select.
In the current market, the Iyonix's biggest weakness is its lack of Select features, and it doesn't look like this will be overcome any time soon.
Champagne and chocolates

Final notes

If you have any comments on the Iyonix PC please send them into the news team. In the meantime, I think I'll review the other parcel that arrived from Castle (along with a lovely Christmas card)... care for a chocolate anyone?


[Updated 4th Feb 2004]
Castle have released USB2 drivers for the IYONIX. A review of them can be found here: IYONIX USB2

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The Icon Bar: News and features: Iyonix: first birthday review