|Please note: This picture was scanned in from the brochure and converted to JPEG, and is therefore of reduced quality.|
The first thing that struck me about the Mico was the lack of a podule interface. I don't know if they had licensing difficulties or just felt it wasn't the ideal way to go, but if you've got existing expansions cards, you won't be able to use them. What MicroDigital have done however is to provide an ISA slot and their own "Microbus" system.
Looking at the ISA slot first, I'm very glad that we finally have this. Atomwide's ISAdaptor for the RiscPC never really got off the ground due to DMA problems, which was a great shame. I've always felt that allowing us to use PC cards would be a great idea as they're made by the bucket load and are often much cheaper than the equivalent Acorn cards. The debate about ISA vs PCI cards will probably go on and on, but at least we now have access to a wider range of cards. Although ISA is relatively old now and PC manufactures are encouraging people to follow the PCI route, there are still many cards available at reasonable prices. A quick look through Computer Shopper instantly reveals SCSI, network and modem cards.
Going back to the MicroBus, I really have reservations. Some great kit has been produced for Acorn podules, but I would have thought that by now we'd all be using PCI cards. It would certainly make sense to me! I'm sure MicroDigital have good reason for following this route, but I do wonder how well it will work out for them. On the positive side, they are apparently giving out information on the MicroBus so that third parties will be able to freely develop their own cards. MicroBus should run at approximately twice the speed of the Acorn Podule bus and uses a similar connector to the original Acorn type. Theoretically, it could well be possible that someone could put together an adaptor so that existing Acorn expansion cards could be used.
Another positive move is that we now have a machine equipped with USB ports. USB is set to replace parallel and serial devices in the future. My main PC is equipped with a USB keyboard, mouse, joystick, scanner and video conferencing camera. Rather than having to add extra serial ports or use switch boxes, the USB devices can be connected together, theoretically allowing you to have up to 127 devices linked via a hub. You should also be able to add and remove any USB peripheral without having to power down your machine which could prove useful with zip drives etc. With the popularity of the Apple IMac and PC's, the use of USB devices is set to grow extremely quickly. As long as people are prepared to write driver software, we won't be left too far behind, and can take advantage of cheaper hardware. Having been in a minority market for many years, this could put a kerb on having to pay over the odds for peripherals. For people with existing printers and modems, a standard parallel and serial port are provied as well as PS2 interfaces for mouse and keyboard. Again, with the PS2 interface, you can utilise cheaper PC equipment.
The Mico has a 56MHz ARM 7500FE under the bonnet, and looking at the starting prices, the machine is likely to go head to head with CTL's A7000's, especially when it is expected that the Mico will provide similar peformance to an ARM700 with a floating point unit! With all the other modifications, this machine isn't going to be just a faster version of the A7000+.
RiscOS 4 is supplied, but interestingly, this is going to live in 5Mb of flash RAM which is an excellent idea. If any problems are found in the final release of RiscOS4, it should be relatively easy to install bug fixes without having to fill your !Boot file full of them. I imagine that this will also benefit users that have customised their machines. My RiscPC can take quite a while to start with all the extra modules and fixes I have loaded. If these could be stored in the flash RAM it should make life much easier.
Hard drives are connected to an IDE filing system. Four devices can be connected to the IDE system, and there are also facilities for two floppy drives to be connected. The usual 1.6Mb floppy disc drive has been included which will read all formats that the RiscPC can handle (RiscOS, Dos and Atari). Hopefully the IDE interface won't be crippled in the same way as the RiscPC's was. Curent speed tests supplied for the Mico when fitted with an UltraIDE drive show:
- 33mHZ drive 9-12Mb / second
- 66mHZ drive 18-23Mb / second
Audio is handled by an inbuilt 16 bit stereo sound system, with an audio mixer to connect a CDRom and SoundWave synthesizers. As far as I can make out, the machine also has MIDI capabilities and a sound sampler, making it an ideal base for multimedia. Audio in and out are handled by a standard 3.5mm jack socket and there is a dual purpose games / MIDI interface.
Screen resolutions are reasonable, with 800x600 in 32K colours and 1280x1024 in 256 colours, being fed to the usual 15 way connector. The Mico does not appear to have any VRAM available for the screen display as with the RiscPC. However it will accept up to 256Mb of EDO SIMMS of which some will no doubt be used for the screen display. This means it's unlikely you can use spare memory from older Acorn machines, but then you don't really need that much for most RiscOS applications anyway. EDO memory currently costs around £1 per Mb.
The Mico's motherboard conforms to the ATX format currently used in many PC's. MicroDigital will sell the motherboard on it's own, which would make an ideal upgrade to existing PC's, where you could rip out the PC motherboard, pop in the Mico board, and hey presto, you've got a working RiscOS machine after reformatting the hard drive. For my own use, this is an excellent idea, as it will allow me to build a complete machine from spare parts relatively cheaply.
MicroDigital have a huge amount of pricing options for the Mico. You have a choice of four different size hard drives, optional CD Rom's and machines without monitors. For people wanting to quickly get up and running with the Internet, there is also an optional 6 month ArgoNet subscription which includes a 56K modem and software. Networking capabilities are not built in to the machine, but you can buy 10Mb ISA or 100Mb Microbus ethernet cards.
On paper, the Mico does look very promising. I do have my doubts about how well received the Microbus expansion system will become with users, but bearing in mind that most of the extras you can add to the machine could come from cheap PC box shifters, the Mico is definitely a move in the right direction. It's great news that people are prepared to build new machines, and hopefully this will encourage work to improve the software base for RiscOS.
Having been on the look out for a second hand RiscPC to add to my network, the Mico has made me think twice. Obviously it's impossible to get a true impression of a machine just from a list of specs on paper, but it does look very tempting. If MicroDigital would like to send me a review machine for, say six months, I'm sure I could put together a very comprehensive review! ;)