RISC OS 4

I completed installing RISC OS 4 on 27 September 1999. I had had it for some while, but fitting it was delayed by my initial involvement with Linux. My Risc PC has a 200 MHz StrongARM processor, with 32 + 2 MB of RAM.

The upgrade comprises a CD-ROM and a pair of ROMs, plus a slim but adequate manual. The software has to be installed first. This caused no problem, but files that it does not want are put into a directory InactiveRes. If you already have one (for example, from the installation of RISC OS 3.7, as I had), it renames this as InactiveOld. Unfortunately, I ran the install program twice, and then deleted InactiveOld, which has left me short of a few modules ! But this was my fault !

I then fitted the ROMs supplied, which were of the early, Flash ROM type, and saw no sign of life ! Just to be certain, I refitted the 3.7 ROMs, and the machine came to life again. On ringing Riscos Ltd., I learnt from Paul Middleton that the problem was defective ROMs to the extent of perhaps 20 per cent, due to what he admitted was inadequate quality control. The good news was that a new upgrade arrived the following day, complete with the latest masked ROMs (version 4.02). These I fitted, and the machine came to life. I could have continued like this, but this would have been to miss several of the best features - including the long filenames. This requires that the disc(s) be reformatted in the new F+ format.

I bought a new Fujitsu IDE hard drive of 8.4 GB, which I had determined as the capacity above which the cost per MB starts to climb, and the price was only about 100 from Dabs Direct. Luckily I looked at the RISC OS Ltd web site, since I learnt there that version 2.50 of Hform reaches its limit at 7 or 8 GB. I therefore downloaded version 2.51, and was able to format the whole drive in one, with a Large File Allocation Unit of 1024 (the same as for Linux). Since it reported the space free as 7 GB, I was confused at first, but later realised that it was rounded down from 7.87 GB (net after formatting). The only downside with the LFAU of 1024 is that the disc map cache requires about 1 MB of RAM. The manual does suggest that, if this is a problem, you can use an LFAU of 2048, and halve the size of the disc map cache, and yet still hold the data more efficiently than with the previous F format.

The RiscPC has only two IDE channels as standard, so copying files from old to new drives would be slightly more tricky without SCSI. After installing the software from CD-ROM, you would have to disconnect the CD-ROM drive, to allow a second IDE hard drive to be connected. I copied over the contents of my former first 1.7 GB IDE drive, and what had occupied 1560 MB, now occupied 1168 MB - a saving of 25 per cent ! I then copied over much of the contents my 2 GB SCSI drive, which was still in four partitions (dating from RISC OS 3.5). Finally I copied over the contents of my former second 1.7 GB IDE drive, complete with the DOSDisc file (for use with the 486 processor) of 1 GB. This has left me with over half still free - i.e. 4.8 GB.

My Initial Impressions of RISC OS 4 in Use

1) The boot-up time is impressively short - at least while only IDE drives are enabled. Having the SCSI card enabled, which I need for my Panasonic PD drive, which doubles as my CD-ROM drive, as well as for the 2 GB hard drive, slows it somewhat, but it is still shorter overall. According to a note on the CD-ROM, Alsystems are still working on their new SCSI formatter for the F+ format.

2) Having been working for nearly two months with the PC keyboard, I was pleased to see that with RISC OS 4 you can configure the keyboard to behave as the PC one for deletion. This anomaly needed removal for success in today's multi-platform environment. Indeed, the configuration of everything is much improved, with all parameters controlled from the desktop, so none have to be set from the command line. Another nice touch is that the screen mode changer now allows you to see and change the refresh rate. This was always in the monitor definitions, but only now do we have easy access to it. Better still, the Display applet fades mode changes to black and then back again - very smart !

3) With a StrongARM, RISC OS 4 is claimed to be around 30 to 49 per cent faster on some operations, and I can believe it. It certainly seems to be faster, though I have not made any comparative measurements. I especially noticed the high speed when counting files. The speedup is claimed to be even greater with 610 and 710 processors, but I have not tried it.

4) The compatibility is very high. I have found only a few minor old PD utilities which would not run - and they were probably written illegally anyway. My copies of ArtWorks and of Publisher ran without even needing re-installing, while both Style and Publisher Plus re-installed easily. Having remembered to transfer the DataPower credit back to the installation disc, it was easy to install it back again, and it works.

5) For new or forgetful users the new Help system is a vast improvement. It is now displayed next to the pointer (like Tool Tips, but bigger), and may be disabled for the common elements (i.e. window widgets).

6) You can turn on an Iconise widget for all windows. This appears on the right, and looks balanced, with two each side of the title bar. When iconised, they form neat columns from any of the four corners - the top right by default - (rather like Windows desktop icons, after tidying), or go to the icon bar. Directories are distinguished from files by having a red pin. This all works very well. You can also save desktops complete with an appropriate array of files and directories.

7) The anti-aliased text is a delight to see again, after the spindly and jagged 1 bpp text of Windows or X-Windows. It is even better than Adobe Type Manager for Windows with PostScript fonts (which is an extra, costing about UKP 58). That the anti-aliasing extends even to the system text is a further advantage over Windows (and not offered by Adobe Type Manager).

8) File and directory names can be up to 1023 characters (200 in the Desktop), which at last enables files to be exchanged freely with e.g. Windows 98 and Linux. You can also use Alt-space to put hard spaces into the names. In addition, the new file system is said to allow up to perhaps 3,500 to 5,000 objects per directory. I find that I do not immediately want to change all the file or directory names, but some new ones I make longer, and I no longer feel constrained. RISC OS now feels more mature.

9) With the support for very large drives, (up to 256 GB), it is now possible to organise all your files in one logical space. This is a great freedom, especially since moving, by Shift + drag and drop, is already easy, but then very quick. For my 8 GB drive, Count now returns some 110,000 files, totalling about 3 GB. While large for a RISC OS machine, Linux can have more like two million (as presumably can NT). Support for very large drives also means that you can have useful amounts of storage, and a CD-ROM drive, with only the standard IDE interface (i.e. without the added expense of SCSI).

10) A sensible amount of free software is included with RISC OS 4. For example, there is the cut down version of EasiWriter, plus what I think amounts to a free internet suite (though I have not tried it). In addition, a copy of Samba (which is free, but still in beta) is included. This holds out the prospect of being able to access the Risc PC files over a network from Windows or Linux. In addition, several programming languages are supplied, including a port of the GNU C/C++ compiler, the Guavac version of Java, and Python, a new scripting-type language that is in fact compiled on load, and which is fast gaining ground in the Linux world !

11) Although RISC OS Ltd have changed !Printers to version 1.62, Computer Concepts have done well, and supplied notes for the CD-ROM, to enable the installation of both Laser Direct and TurboDrivers. Not only that but I understood them well enough to succeed first time, and both printers are working again. Indeed, the LaserDirect seems to image pages faster than ever. Among the conventional (formerly Acorn) drivers, RISC OS Ltd have added some quite recent printers, including the Canon BJC4550 and 5550, supporting A4 and A3 paper sizes, and the Epson Stylus Color 600 and 800, supporting at least some 1440 dpi modes. However, they are leaving support for the Photorealistic modes and models of such printers to third parties.

12) With RISC OS 4 the Acorn (16-bit) sound hardware is aurally superior to that of my cheap PC. Most notably, when playing a classical music CD, you can hear even the quiet passages. To determine this, I had to use Smart CD (from the ARM Club), since I always have problems making the standard CDPlayer find the CD-ROM drive. Although it knows about SCSI CD-ROM drives (indeed it is so old, that it may not support IDE ones), it cannot save the ID number.

In conclusion, I think that RISC OS 4 is the best thing that ever happened to the RISC OS machines. It is just a pity that Acorn themselves did not see that their best bet was defining the architecture (as Microsoft do with Intel for the PC97 etc specs), and writing the OS, and leaving the design and manufacture of the hardware to others. Well, we have this now, but without Acorn. After a couple of months of occasional use of Windows 98, and extensive use of Linux + X-Windows + KDE, I shall - in the light of this experience - certainly continue to use the Risc PC. It has become even more attractive now that LanMan98 enables file transfer over a network between RISC OS and Windows (and hence Linux). With these capabilities, and given the (dis)economies of (small) scale, I think that RISC OS 4 is well worth the price of 120. After all, this is not that much to make your existing RISC OS machine competitive again ! Also, the suppliers of new RISC OS machines must be very well pleased - since it makes them much more attractive. Although produced by a small and young team, RISC OS 4 is a fully professional and competitive product.


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