RISC World

Portable World

John Woodthorpe looks at the new netBook.


The biggest news in the world of RISC OS and portable machines has to be the announcement that RISCOS Ltd have reached agreement in principle with Psion Enterprise to allow them to produce RISC OS 4 to run on the netBook. The project is known as 'Ron', standing for 'RISC OS on netBook' and it's expected to be available later in the year. There's an expression of interest form available on this CD and on the RISCOS Ltd Web site and anyone who would like to run RISC OS on a notebook machine really should get hold of the form, complete it, and return it to RISCOS Ltd as soon as possible. It doesn't commit you to anything, but does give you a chance to show how much you want a portable machine running RISC OS.

The netBook

The netBook was released last year, although supplies have only just become more readily available. Being produced by Psion Enterprise it is really intended to be supplied to corporate customers, and Psion Computers produced their own version in the Series 7. The two machines look very similar, and they do indeed have a lot in common. Both run EPOC, have a StrongARM processor and share the same form factor. The differences are that the netBook is faster (191 MHz rather than the 130 MHz of the Series 7), has more memory (32 MB expandable to 64 MB as opposed to the 16 MB expandable to 32 MB of the Series 7) and crucially, loads its operating system from a CompactFlash card.

The Series 7 has a conventional ROM-based version of the EPOC operating system, and is missing the vital boot loader that is present in the netBook. It may be possible to modify the Series 7 to run RISC OS, but that's very uncertain at the moment. The top priority is to get RISC OS running on the netBook. Not unnaturally that's annoyed those who bought a Series 7 before Ron was announced, but RISCOS Ltd can't be held responsible for picking the Psion Enterprise machine as it is designed to be able to load other operating systems. There's no certainty that Ron will actually appear, especially if very few people express interest in buying it, so the whole discussion may turn out to be academic anyway.

The netBook, showing screen The netBook case
The netBook - an open and shut case.

Like many RISC OS users, I was contemplating getting a Series 7, and had been waiting for months for Psion Computers to send me a loan machine for review. However I never got to the top of the waiting list, and when Ron was announced I looked around to buy a netBook. Being intended as a corporate product, that wasn't easy but I eventually found a dealer with stock and bought one for £882. RISC OS dealers such as CJE Micro's are now selling them at the same competitive price.

Heretical Thoughts

The netBook is a superb machine, and I'm absolutely delighted with mine. I'm so pleased with the freedom it gives me to write without occupying the main family computer that I'm tempted to think heretical thoughts. I'd be really happy to be able run RISC OS on my netBook, but do I actually need it? In many ways I don't. Under EPOC, I have a capable word processor that produces files I can effortlessly convert to RTF on my Risc PC and load them into TechWriter Pro+ for final editing.

A Psion Word file with embedded spreadsheet

I also have a reasonable e-mail application, database, spreadsheet, diary, and Web browser. In fact I've got two browsers, including a port of Opera that's a lot faster and better than the built-in one.

Opera on the netBook
The EPOC port of Opera which supports SSL, cookies, JavaScript and frames.

I also have access to a huge amount of software to do things like manage my mobile phone by IR, interact with a GPS receiver to help me navigate around Europe and the US, and plan the best routes within towns in the UK.

Using a GPS to see where I am.

I can't do any of those under RISC OS, and if I devote the netBook to RISC OS I will lose those abilities. I will also need extra storage, and that will probably be an IBM Microdrive as described on and selling for around £340. The Microdrive is a hard disc in a CompactFlash form, with a capacity of 170 MB or 340 MB. That will increase the cost of the netBook, and RISC OS will be on top of that. One thing is for certain, and that is that Ron will force people who can't afford a Microdrive to think very carefully about the applications they use on the portable. The top of my list would be TechWriter Pro+, and that'll run on the internal drive or on a CompactFlash, with enough storage for files. What else will I need? How about the following:

  • E-mail and Web facilities (e.g. the ANT Suite)
  • A diary such as Organiser
  • An HTML editor such as HTMLEdit
  • StrongEd (or Zap, as I don't want to get into a fight)
  • A spreadsheet and database, or a combined package such as Fireworkz
  • Optionally, a DTP package such as Ovation Pro.

Now that starts to get very hungry for the meagre memory available, especially as the internal RAM is dynamically allocated between storage and application memory. I'll also need some sort of synchronisation application to make sure that the files for all the applications are in step on both the desktop and portable machines. There's no way that I'll chose the netBook's 256 colour 640 x 480 display over my 17" monitor with 32,000 colours running at 1024 x 768. Hence no matter what software I run on the netBook, I'll always finish off my writing on the Risc PC whenever the rest of the family let me have time on it.

If that's the case, why do I need a RISC OS portable? I can do many of the same things via EPOC combined with PsiFS, ChangePSI and Psiconv on my Risc PC. That approach will be a lot cheaper and can be done with a Series 7, 5mx, 5 or even a Revo.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm as committed to RISC OS as anyone else, and I confess to sometimes buying software that I don't make a lot of use of, just because I've wanted to support a RISC OS developer. I will also be frantically elbowing people out of the way to get hold of Ron to install on my netBook, but I'll continue to use EPOC because of the way it complements RISC OS so wonderfully.

And So?

What I'm really saying is don't buy a netBook simply as a potential RISC OS machine. Buy one as a stunning EPOC machine that you may well be able to run RISC OS on later this year. Whatever you do though, don't discard EPOC as it has so much to offer RISC OS users. I plan to use both operating systems on the same machine to do the things that each one is good at. Next time, I'll look in more detail at how you can integrate an EPOC palmtop with a RISC OS desktop machine using the software that is available. If you can't afford a netBook at the moment, don't despair as EPOC really does offer you so much, and thanks to some talented RISC OS developers, much of that potential can already be realised. I certainly plan to keep my EPOC applications and data on one CompactFlash card and use another one for RISC OS. That would allow me to choose the right operating system for the right tasks.

John Woodthorpe