John Woodthorpe's portable roundup
There were two new portables at the RISC OS 2000 Show at Epsom. The first will come as no surprise to readers of the previous issue of Risc World, as it was the laptop-style RiscStation Portable. The other was more unexpected and I confess to stopping short when I saw what looked like an Oregon Scientific Osaris on the RiscStation stand.
On closer examination, it claimed to be a RiscStation Osaris, but that‘s a mere technicality as the underlying machine is the Oregon one. It has been rebadged by RiscStation in the same sort of way that Acorn and Xemplar rebadged the Psion Series 3 machines as Pocket Books. The last of those was the Xemplar Pocket Book III, based in the Psion Series 3mx and launched in February 1998. Sadly, it never achieved the degree of success that the original Acorn Pocket Books managed, and I still treasure the memory of seeing a Microsoft employee producing his favourite palmtop (an Acorn Pocket Book II) while demonstrating a new Windows CE machine.
The real target for those machines was schools, and it was not unusual to see whole classes using the machines to take notes on field trips, work on spreadsheets and so on. The rebadging benefitted those of us who owned the Psion machines as well, as we were able to buy PocketFS to help us convert files between the palmtop and our RISC OS desktop machines. That extended right up to the Pocket Book III, where Xemplar funded some of the early development of PsiRisc, although that product now seems to have all but disappeared.
The Osiris was first spotted at the Consumer Electronics Show in the US in January 1999, so it‘s hardly new. It hasn‘t created a huge impression compared to its siblings from Psion though. One reason for that is perhaps that Oregon Scientific have a reputation for cheap copies of more mainstream calculators, PDAs and electronic novelties. Their Web sites at http://www.oregonscientific.com and http://www.oregonscientific.co.uk are full of gadgets like heart and pulse rate monitors, weather stations, and clocks that project the time in the dark, as well as modified versions of calculators and PDAs by Casio and Palm amongst others. Their greatest merit for the consumer is that they are often half the price of the "big name" originals, while at the same time giving the retailer a much higher markup.
Shortly after the Osaris was launched, I borrowed one for a while. That was initially to confirm that the Web and email applications work with an IR mobile phone, but I also took the chance to have a closer look at it. In many ways it‘s a strange beast, being almost the same physical size as the S5 or S5mx. It still has the CompactFlash slot for memory expansion, runs the same software as the S5 range, and yet is dramatically cheaper. The main problem with it is that the screen is rather oddly shaped, as the screenshot here shows.
The screen is about the same height as the S5, but a lot narrower, and has rectangular pixels. That makes many applications look rather odd, with text that is squashed in one direction and stretched in the other. As a result, many of the third-party applications don‘t work properly as they assume that the screen is bigger. Some of the commercial software houses such as Palmtop Software and Purple Software are now making their products sense the machine they are running on and adapting to the screen size, but many of the Shareware and Freeware authors aren‘t doing that. As the Psion Revo has become so successful, more authors are making their software adjust to the available screen size, so that should gradually become less of a problem. You may see the screen referred to as being half VGA, but that‘s a little confusing since it is actually 320 x 200, making it quarter VGA by most definitions.
Apart from the oddly proportioned screen, the Osaris has three main disadvantages:
That second point could be a big problem when it comes to support, as Oregon Scientific aren‘t part of Symbian http://www.symbian.com, and so they don‘t have the same level of access to information about the operating system as the Symbian partners. They also seem to be very slow in helping users, and I can‘t help feeling that there may well not be any major software updates coming from them. EPOC Release 4 has a few refinements over the more common ER3 that was used in the S5. The main ones are that the spreadsheet can sort and Agenda has a "busy" view. Both are missing from the S5. The other benefit is that many of the internal operations have been greatly speeded up. That‘s especially obvious when using the spell checker and or opening the Control Panel application. The documentation supplied by Oregon is laughable in its simplicity, and hopefully RiscStation will improve upon it. They are supplying the machine with Psion Connect (the generic name for PsiWin) to connect to a PC, and with RISC OS connectivity software. I‘ve tried the Osaris with ArcLink5, PsiRisc and PsiFS, and can report that it works with all of them. Anyone upgrading from a Pocket Book will find that Psion Connect will not upgrade their old files, and they will have to download PsiWin 2·1 from the Psion site at http://www.psion.com to do that.
It is very cheap though, and at £169 (including VAT) for the 8MB version, RiscStation are undercutting the more established retailers such as Argos and the mail order suppliers like Maplin. Certainly for school use it is very well worth considering. I can‘t really see it being hugely popular with private buyers. Compared to the Revo, it has a much better keyboard and is more expandable. It‘s perhaps a little more robust than the Revo, as well as being some £60 cheaper and having the merit of using AA batteries. There are also classroom packs of five machines with a couple of mains adaptors, spare batteries and styli for £725+VAT.
Overall I‘d prefer a Revo, but for schools and anyone on a limited budget the Osaris is tempting. Incidentally, there‘s a machine available in the US called the Diamond Mako that is a rebadged Revo, so it seems that this renaming of existing machines is still popular. I wonder if we‘ll see more of this happening as EPOC machines proliferate? It‘s certainly good to see that RiscStation are taking the initiative in this area, and they may well have picked exactly the right machine to interest the school customers that they are aiming at.
Osaris Online at http://osaris.virtualave.net/ is dedicated to the Osaris, and the FoxPop site has a full review of the Osaris at http://www.foxpop.ndirect.co.uk/roadtesting/osaris.htm.