RISC World

Absolute Beginners

David Bradforth introduces a new series aimed at beginners

One of the most common requests for RISC OS magazines is more support for those new to the whole computing arena. Whilst many readers have had their RISC OS computers (in a variety of specifications) for years, very few have taken the time to fully understand what their machine is capable of. With this new series, RISC World will provide simple guides to different aspects of RISC OS.

We've noticed on more than one occasion readers who are experts with the PC or Macintosh, and will therefore on some occasions compare these computers directly to RISC OS as an aid to navigation around your RISC OS system. If you're a new user, you'll find this series an invaluable check point; if you're not a new user but are looking at ways of expanding your understanding of RISC OS ignore this first article, but from the next issue onwards we're looking at specific aspects of RISC OS.

With this first article, we're getting introductions out of the way, particularly by comparison between the RISC OS, Mac OS and Windows desktop interfaces. For the moment, we've not considered Windows XP or Mac OS X as these alter the viewing platform slightly - they will be considered later on within this series.

Introducing RISC OS

We'll get started, as we should, with RISC OS. RISC OS was first released in 1989, as the second version of the Archimedes operating system (the first being Arthur). The first release, RISC OS 2, was designed and optimised for use on a machine with only 1Mb of RAM and did not include direct support for hard disc drives.

In 1991 - with the release of the A5000 - Acorn released RISC OS 3.00 which, as a memory-saving measure, incorporated commonly-used applications (Draw, Paint and Edit being the three main applications) into the operating system ROM. This ensured that they used very little memory when loaded, allowing even those users with the bare minimum of memory full access to the system supplied applications.

Acorn had a lot of problems with RISC OS 3.00, and so later RISC OS 3.10 was released. Users who at the time had RISC OS 2 were encouraged to upgrade to the new operating system. Users who had A5000 machine with RISC OS 3.00 were also encouraged to upgrade as Acorn produced a special "A5000" upgrade for only £29.00. This included new ROMS, but no new manuals. This cheaper upgrade was so popular that Acorn sold more A5000 RISC OS 3.10 upgrades than they had A5000s!

With the introduction of the A3010, A3020 and A4000 came a slightly later version of RISC OS, version 3.11.

With 1994 came the Risc PC, and with it RISC OS 3.5. This was the first version of RISC OS to incorporate direct support for more than 256 colours on screen at a time, and was used as the basis for RISC OS 3.6 and 3.7 (both of which made slight alterations internally). RISC OS 3.7 being effectively RISC OS 3.6 but also incorporating support for the StrongARM processor.

Come 1998, and following a boardroom coup the Acorn Group closed its workstations division. Despite initial panic on the newsgroups (as the event was quickly dubbed Black Thursday) within six months an agreement is reached between the Acorn Group and a new company, RISC OS Limited, to safeguard future operating system development for workstation users. The result, RISC OS 4, is released to an eager public shortly after.

The RISC OS 4 desktop, with appropriate annotations

Navigating the desktop itself is easy enough. Using the mouse, you can either click on an item - by tapping one of the mouse buttons, or drag an item - by holding down a mouse button and moving the mouse until you're at your destination point. As to the mouse buttons themselves, from left to right they're referred to as Select, Menu and Adjust each referring to the usual operation of the button itself.

The Select button is used for 'actions' within the desktop - e.g. to start an application, to open a window, and so on. This should be your most frequently-used mouse button, as if you use a desktop publishing or design application it's likely the Select button will be used for most operations.

The Menu button opens menus - that's easy. Place the mouse pointer so it's within the boundaries of a window you'd like the menu for, and tap the Menu button. A menu will open, from which you can select an item by tapping any mouse button. It shouldn't work quite like that, but it does - so why argue?!

Finally, the Adjust button allows you to alter dialogue entries/menu selections but keep the windows/menus themselves open. It actually does a lot more than that, but this is beyond the scope of this first article in the series.

The Windows desktop

Microsoft Windows was launched back in 1986, to provide an alternative to the command-line driven DOS operating system which many beginners had trouble with. Over the past fifteen years, it's gained a number of useful features; and in its latest Windows XP variant is very easily the most beginner-friendly version to date.

The Windows desktop (from Windows 95 to Windows Me)

The Windows desktop is much like RISC OS in that you've got a mouse pointer, and a quick way of accessing menus. It's not really within RISC World's scope to provide Windows information, so this is necessarily brief, but the Left mouse button is the 'action' button - i.e. using that you can run applications, select text within a word processor and so on. The right mouse button will always open a menu - as with the RISC OS equivalent, all you need do is ensure the pointer is located within the boundary of a window for which you wish to open the menu.

If users are having complications familiarising themselves with RISC OS, following prior experience of Windows, let me know and I'll explore this further next time.

The Mac OS desktop

Since the first Macintosh was released, Apple have had Mac OS. Initially looking much like the old Gem operating system, over the past ten years it's developed into something immensely useful and - with the Mac OS X incarnation - it's attempted to get somewhat more stylish. Unlike RISC OS computers, the Macintosh only has a single mouse button.

The Mac OS desktop (from 1.0 to 9.2)

The Macintosh desktop has a number of similarities to Windows, but also to RISC OS. As with Windows programs, your primary means of accessing menus relating to applications is via the top of the screen. Whichever application you're running at the foreground (i.e. in front of all others) will place its own menus at the top of the screen).

Launching applications is a case of double-clicking on them, or clicking on the 'Apple' menu at the top of the screen and choosing from the list provided. Online help is available (where supplied) simply by pressing the Help button on the keyboard, a feature which would certainly help many RISC OS beginners.

For the moment, that's as far as we'll go. If any readers would like us to offer detailed explanations of RISC OS versus Windows and Macintosh computers, but purely for the sakes of increasing RISC OS familiarity, please let me know. Failing that, part two will explore the RISC OS Applications Suite and provide a beginners guide to Draw, Edit and Paint.

David Bradforth