The MicroDigital Alpha
Aaron with the background to the Microdigital Alpha.
The Microdigital Alpha is a new laptop computer produced as a collaborative effort by Microdigital, RISCOS Ltd, APDL and of course VirtualAcorn. Now while some other magazines are scrabbling around trying to get an exclusive RISC World has all the details from the horse's mouth, well me, but as I run VirtualAcorn (and edit RISC World) I am placed in a good position to provide a RISC World exclusive.
The Alpha project has its roots in the RISCOS Ltd AGM last year. As those who attended may remember we produced a discussion document for RISCOS Ltd shareholders to show why we (VirtualAcorn) thought licencing RISC OS 4 for use with a VirtualAcorn product was a Good Idea. At the same AGM we had two laptops both running RISC OS 3.7 at nearly StrongARM speed. Also present at the same AGM was David Atkins from Microdigital and some Omega computers running RISC OS Select. Well as is often the case, we got talking, the result was an agreement to investigate the possibility of working together to produce a laptop at some future point.
At this stage a couple of the components that would be needed to offer a complete mobile RISC OS solution where missing. The two most important of these being direct Acorn format floppy disc reading and the reading of Acorn format CDs. As VirtualA5000 owners will know we completed these earlier this year and a VirtualA5000 with direct CD and floppy was launched at Acorn Southwest in Feb 2003. The scene was now set to re-examine the possibility of a RISC OS 4 laptop.
Developing the Alpha
Firstly an agreement had to be reached with RISCOS Ltd to supply the operating system, which they were quite happy to do since the machine would be sold as a Microdigital product. Secondly the hunt was on to find a suitable laptop to use. I have noticed a few rather silly comments on the newsgroups since the Alpha was first announced at Wakefield saying things like "...it's just a PC laptop...". Well it is a PC laptop, but the final machine that has been chosen has not just been picked out of thin air. Several months have been spent talking to possible suppliers and obtaining sample units to test. The initial decision that had to be made was the retail price point, in the end it was decided that £999 inc VAT was the ideal price point. However, this price needed to include two operating systems, WindowsXP and RISC OS, as well as the laptop, a carry case, charger etc. Also the machine would need 256Mb of memory (preferably DDR) and have a processor that would be quick enough to offer StrongARM class performance when using RISC OS.
Another selection criteria that needed to be applied related to the floppy disc drive. Many of the less expensive PC laptops use external USB floppy drives. Unfortunately on purchasing several different models of USB drives from a number of suppliers we discovered that many of these drives are locked and will only read 1.44Mb DOS floppies. We did eventually track down a drive that would read both 720K and 1.44MB floppies and this looked much more promising as it could read both formats it might be possible to write a driver for it to allow VirtualAcorn to read Acorn format discs in the drive. However this wasn't to be, and eventually we had to conclude that we would need to source a laptop that had a "normal" internal floppy drive connected to the IDE bus.
This meant we had to give up with all the existing suppliers and try again! In the mean time further selection criteria had been added. The machine also needed to come with an internal CD drive and be as robust as possible. Although I do like my rather expensive Dell Inspiron it fails the "twist test" rather badly and creaks something chronic whenever any force is applied to it. Any product supplied with RISC OS "on-board" would have to be somewhat stronger, especially if it might get used in an educational environment.
Another selection criteria then reared its head - the laptop would need a Windows "Menu" key in a sensible place. Since the touch pad would be a two button unit it made sense to use the "Menu" key as the Menu button. However although most laptops have this key it isn't always in a sensible place. Indeed on my Inspiron is located top right of the keyboard, it needs to be in the same place it would be on a desktop PC, two keys to the right of space.
We then spent some time testing, evaluating and eventually rejecting several models from other potential suppliers. All this was being done while the VirtualAcorn software (Called VirtualRPC-SE) was being developed. Eventually a bit of good fortune (and a recommendation from a contact in PC land) lead us to a supplier that could deliver exactly what we were looking for, on time, so a single unit was purchased for evaluation in April.
The evaluation machine was ordered to the same spec as the production machines would be:
Having spent so long testing hardware with various versions of VirtualAcorn we were quite convinced that this would be the best hardware for the job, and I have to say that the first time I installed the prototype VirtualRPC-SE software I was rather a happy chap.
Its an Alpha!
The machine was then extensively tested for a couple of days to ensure that it was up to the task. We made a few tweaks to the VirtualRPC-SE software to ensure that it performed as well as possible. It was possible to make a few changes that had not been possible on VirtualA5000 as we would be running on fixed hardware, rather than on whatever PC a customer happened to have. Indeed on some tests the Alpha actually out performed my 287Mhz Risc PC. From a desktop usability point of view we wanted to ensure that the machine could play back MP3 files using !AmPlayer while still remaining totally usable. Indeed if you have a close look at the screen shot above you may well notice that !AmPlayer is playing back an MP3 file, while KinoAMP is playing an MPEG video clip.
The integral CD drive
Having satisfied ourselves that this was the machine we were going to use we needed a prototype batch for further testing, development and of course to show at Wakefield. This is where the choice of supplier also comes in handy. Although so far we had only ordered one machine from them they were incredible helpful and we were able to have a further batch of machines built to our specification and delivered in only a couple of days. Of these one machine was set up and delivered to RISCOS Ltd prior to Wakefield, so that they could evaluate it (and make sure it ran Select release 3). After all if you are a Select subscriber then you can install Select on up to 10 machines, one of them might well end up being an Alpha.
The integral floppy drive
And so to Wakefield
All the Wakefield machines were set up in Bracknell and were put in the car along with all the VirtualAcorn clobber on the friday morning before the show. This did mean that I couldn't stop on my way up to Wakefield though, after all if you had eight laptops (including the VirtualA5000 machines) in your car would you stop at the services?
Having arrived at Wakefield and set up the VirtualAcorn stand (and blown the power supply on the desktop PC - see the Editorial) we then waited for Microdigital. I did have a "trotter" moment just as they arrived..."Ere..mate...wanna buy a RISC OS laptop? I got a boot full of 'em I 'ave..". The machines were transferred over to the van and were set up on Saturday morning prior to the show.
Keen eyed readers might have noticed Alpha laptops on the VirtualAcorn stand, also on the APDL stand, the PHR computers stand, the RISCOS Ltd stand and of course on the Microdigital stand. All the machines ran all day without a hitch (well at least no hitches I have been made aware of). The feedback we got over the course of the show was very positive, with a number of customers and developers wanting to place orders. Although we have done the software development work Microdigital (or dealers) are actually selling the machines so all such enquiries were directed to their stand.
The final Alpha is a combination of hardware and software, yes its a PC laptop, but it runs RISC OS, and runs it as fast as a StrongARM. We are still doing some more testing as I write this and have been playing with some of the power saving options. My own Alpha is now running RISC OS for one and three quarter hours on the battery. Once the "hibernate" mode has been implemented this time may well increase somewhat. The Alpha has taken quite some time to develop from the initial RISC OS 3.7 builds that were shown last year. Has it been worth it? Yes, the number of orders certainly shows how keen the RISC OS market is for a portable RISC OS device, after all some users have been waiting years to replace the old Acorn A4.
So when can I buy one?
The next batch should be shipping fairly shortly after a few loose jobs have been tidied up. After having tested his machine Paul Middleton at RISC OS Ltd came up with a couple of useful suggestions which we are going to incorporate. We also need to get the manual properly proofread (whoops), sort out the full software bundle (existing users will get a new CD) and do a few other jobs before the machines will be released. How long will that be? Well not long! For up to date details contact Microdigital.
A quick update
Just as this issue of RISC World was being sent off to be duplicated we had some more good news on the Alpha. Because of the high volume of orders placed with MicroDigital, a better deal has been negotiated with the suppliers. This means that customers will now get a higher spec machine for the same price. So the new additions to the Alpha are: