RISC World

The Education Column

Andrew Harmsworth with the latest Education news

Well, May is already well under way and so the education sector is in exam season - busy as hell at just about every level. It would also seem that the RISC OS world has behaved similarly this month, Wakefield bringing an avalanche of developments to the platform. Let us sit back and reflect on how the recent work may impact on education.

Lapping up a Laptop

The non-appearance of the RiscStation laptop has frustrated me personally - and many other educational users - since the RISC OS 2000 show. Earlier this year I had decided to wait no longer, and had started looking for a reasonable Windows PC laptop on which I could be sure to get the Virtual A5000 emulator to run. Having little time, and there being almost infinite choice, I hadn't actually begun narrowing it down at all.

Along come Microdigital, RISCOS Ltd and VirtualAcorn to deliver the Microdigital Alpha - a Windows XP laptop with the bonus addition of Virtual RiscPC sporting a full version of RISC OS 4, with the ability to run RISC OS Select!

Now, the specification of the laptop has taken a bit of a hammering on the newsgroups, but looking at it from a different perspective. As a teacher, I primarily desire a laptop to cope with good internet access (Windows XP and Internet Explorer really have that sorted), support for Office applications (to allow easy file transfer between colleagues), and it would be great if I could still use some very trusty and highly efficient RISC OS applications. Doing it at speed, and in style, would be a major bonus.

From what I can see, the machine is easily able to cope with everything I need it for. A logical extension is that it is almost certainly good enough for most teachers' needs. In other words, it is my belief that the Alpha laptop - assuming it is sturdy enough - should be able to serve my needs as a teacher for at least as long as the StrongARM RiscPC I'm typing this on has (7 years). It is also half the price (ignoring inflation).

Don't get me wrong; I would love to own a RISC OS laptop that runs natively on ARM-hardware. Ultimately, however, the fact is that Virtual A5000 has given myself and colleagues a wider range of ICT options. It has proven itself to be stable, on any flavour of Windows. I am confident that Virtual RiscPC, running on significantly better hardware than I have access to at the moment, will deliver on its promises. And on the Alpha, it really does seem to offer the best of both worlds. No more compromise.

Time will tell if the machines are available sooner rather than later. I look forward to giving one a go before parting with my cash.

Select 3

The number three seems to be everywhere at the moment, and whilst compiling this article, RISCOS Ltd released Select 3. No doubt there will be extensive reviews of this elsewhere, so let's just take a peek at what might be its biggest benefits in schools...

New !Paint (v. 2.51)

Neptune's clouds in 2002

Replete with new features, the biggest surprise to me is its ability to re-order multiple sprites within the same file. For years, I've had to swap between Paint and Andre Timmermann's !NoPaint in order to do this. The latter program is now redundant! For the uninitiated, having more than one sprite within a single file is a superb method for making animations via !InterGif. Kids LOVE animations, and now they can have even more fun with them...

!Paint re-ordering sprites of Neptune
Paint re-ordering sprites of Neptune before animating

Incidentally, if you'd like to find out what the images of Neptune are all about above, see my Orrery website!


Recyclone sat next to Apps

Recylone is written by Archifishal Software, some might say that including third party software in Select is cheating. Get over it I say - having a consistent recycling bin on every machine is eminently sensible. More important, of course, is stability. I've used bins in the past, and they've always been unstable (blown over in the wind, you might say). Getting the thumbs up from RISCOS Ltd. should indicate their satisfaction with this little baby.

What seems to be better about this bin, compared to others I've used, is that using the Filer's DELETE option automatically transfers files to the bin (although you can drag files to its iconbar icon). It would be nice to have an "undelete" option from the bin's filer menu, but let's not get too awkward. For classes in which kids suddenly decide to start deleting files, this is quite handy!

filer's new thumbnailing option
Filer Thumbnailing

Again available for some years as a third-party application (!PhotoFiler by David Thomas, available from WSS) the great thing about having it built in to Filer is that it is a new choice in the Display menu, so can be turned on and off as needed. With Photofiler, on the other hand, you have to remember to hold down CONTROL when going into directories that you don't want thumbnailed. But how do they compare? In standard configuration, Filer takes 12 seconds on my machine (StrongARM RiscPC) to thumbnail the $.Images.00-49 folder. On the other hand, Photofiler can do it in 10. Configuring the Filer to display smaller images does not seem to give improved speed.

Filer's thumbnailing of a window
Filer thumbnailing a window

That said, the ability to thumbnail directories as and when you please far outweighs the slightly slower rendering of folders. The bottom line is that pupils' WindowsXP machines will display a directory of images as thumbnails; so should the RISC OS machines they use at school. If at all possible...

According to RISCOS Ltd they have continued to develop and enhance the networking facilities of RISC OS so that it should now be possible to plug in machines running Select and be up and running on any network within minutes. That's the theory, and here's the network configuration options:

RISC OS Select's extensive networking options
RISC OS Select's Extensive Networking Options

The ability to connect to any network is essential for RISC OS machines in schools today if they are to hold their own.

Native Broadband

Broadband has finally come to my home town. Like many others, I signed up to bring our small market town over the threshold set by BT before they would install the service. Inevitably I was already considering having to buy a cheap PC in order to be able to access such a service, not expecting any support for RISC OS to be available.

Fortunately, Paul Vigay exists! He has worked out how to set up our favourite machines through a router, and has begun writing comprehensive instructions which can be found here. After contacting Paul, he tells me that it really is very easy to get up and running.

In addition, Paul has become a reseller of what he considers to be one of the best routers. I've budgeted to buy one of these over the summer, so look forward to finally throwing out my old 56K modem. Who knows, maybe I could make a bob or two from it on eBay?

If you have any questions or comments on the use of RISC OS computers in education, please either email or better still join the RISC OS Education Discussion List, and air them there.

Andrew Harmsworth