Brian Pickard reviews the RISC Cube from RComp
With the introduction of the application VirtualRPC-SE firms have been producing computers which in effect allow Windows and RISC OS to be used together. The speed of modern Intel Pentium and AMD AthlonXP processors allow emulators to run at acceptable speeds, giving the user the illusion of working at a RISC OS machine. Indeed using these processors actually produces a RISC OS emulation with an average speed greater than a standard StrongARM RiscPC.
So here I am running my old Impression Publisher program in a RISC OS 4 environment which does not 'feel' like an emulation. The machine on which VirtualRPC-SE is running is RComps RiscCube. I was asked to do this review and was glad to accept, as I had no previous experience of VirtualRPC-SE (being a die hard RISC OS user!).
For all you technical people the RiscCube I received from RComp is the one they use for demonstrating at shows. This means it has been put through a lot of not so careful handling and use. I was impressed by the sturdy aluminum case (no plastic anywhere!) and its small size (not much larger than a big shoe box).
I just plugged in my screen (old Acorn 17 inch) and transferred my network cable from the RiscPC, so the RiscCube would be connected to my PC (which I use mainly for Internet access). Then after connecting the keyboard and mouse (standard PC types) and finally the mains cable I switched on and everything worked! I mention this as I have many experiences with PCs out of boxes that don't quite do what they claim. My PC had been recognised, WindowsXP home booted up quickly (about 20 seconds).
It is really like having two machines contained in one small box. At startup you are given the choice to either boot to WindowsXP or RISC OS 4. The time to the required desktop from this stage is about 8 seconds. If you choose WindowsXP you can still start VirtualRPC-SE up when required by selecting the program on the Windows program menu from the start icon on the desktop. If you choose RISC OS then you can get back to Windows by using the alt+return key combination which then shows RISC OS in a Windows window. In this desktop there is a shortcut to VirtualRPC-SE.
Most users will have built up a library of their favourite programs and would want to transfer them. I found this very easy since I keep a complete backup image of my RiscPC harddisc4 drive on my PC. So using the peer to peer network arrangement I just copied the program directories directly to the VirtualRPC-SE disc called harddisc4, hence I am using Impression Publisher.
Compatibility should not be too much of a problem since VRPC emulates the ARM710 processor, not the StrongARM, so cache problems do not arise, hence quite old programs worked straight away.
Needless to say RISC OS4 comes with Draw, Paint, Edit, ChangeFSI and VirtualRPC-SE adds to this list Drawworks, Ovation (not OvationPro) and some PD software. The RComp machine also had WebsterXL and a demo version of Oregano2 for web browsing together with !FTPc, some LAN software emulators (Netware, Sunfish and VNC). Also included on this machine were Website creation software.
I was browsing using Oregano2, after I had set up a proxy to use the network making my PC fetch the pages. This can be done using the RiscCubes Windows environment I could have plugged my USB broadband modem straight into the RiscCube but I didn't since my PC does not like having the modem missing.
Printing is no problem since RComp use their own Uniprint system, which sends the printer output to the PC side and uses the PC printer driver. So all modern USB printers can be used. You can of course resort to using Microsofts web and email software (complete with the usual virus threat) on the Windows desktop.
Some Software I tried
The following software worked without any modification:
In fact most of my old software worked! If you know the software is RISC OS4 compatible then I see no reason why it should not work on VRPC. The only software I could not get to work were !6502em, !65Host and !Beebit (even the latest version off the web). All these are BBC emulators and are probably not RISC OS4 compatible but I was surprised !Beebit wouldn't run. (the problem was a lack of a suitable Mode7 screen definition in the MDF file, this has now been fixed - ED).
There is a lot of store given to speed/benchmarks in the PC world and sometimes they do not tell the whole story but here goes. Using the same set of tests Dave Holden used in his article on the A6 I got the following results (timings in centiseconds):
TEST 1 7 TEST 2 211 TEST 3 7592 TEST 4 724
Artworks Transwarp loading 7 seconds.
SparkFS file making, using Daves files, 3 mins 46 seconds.
These are about the same as the A6, perhaps RISC Cube is a bit quicker. I then ran RISCOSMark 1.01 utility and got the following report back:
RISCOSmark 1.01 (14 May 2003) Comparison with RiscPC SA 202MHz running RISC OS 4.02 800x600,256 (HD benchmarks are in kilobytes/sec) OS/Machine/Processor: ?? Graphics Resolution: 1024x768, 16M colours Test Benchmark %difference with RPC Processor - Looped instructions (cache) 73914 41% Memory - Multiple register transfer 1224 755% Rectangle Copy - Graphics acceleration test 293 121% Icon Plotting - 16 colour sprite with mask 128 64% Draw Path - Stroke narrow line 553 35% Draw Fill - Plot filled shape 612 41% HD Read - Block load 1MB file 170328 5711% HD Write - Block save 1MB file 150051 4934% FS Read - Byte stream file in 853 412% FS Write - Byte stream file out 636 331%
So the emulator runs faster most of the time in the RiscCube than a StrongARM RiscPC. Also bear in mind the screen resolution I was using was 1024 by 768 at 16 million colours!
Then using !Sick, which is included with VirtualRPC-SE, gave the following: (I changed the VRPC screen mode back to 32k 1024 by 760 since this utility reports the screen reading/writing speed).
TEST StrongARM RiscCube CPU clock speed (MHz) 236.25 567.37 Memory Size (Mbytes) 64(+2 VRAM) 128.00 Integer Calcs (Dhrystones/sec) 105534.1 405966.8 Floating Point (kWhetstones/sec) 1273.27 5723.768 Main Memory read (Mbytes/sec) 40.12 798.2 Main Memory write (Mbytes/sec) 36.10 263.3 Screen Memory read (Mbytes/sec) 12.96 854.2 Screen Memory write (Mbytes/sec) 23.18 367.5
The VRPC figures show between 4 and 5 times improvement on the RiscPC but the memory (both main and screen) read and write speed leaves the RiscPC standing probably due to the slow 16 Mhz RiscPC memory speed compared to the 333Mhz DDR memory in the RiscCube. This is bourne out in practise the above photos I took using my digital camera took just one second to change from their native JPEG to 16 million colour Sprite format using !ChangeFSI (the hourglass didnt show!) whereas it took my RiscPC nearly 20 seconds.
To the user the RiscCube running VRPC feels like a RiscPC running at least 5 times quicker.
What are the drawbacks compared to a native RISC OS machine?
You are relying on the PC operating system so any crashes could cause havoc. I didn't find any such problems and WindowsXP is more stable than previous versions. You cannot (unless I missed something) use RISC OS CD burning software.
Any drawbacks to the RiscCube machine?
I must say it worked well and it is a good general purpose PC in its own right. Since the case is small upgrading is limited to one PCI board and a AGP 8 graphics board. There is no room for adding extra Harddrives or another CD drive/DVD writer. The way round this would be to use the firewire ports and use external drives.
If you want to go to the PC platform (due to your works software requirements?) but do not want to lose the great RISC OS platform/software then this computer will be for you. It is neat and will work straight out of the box in fact RComp will build it to your spec. If you want to just use RISC OS and update your machine then stay with a native RISC OS machine, which seems to be the Iyonix, at the moment.