Another RiscWorld, another release of RISC OS 5...anyone would think the two are inexplicably linked...
Shortly before this year's Wakefield show Castle Technology Ltd released beta versions of RISC OS 5.09 and associated disc updates.
One of the most interesting new disc updates is a program which gives the user the ability to format USB mass storage media in ADFS format natively, rather than relying on the DOSFS format. The format operation is currently performed in the same style a formatting a hard disc with HForm (a single-tasking, menu- driven program) rather than the possibly more intuitive method of invoking a formatter window from the drive icon as is currently the case with floppies. Speaking with John Ballance at the Wakefield Show I learned that the 'new' formatter is basically a slightly tweaked and recompiled version of HForm, modified to work with the SCSI system (USB) rather than IDE. A multi-tasking graphical formatter in the same vein as floppy discs would be nice, but it certainly isn't high up the list of priorities.
Partitioning of mass storage drives under RISC OS still isn't possible but I asked John about the possibility of partitioning a pen drive using a PC into a DOS partition and a blank partition, and then formatting the blank partition with ADFS. He explained that currently the formatter has to nuke the beginning of the disc boot block as a safety precaution to ensure that it can be read on RISC OS, and so doing this would naturally wipe out the PC DOS partition. For the time being you're better off sticking to DOS-only if you need to be able to store RISC OS and PC data on the same mass storage device.
The new version of RISC OS 5 sports the inclusion of a new module named RTCAdjust. This should enable the Iyonix's infamously inaccurate clock to keep track of time a lot more closely by repeatedly synchronising the clock with the timer crystal installed on the motherboard. Without this being done, the time as seen by Alarm or Organizer can drift by as much as 30 seconds per day.
Another welcome feature in RISC OS 5.09 is the addition of RockRidge name extension to CDFS, which should allow CDFS to natively read more CDs without the need for Warm Silence Software's CDROMFS replacement software. The nasty forced uppercase restriction on filenames in CDs that have been burned with mixed case has also been lifted, which should make them a bit more pleasant to use.
Various other bugfixes have been made to the OS relating to general desktop usage, crashing on shutdown with certain network chips, and USB support. The official release is due very shortly, say Castle.
Wakefield Show news
Although not strictly related to the Iyonix, Castle had some interesting things to tell us about where RISC OS is getting to in the big wide world. The IPSign is a box produced by CTL, running RISC OS 5 on an ARM9 processor, and Jack Lillingston was happy to say that tens of thousands of units had been shipped to various installations. The box is low power, with a small power supply, no moving parts (ie. no hard disc or fans), and low production cost. This sounds very much like it could be the 50,000-unit deal Castle were telling us about at Wakefield 2004.
Briefly, the IPSign is a complete content authoring and display system designed to run remotely via the internet. A server (which may be an Iyonix or a standard PC) does all the hard work, pushing data via the net to the IPSign box, which then drives a TV display via a SCART interface. MPEG decoding is performed in the IPSign box and content can be displayed using the CableNews software developed by Paul Reuvers of X-Ample technology. The system finds its uses in airport terminals, rail departure boards, anywhere that needs high-quality, high-reliability screen display with full control over scheduling and update.
An Iyonix running CableNews provided the flashy displays used in Castle's Show presentation
New mini competition?
This year's Show of course saw the launch of the A9home, the miniscule yet powerful box from Advantage Six. The first thing that drew my attention was the relative similarity in specifications to the Iyonix compared to the other native ARM stuff that has been produced in recent years. (The Iyonix's 600MHz IOP312 XScale is clocked 50% faster than the A9home's 400MHz ARM9 but the IOP321 has some performance issues which hit the Iyonix). This can only be a good thing as it drives competition not just on the price front, but the specs front as well.
However a quick chat with Jack Lillingston of Castle and Matt Edgar of Ad6 would leave you feeling that neither company was too worried about what the other was doing. Matt said that the A9home is not aiming to compete with the Iyonix as it already fills its own niche - namely that of an attractively cute but powerful entry-level budget machine with no expansion capabilities. Jack simply stated that any new RISC OS machine is good news for the platform, which is fair enough as Castle will most likely be receiving royalties from the A9home sales of RISC OS, besides the extra custom that will inevitably be brought to the platform as a whole.
However with the attractively low (£586 inc VAT) price of the A9home compared to the Iyonix's hefty £1249, it was no surprise that Castle decided to extend their 'Election-fever' £350 cashback offer - which was to run until May 5th - to the end of the Show weekend. Even with the extras that are constantly being bundled with the Iyonix (USB2, DVD burning, etc.) I can only forsee that the price of the Iyonix regularly drops in this way, or even becomes permanently lower.
One other interesting thing to bear in mind is that the A9home - like the Iyonix - is not processor upgradable like the RiscPC was. However Matt Edgar commented to me (after some prodding) that if they wanted to put in a faster ARM processor that had been available for some time and was shown to be reliable, it would be relatively little trouble for them to do. So theoretically an 800MHz or 1GHz A9home could be released in the not too distant future for very little extra development cost, whereas the Iyonix would need considerable reworking in comparison. It wouldn't do to have the current flagship RISC OS machine outclassed in performance and price by another native ARM machine now would it! So perhaps the next year or two is when we really start to see things moving on the native RISC OS machines front.
Geminus, after over 6 months of waiting and teasing, has finally been released by the Spellings.net team in a modular format. For £10+VAT Iyonix users can buy the part of Geminus that deals with rotation of the RISC OS screen, for those who have rotatable LCD monitors, or those who like lying in bed whilst using their Iyonixes (guilty!).
Example screenshot showing configuration of the Geminus
multi-screen software, as seen at http://buyit.spellings.net
Alternatively, for £25+VAT, the somewhat more interesting multi-screen module of Geminus can be purchased. This allows the desktop of the Iyonix to be split across two or more screens, laid out in whatever order the user wants, and allowing such snazzy features as smooth dragging from one screen to the next. Geminus will allow up to 8 screens to be used in this way simultaneously, combining to give an uber-desktop of up to 16384 x 1536 pixels (for example) - if you've got the cash for that many high-res monitors. However practical limitations on the number of PCI graphics cards that can be added to the Iyonix mean that currently you're limited to 3 screens. Extra graphics cards can be purchased from the Geminus team for £50+VAT, and both screen-rotation and multi-screen editions of Geminus can be purchased together. New features are still planned for the software. However I was most upset to see that the team hasn't considered selling triple-width mouse mats for use with the extra screen width... oh well.
And the Geminus software, which drove this impressive
display without a hitch for the duration of the show
Cino still a long way off
Now that Adrian Lees is nearing the completion of Geminus and presumably catching up on some much needed sleep (unless of course he was using the screen rotation facility as mentioned before to program Geminus in his sleep, surely an easy task for such a talented man), it would be nice to see some work being done on Cino, the DVD player for Iyonix, once again. At the Show this was seen ticking over at a reasonable 12-ish frames per second, although it was somewhat prone to crashing whenever I touched the machine. Adrian is confident that he can squeeze yet more performance out of the XScale processor, although doubling the current performance can't be an easy task. This is all said bearing in mind that ADFS still hasn't been rewritten to support non-blocking operations, which would speed up disc transfer somewhat. The cynic in me says that all this time spent producing cunning and revolutionary apps such as Geminus is simply a time-wasting diversion so he can appear to be busy until Iyonix II is out, with a significantly faster processor which would alleviate most of the Cino performance issues in one fell swoop :-)
The Show also saw the launch of the much-anticipated DVD burning software from Steffen Huber's Hubersn Software, called CDVDBurn. Currently it allows users to burn DVDs in an interface in keeping with CDBurn(Lite), in the following formats: CD-R, CD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, supporting up to 4.2GB per disc. DVD-R and dual layer 8.5GB disc support is due soon. DVD reading on the Iyonix is done in the same style as CDs, with a Filer-like drag and drop environment presumably provided by CDVDBurn rather that RISC OS. It would be nice to have DVD reading built into the OS but this may only come with the advent of DVDFS from the Cino team.
RISC OS still has an awkward 2GB size limit on single files which can make burning DVDs quite difficult, as the DVD is burned by creating an image file (up to 8.5GB in size for a dual layer disc) and translating this directly on to the disc. Steffen got around this by splitting the data to be written into multiple smaller files, each under 2GB in size, and burning them sequentially. Not very neat but it appears to do the trick while we're still waiting for an upgrade to RISC OS's file handling abilities!
Castle are supplying DVD writer drives and software with just one model of the Iyonix PC for the time being, but upgrade packs are available to existing users, containing DVD writer and software. The cost of the upgrade is £129 but experienced users should be able to source their own compatible drives and purchase a CDVDBurn upgrade separately if they so wish. Steffen has previously said that a DVD burning upgrade to CDBurn shouldn't cost more than around £ 30 (although a finalised price is not yet available on his website) which makes this an attractive approach.
Fitting a DVD drive to a midi tower Iyonix
A post on the Iyonix mailing list pointed out that when the plastic covering the second 5.25" drive bay in the Iyonix is removed, some of the metal chassis of the machine obstructs the place where a DVD drive should be fitted. According to another user the recommended solution is to remove the drive in the top drive bay which will reveal tabs for the metal cage which sits in front of the lower drive bay slot. This can then be pulled out and thrown away, allowing the drive to fit in the slot.
Castle announced their forthcoming support for USB2 devices at least year's Wakefield Show. It was released some months ago at an upgrade cost of £30 for the driver. No hardware modification is required as the supplied Iyonix USB card is already USB2 compliant, and new users get it free with their Iyonixes. At this year's show Castle were showing off a nice digital camera and printer combo that until recently they'd been giving away with certain new Iyonix PCs as a special offer.
USB2 supports all the devices supported by the original Iyonix USB1 and more (although a problem with using keyboard and mouse via a USB2 hub had only just been fixed in the new RISC OS 5.09) and the increased data transfer speed offered by the new system is very welcome. Jack Lillingston explained that USB2 offers speeds of up to 480Mbits/second compared to USB1's rather paltry 12Mbits/second. However in the Iyonix, filesystem overheads mean that the full 480Mb/s is only theoretical, and indeed some users have reported seeing only minor (in comparison) improvements in speed with some mass storage drives for example. Castle are continuing development on the USB1 and 2 stacks simultaneously so anything that improves speed across the whole system is very welcome.
So what's happening with Merlin / Select32?
As is now the tradition at RISC OS shows, punters were asking questions of the big names about the future of the OS. I asked Jack Lillingston what was going on with the merger of RISC OS 5 and Select back into one consistent development stream, particularly now that Adjust32 - which runs natively on the A9home - has proved not to be a dead end, but a live and kicking 'competitor' to RISC OS 5. In our small market the last thing we need is competition between incompatible developments of the OS.
Jack told me that Select and RO5 are still going to be merged, and that it's a case of 'when' not 'if'. However there is currently no timescale for working to, and I got the impression that Castle and RISC OS Developments (nee ROL) are both waiting for the other party to come up with something and start the ball rolling. This is not an ideal situation for the platform as every day of development brings the two forks further apart from each other, increasing the work required to merge them together again. Sort it out guys...
RISC OS Developments were not present at the show for prodding. (Yes they were they were on the APDL stand - ED)