RISC World

VirtualAcorn Tech Support

More from Aaron's tech support notebook

We occasionally bump into a particularly awkward tech support problem and recently one raised it's ugly head. A customer had purchased a VirtualRPC and had it installed and working on their PC. They then needed to copy the files from their real RiscPC over to the VirtualAcorn. Here is where the problems started. The PC that had VirtualAcorn on was a laptop and didn't have a floppy disc drive. VirtualAcorn can read DOS formatted floppies from an external USB drive, but can't read Acorn format floppies from such a device. This wasn't a major problem as the customer was quite close to a PC World and simply went out and purchased an external floppy drive and connected it to the laptop. Since they were running a StrongARM VirtualAcorn it was a matter of a couple of mouse clicks to configure a drive icon for the floppy drive inside RISC OS.

Having got a drive icon they then set about the process of copying files over from the real RiscPC. Following my advice they used a compression program (in this instance !Zippe) to compress the data they wanted into 1.4Mb chunks for copying over onto DOS floppies. Then a real problem showed up, VirtualAcorn couldn't read the floppy discs! Further checking revealed that Windows couldn't read the discs either. This needed some major head scratching and left us with this situation:

  • The laptop could read shop bought 1.44Mb formatted floppies.
  • VirtualAcorn could read shop bought 1.44Mb formatted floppies.
  • The real RiscPC couldn't read shop bought floppies.
  • If the disc was formatted on the RiscPC then the RiscPC could read it.
  • Neither Windows of VirtualAcorn could read a disc formatted on the RiscPC.

This pretty much left me with only one diagnosis. The floppy drive on the RiscPC was knackered. This caused the user a problem. They needed their data on the laptop as they were going abroad in a couple of days, which is why they had purchased a VirtualAcorn in the first place (this happened before the current changes to luggage etc on flights). The Risc PC didn't have a network card, so it couldn't be networked with the laptop. Now did the RiscPC have a CD-Writer. The customer wasn't happy to go any purchase and fit another floppy drive to the Risc PC so things seemed to be stuck. Then I remembered an old trick...

I asked the customer if they has e-mail on the RiscPC, the answer was yes. Did they have e-mail on the laptop? Yes as well. Can you see where this is going yet? The simplest answer was for the customer to e-mail themselves the compressed files from the Risc PC and open the e-mails on the laptop. Then download the attached files into the VirtualAcorn Harddisc4 folder, where they could be opened by RISC OS. Luckily all the customer needed urgently was about 5 Mb of data so it could be e-mailed over reasonably easily, especially as it has already been put into 1.4Mb zip files.

This is a useful trick if you ever need to get information of a machine that has no working swapable mass storage device. However there are a couple of traps for the unwary. Firstly if the Risc PC doesn't have a file compression application already on the harddisc then things could look tricky. In reality this can easily be got round. Since the RiscPC already had e-mail and internet access it was easy to just go and download Zipee to the harddisc. Secondly, and more importantly, the size of an attachment to an e-mail is limited. In this example it didn't matter as it was a relatively small amount of data. Suppose there was lots of data, splitting it all into small chunks could be a pain. Well then don't. Simply upload it to your FTP space, then download it again. Ok, this could cost a few pounds on the phone bill, but it you need the data urgently it could be a life saver.

Anyway the customer was happy that the problem had been solved and has promised to get the RiscPC fixed on his return.

Unlock codes by e-mail

Although I have a sneaking suspicion that I have mentioned this before it's worth briefly covering it again. I recently had an "Urgent" e-mail from a customer who had asked for an unlock code. He had sent an e-mail a couple of weeks before and hadn't had an answer. Contrary to what any people seem to believe, e-mail is not 100% reliable. Just because you have sent an e-mail doesn't mean that the recipient has actually received it. In this instance we hadn't had the original e-mail. Not only that but the user was luckily to get a response to their second e-mail. Why? Because of their use of the word "Urgent", in capital letters. Firstly all unlock code requests are treated as equally urgent, and they are dealt with in the order they arrive in my e-mail. Secondly using the word "Urgent" is pretty much guaranteed to cause the e-mail to end up in the spam bin, alongside all the other "Urgent" e-mails from the sons/daughters of rich and usually deceased, Nigerian dictators. So, quite from having the intended effect, putting in the word "Urgent" is likely to delay a response as I only check the spam bin every couple of days. Consider yourselves warned.

The CMOS game...

One of the most regular problems we get is related to the RISC OS CMOS RAM. For reasons best known to the people who suggested the silly idea in the first place (yes I know who you are) RISC OS keeps its CMOS file open all the time it's running and closes it when it's closed down. This can mean that the CMOS can get corrupted. On VirtualAcorn this causes a failure to boot, as RISC OS defaults to it's normal behaviour of booting from ADFS, rather than HostFS, which is what VirtualAcorn uses. So depending on the version of RISC OS you either get a silly command prompt error message:

 File &.!Boot Not found

Or, if you have RISC OS Adjust and depending on the wind direction, you get the RISC OS Boot menu.

This often causes a modicum of panic from the user, and quite rightly too. However there is a simply solution. Shut down VirtualAcorn, pop the original VirtualAcorn CD in the drive, wait for the menu to start, go to the utilities section and run the CMOS restore program. This puts a "good" copy of the CMOS file in place that will get VirtualAcorn working again.

A boot in the brain

Finally let me finish with a little story. We recently had a customer who needed to install Sibelius on VirtualRPC-SE. To do this you need to set VRPC up so that it boots from ADFS, this is quick and easy so we won't cover it again here. However they ran into a problem, the !BootADFS program copies their boot sequence over to ADFS without any problems, but VRPC wouldn't boot from ADFS! It kept giving silly "line too long" messages. I confirmed that VRPC booted fine from HostFS, so what could be the problem. "I don't understand it", said the customer, "I copied all my stuff off my RiscPC and it's been fine, why's it gone wrong...etc". Of course my highly tuned problem detector went off. Had he copied "everything" from his RiscPC? "Yes". Are you sure it was everything? "Yes". even the boot sequence? "" Because you melon head you've copied over a boot sequence designed for a different type of machine and god knows what you've knackered up in the process.

I would usually get the customer to do a complete re-install at this point and it would serve them right. However I had a quick brain wave. I got them to delete !Boot from ADFS, then to rename !Boot as !Boot2 on the HostFS drive. Then just re-install the main VirtualAcorn application and !Boot sequence from the original CD. All went well, they re-installed, then configured an ADFS disc, ran !BootADFS and re-booted. All then went as it should. "Sibelius is working now" then rung back and told me. Jolly good, mind you if you had read the VirtualAcorn manual, that tells you not to copy a boot sequence off another machine, in the first place it would have worked two days ago and saved quite a bit of my time.

Stroppy tech support, don't you just love it.