RISC World

Remember the RiscStation

Ten years ago Alasdair Bailey paid a visit to RiscStation...

After the collapse of Acorn Computers in 1998 the future was most uncertain. Whilst the Acorn branded computers, the RiscPC and A7000+ were still available from Castle Technology Ltd they were old machines. What the RISC OS market really wanted was new RISC OS computers. Several companies including Millipede and MicroDigital were working on machines designed to take RISC OS into the 21st Century.

However the first company off the blocks were RiscStation under the management of Roy Heslop from CTA. RISCSation promised much, starting with a machine to replace the aging A7000+. Future developments included the never to appear RiscStation Evolution and the much derided RiscStation portable. It was the project to produce a portable machine that spelled the end for RiscStation as angry customers demanded their money back after many broken promises. It didn't help that RiscStation had made grossly exaggerated performance claims for the machines that were released and that customer deposits were spent not on development but on keeping the company afloat leaving no money for refunds.

But this was all in the future. 10 years ago the future looked very bright for RiscStation as Alasdair Bailey reported in Volume 12 Issue 5 of RISCUser...

Why RiscStation?

To date all of the mainstream RISC OS machines (bar the short-lived Medi) have been designed and produced solely by Acorn itself. However, following its withdrawal from the desktop market and subsequent demise, a number of companies have stepped in to žll the hardware vacuum created by the failure of bids to rescue the Phoebe project.

The RiscStation R7500 is perhaps the most exciting of all the new hardware projects, mainly because it aims to go that extra mile in order to push the flagging RISC OS scene ahead of the competition. The newly-formed RiscStation Ltd, a sister company to the existing dealer CTA Direct, is responsible for producing and marketing the new machine; Roy Heslop is heading the Manchester-based company and is most likely the person many of you will have spoken to at the Wakefield show in the spring.

Set for release at the end of July this year, the RiscStation will be positioned to give a boost to a market which is, to say the least, rather depressed at the time of writing.

The hardware

Initially dubbed by some as just a souped-up A7000, the RiscStation keeps on sounding better and better the closer it gets to release. Take, for example, the new PCI interface; the plan was initially to work towards supporting the older ISA standard but when it was discovered that PCI could be done for little or no extra cost, the team started work on that instead. In case you aren't up to date with every PC acronym in the book, PCI is the standard interface which today's off-the-shelf PCs use for all manner of internal upgrades: it's the PC equivalent of Acorn's podule system, and you can get all manner of PC expansion cards in PCI format, from modems to display accelerators to network cards.

With a lowly ARM7500-based processor, the PCI interface is sure to be the RiscStation's main saving grace over similarly-equipped systems. Remember Jason Tribbeck's ChiBER project that aimed to put a StrongARM co-processor and a RISC OS-like operating system into a standard Wintel box? Sadly, this venture is now on hold, but the RiscStation will use similar technology in order to provide StrongARM performance within the ARM7500-based machine. Revision T StrongARM co-processors can be added either singly on PCI boards, or up to eight can be added on a multiple-processor board. Each card has its own on-board SDRAM for super-fast memory access, and according to Roy up to three of these eight-processor boards can be added, giving a performance of something like 6432 Dhrystone MIPS. That's one hell of a fast machine, but then it would have a pretty large price tag too with StrongARM modules currently costing in excess of £200.

RiscStation Desktop

Roy points out that there are already two applications which can take advantage of these extra processors. The first is the alternative operating system Linux; work is still underway on providing support for multiple processors in RISC OS so we have yet to see whether we'll see a performance boost in everyday applications, particularly graphics packages and games.

The addition of PCI will give game players something to be happy about in another sense too. Support for 3DFX Voodoo 2.0 graphics accelerators has already been finalised, which will be an incredible bonus to games developers and players alike. The principle behind such hardware is that the chip set on the card takes care of the majority of the texture mapping and 3D calculations which games require, leaving the main processor to take care of the rest of the game engine. R-Comp Interactive, who has already converted a fist-full of titles from the PC to the RISC OS platform, intends to code its new flight simulators to take full advantage of this new hardware. The home grown mega-game Iron Dignity, under development by the German group, Artex, is also set to benefit. There's also a chance that other projects which were put on hold many years ago may be re-started now that graphics acceleration is possible on the platform.

RiscStation Tower version

The ill-fated Phoebe was also set to include a PCI bus, so some Phoebe developments have been re-awakened for the R7500. One of these is a PC card to offer Windows compatibility like the current Risc PC, but hopefully with better hardware support and fewer compatibility issues. Other than those already mentioned, third party drivers are set to appear for such things as SCSI interfaces, DVD video decoders and digitisers. .

The inclusion of a PCI bus opens up whole new areas of hardware to the RISC OS scene. Just as was planned with the Phoebe, off-the-shelf PC expansion cards will be sold with RISC OS driver software. The only thing is that those drivers have to be written if the PCI/RISC OS marriage is to be a success.

Two new communications protocols are to be supported by the machine: USB and IrDA. USB is a universal standard for attaching peripherals to computers: it is already going down a storm in both the PC and Mac marketplaces so its support in the RiscStation will allow RISC OS users to use yet more standard hardware, again provided suitable driver software is written.

IrDA is used primarily by laptop and palmtop computers for transferring files to desktop PCs. As with the USB protocol, RISC OS Ltd is keen to standardise operating system support for IrDA to avoid proprietary software support leading to difficulties in using the same drivers across the full range of RISC OS hardware.

The marketing

Roy is keen to stress that the RiscStation is not intended simply as a low-end replacement for Acorn's A7000, but is a sign of what's to come in the future. Much of the hardware is highly improved over that in the A7000, and although there is 'only' an ARM7500FE processor in there, Roy assured me it will give a StrongARM Risc PC a run for its money (It didn't - ED). Another good point is that these new machines will sell for about half the price of a new StrongARM Risc PC, so with the R7500's performance almost on a par with a StrongARM Risc PC once PCI-based graphics accelerators are considered, the RiscStation offers outstanding value for money.

Then the prices are good enough to be competitive with high street PC boxes. They're being kept to a minimum primarily by using the whole RISC OS community to provide hardware and software for the new machine. Numerous aspects of the machine's design are being contracted out to smaller companies and enthusiasts, much third-party technology intended for Phoebe is being re-used, and even things such as the IDE interface are being built externally. This is one thing that Acorn refused to do, but it makes sense once you're not interested in licensing technologies to third parties.

One of the main principles behind the project is to open up the RISC OS market to standard PC peripherals which can be obtained at a fraction of the price of their custom-designed Acorn counterparts. Roy confirms this: "We've made a machine that has all the peripheral add-ons that you'd normally expect to get from an ordinary PC. At the end of the day, Acorn users have been starved of more modern updates to their machines."

Many enthusiasts would like to see the new hardware pushing out the boundaries of the market a little. RiscStation Ltd aims to do just that. They have already formed a sister company, RiscStation Australia Ltd, to market the machines down under, and almost a quarter of orders received so far have come from this latest venture. Roy and the CTA team attended the recent Big Ben computer fair in Holland and many dealers on the continent will now be selling the RiscStation in an effort to re-kindle interest in traditionally RISC OS-friendly countries such as Germany, Belgium and Holland.

Another primary target for RiscStation is the disillusioned PC user. Roy hopes that those who abandoned RISC OS during Acorn's ill-fated dealer re-shuffle a few years ago will have realised the error of their ways and will be tempted back by new hardware and proper marketing.

As you would expect, those behind the RiscStation still have every confidence that the RISC OS scene will be around for some time yet; after all, the Atari and Amiga still have a large following even though their hardware supplies dried up many years ago. When quizzed on the prospect of new machines after the RiscStation, Roy assured me that as long as the new machine sells well, the incentive will be there for him and his team to go at it again and produce a really ground-breaking machine, once RISC OS has become hardware independent and the new 600MHz StrongARM chips are available. Don't hold your breath though: the R7500 must prove viable first.

The RiscStation is looking like an attractive proposition to anyone considering purchasing new hardware. Plus, with Roy's aims to market the new machine to disillusioned PC users, we may even see the machine fighting the rot which has taken hold of the market in recent years. It is hoped that 2000 units will be sold by Christmas: if this happens, it is surely good news for the market as a whole...

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