Review: RISC OS Select Release 1

This review was originally published in RISCWorld magazine Volume 3 Issue 1.

RISC OS Select was first announced a little under a year ago - to a fair amount of acrimony and scepticism given the circumstances of the announcement. (For those that don't remember RISC OS Ltd announced it at the time of the Wakefield show, even though they didn't actually bother attending - ED).

As you are probably aware, the plan was to cease distributing future versions of RISC OS on ROM chips and to introduce a system whereby the operating system was loaded from disc, CD ROM or network. It was claimed that this would allow more frequent updates and bug fixes to be applied without the expense and delay incurred with blowing ROM chips.

This is all pretty good stuff, but what have RISC OS Ltd actually delivered so far, and has it been worth the £105 subscription fee?

RISC OS 4 brought many tangible benefits over previous versions - long filenames, faster operation, support for large hard disks. People knew what they were getting before they handed the cash over. With the Select scheme nothing is so well defined. For £105 a year you get "Up to 3 CDs" containing the latest release of the operating system, supporting applications and documentation. In addition, the latest versions are available on a website for download as soon as they become available. So what was promised for this year?

RISC OS 4.29 with a hidden Easter Egg

Highlights that prompted me to buy into the scheme were DHCP support (essential for most university networks and some broadband internet access), multi-user support, a new version of CDFS that could read joliet, rockridge and DVD discs and a number of other smaller upgrades.

Also, there was the RISC OS Internet Suite. I already have the Ant Suite on which it is based, but the fact that I would receive updates to it was a bonus.

Network configuration

I subscribed soon after the scheme was announced, and did begin to wonder if it was worth it when nearly six months of my subscription had passed and nothing had been released. However, RISC OS Ltd have said that those of us who subscribed early will get an extension to our subscription.

As I write, the first CD has just arrived, some six months after the first release was made available on the Select website. This is in fact issue 9 (though not all were public) of Select, and reports as RISC OS 4.29.

The new configuration window

Included within this release are DHCP, multi-user support, a new version of the Ant Suite, a new CDFS, a new version of !Printers and a whole host of smaller upgrades. I have no immediate need for DHCP, but others have reported that it works. Neither have I tried out the new multi-user capability (new for this latest release). In fact I haven't been able to run Select for a couple of months now since I fitted 64MB of EDO RAM to my RISC PC. For some reason the Select boot sequence fails just after the ROM image is loaded into memory. I haven't been able to get to the bottom of this, but as RISC OS 4.02 works perfectly, I feel it must be an issue with the module that softloads the ROM image.

In actual use, the upgrades and additions are welcome and useful. CDFS has been improved so that it can read DVD discs (given an appropriate drive of course) and will read joliet extensions. This means that filenames no longer appear exclusively in upper case. Personally, I found upper case filenames immensely irritating and I'm glad to see the back of them!

The new version of CDFS

The multi-user support means it's possible to set up different environments. For example, you could have one "user" set up with all your graphics and DTP software loaded at boot, and another with internet software loaded at boot. You can also have different backdrops and settings in the configuration tools. Thus if several people use the same computer, it's now possible for each to have it set up just the way they like.

Multi-user configuration

There is a new version of !Printers that is more fully featured than the old version - it's now possible to use printers with multiple paper feed and bins.

Of more interest to those who program either commercially or as a hobby, much has changed behind the scenes. RISC OS Ltd have added new APIs for a whole host of areas - much too many to list here. The idea is that it is now much easier to implement new programs that rely and act upon actions being carried out by the operating system. Say you wanted to write an application that kept track of where you moved files from and too (don't you just hate it when you forget where you've moved stuff to?!). Well, that's probably going to be a whole lot easier to write now using the new features provided by RISC OS Select.

A subscription to Select also entitles you to documentation on all the changes and new features that are being added - so if you want to use them, the documentation you'll need is at hand.

Generally, the upgrade process is fairly quick and easy. There is an automatic installer which takes care of everything. The only aspect which I dislike about the upgrade process is the need to perform a delete power on when changing between different version of the OS. This means all your configuration and monitor settings are lost. If you're using an LCD or other "fussy" monitor like I am, make sure you know how to reconfigure the machine without a display! RISC OS Ltd say this is because the CMOS RAM is used differently between different version of the OS, but I'm sure it wouldn't be beyond the wit of man to arrange some way for the CMOS contents to be automatically changed to reflect whatever version is being booted. After all, the developers must know how CMOS is used in all the relevant version of RISC OS!

Similarly, it is necessary to *unplug and *rmreinit certain modules after every version change due to the different order and number of modules in different OS versions. Again, it would be quite trivial to knock up a program which knew the positions of the modules in each OS version and issued some "* commands" approprietly. A great deal of traffic on the Select mailing list has been from people who don't normally delve into the world of the command line asking where their CD icons have gone and why the machine is taking ages to boot all of a sudden.

Apart from the considerations above, do not fear the upgrade process. And don't think you're going to be left with an unusable machine if it all goes wrong. As mentioned earlier I currently can't use Select, so I simply chose the "no softload" option, and the machine happily boots RISC OS 4.02 using the Select boot sequence (after messing with *unplug and configure of course).

Of course, it isn't all rosy! There are still problems with CDFS - some people have reported it as unstable, or even not working at all. RISC OS Ltd have included to RISC OS 3.7 version on the CD for such eventualities.

So although nobody should be left without the use of their CD drive, it's about time the problems were sorted once and for all. CD ROM implementation has never been entirely satisfactory under RISC OS, and unfortunately Select hasn't yet gone all the way to changing that. A new version of Reply which is apparently able to play full screen MPEG files has been developed, but isn't yet available due to a "last minute problem".

What's Next?

So RISC OS Ltd have delivered most of what they said they would with this first CD release. What's next? Well I don't know, and if RISC OS Ltd do they aren't telling.

This is my major concern with the Select scheme - there seems to be little direction. Whilst the upgrades we're seeing are all well and good, there isn't anything particularly ground breaking. It's not really pushing the platform forward any. There's nothing to make people who aren;t using RISC OS consider using it instead of one of the other computer systems. In fact, RISC OS has lost a lot of ground to Windows and MacOS in the past few years, and Select so far has done very little to catch up.

Of course I appreciate that there isn't a bottomless pit of resources to throw at development - but Acorn were a relatively small company and managed to come up with hundreds of innovative ideas and products. RISC OS Ltd have but one product. Instead of spending some of the more trivial "upgrades" we've seen such as graduated backdrops, they should be thinking "What can we do to make people sit up and take note of RISC OS again?".

Ultimately one has to say that enabling RISC OS to run on a new generation of machines running faster processors with modern and diverse chipsets is the way to do it. Nobody is impressed with a RiscPC these days.

John Kortink has shown that it is possible to remove dependence on VIDC given a lot of work. Microdigital have shown that it's a hell of a job to remove dependence on old Acorn chips completely without changing the OS, and meanwhile other computers sit complete and working albeit for a suitable version of RISC OS...

The Select scheme is good for what it is, but it doesn't show any sign of producing what you, I and the market need to see our preferred platform stay viable.

So come on RISC OS Ltd. How about it?

Robert Richards


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