ACORN RISC PC 600
Some of you who read Maggie 26 may well remember a write-up of when I got an
Acorn Archimedes 4000 series computer. It offered quite a bit of information
on the machine itself, and also provided an interesting snapshot into the
state of the Acorn scene at that time. Back then, in 1998, Acorn were still
manufacturing, and were getting ready to build a bright yellow-cased next
generation machine called the 'Phoebe'. Unfortunately, Acorn decided that
lameness should rule, and pulled out almost at the last minute. They went on
to systematically deny their previously long and distinguished computing
heritage, changing their name to 'Element 14', concentrating on set-top box
manufacture, and then selling up and disappearing off the face of the Earth?
The story didn't end there, as the licencing of the operating system went
elsewhere, and actual hardware by third-party manufacturers was being
produced. In the meantime the Archie fizzled and died, and my interest went
away for a time. But now, it has come back again.
So what happened next? Well Acorn machines were formerly the choice of
schools across the UK, Acorn pricing policy tended to reflect the fact they
had this captive market firmly in their grasp, as they didn't give a toss
about general users. Acorn machines tended to be very well built, but rather
expensive, until it was too late. Still, now that schools, urged on by our
Microsoft fawning and computer-ignorant Prime Minister, are getting Wintel
kit, they are dumping their old Acorn gear. So the opportunities to get some
nice kit quite cheaply, are starting to appear. It was John 'Asteroid'
Hayward who got me back into Acorn-o-phile mode, when he made contact with
one school, and managed to get hold of a rare Acorn Archimedes A4 laptop,
amongst other gear, which was put into service for the ALT Party, earlier
this year. He had also managed to get hold of a job lot of differently
specced Acorn machines, including a couple of Risc PCs. So I grabbed one!
A Bit about the beast...
The Risc PC was the next generation on from the Archimedes. This first
appeared in 1994, and improved in a number of areas from the 1987-era
Archimedes. Firstly there was a new generation of Risc processor inside,
improved from the original 8-12 mhz, and now running at 30mhz for the RPC
600. Then there was an overdue improvement in the graphics capabilities,
with a whole new video chip, and additional graphics modes, including 15 bit
(32000 colour) and 24 bit (16 million) became available. There was an option
for 16-bit sound in there, and the restrictive ST-like 4MB RAM limit had
been broken at last, it was possible to upgrade all the way to 256 meg if
you so desired. In addition to that, the Risc PC had an innovative system
for upgrading it. The RPC design came in two parts, a shallow base unit,
which contained the CPU, hardware and power supply. The basic computing bit.
And then, there was a 'slice' immediately above it, which would contain the
floppy and hard drive(s) and in my case, a CD-ROM.
The nice idea that Acorn had, is that you could keep on adding other
'slices' to it, with third party upgrades, accelerators etc, and end up with
a very nicely specced machine. Indeed, the ultimate development of this
concept was called a 'Rocketship', which sat on its side, and had about 9 or
10 slices in total!
The Risc PC was manufactured in three basic incarnations. These were the
Risc PC 600, which is the machine that I've got, from 1994. The Risc PC 700,
an incremental improvement, with a 40 mhz CPU and improved OS, came along
about a year later. Then the ultimate Risc PC, the StrongArm, favoured by
demo coders, came along, which was a massive jump in raw power on what came
before, with a 233 mzh Arm CPU. Apart from some upgrades, more of which
later, this is really as far as the Risc PC concept got. The aborted Phoebe
would have at least doubled on that figure, and included more modern RAM
types with faster access times in the design, but Acorn may have decided
that the improvement wasn't enough to justify making it? There were two or
three third party companies interested in making hardware after Acorn lost
interest, the predominant one still making it today, is a company called
What I got...
The Risc PC 600 I got was an ex-school model, probably a teachers personal
machine, rather than a classroom abused model. It comes with 16 MB RAM,
(thank you John!) a 500 meg IDE hard drive, and a CD-ROM of indeterminate
speed. It also has the slightly later RiscOS version 3.6, rather than the
initial production v3.5, so this could be a later 600? It comes with a
detachable keyboard, and the famous Acorn three-button mouse. What is
missing is interesting too, as to get the more exciting screen modes, you
need extra video RAM. Either 1MB, for 32,000 colours at a higher resolution,
or 2MB for the full 24-bit monty. Do you think Acorn included any of this at
the start? Well what do you think ;)
Like the A4000, it plugs in to a VGA screen just fine, in fact, it's sharing
the screen that my CT2 Falcy uses. Through the minor miracle of a switcher
box, they never disagree or argue, and I have to make a conscious effort to
remember to use the correct keyboard and mouse! I got the machine in a
pretty 'bare' state to start with, apart from one or two goodies that John
left on the hard drive (such as Starfighter 3000, thanks pal!) Initially, I
wasn't even able to get any vaguely interesting screen modes, being
throttled back to merely what I got on the A4000. It wasn't until I got a
handy Acorn World cover disk CD-ROM, that I was able to install a full boot
sequence, which loaded a fully configurable boot file onto the hard disk,
that I was able to investigate further.
The bootup file, when double-clicked, comes up with something a lot like the
control panel on Windowze. Included, is an option for screen modes and
monitor types. So I decided to 'fake' an Acorn monitor type, which
immediately gave access to some more satisfactory screen modes. Certainly,
800 x 600 in 256 colours was possible, and even a stab at one of the higher
colour modes (32k colours) in a weird 452 x 350 screen mode. Without VRAM,
the system allows up to 1024k from the main body of RAM to be used. I've
also got a feeling that the presence of VRAM, or not, has a bearing on the
overall system speed, especially when higher resolution screen modes are
brought into play.
The look of the desktop was sparse, but it was close to the desktop
enhancement kit I installed for the A4000, with 3D window bars, and the
option of textured backdrops on the desktop. (This actually turned out to be
the same enhancement kit, called "Newlook", now incorporated into the RPC
ROM!) Window handling, which used a 'cascade' system, for each new window
opened, was unchanged from the A4000.
The latest version of RiscOS, is version 4.0, which was intended for the
Phoebe, but is available as a retrofittable ROM upgrade. Apart from Linux
fans, there seems to be no rush to make a third-party O/S and desktop,
unlike the situation with Atari people, who were spoiled for choice at one
It's a difficult one to compare with the Falcon. The RPC 600 version of the
ARM cpu comes in at a reasonable 30 mips and 30 mhz. This compares well with
the standard 16mhz Falcon, and still holds its own against the likes of a
CT2 machine. But then you have to remember that the Falcon has its DSP,
which comes in really useful for certain tasks, JPEG decoding, music replay,
3D precalculation and so on.
I found a real-world task to set the two against each other, which was to
load in and display an off-line webpage with a number of pictures. (The Alt
Party "Haze of Recollection" page from the CiH HQ site.) This was to be done
in an 800 x 600 (256 colours) screen mode on both machines.
Falcon CT2, 50 mhz 68030 (Magic 6):- 17 seconds
Risc PC 600, 30 mhz ARM610 (RiscOS):- 39 seconds
It is interesting to note that when this test was done on a 640 x 480 (with
256 colours) screen mode on the Risc PC, the timings dropped down to a much
more reasonable 16 seconds. Clearly running higher resolution screen modes
impacts heavily on this machine. (You might be even more interested to know
then, that I got it down to 13 seconds on my CT2 Falcy, running a 704 x 560
And just to make things even more bewildering, the equivalent timing for a
standard 16 mhz Falcon to carry out the same task, on a 640 x 480 256 colour
screen mode, was 57 seconds. So in one context, this Risc PC 600 could be
over three times faster than a standard Falcon, but in a slightly different
situation, could only manage under half the speed of a CT2 machine! And that
is without appealing to any special features of either machine, just pure
CPU slogging involved here.
I'm not sure how having separate video ram in the case of the RPC would
impact on these timings, and I'd be interested to hear if it does?
Talking of playing to individual strengths, on one of the Acorn World CD
ROM's there were a number of MP3 players included, but these specified a
StrongArm machine as the only suitable system powerful enough to run them
on, unless you decrunched an MP3 to .WAV. Compare this situation, where even
a standard Falcon '030 can play MP3 music. Clearly the Falcon's DSP rules
The Acorn Web Universe...
It is perfectly possible to connect to the internet with a Risc Box like
this one. Indeed, a bunch of dialup gubbins is included in the bootup
options. There are some pre-configured internet connection options, the most
widely publicised one is for something found on one of the Acorn World CD
ROM's called 'ArgoNet', which comes at a price. I'm not sure if their trial
offer is still available after two to three years though? Other internet
providers can be used, with a bit of time and fiddling around. There are
Risc OS clients for all the normal things that you can do online, such as
email, irc, and of course, the web.
I've identified about three commercially available web browsers, and what
looks like a couple of freeware ones too. The one which was supplied in a
crippleware offline version, and used as a document reader on the Acorn User
was the Fresco Browser. This works in a similar way, and at a similar level
of competance to later versions of CAB on Atari. One of the freeware efforts
was made by Acorn themselves, and clearly a very early work in progress,
called 'Bookworm'. That too was limited to offline use (They do like their
crippleware here!) but no great loss there, as it didn't exactly display
HTML perfectly. Other browsers, the commercially available ones, have such
which puts them ahead of CAB.
With regard to web content, there is an awful lot of it, and it takes a
while to sort it out to make some sort of sense, but quite quickly, some
essential places do emerge from the search engine generated fog .
The equivalent of 'atari.org', and probably about as useful, would be the
Acorn Cybervillage at http://acorn.cybervillage.co.uk - This contains up to
date news on Risc OS and related topics, and a number of useful subsites,
links to other essential places, and some downloads helpful to those people
who might have a Risc OS machine with a completely bare hard drive.
Next up, and one which has been on my links page for some time, Acorn Gaming
at www.acorn-gaming.org.uk - This contains news relating to gaming and
emulation issues, a lot of good links, and some tasty PD downloads. here you
can also get some good well-written game and emulator reviews, the latter
like my cih.atari.org page for emulators on Atari, but a lot better!
Just about every decent demo ever written for the Archimedes and Risc PC,
going back to 198-um whenever can be found on the Icebird demo server at
www.icebird.org - Along with (infrequent) news of demo scene related issues.
Someone from this crew recently described the Risc OS demo scene on the Alt
Party Mekka report, as "Small but still existent." The most recent activity
of a scenish nature that I could find, were the end products of the
Codecraft competition, which specialised in intros of 1k, 2k and 4k in size.
Like the Atari scene, a lot of Acorn scene activity was geared to a big
party at Easter, most famously, the Siliconvention '97, but not so much now?
There will be a separate article on Acorn demos, or such as I've managed to
get running on my machine, elsewhere.
From there, a host of sites abound, many of them small download pages put up
by individual programmers, on a legacyware basis. A lot of these other more
miscellaneous sites aren't frequently updated. Many haven't been updated in
quite a while, and I get a feeling of Marie Celeste-like abandonment in a
lot of cases, dating from when the parent company decided to quit. A lot of
the Acorn web universe is gathering dust in the corners, or is pointing to
places that have disappeared altogether. Generally if you stick with the
likes of the Acorn Cybervillage, you should be kept up to date easily
enough. Anything after that, is up to you, but be prepared for a lot of net
crawling that gets you going around in small circles!
Music and Graphics..
Since the last time that I looked at this subject, I've managed to find one
or two items of interest.
Purely from a point of picture viewing, 'For Your Eyes Only' gives excellent
results as a JPEG viewer. It is surprisingly quick, even on an early model
Risc PC, and would compare well with a Falcon using the DSP. I also got hold
of a demo of a paint program called 'Paintcan', which seemed to combine some
of the best elements of Apex, with the front end of Deluxe Paint, as the ten
minute rolling demo which showed off most of the effects revealed.
There doesn't seem to be an animation player, like Aniplayer, that combines
most of the current movie formats into one. Instead, there are separate
animation players for each format, some better than others. The .Fli player
working very well, the .Avi player proving fussy about what it would touch.
There are a number of MP3 players, some modelled closely on the PeeCee
'WinAmp'. And as far as I can see, they all need a high powered model of
Risc PC to work properly. Ah well, back to the Falcon :)
The news is rather better when it comes to finding a good modfile player, as
'QTM Player' comes to the rescue. This multi-format player, wrapped up in a
slick minature CD-player style control console, draggable anywhere on the
desktop, happily tackles a number of different modfile formats. It tends to
chug on some of the more extravagantly multichannel formats though. You can
tell if a tune is in trouble, when rather a lot of crackling starts coming
through the speakers. It is even claimed to replay C64 SID tunes, and MIDI
files among others. It also has the rather rare and welcome feature for
Acorn software, of being able to use material straight off a PeeCee
formatted CD-ROM, without you having to drag files to the Acorn hard drive
and tediously set up a file type for the program to recognise it in the
There is also an ST Sound player, which uses material from Leonard's home
page, and a C64 SID player ported by none other than Ziggy Stardust of the
Overlanders (but which doesn't seem to quite work with this Risc PC?)
Of course, a CD-ROM will happily play audio CD's, unless you've got one of
those new ones with lame copy protection that won't work with this, or with
higher quality Hi-Fi equipment. You don't even need any extra software, as
the routines to recognise an audio CD seem to be included with the CD-ROM
drivers to allow it at least to play.
There isn't a lot to add to my Maggie 26 Archimedes review, which covered
this subject pretty well. I think that Acorn should have seriously thought
about putting 'Elite' into the later series machines ROM, as it seems to
turn up on just about every hard drive anyway!
Quite a lot of material that I collected from the A4000 days does happily
run on here, I've mentioned 'Starfighter 3000' before. I'd love to get my
hands on a copy of 'Zarch', the Acorn original of the 3D Defender-like game
better known as 'Virus'. There's even a desktop or Wimp version of it
somewhere. It was rumoured that David Braben was thinking of converting
'Virus 2000', from the Playstation and PeeCee to the Risc PC, hmmm, wonder
whatever became of that?
Various flavours of Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake live out there. I'd give
the latter one a miss though, if the performance of the Quake-style 3D
engine that I tried out is any indication. This staggers along at around 2-3
frames a second, and I'm not planning to get a StrongArm upgrade just yet.
There's still the odd games producer out there even now, 'Tek 1608', a high
end Civilisation style game, is due out as I write this sentence. There may
well be still more to come, and of course, there's a huge back catalogue of
games, from the amateur public domain efforts, through a lot of Amiga ports,
and coming more up to date with Risc OS versions of many of the PeeCee 3D
classics. I asked Mr Pink about the possibility of converting Chuchu Rocket
to the Risc PC, but he wasn't interested!
The RiscOS series has attracted a wide range of emulation programs of other
systems, in fact you might well be able to call it a comprehensive and full
range, certainly for classic 8-bit systems, and quite a lot of consoles too.
Even the M.A.M.E arcade emulator gets in there too. The more advanced
emulations really need StrongArm to run at full speed, but most emulations
are passable on a lower spec Risc PC as well.
There is even an official Acorn effort, superceded by later developments, a
BBC micro (8-bit) emulation known as !65Host, which emulates a BBC
environment and can run BBC BASIC programs. This was given away with new
machines. I can report that it works within that limitation quite well.
A lot of this excellence in emulation is due to the efforts of one clever
and prolific individual David McEwen, in porting many of these emulations
across, singlehandedly. His website can be found at:-
So far, I've grabbed a Spectrum 128 emulator 'Spec128', which seems to do a
reasonable job, including a very nice YM soundchip emulation, and it seems
to run nearasdammit at full speed on this RPC 600. Also I've had a bit of
success with an Amstrad CPC emulation, running a couple of oldschool demos
(in a window, onscreen, with variable, but generally reasonable speed.) I've
still yet to puzzle out the RiscOS version of the Lynx emulator 'Handy'. It
does not get on with any of the ROM image files I've got for it? (These are
files with the extender 'o'.)
I'm looking forward to trying out more of these, but time is limited so far.
There is an ST emulator called 'STem', which runs at 40% of normal, on a
Strongarm based system! Interestingly, it does mention that MC68k based
systems aren't a strong point for emulation by RiscOS!
In spite of its staid image as a 'sensible' computer, the Archimedes and
Risc PC have attracted a lot of demo coders in the past. This may have been
largely down to the initial novelty of the super-fast ARM chip, and the
quite advanced for 1987 specifications for the Archimedes. A lot of people
went on to code on the Risc PC, especially the super-fast StrongARM variant,
which would have been a strong competitor to contemporary PeeCees.
So there should be a huge choice of material to run in theory, right?
In reality, with a low-end Risc PC, connected to a VGA monitor, and crippled
by a lack of video ram, there is rather less choice to be had! I'm going to
write a separate review of those demos which I did get to run. The name
'Arms Tech' in particular will come in for some glowing words of praise.
Quite a lot of demos made for the RPC do run, but frequently in a 'split-
screen' style, familiar to anyone who has tried to run an RGB only demo on
the Falcon on a VGA screen. Some demos tell you to forget it from the start,
specifying a StrongArm and huge amounts of memory. Where are these coders
today? Probably on the PeeCee and hating it!
There is some good news, as this machine is able to run a lot of Archimedes
demos too, and it is able to make a better fist of doing this. Again, there
will be more in this other article I'm doing shortly, but there's some damn
nice code for this machine!
I'm not really sure how the demo scene stands at the minute. Most of its
activity can be covered in the past tense, and any current work in progress
is being kept very well hidden. Maybe someone with some closer links to
people in the know could fill in at this point?
The last time I wrote about this subject, there were maybe two or three
paper magazines in the shops. Only one of which, Acorn User, was really
alive, I got the impression that the other two were waiting for the end.
Since then, the position has worsened, of course. Acorn User is still going,
but it seems only just with a limited number of retailers stocking it. The
1998 style Acorn User featured cover disks, and on occasion, a cover-mounted
CD-ROM. The mixture of topics covered was good, from the dad-end DTP
tendency, to games, and even a limited amount of demo scene coverage. Now,
from what I've seen, the DTP heavy mob has waded in, and stifled anything
remotely light-hearted in the mag.
As for disk mags, these have never been that strong, historically speaking.
The most recent edition, which I described in Maggie 26, was the Coders
Revenge, a German scene UCM style production. This was dated for the 1997
Siliconvention. After that, nothing more? The Icebird historical archive
suggests some other past diskmags for the Archie, and I might just check one
or two of these out shortly in more detail !
There are a few, and these seem to mainly cater for the hardcore German
scener, in German. Coders Revenge was interesting in offering a bilingual
option, with parallel English and German language menus. I did find a
publication that dated back to the early nineties, heyday of the amateur
diskmag scene, at around the sort of time we were hard at work on things
like 'Captain Cock-up', 'Felice's Viewpoint' and that brilliant 'Beavis and
Commodore-head' cover picture that Kev did for Maggie. This came from the
distinctly un-German sound group called 'Sounds Riscy'. It was named
This issue (number 2) consists of a fairly elaborate menu shell, quite a bit
in the style of Undercover, but with a heavier use of sub-menus, rather than
displaying every article to be selected on the front-end. The text-displayer
ran in a lower resolution screen mode, and looked it, and there was the
capability to display pictures in text, and a starfield running behind at
all times, with shades of the Maggie Falcon shell. The bulk of articles were
fairly short, some reviews just about managing to scrape in at a paragraph.
Others were longer, and the general quality falls somewhere in the middle.
I've not seen anything so far, that could take on the best of the Atari
scene, Coders Revenge has got a good menu shell which uses the Risc PC
hardware well, but is very sparse on the number of articles, Spectrum has
got more text, but would not quite make the premier league of Atari
diskmags. But who knows what might be lying around the next download?
Even at this late stage, when the parent company hasd packed its bags and
left the building, there are still possibilities for this promising but
There is still hardware being made, RiscStation Ltd are making a range of
RiscOS work stations, their base hardware something like an ultra-modern
presentation of an Risc PC 700 series, and going up from there. There is
even handheld hardware in the works.
For those people with existing hardware, there is an 'ultimate' upgrade
called 'Kinetix', which works out at around 50% faster than the existing
StrongArm based Risc PC, and 64 MB better off, with the latest version of
Risc OS 4 included. You also won't get a lot of change out of 500 UKP.
There is a separate company called RiscOS Ltd, which is developing the OS
further, having just released a CD-ROM version called 'RiscOS Select'. This
can be added to existing machines, and to possible future Risc-based clones.
The other place that you can see a StrongArm Risc in action, is, of course,
the Nintendo Gameboy Advance! Apparently, for demo programming purposes, it
is not too dissimilar to the StrongArm found on the Risc PC?!
I've said it before, if Acorn had the guts to go for the mass market in the
beginning, then they might well still be here. Even their managing director
from the early days, Herman Hauser says so. He thinks that if Acorn promoted
their OS widely, rather than trying to keep development 'in-house', then you
might not be talking about 'PC Compatible' computers today, but rather
'Acorn OS compatibles' as a world standard instead! Acorn even rejected Bill
Gates attempts to sell them DOS, as they considered it to be a "retrograde
step"! Acorn carried on, preferring to sell computers, rather than spread a
standard, which might have given them world domination.
But they didn't.
(This last bit taken from the Independent Newspaper website (June 2001.)
CiH for Alive! Mag,April-May '02