RiscPC

My workhorse computer for many years.

Published , updated by Richard GoodwinFiled under Computers

While we played with our Archimedes machines, the rest of the world caught up and then overtook Acorn in the technology stakes. The RiscPC was a great leap forward for Acorn, but the 24bit graphics was playing catch-up, not the great revolution 256 colours had been in the days of 4 colour PCs.

There were some rather nifty features though, such as two slots that could be used to put the processors - an upgrade is as simple as pulling one card out and putting a new one in (although new processors often require a change in the OS, so you had to change two bloody awkward ROM chips without bending the legs and snapping them), plus the second slot could be taken up with a 486 or 586 processor (not a true Pentium though) for PC compatibility.

The case used an innovative design - pop out some pegs (not screws), lift off the lid, and you can add another slice to house all your extra hard drives etc. The cases were made of riot shield plastic for extra toughness. The rest of the machine used fairly standard parts though, so standard SIMM memory could be upgraded easily, and I still get standard PC hard drives, keyboards, CD-ROM drives and monitors to upgrade it (and even mice via a converter) although compatible parts inevitably got harder to come by.

The upgradability of these machines was taken to extremes for the shows when Acorn was still going strong - known as "rocket ship" having lots of hard drives wasn't enough, and I can remember one with a toaster (which resulted in lots of joke error messages being thrown around on newsgroups for the fictional ToastFS - crumb tray overflow etc.), a pizza oven, and yes, even one with a kitchen sink in the top.


Here's a comparison of the ARM7 (bottom) and StrongARM (top) processor cards. Note that not only are the cards the same size, but so are the processors themselves - despite one being a lowly 40Mhz and the other a "blistering" 206Mhz. The difference is one was produced in conjunction with supercomputer boffins Digital (DEC).

I still have the 200Mhz card in my main machine despite the fact that you can get 300Mhz versions with faster RAM on the same card, and the PC world is (at the time of writing) up to 2Ghz (=~ 2000Mhz) processors.

The OS itself (upgraded to RISC OS 4.02) and the software that it has spawned is plenty fast enough for even professional use, although when I'm trying to play MP3 digital music at the same time I'm starting to get a little maxed out.


My first RiscPC I got "for free" - apart from the year or so of freelance graphics, game design and DTP work I had to do for a games company first. I was very proud of this machine and used it to great effect. The monitor blew, and I sent it to be repaired under warranty - it took over three months. Then I upgraded it at considerable cost to a second slice so I could get the more powerful (and less likely to fail) power supply that came with it.  Then about a month after I received that I moved to Chichester to work for an ISP, left it at work, and left a window open one night the first week I was there, so thieves decided to steal just my computer and a laser printer despite all the other desktop machines and servers in the building.

Although the insurance didn't cover people leaving windows open the company kept me on and bought me a new machine (there was some back-payment they owed me for previous freelance work, but it certainly wouldn't have covered the cost of a new machine), and I still have it, despite taking it to work and bring it home most days or at least at the weekend. However, pretty much everything's been upgraded or changed - keyboard, mouse, monitor, memory, hard drive, processor, OS ROMs, power supply, CD ROM drive.  It's pretty much the ship of Theseus.

A prototype StrongARM card - the header means it's too big to fit into a standard single slice RiscPC case, it needs a two slice machine.

I had three of these machines, plus enough parts to make a fourth bar the power supply. Two were RISC OS 4, StrongARM machines.

I used to carry my work machine home with me almost every night in case I felt the need to do even more programming or web design, and I also set up an MP3 music jukebox with a custom web based front end so it could be controlled from anywhere in the house.  It soon became obvious that I should get another machine of a similar spec for home, but the two machines I had there were in various states of brokeness and probably weren't up to the upgrade: both only had 8bit sound, only one of which worked; the other had a broken floppy controller; and one had a dodgy VRAM slot. The 30Mhz Arm 6 machine was used as a word processor in the bedroom for a while, in case I can't be bothered to get up and walk across the landing. The other spent time in bits decorating my coffee table, the idea being that I'd use it as a template for building a custom case for the home machine/MP3 player/fileserver.

I eventually built one buying a new motherboard, an old prototype processor, and got the company I worked for to shell out for the OS ROMs after they made me work even later than usual.

Case modding

For some time now I've been thinking about case modding - the RiscPC case was innovative at the time, but now it's basically another boring beige box. The first idea was for an A3000 built into a case made of Lego, which would have sorted out a problem with the keyboard bumping up against an upgraded processor. However, that would have needed a lot of Lego. I then tried to modify a Phoebe case to take a RiscPC without dumping the motherboard in sideways, which required cutting away a lot of metal work, and that was going to be replaced with the Lego I'd just bought framing sheets of clear perspex. However, that was proving a lot of effort, and in the mean time I'd built a regular file server, which needed a two slice RiscPC case due to the unorthodox way the prototype StrongARM card was mounted. So plans began for a start-from-scratch clear case with blue LEDs, but I never got round to it because a) it's too much effort (for now) and b) I couldn't find a small replacement for the whacking great ugly RiscPC power supply, so I had to stick with that, and hence the big boring case.

Bad fan! Naughty fan!

At about 3am the fileserver started making a horrendous grinding noise, which can usually be sorted by either slapping it (AKA percussive maintenance) or oiling the fan; this time though it wouldn't go away, which is pretty bad for a machine that is switched on all the time. So I switched it off. I looked around for some replacement fans and bought three - a straight 80mm fan as a direct replacement, plus a couple of cool transparent fans with flashing LEDs in them (one blue, one green - matching the different colours I used to differentiate the two machine's desktops). Obviously the proper replacement sat in the box while I played with the cool ones.

Getting the two slice PSU apart is tricky - two screws at the top, fine, but inside there's some kind of transformer attached to the metal casing which is connected to the PSU main board with extremely short wires, so unhooking the connector was hard work. I then unscrewed the old fan and disconnected it from the power. This was where the second problem comes in. The old fan had a two pin plug, the new has three. The pack came with a converter to power the fan from the same type of plug that powers hard drives, but that would have been giving in.

I basically ripped the plastic guide off the socket so that I could jam the plug in - the socket ends up as two pins sticking up. The fan also comes with a cable with a dial on the end for changing the speed of the fan - at it's summer I cranked it up and it's a pretty powerful fan! The file server has no proper power switch (it broke off) so the dial kind of flops out of the hole.

Then came the time when I had to put everything back together and... it wouldn't fit. A component sticking up from the board stopped the fan from sitting flush, so the case wouldn't close. Looking at the fan I'd taken out, sure enough one of the corners had been cut off the fan. You would have thought it would have been better to make sure the components all fitted together properly, but no. So I took everything apart again, found a hacksaw blade (not the saw, just the blade), hacked off a corner of the fan, and made it look neater using a sharp knife. I then put everything back together for a second time, and switched it on - nothing. Then I remembered the awkward transformer thing, undid the case, struggled to plug it all back in, and shut the case for the final time. Power on and... success!

Now, this is not an astoundingly useful mod - especially as the fileserver is stuck under a desk, with a full case surrounding the PSU. The new fan works well, and will either be more powerful or much quieter than the old fan even before the horrible grinding sound, but what point were the lights? Well, a little blue light does bleed out of some of the air vents, which means I can see some reflected blue flashes on the wall to check that the machine is working. And if I ever get round to that transparent case...

After experimenting on the fileserver I decided to change the fan on my 1 slice main work machine - it wasn't making a nasty grinding sound, but it was much louder than the fileserver. It's a lot easier on the 1 slice PSUs as there's no tricky transformer clinging to the PSU case, and no component sticking up so there's no need to cut the corner off the fan (even though I'd already done it before opening the case). The fan with green LEDs in was fitted, but it's much less powerful in the LED and wind departments, and no way of changing the speed, so the quieter running is the only real benefit. Oh, and I did remember to put the cool metal grill in place this time.

ToastFS

My old ToastFS link was broken, and the only reference I could find on Google pointed back to this page.  Then I realised that the Internet Archive should have a copy somewhere so I've reproduced it here.  At least then I know I didn't imagine it!

The list was, I think, originally put together by Andy Raffle.

ToastFS error codes

Andy Raffle:
0x00 Please insert slice 'Hovis'
0x01 Slice not formatted
0x02 Corrupt breadcrumb at 4655:434B
0x03 Bad crust map
0x04 5 hayseeds mapped out
Eddie Edwards:
0x05 Protected bread
Roger Clark:
0x06 Slice not recognised - is it a Poptart?
Tim Gladding:
0x07 Toaster in use
Nicholas Clark:
0x08 Toasted with retries
Sam Kington:
0x09 Fatal error, toast burnt
Tim Gladding:
0x0a The toaster is empty
0x0b Slice inconsistant with rest of loaf
A J Holdsworth:
0x0c Slice too fat; compaction required
0x0d Bread slot in use
0x0e Toaster empty
0x0f Toast inconsistent with brown setting
Kemal Sangrar:
0x10 Toast not edible - has it been cooked?
0x11 Toast segment fault - triangular slices only
0x12 Toaster jam - raspberry not acceptable
0x13 (chomp!) Access to toast denied
0x14 Toast does not exist (anymore)
0x15 Toastslot not big enough - toast rejected
0x16 Invalid bread - yeast not found
0x17 Heap full of bread crumbs
0x18 Jam cache full
0x19 Toast meltdown - rebuilding kitchen desktop
David Andrews:
0x1a Unidentified format - has slice been buttered?
Tony Howat:
0x1b Breadbin in use
0x1c Ambiguous dough type
0x1d Too many slices
0x1e Directory burnt
0x1f Toast jammed - please insert 'Fork'
0x20 Slice too thick - compact before use
0x21 Derek - throw it to the ducks
James A I Holtom:
0x22 This slice is already formatted - continuing with Toast will lose all data and may destroy slice
0x23 Please enter Toast format: L - Light D - Dark E - Economy F - Flame grill
James A Beech:
0x24 Slice will not auto-eject - remove with a knife (before your ARM turns Pentium)