R-Comp and the ARMini
September 2011 meeting – report by Peter Richmond
October’s meeting with R-Comp started slightly late, due to the atrocious weather that they encountered while crossing the M62 in order to get to the Club. After a quick set-up of projectors and monitors, Andrew Rawnsley started to give us the background to the birth of the ARMini computer.
New native hardware
Part of the reason for making the ARMini was the apparent lack of anyone else coming up with a new ARM-based computer to run RISC OS, rather than going down the emulated route. Previously ARM processors had been limited to about 300MHz, which had forced many people to leave the native ARM/RISC OS market since they couldn’t perform the tasks required of modern day computers. With the advent of smart phones and tablet computers, ARM clock speeds had risen to 800MHz and above, and the chips were also getting other features built in. R-Comp thought the time was right to create the ARMini, and as such it was released to the public at the Wakefield Show, earlier this year.
The ARMini is based on the CortexA8 processor, which currently runs at 800MHz. It is built on RISC OS 5, and has a much more robust USB implementation than the other recent systems. It is priced as a basic machine, at £499+VAT, and yet has about twice the performance of an Iyonix along with graphics modes up to 1920 × 1080 (full HD).
Andrew then proceeded to show the speed and USB capabilities, by formatting a 4GB USB memory stick, writing a lot of files to it, checking a few of them, and then erasing them – all in a very short time. No drivers were required for the memory stick, and the 4GB capacity posed no problem (as opposed to the problems you get with the Unipod/STD USB interface).
The ARMini comes with numerous USB ports, DVI and HDMI video outputs, network socket, and front mounted SD card and Sony Memory Stick readers. Hard drives and USB printers can be connected directly, and PDF, MP3, various image and video formats are recognised without any problem. Andrew put a short video clip from DVD onto the most recent build of the ARMini, and for the first time ever, managed to do the conversion natively under RISC OS, which emphasises the relative power and speed of the system as a whole.
Other programs pre-loaded include the use of multiple backdrops, Organiser, Vector, Variations, NetSurf and Omniclient, which is ready for NAS devices. As for internal storage, there is 512MB RAM, and on this particular machine there is 16GB flash RAM and a 96GB Solid State Drive (SSD – the non-moving equivalent of a hard drive). Many variations are possible when ordering.
The ARMini runs RISC OS 5, and obviously links in closely to the work of RISC OS Open. Andrew said that R-Comp is now a moderator of RISC OS Open, and updates are applied to the ARMini only a short while after ‘builds’ have been released by RISC OS open. Currently the ROM image is 4MB, with updates and roll-backs being easily achieved, as Andrew demonstrated.
Many monitor modes are available, and the widescreen ones are helpfully listed as 16:9 or 16:10 ratios in the Display Manager. The list that we saw on screen covered about ten basic resolutions, including the ‘old’ standard of 1024 × 768, but all available with high colour bits.
Returning to the relative power of the computer, Andrew remarked that the R-Comp advert has a high resolution bitmap as a backdrop and just about brings a RiscPC to its knees – but it is handled easily by an ARMini. Andrew however said that although Linux can run on an ARMini, Ubuntu will not really be useful because of the higher memory and other overheads that the Linux presents to the whole computer system. Firefox can be run under RISC OS on an ARMini system, but will still run slowly – although perhaps at a more acceptable speed for some people.
With regard to the updates to the OS, the ARMini has support for hardware floating point, and the OS is looking to make use of it. Developers are in the process of trying to put support into the GCC compiler, and possibly into BASIC. This is of significance to programmers, and may be of use for video and other number-crunching programs – so much so, that TBA Software are looking at how they can use it.
The CortexA8 is, in fact, very similar in architecture to the processor found in the iPad. Andrew mentioned that to some extent the ARMini was a ‘vehicle’ to help present a valid platform on which new areas of software may be developed for RISC OS.
I think everyone was quietly impressed with the ARMini, and I know it’ll be on my Christmas list!