Sunday, 23 February 2020

RISC OS? But why???


So came the cry the other day whilst at work as I was chatting to one of the developers about my RISCOSbits purchase from a few months ago. A gentleman of a similar vintage to myself and an owner of multiple Raspberry Pi’s, he is not afraid of a command line and is a self-confessed Linux nut. Naturally, being at work, we were obviously discussing a piece of code I was to test when the subject “maneuvered” towards RISC OS. He was quite interested in that, like me, he had experienced RISC OS back in his school days and was aware of it’s availability on the Pi.
“It’s pretty horrible and clunky,” he opined, “and I wouldn’t like to fight with an OS just to get something done”
Well, thinks I, this is not what I feel and so we pitted pro’s and cons for a good twenty minutes before a tiresome sprint review called us away. It did get me thinking though. I could explain to someone with a passing knowledge of RISC OS why I think it’s a lovely little OS but how could I pass on that enthusiasm to someone who had never touched it in their lives? Hmmm…

The basic desktop.
Let me be clear from the outset, RISC OS is going to be a bit of a culture shock for anyone used to Windows, Mac OS and Linux and it is not for everyone. The three button mouse configuration and the thought processes behind it will take a bit of effort to embed and even I sometimes slip with muscle memory recalling a Windows mentality. What the RISC OS set up gives you is control and subtlety. That three button mouse layout (Select/Menu/Adjust), the method of window management and the sheer common sense approach of true drag and drop functionality: all add up to make RISC OS, for me, a lovely operating system to use. True, it originates from the 1980’s and that is (sometimes painfully) obvious now – consider how Windows and macOS have changed over that period, but that it not to say RISC OS is bad. In fact, whilst toolbars have taken over screen space (which isn’t such a problem with modern day high resolution displays), it just looks far cleaner to have the menu structure behind a mouse button press. It’s lightweight and offers little frippery. It can look “busy” as the screenshots attest but I was aiming to have quite a few folders and programs open at the same time. The main question though, is can it be used as a primary computer OS in 2020, and for me that answer is… mostly...ish.

Many, many windows.
Look at it this way. In this age of always connected, online dependent computing experiences, RISC OS harks back to a time where you didn’t have or need an internet connection. Troubling for some that statement may be, this is computing how it used to be before, say, 1994. Is that a bad thing? Well, it depends upon what you want to do. As an aside, you will need an internet connection in this day and age just to get new software, but once you have the software, for many tasks, you don’t need that connection any longer. In day to day use, RISC OS just doesn't need it.

For me, I want a content creation machine, something I can generate blog posts, general writing, the odd spreadsheet and a bit of coding on the side – hey, I’m a software tester who dabbles in the dark side. Know thine enemy, I say :-) Out of the box, my RISCOSbits machine covers that pretty well. Edit is a great little text editor but if you prefer something more feature filled, the announcement that Impression Style (not the fully featured Impression X) is now free was a boon. With Pipedream covering the spreadsheet duties and enough programming tools already on board, I feel most bases are covered. What helps here is the Pling store, where a decent variety of software is available for free or modest cost – think the Apple App store but a lot smaller. Size isn’t everything though and what is on offer should cover all of your needs. There is a fly in the RISC OS ointment that needs addressing though and this impacts what I do a lot with regards to Blogger and Wordpress...

These cover a lot of needs without resorting to additional software.
Web browsing. The included browser, !NetSurf, is basic in the extreme and isn’t suited to the modern day internet. This is a well known issue with RISC OS and is being sorted with the development of two new browsers, OWB and Iris. Both are in development at the moment and as such, not ready for the prime time just yet but they are more capable than !NetSurf and the situation is improving. 2020 looks like the year that RISC OS could be a replacement operating system for me. Rather than create blog posts and reviews for RVG in RISC OS and then transferring to Windows via a memory stick, I’ll be able to post online as per my usual Windows PC. This may also mean a new toy.

Impression Style 
For a couple of years, a lot of my writing has been completed on a venerable Alphasmart 3000. A brilliant little typing device, it offers distraction free writing and a stellar battery life (only changed the three AA’s twice!). However, transferring text to my PC is slow and can’t be done without monopolising the Libre Office window that the document will occupy, so I can’t set the transfer away and move onto something else. Also, it’s starting to fail in little ways: the space bar is becoming less reliable (double spaces are a bane), the screen has a couple of minor issues and overall, whilst I feel it’s still a lovely machine, its time is probably due. At present I am using a three year old Lenovo Yogabook convertible running Windows alongside a Logitech wireless keyboard. I really think the halo keyboard on the Yogabook is a great idea, but it’s just not comfortable or accurate enough for sustained typing. This set up, using Libre Office, is quite nice, but really requires a table or rest to use properly and the USB OTG cable for the wireless keyboard adapter hangs in an awkward manner if I use the Yogabook in tent mode. It works, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a bit of a kludge and the Yogabook itself lacks ports and is woefully under-powered. Even using it with the wi-fi switched off (so purely as a text entry device and not typing directly into Wordpress or Blogger) has seen a drop in the battery life of the machine and where once I was getting 8 hours or so, it’s now down to about 4 before I need to reach for the charger – which also takes up the single micro-USB port so no more wireless keyboard for a couple of hours at least. Sadly, taking all of that into account means that, despite being a lovely little set up and one that is very portable too, I can’t see it lasting another couple of years.

This is where RISC OS comes in. When one, or both, of the new browsers are released in a stable fashion, my intention is to combine those with a new Armbok (Armbook but hey, typo’s). For a touch over £400, this will provide a native RISC OS laptop and proper access for my online needs. Yes, I could buy a Windows laptop for less, but I have worries there which I’ll get to in a moment. I like using RISC OS and am getting very used to how it works. And that’s the thing, it just works. No updates, no constant harrying from a notification centre and little privacy intrusion. Part of me would like to dip back into the macOS world but frankly the cost of entry is too high for me. With a new Armbok, I could centre my daily domestic computer use to RISC OS and only have to dip into Windows for the odd game and specific software packages.

So why not a new Windows machine? As noted above, there are a number of issues I have here. One is cost. Wait, you cry, £400 can buy you a decent laptop. True, but for one with the combination of performance and spec that would last a few years, you’d have to spend a bit more than that. Indeed, 8GB of RAM seems to be the standard acceptable now and if you want that much memory, the cost starts edging upwards. Then there is the bloat, the constant need to update and the sheer intrusiveness of information gathering in the OS. You can tinker with these but in the end, Microsoft’s recent history with Windows updates does not fill me with hope that the situation will get any better. Apple seems a bit better in this respect but then again, wanting £1k plus for your basic Macbook Air (ignoring the discounted 2017 model which is probably near the end of it’s life) is just too much. I am a tekkie but even I have limits on how much I’ll drop on kit.

So this brings me back to RISC OS. The operating itself is very resource frugal in both memory and  storage. The hardware, certainly for desktops, is easily repairable (remember, the RISCOSbits machine I have is just a cased Raspberry Pi 3B+ which costs in the region of £35…) and in regards to the Armbok, a lot of thought and testing seems to have been done in getting this to market. I am not saying RISCOS is for everyone – the very fact that it is not an on-line centric operating system would probably scare quite a few people off. The fear of not being connected at all times might do that, but consider this – how much of your day do you spend at a computer that does not require a connection? Ok, if you run a website, online business or need tools like Office 365 or Google’s online suite then obviously, you’ll need that but if you don’t need a network connection, then why have one? I know I get more work done when I am not online, and I suspect many other people do too and this chimes nicely in with the Armbok. Once the browser situation is sorted, I can work offline with a laptop offering 12 plus hours of use then quickly hook up to post what I need to. Overall, that feels like a tempting way of working and as a second machine that will do a fair bit of travelling, the Armbok fits the bill.

You don't even have to spend as much as I did to get started in RISC OS
You may think me a bit of a Luddite, harking back to an operating system that to this day lacks native wi-fi connectivity, but that would be to miss the point. I don’t need a 24/7 online connection and for the majority of my non-gaming computer needs, I don’t need a lot of what Windows and macOS offer. The Armbok will cover that and I will be using software that works for me. As noted above, RISC OS is not for everyone, and to be fair, it is a niche OS, but given a little bit of thought and use, it is a more productive OS compared to Windows/macOS, at least in my humble opinion. That it is still under active development and has new hardware being released for it speaks volumes. There is also an active show scene for users, and there are  a number of active content creators in YouTube - check out WiFi Sheep's videos for example, where you'll find show reports, introductory videos and much more. The market isn’t huge but then again, the cost of entry isn’t either. If you have an interest in alternative OS’s, or just fancy giving something less mainstream a try, then give RISC OS a chance. It’s not a perfect OS by any means but it is improving. You never know, you might find it useful for a second machine...

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