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RISC OS is, and always has been something of a minority platform. It runs on proprietary hardware, doesn't run Windows, Mac or Unix applications directly, and has file compatibility problems with most of the MS Office suite, unless you start buying third party products. So why do I persist in using it?

* It isn't Windows.
* The Interface.
* The Software.
* Integration.
* Non-Marketing.
* Font Rendering.
* Goodies.

It Isn't Windows.

This would normally be a point against it, but here it's a point in its favour. I use NT all day at work. I don't want to be faced with the same thing when I get home thank you very much. If I need to do something that I can only do under Windows, I'll stay late. Staying late for this reason is a rare occurence.

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The Interface.

RISC OS has a different interface to any other GUI I've come across, and this isn't something that can be conveyed by screenshots. The whole philosophy of it is different to, say Windows. For instance, on Windows, most applications which have a requirement to import or export graphics will have their own import and export filters. Not so on RISC OS. A graphics conversion utility is supplied with the OS, and other conversion utilities are freely available. Any graphics app just has to understand the native Sprite (bitmap) and Draw (vector) formats.

The whole design of RISC OS apps is usually to do one job, and do it well. It is not the norm to pack a single app with lots of varied functionality. The OS is designed to allow you to link lots of utilities together to do this. Windows tries with OLE, but it isn't the same at all.

Windows tends to try to interpret your instructions and will often do what it thinks you're trying to achieve - it expects you to follow certain paths (hence the 'wizard' interface on many applications). RISC OS doesn't do this - it does what you tell it. This does make it easier to shoot yourself in the foot, but if you want to forcibly unload a module, or close a specific file, you can.

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The Software

One of the criticisms of RISC OS is that "you can't get any software for it". In fact, one of the reasons I've not moved to the PC platform is a lack of quality software there. The PC market seems to be much, much more competitive, and there are many products which show signs of having been rushed to completion. On RISC OS, I have;

*  A freeware text editor, StrongED, which knocks the socks off anything I've seen on Windows, including stuff you have to pay for.

*  Block Editing.
*  Non-contiguous blocks.
*  Syntax colouring.
*  User definable modes. (all modes are just text files)
*  Search and replace across multiple files simultaneously.
*  Quote and bracket matching.
*  Spell Check.
*  Folding.
*  Binary editing (Word, Byte, Disassembly)

*  A Word-Processor and Desktop Publisher, Impression Style. I've had it for years. The Stun was done in it. I wouldn't have a clue how to achieve many of the effects used in The Stun in Word, and I've been using Word for nearly as long. Style is even easier to use than Word for a simple one page letter.
*  A user definable Menu, Hotlist, Macro inserter etc, StrongMenu. This allows a menu structure to be built (again, a simple text file), with actions associated with menu entries. The actions can be to run an application or file, to open a directory, to load a file into a text editor, to launch a URL, to paste text into the keyboard buffer etc etc. Different mouse buttons can open different sections of the menu.
*  SparkFS - read/write access to ZIP files, and other compressed formats. Treat a ZIP file as if it was a directory. (Actually, RISC OS has the concept of filing system objects which can be either a file or a directory built in, so SparkFS is just providing the on-the-fly compress/decompress).
*  A graphics package offering multiple alpha channels, various effects and lots of functionality. See the graphics pages for what I've done in Studio 24.
*  etc etc

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Look at the current state of Browsers on Windows (and believe me, I have - I know far more than I ever wanted to about the inner workings of Internet Explorer). The state of play on RISC OS is somewhat different, again due to the lack of competition making thing a lot less 'pushy'. Have a read of the following scenario, and see if you can imagine any such thing happening on the PC platform:

Acorn Networking Technologies (ANT) take the early lead in internet access software for RISC OS. Their browser is called 'Fresco' (a fresco being a variety of Mosaic). When acorn brought their browser to the scene some while later, it had some unusual features. Namely, it didn't have a disk cache. Instead it was shipped with a proxy caching server, which could also be used as a very basic web server if you wanted to. So, you installed this proxy, and configured the acorn browser to use a proxy of 'localhost:80'. Oddly enough, any browser that supports proxies can use this. A little configuration tweak in Fresco, and hey presto, two browsers, but only one disk cache. And, whats more, you can browse it offline with either browser.

Similarly, once acorn defined a protocol for browser plugins, both browsers can share plugins, and have one Java VM between them.

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Microsoft called their browser 'Internet Explorer. Netscape called theirs 'Netscape Navigator'. What did Acorn call theirs? 'Browse'. It does what it says on the tin. Similarly, the built in applications are called Paint, Draw, Help, Alarm, Configure, Edit etc etc. It's much less 'in-your-face', and I like that. Splash screens on startup are pretty rare as well, and can often be disabled on applications which do offer them.

RISC OS applications don't try to sell themselves to you - they just let you get on and do whatever it was you wanted to do with them.

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Font Rendering.

The font rendering under RISC OS is unsurpassed in my experience. The way in which early versions worked is approximately this:

*  The font itself is defined as an outline of the letters, plus some extra information. This is essentially a vector format. The screen is essentially a bitmap format.
*  The outlines are loaded and cached for the whole font.
*  To render the one as cleanly as possible on the other, consider laying the vector outline of a letter on a piece of graph paper. Any squares on the graph paper which are completely contained within the shape are black, any completely outside the shape are white. Where the line crosses a square, an intermediate grey shade is assigned, depending on how much of the square is covered. This bitmap is then cached as a 4-bit (16 colours) bitmap. This is Anti-Aliasing.
*  Only characters which are actually being used are cached. This saves time in rendering and memory in not caching the less frequently used characters.
*  When it comes to render this on the screen, the black and white are replaced by the font foreground and background colours, and the intermediate shades altered accordingly.
*  The behaviour can be fine tuned - the maximum point size to anti-alias, and the maximum point size to cache can be configured, as can the initial and maximum sizes of the cache itself.
*  This has only one snag. Having generated a bitmap for a particular character, when it comes to displaying several of them, the positioning may not be precise. If for instance, there is a word with a double character in it, this inaccuracy of spacing may be noticeable. So, a further feature is available - sub-pixel anti-aliasing. Again, this can be configured with a maximum point size, and also as to whether it applies horizontally, vertically, or both. This basically generates four cached bitmaps with the outline moved up and/or sideways by half a pixel. The difference is small, but for accurate text rendering, it makes all the difference.
*  A new feature which has been introduced in recent versions of the font manager is 'background blending'. This means that instead of anti aliasing against a specified font background colour, it takes the font foreground as being opaque, and the background colour as transparent. This means that when rendering text over a textured background, the anti-aliasing is accurate on every pixel.
*  The font manager also supports scaffolding and hinting - techniques to ensure that vital parts of a letter don't disappear at small point sizes. For example in some fonts, the horizontal bar of the letter 'H' may be very thin. Scaffolding and Hinting mean that however small the font may be rendered, that horizontal bar doesn't disappear.
*  Compare this with windows efforts - the so called 'font smoothing' option just takes a 1-bit bitmap (i.e. only completely black or white squares), and then uses a blurring technique.

Some examples:

These screen grabs are all at x4 magnification.

Standard 10pt text, with aliasing turned on:
The same, at 6pt:
10pt with all aliasing turned off:
10pt, sub pixel aliasing turned off. Notice how the adjacent identical letters appear to be in pairs due to rounding errors in the aliasing process:
And again, with sub pixel aliasing turned on. The letter spacing appears much better:
Blending against a textured background:

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RISC OS has the following features which are not available on windows

*  OS in ROM allows very fast startup times. If I skip the boot sequence, I can end up in a useable desktop within 15 seconds of powering the machine on. This includes BIOS checks, and disk spin up times. Typical boot times are under two minutes, again from power on. From here I can use either the built in text editor, or even StrongED, and as the configuration is all text based, almost any aspect of the machine is configurable. I can even manually run bits of the startup, take the machine out of 640x480 mode etc without rebooting.
*  The built in bitmap format supports both masks, and multiple images per file. Therefore built in utilities also support this. This makes it an ideal environment for manipulating animated GIFs - they can be converted to and from acorn sprites with no loss, and no messing around making a separate file for each frame of the GIF.
*  Applications on RISC OS usually come with all their icons in one file, in the native bitmap format, and their window templates in a single file, often in the standard template format. Freeware template editors are available. This means that I can change the window layout, buttons etc in many applications.
*  Built in vector format that supports proper bezier curves, which WMF doesn't. WMF isn't really a native windows format anyway, as no application to edit them comes with windows. Draw can even be used for basic DTP - the first 5 issues of The Stun were done this way. It's tedious, but it works, and its free with the OS.
*  Virtually no configuration changes require a reboot. The only exceptions to this that I know of are CD-ROM drivers, the window manager (strictly speaking, you could just exit to the command line, but it's probably quicker to reboot), and the Toolbox libraries (again, not strictly required, but you'd have to unload just about everything, so rebooting is the simpler option).
*  No registry. Configuration is text based.
*  It doesn't default to thinking I'm american. I've not got anything against americans, but I don't happen to use either their default date format, or their default paper size, and I don't want my monetary units to be dollars. NT has a nasty habit of resetting itself to its defaults, and setting the default default is harder than you might think.

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Last Modified: 12.7.2006