Acorn Archimedes is 25
The first ARM kit
Feature The Acorn Archimedes is 25 years old this month. The first machines based on the company's ARM (Acorn Risc Machine) processor were announced in June 1987, the year after the 32-bit chip itself was launched.
Four versions of the Archimedes were released in 1987: the A305, A310, A410 and A440. The first two had 512KB and 1MB of memory, respectively. You could upgrade an A305 to an A310 simply by adding in the extra Ram.
Acorn's Archimedes 310
The A410 had 1MB of memory too, but the A440 had a (then) whopping 4MB and came with a 20MB hard drive as well as the 800KB 3.5in floppy drive – which also supported 640KB discs for BBC Master compatibility – found on the other three models.
Upgrading the A305 or A310 to A410 level was a matter of adding in a "Podule" backplane circuit board, which contained the hard drive controller. You also had to add, of course, the hard drive. There was room for two Podules on the A300 series.
The new BBC Micro
The A300 series was pitched at home users – essentially as direct replacements for, respectively, the BBC Micro and 1986's BBC Master; the two A300 models had "British Broadcasting Corporation Microcomputer System" stamped on the keyboard, along with the familiar owl logo. The pricier A400 series were pushed at businesses and technical organisations. Their Archimedes of choice was quickly revealed to be the A440, a machine that would have set them back a colossal – now, let alone then – £2299. The own-brand colour monitor was £200 on top of that, though the monochrome screen was just 50 quid.
Despite the price, and that fact that it didn't become available until the Autumn of 1987, the A440 proved to be the most popular of the the two, and by early 1988 the A410 began to disappear from Acorn's marketing literature.
Home computing in the late 1980s, Archimedes style
Source: Acorn Archimedes 300 series brochure
By the time of the A440's arrival, the A305 and A310 – priced at £799 and £875, respectively – were winning positive reviews after going on sale in late July/early August 1987.
The microcomputer bible of the time, Personal Computer World, reviewed the A500 – the prototype on which the shipping Archimedes were based, and writer Dick Pountain said it "felt like the fastest computer I have ever used, by a considerable margin".
Next page: Strong ARM
Some comments from the Project Manager.....
HI. I thought I would provide a bit of feedback having been in the middle of it all at the time at Acorn. First a great article and factually pretty near the mark. Yes, Arthur 0.2 was in EPROM and we thought we would have them back as they were expensive and possibly re-useable. We set a very firm date for the launch, June 1987 if I remember and hence the OS was whatever state it had reached; not an ideal approach but it would have been sad to have left the superb hardware waiting for too long. Were Acorn products over-priced? No, the profit margin was reasonable bearing in mind the high level of R&D and the high technology. PC clones at the time were sold at very tight margins and made in the Far East or under railway arches in the UK with virtually no R&D spend as a result of the vast volumes. When I look back at Acorn Marketing it was some of the best I have ever come across in my career both before and after. Acorn made the best of being a niche player and inevitably struggled just as Apple did for a long time. Someone comments that Archimedes had 'Windows emulation'. No it didn't, it had genuine MS-DOS licences provided by Microsoft. It was the hardware that needed some emulation as many PC applications at the time wrote directly to the PC hardware bypassing MS-DOS much of the time (it was just a Disk Operating System after all not a Machine Operating System as in Acorn products). Finally as someone else has commented acronyms should always be in upper-case so it should be ROM not Rom etc. Why UK journalism insists on treating acronyms in this way when the USA gets it right is beyond me; it makes speed scanning of technical articles more difficult as I always scan for the techno words. So when RISC-OS was developed and launched it was all upper-case and never anything else; rant over :-)
Some factual errors
There are even more rabid fanboys than I in the RISC OS world, so I'll preempt them (or maybe just warm them up) with a few points:
"Risc", as you point out, is an acronym. Thus it should be RISC. Ditto "RiscOS", which should also be two words: RISC OS. "Rom" should be ROM. Confusingly, the last Acorn machine was the RiscPC (in lower case), but the official logotype has a sort of half-space, so most people write is all joined up as I do. Finally, the mouse buttons on an Acorn machine were referred to as Select, Menu and... Adjust, not "Alter".
There seems to be some confusion about the difference between Lander and Zarch: the former was a demo of the latter. The demo (Lander) shipped with most machines in this era, while the game (Zarch) was a commercial full product. It was exactly the same game on the PC, but known as Virus. The player's ship in that was not triangular (it was non-symmetrically pentagonal), and is the same shape as the Copperhead ship from Bell and Braben's game Elite.
Two final points. First: "Archimedes morphed into the Risc PC line, a series of ARM-based boxes designed to run Windows – on a co-processor, and presented in a Risc OS window." No. Just no. The RISC PC was never *designed* to run Windows - it was designed to run RISC OS natively, and use hardware-based emulation to run Windows within RISC OS. The "co-processor" wasn't a true one in the sense you seem to be inferring; the primary CPU was an ARM610, 710 or some variant of the StrongARM processor, while the secondary CPU was a specially designed 4x86 or 5x86 card which could *only* be used by the emulated copy of Windows. It was also not a default item included with the RiscPC, but usually a seperate purchase.
Finally, there's the fact that you say the line stopped with the death of Acorn/Element 14, without mentioning anything about the two spin-off companies RISC OS Ltd or Castle Ltd. Acorn's demise left RISC OS at 4.02, and ROL/CTL developed this further in two confusingly-numbered parallel brances, known as RISC OS 5 and RISC OS 6 (also known under the names RISC OS Select and RISC OS Adjust). There were also the the Iyonix, the Omega, and some other hardware designed and sold in the post-Acorn era. And last but not least, there are ongoing efforts to port RISC OS to small boards like the BeagleBoard and the Raspberry Pi, these mostly happening through RISC OS Open Ltd (ROOL), a spin-off created when Castle decided to open parts of the RISC OS source.
As an Acorn fan girl...
I loved my BBC micro. The first affordable ARM machine was the Acorn A3000. So I got that when it came out. By then I'd already been programming ARM code on a Uni Archimedes 305. I've known ARM assembler for almost 25 years. I feel old!
I still have my A3000 (plus a spare for parts) and my RiscPC which I replaced it (with a couple of spares including one which was an ex Acorn development machine). My RiscPC had the 486 card, 4MB RAM, 2MB VRAM and a 130MB SCSI HD. Alas the HD has died.
Basically those machines founded my career. On the A3000 I developed my first piece of commercial software. I produced an ARM Linux distribution for them in the 90s. I am now a software consultant and my work still requires me to do ARM dev. Finally to go full circle my Raspberry Pi turned up this morning. I will be putting RISC OS on it to play with.