This month we'll continue our look at the outside world for a while; after all the weather's steadily improving and the nights are getting lighter.
It's becoming apparent from my postbag that a steadily increasing number of 'new' 512 users are reading the Forum, which probably means that a proportional number of existing readers must be upgrading their hardware and moving on.
This is hardly startling or unexpected, but it has been made more pointed by the fact that a good many of the query topics I've had recently are items that have long since been covered in 512 Forum, some as long ago as two or three years.
As I mentioned last month, things aren't standing still in the PC world, and naturally it's just the same for Acorn users too. Over time, some BBC micro/512 users migrate to later systems, either to the Archimedes or as in quite a number of cases I've heard of, to a PC.
In both upgrade paths there's plenty to cater very well for the needs of 512 users, regardless of whether they see themselves primarily as DOS or BBC enthusiasts. Given the wealth of PC software, for 512 owners who have spent most of their time in DOS rather than BBC mode, the move to a PC can only improve all their existing DOS facilities and add a vast number of new opportunities.
At the same time, many of these users will have some of their own BBC Basic programs which they don't want to lose. These will have been previously catered for either by the BBC micro itself, or perhaps by 512BBCBASIC. Even for those with quite an extensive Basic program library however, a switch to MTech's PC version, BBCBASIC(86) (reviewed in the Forum in early 1989 and similar to 512BBCBASIC) offers a simple and virtually painless transition.
For those who choose the other obvious upgrade path, the support for BBC Basic and even machine code programs and ROM software is well known, while the Archimedes PC emulator can cater for DOS needs, although it must be acknowledged that it's pretty slow, even compared to the humble 512. Still, it's not expensive and it does do the job. However, as you might have seen, DOS options for Archimedes users have now been dramatically enhanced by the recent announcement of the 386SX based Archimedes expansion card by Aleph One.
The processor clock speed is 20MHz, so this upgrade now offers the chance of 'real' PC performance for the Archimedes. While it may not be quite as fast as an equivalent speed 386 PC, the expansion board will obviously show a clean pair of heels to the 512 since it is, in effect, a much faster co-processor than a 512 attached to a much faster host than an eight-bit BBC micro.
However, on the negative side it must be said that at a price of £495 for a 1 Mb board and £625.00 for 4 Mb of RAM (prices ex. VAT), the expansion board is by no means the bargain of the century. In fact the expansion board alone is a substantial proportion of the cost of a complete 386 PC system, without considering the cost of the Archimedes. For someone who mainly uses DOS therefore, a PC might still be a more attractive proposition, given that BBCBASIC(86) can be purchased for a PC at well under £100.00 to fill in the only obvious gap.
Don't get the idea I'm particularly trying to recommend an upgrade to a PC. Even given what I've said above, plus last month's comments about current PC processor power and cost, anyone who has seen Microsoft Windows (even 3.1) will know that it's still not a patch on the RISC OS Desktop. Added to that, there are of course a great many improvements and additions to many aspects of the system in RISC OS 3 too.
The best that can be said for MS Windows in my opinion, bearing in mind that in general I'm not a mouse fan no matter who breeds it, is that the software can only improve with time, but it still has a fair way to go.
Of course the other ingredient in making a decision on which way to go, if or when you feel it's time to upgrade, is the range and price of software for your intended new system. Certainly the range of applications available for a PC isn't a problem as there are literally tens of thousands of packages, but while the price of some Archimedes software may come as a bit of an unwelcome surprise to long time BBC users, they're actually generally quite reasonable. By contrast the prices asked for certain PC packages are so high it's difficult to take them seriously.
As an example, I recently noticed in a PC magazine that one particular software package (for a single user system by the way, not a site licence) is over £1250.00. Still, it was the April issue of the magazine, so maybe that's the explanation!
As I said, I'm not trying to promote PCs in particular as the best upgrade path for 512 users, nor the Archimedes range for that matter either. The justification for this discussion is simple. It's no good adopting the ostrich mentality, thinking that if you bury your head in the sand and ignore progress it will go away. We haven't looked at general developments in 512 Forum very frequently in the past, if at all, but obviously it is an area of interest to at least some 512 users. That's why it was featured as part of last month's Forum and again now.
Having been prompted to think about possible upgrades by some of my recent mail, the truth is that I find one particular aspect ironic and, to be honest, just plain amusing. After all, the single group of Acorn users least well served (i.e. ignored) for years, both by Acorn and its hundreds of third party suppliers (with so few exceptions you can count them on one hand) now find themselves 'spoilt for choice' when it's time to consider an upgrade.
That there are two completely different routes to choose from, both of which offer very simple and direct growth paths for much if not all of a user's existing software is remarkable if not unique. Perhaps there is justice after all.
As to advice, the only suggestions I'd offer to would-be upgraders from the BBC/512 is common sense. First, decide exactly what gains you expect from the change and decide objectively (not forgetting costs) whether it's justified right now, or whether you should wait a while longer. When you do decide it's time to do something choose the growth path that you think best suits not only your current plans, but your likely future needs too.
Don't forget to add into your decision list associated factors, such as the range and cost of the types of application that interest you most, the typical cost of extra hardware you might want to add sooner or later, such as a hard disc, a scanner, a digitiser, CD-ROMs, MIDI equipment and so on. The initial hardware cost of upgrading is most certainly not the only item to weigh up. The same extras often don't cost the same for different systems.
Naturally, for most 512 users who sell up and move on, there's another, usually existing BBC micro user, who buys the equipment and finds a completely new world of opportunity opening up, with usually a fair number of new problems too. This changing user base poses a problem for me too in the Forum, so I'm going to ask you for your input.
My difficulty is that, while I've always tried not to repeat topics previously dealt with in the Forum, this inevitably gets harder all the time. For one thing, this is (I think) the thirty-eighth 512 Forum, so a lot of ground has been covered over the past four years. On top of this, the 512's software, especially the operating system (but applications too for the reasons given last month), and the hardware (except for a memory expansion) is pretty well static. In consequence the new topics that continually crop up for current systems don't exist for the 512.
Another problem is that old hands are, by definition, experienced, so it's difficult to find new items to interest them anyway. At the same time new users are finding things in the 512 or DOS as much of a mystery as they once were to many of us. Of course many of these 'new user' topics we've already covered in past issues.
My difficulty therefore, is trying to find a balance in the Forum. The ideal is that on the one hand experienced users who aren't upgrading (yet) don't become bored, while on the other, new 512 owners can learn some of the things which will help them get more out of the system.
What I'd like you to do therefore, whether you're a new user or not, is to let me know the sort of things you'd like to see in the Forum. Some of you will know I've made similar requests from time to time in the past, but let me offer some guidelines.
One frequently repeated request is an up to date software compatibility list. I understand how useful this could be, but such a list would take a lot of effort and time to compile. It also assumes that the necessary user input is forthcoming. It usually isn't, or at least not in enough volume (or detail) to make a useful list of a wide range of applications.
If anyone wants to contribute to such a list, I'll publish the information in the Forum in batches, but I can't do it without you. For this sort of exercise, nothing is worse than single pieces of information that arrive over a lengthy period of time. Equally, the information is virtually useless to others if it isn't complete.
The necessary information is obvious, but all too frequently at least one vital item is missing from what users tell me, so I'll list the points which are needed if details are to be useful to others.
Often a program isn't given its full and correct name, or there's no version number. If that part's OK, the source of supply (including shareware or public domain outlets) or the correct name of the publisher for commercial software often isn't included. Less vital, but useful all the same, is the price of a package. Very rarely have I been given that information for commercial software.
Another point which others need to know is whether a program runs in a standard memory 512, or needs expanded memory. Finally, very few mention which version of DOS Plus they're using; it's not much help if I to have to guess whether it's 1.2 or 2.1.
The final two points for this month are old and well known facts for most 512 users. However, they are causing problems again for a few new users.
It's been quite a surprise to me to find out just how many 512 owners have recently purchased a board complete with a copy of DOS Plus that turns out to be version 1.2.
This means that the previous owner simply hadn't bothered to upgrade and didn't bother to mention it to the new owner either, or perhaps didn't even know that there is a later version. There is, it's 2.1 and it can still be obtained from Acorn Customer Services at Fulbourn Road, Cherry Hinton, Cambridge, tel. 0223 245200.
If you're still using 1.2 you should upgrade. There's no charge and application compatibility will be much improved.
Another old problem that's catching out a number of new users is the 'Can't find command.com' message on leaving an application. This is easy to cure if you know how, but many are confused because they think that setting 'PATH' ought to fix it. It doesn't.
First, make sure that COMMAND.COM is in a current path, which means that it must be on one of the discs that's in the system at the time you get the problem. If this path isn't the root directory of the default (current) drive at the time, you need to tell DOS where it is by using the 'SET' command.
For example, suppose you're running a program from drive B:, but COMMAND.COM is in the root directory of drive A:. Before you run the program that causes the problem, you should issue the command:
SET COMSPEC = A:\COMMAND.COM
This tells DOS plus, no matter which disc or directory you're in at the time, that COMMAND.COM should be loaded from the root directory of drive A: when required. If you haven't sufficient space on floppies for it, you can put COMMAND.COM in the RAM disc (which has speed advantages too) so long as you remember to tell DOS about it using 'SET'.