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Acorn Arcade forums: News and features: Phoebe unveiled

Phoebe unveiled

Posted by Alasdair Bailey on 00:00, 30/10/2000 | , , ,

Acorn displayed the prototype of their new machine, the succesor to the RiscPC, at the Wakefield show. Although only Clan members were allowed to see the machines, we've managed to get hold of these pictures.

[Risc PC 2]
A new picture, notice the new icons on the screen!


[Phoebe topless!]
Phoebe topless!


[Risc PC 2]
Phoebe, click to see the bigger picture


As can be seen from the picture, the colour scheme is, to say the least, a little bold and has come under much criticism. Perhaps it's not too late for Acorn to change the colours but whatever happens, the RiscPC 2 (aka: Phoebe 2100) will be a great games machine!

So what're the specifications?

  • 233MHz StrongArm processor as fitted to RiscPC's - until a faster one is released: this could happen before the machine's release date, in which case all Phoebe's will be shipped with the faster StrongArm, and hopefully at no extra cost.
  • 64MHz main bus speed - four times faster than a RiscPC
  • New IOMD2 controller chip, multiprocessor capable
  • 32Mb SDRAM memory as standard (much faster than the DRAM used in RiscPC, or the EDO DRAM used in A7000+)
  • Video support:
    • New VIDC20+ graphics controller, twice the speed of the VIDC20 chip on the RiscPC - this can drive even the biggest monitors to their limit and beyond, supposedly
    • 4Mb EDO VRAM supplied as standard with all machines - this should allow displays such as 1600x1200 in 32,000 colours and 1024x768 in 16 million colours, as well as faster refresh rates
  • Sound support:
    • (IIRC) 4 channel, 16 bit sound
    • Soundblaster and MIDI support in hardware
    • Line In and Line Out sockets at front of the machine, so you're not groping around the cables at the back!
  • Storage space:
    • 32-speed CD ROM drive
    • Improved EIDE interface, takes up to 4 devices, capable of transferring data at much higher rates than the RiscPC's interface
    • Hard disc size? Whatever's available!
    • And of course the ubiquitous floppy drive!
  • Expansion capability:
    • 3 DEBI slots ('podules', same as on a RiscPC backplane)
    • 4 PCI slots @ 33MHz as standard on PC's and Macs
    • PC compatability? Through the PCI bus... Read on!
    • Joystick port
    • Twin serial ports
    • MIDI interface
    • Infra-red data transfer link (what?!)
  • RISC OS 4 - Yes at last! including:
    • Long filenames and up to 80,000-odd items in a directory
    • Revised, better and less complex Boot sequence
    • Improved configuration
    • Better 'look and feel' (and no, The Xperience's iconset wasn't chosen but they did consider it)
    • The list goes on... but it's not too relevant to games! We'll still get you a screenshot of Risc OS 4 as soon as we get our mitts on one!
  • And the price has been set at £1499 ex VAT, without monitor.

So what will it do for games?

Current RiscPC games?

Well - almost anything that could go faster, will go faster! Okay, the processor's the same (until StrongArmII comes out). But the RiscPC had a huge bottleneck - the 16MHz main bus, there are A3010's out there with a bus faster than that, honest! Most of the games out there - and RCI's huge releases Doom and Quake are both cases in point - have their speed limited by the 16MHz bus not the processor. With a memory system over four times faster we're in for some big speed increases... and of course bigger, more colourful screen modes as well. We'll be playing Doom in Super VGA res, 24 bit colour, and it won't crawl either!
And - all you people who've been suffering in silence, unable to hear the MIDI music on these new releases - well you'll be able to hear it now, and without paying any extra!
Of course, as ever when new hardware, and new versions of Risc OS are released, there'll be compatibility problems. Let's hope that somebody will write some patches to get over these without too much loss of speed - and above all, that Starfighter 3000 will run!

Phoebe only games?

A lot of games written for the basic machine ought to be backwards compatible, since Phoebe as supplied is basically a turbo-charged RiscPC - but there is one area...
Yes you've guessed it - hardware 3D! Phoebe doesn't have AGP (Advanced Graphics Port - standard on most new PC's) but that won't affect us: AGP is used for the 2D cards all PC's need (Phoebe of course, has that stuff on the motherboard itself), but all dedicated 3D cards plug into the PCI bus. Some of these are really amazing devices, and if nobody writes drivers for at least one then I'm a donkey! This could open up a new era of Acorn games: look in a PC magazine at the 3D card only games and you'll see what I mean.
Incidentally if you're wondering which card to buy, and which one to write drivers for, the only ones to look at are Voodoo2 based 3Dfx cards. They may be expensive but they really do knock the socks off the competition (and the games consoles), and from what I can gather neither the new generation PowerVR cards or Intel's own I740 chip will beat their performance. One of these cards can run QuakeII on a PC at 100 frames/second and over, in 800x600 resolution - and if you're rich, you can plug two together and get the same performance level in 1024x768! (And no, 3Dfx haven't got anything to do with that comment!)

PC games?

Okay - this is an Acorn games site, but I'm going to say it anyway, because it's true. (And I write the demos section of the site so I have less of a problem with it! ;-) Most commercial Acorn games look dated and/or pants compared with their PC counterparts. (With some notable exceptions, of course). And the Acorn games market will never be big enough to produce more than a small number of good games.
So, we want to play PC games as well, don't we? Well - we were told RiscPC had PC compatibility. My foot - I shelled out for a 100MHz 5x86 PC card, flippin' expensive, and it has all the games performance of a 486DX-33 PC.
This time Acorn aren't doing anything themselves about PC compatibility - but fear not, the wonderful PCI bus is there to rescue us! PCI cards exist, which take an x86 based processor (usually a Pentium, but PentiumII dedicated cards are of course available), some memory, often even video and sound hardware - a PC on a card! I've searched the net a bit and found a couple of dealers' sites that contain some more details about these cards - try here, or here (yes I know this one is a Mac site, but Macs are ahead of Acorns in a couple of areas ATM...).
AFAIK Aleph One are developing driver software for these cards, and plan to sell their drivers on along with a range of cards they will supply. I couldn't wheedle much out of Matthew Bloch on what spec the cards will have, except that the processor speed will be 200MHz and over, which is rather to be expected nowadays...
Will it run fast? Of course it will. The PCI bus won't be a bottleneck except for disc accesses and stuff (which are slow anyway), because the cards have their own memory, and often their own video hardware, on board. There's already cards that support PentiumII's up to 333MHz and I'm sure the 400MHz model including 100MHz SDRAM on card will be available before Phoebe is launched, if it isn't already with us (I couldn't see one with that high a spec). It won't run everything as fast as a real PC, but games it ought to... and of course you'll be able to use 3D hardware with the PC card - you'd even be nuts not to!


So is it worth it?

The price of a basic Phoebe2100, inc. VAT and 15-inch monitor, is set at abut £1950 ATM. I've flicked through PC Plus magazine to see what sort of PC you'd get for that price, and here's what I've come up with: (this is from Dell, incidentally)

  • 350MHz PentiumII processor
  • 100MHz main bus speed
  • 64Mb SDRAM memory
  • 8.4Gb hard disc
  • nVidia graphics card (AGP based) with 4Mb SGRAM (whatever that is)
  • 3x PCI, 1x ISA, 1x PCI or ISA, 1x AGP expansion slots
  • DVD ROM drive (what do you want that for?!)
  • 17-inch monitor
  • and the usual Windows 95 and related bundled software.
All for £1830 including VAT. The processor is twice the speed of Phoebe's and the bus speed is also much faster, but let's face it: this is a PC, Phoebe isn't. If you want this grade PC performance, you'll be able to plug in a similarly specced PCI card for a much lower price than this PC. The nVidia graphics card is not bad but Phoebe's built-in hardware isn't bad either and I'd add a Voodoo2 card for playing games, anyway. And if you want processor speed - well StrongArmII ought to beat this machine's CPU by a fair margin, really - after all SA1500 can already bit-bash over three times faster than the PII.


To sum up? Phoebe 2100 will be a big boost to the Acorn games market: its capabilities go far beyond anything RiscPC has ever been capable of. But only so long as people buy it... For once, the amount of power us Acorn users have at our disposal depends on the size of our wallet, not the machine's limitations!

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Acorn Arcade forums: News and features: Phoebe unveiled