Raspberry Pi: Hands-on with RISC OS

A unique alternative operating system - not a Linux based one, but one with a long history.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

In the previous three posts about exploring my Raspberry Pi, the operating system has always been Linux; first looking at Raspbian, the Debian GNU/Linux spin for the Pi, then Arch Linux ARM and Pidora, and then Raspbmc and OpenELEC, two Linux-based XBMC Media Center versions.

Now the focus is going to change: to borrow a quote from Monty Python, "time for the penguin on top of your television set to explode", because this is not Linux. 

The subject today is RISC OS Open, an operating system which actually has an even longer history than Linux. 

It was originally developed in the 1980's at Acorn (Cambridge, England), by the team that developed the ARM microprocessor. It started as a proprietary operating system, but over the years, after passing through various hands and companies it is now owned by Castle Technology Ltd and has finally landed as an open source project at Risc OS Open Limited.

The specific version that we are interested in is RISC OS Pi, which of course is the distribution for the Raspberry Pi. As with the operating systems in the previous posts of this series, I installed RISC OS from the NOOBS distribution, which was dead easy. It is also avaliable from RISC OS Open as a stand-alone version on its own SD card.

When you boot RISC OS Pi, it runs through a short boot splash sequence and then you get this initial screen:

The RISC OS Pi desktop

Then the problem is what to do next?  This is a totally different operating system, with a totally different approach and underlying concepts and assumptions.

You can try clicking around and see what you can figure out, but unless you are a heck of a lot better or luckier than I was, you won't get very far. One thing you might discover fairly quickly is that networking isn't even enabled in the initial configuration.

There are two "Introduction/Getting Started" posts which I think are probably better, and more authoritative, than most. First from RISC OS Open Limted themselves, Welcome to RISC OS Pi. This explains that networking is disabled in the default configuration, and includes instructions on how to enable it, along with some other useful instructions and some good links to further information. 

On the Raspberry Pi websire there is a New to RISC OS? Read this! post that contains a lot of interesting information about the history, development and use of RISC OS. In addition, some of the most interesting information is in the comments following this post, where there are discussions of what can and can't be done with RISC OS.

Personally, I find RISC OS Pi to be a tremendously interesting and exciting operating system. If your interest in the Raspberry Pi is educational, this should be the answer to your dreams. It is a small, light, fast, complete operating system.

How small?  From what I have read, the base operating system itself, including the graphic desktop, fits in less than 10MB! Typical program sizes are measured in kilobytes, not megabytes. 

How fast? On my Raspberry Pi it is by far the fastest to boot, taking about 15 seconds from the time I select it in the NOOBS boot menu to the time that the graphic desktop is ready. It is simple to the extreme, which means that as far as possible it stays out of your way and lets you do what you want. Of course the down side of that is that it will stay out of the way and let you completely screw yourself, but that is also an important part of learning.

I have tried it with two different monitors, one 1280x1024 resolution and one 1920x1080, and it worked well on them both; it looked the best on the 1920x1080 (duh), but it was certainly usable on the 1280x1024, and after I found the way to adjust the desktop size (the display icon at the bottom right corner), and changed the desktop to 1280x720, it was much better there as well.

It comes with a small set of utilities and applications, such as the NetSurf browser, a simple text editor, a scientific calculator, and a few other such things. It also has two software/package managers, packman and store, which can be used to download and install other programs, both free and commercial. I was able to figure out the !Store manager at least enough to get the free 'snapper' program installed so that I could take screen shots.

For those who are interested in RISC OS Pi for education and/or software development, there is a C/C++ compiler from RISCO OS Open Ltd, and there is a GCC compiler and Software Development Kit. There is also a Desktop Development Environment available which includes a C compiler and all sorts of development tools. 

Oh and one more really important thing about RISC OS Pi: press Ctrl-F12 to get a command window, and then type BASIC.  If you are as old as I am, that will bring tears to your eyes.

On the other hand, RISC OS is NOT a full-blown, full-featured "modern" operating system. Security, for example, has gotten very little consideration (if any at all).  I would certainly not use it for banking, or any other sensitive activities. In fact I would have serious second thoughts about using it for anything which required any kind of login, password or other authentication.

So, there you have it.  RISC OS can be a very interesting alternative to Linux-based operating systems on the Raspberry Pi - but remember, it is very different, at almost every level. Try it, investigate it, learn it, experiment with it, and have fun with it!

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