Why You Should Keep Your Eyes on RISC OS Going Into 2021

SBC’s or single-board computers, exploded in popularity with the release of the original Raspberry Pi, back in 2012. One of the first available operating systems for the platform was RISC OS. Like many, I installed the OS, gave it a whirl, and quickly deleted it for something more usable. Little did I know, I would return to this OS years later and develop an appreciation for what it has to offer. While I wouldn’t recommend this OS to most, there are some projects in the work that promise to bring the OS kicking and screaming in to the modern era.

RISC OS, the original ARM based operating system, got its start back in 1987, thanks to British computer company Acorn Computers Limited. Based on the then new ARM central processing unit, RISC OS gets it name from the reduced instruction set computer architecture that ARM is now famous for. Gaining open source freedom back in 2018 under the Apache 2.0 License, RISC OS has since seen some new development and increased growth.

As it stands right now though, you’ll be more comfortable with a Windows XP computer than you would a RISC OS machine. RISC OS feels stuck in the past, having it's GUI and minimum hardware requirements decided on some thirty plus years ago. The OS lacks modern niceties like WiFi, a more capable browser, limited editing tools, and crude media playback, to name a few. Couple in a unique way of using applications on the desktop and it doesn’t exactly create a recipe for success for new users. While there are projects currently being worked on to update the user interface, these are still in the works and not yet close to completion.

So what redeems this OS than? Well, let’s just say being the first and only desktop operating system created specifically for ARM, has it’s perks. Even on an original Raspberry Pi, this thing flies! Imagine if you will, a credit card sized computer running an OS that feels just as speedy and responsive as Windows 10 running on an Intel Core i5 processor. Due to the nature of the Raspberry Pi, you’re running RISC OS from a micro SD card, but it feels just as fast and just as snappy as a PC running off of an SSD.

Another limitation of the OS is, at the time of this writing, that it can only utilize one core on any ARM multi-core processor. With no support for 64 bit instructions either, the OS can seem somewhat dated. There is a silver lining to this though. Without having access to all of its hardware resources, RISC OS is still leagues faster and more responsive than competing Linux distributions on the same hardware (in my case a Raspberry Pi 3b+). Impressively if RISC OS can outperform when currently unable to use all of its resources, what then should we expect when its full capabilities are unlock? That will be something to see. The OS has so much potential and it can only advance from here.

A lot of potential wouldn’t mean a thing if there wasn’t a great team supporting it though. That’s where RISC OS Open Limited, also known as ROOL, and RISC OS Development (ROD), come in. RISC OS Open Ltd is spearheading the future developments of RISC OS Open. Utilizing a bounty system, ROOL attracts developers to create upgrades to the operating system that the community requests. RISC OS Development, the team who open sourced RISC OS, fund the development of the operating system behind-the-scenes on a large scale basis. They’re not the only players in town working on upgrades for the OS either. R-Comp Interactive sells unique hardware running RISC OS with funds going back into furthering hardware support and development for the OS. Recently the crowdfunding campaign RISC OS Cloverleaf has announced an upcoming KickStarter, with the goals of funding further development for RISC OS, and bringing it in line with more modern operating systems.

It’s an exciting time to see so many teams furthering the advancement of RISC OS 5. And it's not just them, the RISC OS community at large has been out there creating new apps and features for this beloved OS. If you’re interested in trying out RISC OS for the first time, I recommend using the RISC OS Direct distribution by RISC OS Development Limited. It’s geared more towards the beginner and comes with a lot more software and tools than the stock RISC OS distribution has to offer. RISC OS Direct also contains a set of YouTube videos by WiFI Sheep to help you get started and how to navigate the OS. If you'd like to create apps or learn more about RISC OS, you can join the official RISC OS forums here.

Want to give RISC OS a try?

RISC OS Open can be downloaded for free from RISC OS Open for the Pi Zero & ZeroW, Pi 1 models A & A+ & B & B+, Pi 2 model B, Pi 3 models B & B+ and Compute Module 1 & 3. Would you rather buy a machine running RISC OS? Here are a few options (not sponsored): * CJEMicros * Elesar * RISCOSbits * ARMini Computers