This is a computer I've wanted to get my hands on for a very long time. A MicroDigital Omega1.
The included photos were taken shortly after I bought it from a most pleasant and helpful chap - it's had a few upgrades since then.
So what is it?
Well, near the end of Acorn you had the StrongARM-based RiscPC. A wonderful computer but showing it's age, especially as the slow bus speed was holding up the 200mhz+ CPU plugged into a mobo designed for 30mhz+. Acorn themselves nearly released the RiscPC II (Phoebe) but had a last minute change of heart, cancelled it, then folded having first sold off the family jewels...
...at the time there were a few manufacturers selling clones, Microdigital among them. The 'masterpiece' of their range was to be the Omega - the released computer was to be the middle of a larger range. It's a RiscPC clone on steroids with all the limitations of the original fixed or removed.
And what went wrong?
The Omega had a rather more troubled and lengthy gestation than M.D. expected. This stretched the company to breaking point and when Castle's superficially more powerful Iyonix appeared it proved to be the final nail in the coffin and the company folded. Only a few hundred Omegas were sold, sadly the included firmware was never finished - today the most obvious omission is the lack of USB support, though the hardware is present.
The Omega comes with a standard PCI bus and drivers were written for a selection of cards: Sound, LAN, SCSI, TV-Capture...
...The first two I have and they work pretty well. I've had no luck tracking down either the (two) SCSI cards that were supported, or their drivers - I'd be most grateful if anyone can help out. The TV-Capture software is reported to be so flaky as to be useless, but I'd still be interested if again anyone can help out. If there are ANY other supported cards (and drivers) I'd love to hear.
The Omega is probably the first commercial 'soft' computer. The chipset is based around XILINX FPGA's. Programmed to be a 'Super RiscPC' compatibility is very high while bringing a great deal more to the party - several updates & improvements were released before the end...
...There's fundamentally nothing to stop this mobo from being whatever you want it to be - programming skill allowing. M.D. had intended to licence out this mobo and it's dev-kit to others for their own use. What a sad loss to the retro-computer world at large!
My Omega's Desktop
1680x1050 in 16million colours
Inside the Omega
The computer comes in a more-or-less standard tower case. Taking the side off reveals a MiniATX size custom motherboard along with the usual ancillaries. The two PCI cards in the picture are Gigabit LAN and Sound.
At the time this photo was taken there was just one 64mb SIMM installed - still, that's lots where an efficient OS like RiscOS is concerned.
Since then it's had 1gb of RAM fitted - not without issues, and a Castle Iyonix-compatible USB card for a little something I've been working on...
...I've also fitted a dual-layer DVD-Writer to go with the CD-Writer that it came with. Why? Because I was lucky enough to have one of the few compatible ones laying round the house. More to come, of course.
For orientation that lonely SIMM is at the top. Below that are two low-profile heat-sinks covering the MicroDigital Lightning chipset - The heart of the beast, based on FPGA's so fully re-programmable if anyone still knows how...
To the right are empty sockets for ROM upgrades of RiscOS, the Omega comes with 4.02 in Flash-ROM.
You've likely noticed a strange white connector positioned below the rather enigmatic writing 'with ARMTwister Technology (TM)'. As standard the Omega comes with a 306mhz StrongARM which is the fastest version available. MD's intention was to allow users to upgrade to an XScale processor via this slot - sadly one of the plans that never was, it would have made an already quick RiscOS machine by far the fastest on the market.
The StrongARM CPU nestles below that sadly empty slot - then one with Intel written on it. Below that is the ALi South-bridge which supplies the motherboard with it's IO functions.
I must say I really am most pleased with my Omega. Despite the unfinished state of it's firmware and drivers in general use it's the nicest and by far the fastest RiscOS machine I own - I don't have an Iyonix, more of that later...
With regard to getting hold of one I'm afraid it's a matter of patience but probably not for the moment, money. These are very rare computers, maybe 500 exist, but not very sort-after for reasons I really don't understand - a similarly spec'd RiscPC will set you back at least three times what I payed for this machine, will be much slower and strange as it may seem less compatible in some areas. An Iyonix will be more and in real-world terms doesn't leave the Omega standing performance-wise, though will be a tad more stable.
There are of course some issues...
How I wish the USB was working - I'm close to a solution using a PCI card similar to the one used in the Iyonix and a modified version of Castle's USB stack, but progress has currently ground to a halt - I'm a hardware, not a software type.
The Omega will support 1gb of RAM, but is very picky - so far I had 512mb, but it's now decided on 256mb. Nobody these days seems to know what RAM should be used so I'm having to take the brute-force approach. I have a growing pile of 512mb(x2) sticks I know don't work.
Can't somebody PLEASE tell me what PCI cards the Omega supports? Specifically I'm really after info AND DRIVERS for the ones I know exist (see text above) and would be very happy to hear about any for which I'm not aware.
Um, while the Floppy drive works exactly as you'd expect in a RiscOS machine, sometimes writing DOS formats can cause a hard lock-up.
For me the PCI sound card works without issue, but I've known some owners to complain that it messes-up networking support. Sound has to be turned-off.
Again, I've had no such issues at all but networking can be unreliable. Of the two available NIC drivers the earlier one tends to be dog-slow but works, the later driver works at full speed but is very likely to cause lock-ups.
When it comes to hard drives the Omega isn't picky though I'd strongly recommend only using short, high quality shielded cables - not doing so can result in erratic data transfer unless you go to the slower PIO modes.
Oh, and the very occasional random lock-up but then the OS isn't fully memory-protected...
I'd like to know what PCI x86 card Microdigital used. A project for another day would be to see how much would need to be done to get !PCPro to work with some faster hardware.
A fantastic machine, but though I absolutely wouldn't say no to one I've not been minded to go looking. It's to do with it 'not being an Acorn anymore'...
...The Omega is an 'Acorn'. It's got a highly upgraded Acorn-compatible chipset. My Viewfinder RiscPC is an 'Acorn' even though not using it's VIDC can introduce compatibility issues...
...An Iyonix is 'not an Acorn'. It's a box of off-the-shelf parts cleverly assembled to 'behave like an Acorn'.
I know, but this isn't an unusual view for a retro-computer geek. Try hanging about any Amiga forum for a while and you'll get the idea.
There's also an element of rooting for the underdog: The Omega got a bad press in comparison to the Iyonix and still does. But used side-by-side you'd be hard-pressed to tell which is the 'better' machine. Maybe the Omega has more 'potential' though who could realise that these days?