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The Raspberry Pi is probably the biggest success in British computing, at least since the 1980s. Back then, Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum computers ruled the roost, before being bought up by Sir Alan Sugar’s Amstrad.
But beyond the headlines of silicon-based power struggles and overpriced electronics, the U.K. had another big hitter in the computer industry. Acorn Computers Ltd produced several computers — most notably the BBC Micro, whose graphics featured in 1980s episodes of Doctor Who — and developed their own operating system.
First released in 1987, RISC OS (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) powered Archimedes computers, and later the Acorn A7000 PCs, would dominate schools and colleges across the U.K. until the mid-1990s and the arrival of Windows 95. But it’s still available today, and you can install it on your Raspberry Pi.
Installing RISC OS
The main reason why RISC OS is still around is thanks to ARM, with which it is inextricably linked. Arm Holdings’ original name was Advanced RISC Machines.
With an ARM-based CPU in the Raspberry Pi, there’s a certain poetry with installing RISC OS! And RISC OS can be run on all models of the Raspberry Pi too.
You have two options here. The first is to install RISC OS using the NOOBS installer tool. You’ll find RISC OS as one of the options, so simply check the box and click Install. The OS will install to your microSD card, and once completed you’ll be able to safely remove the microSD from your PC, insert it into your Raspberry Pi, and boot into RISC OS.
Alternatively, use the RISC OS download for SD cards. Once the ZIP file is downloaded, unzip it then write to SD card.
If you’re using Windows, use the Win32 Disk Imager, as explained in our guide to installing an operating system on your Raspberry Pi. Linux users should see our platform-specific guide for performing the same task, and if you’re not running either of those operating systems, we have a Mac OS Raspberry Pi operating system installation guide for you, too.
Whichever option you choose, you’ll also need a monitor, keyboard, and a three-buttoned mouse. A mouse with a clickable scroll wheel will suffice here — the middle button opens menus in RISC OS.
Familiarize Yourself With RISC OS
Have you used RISC OS before? If so, when the OS boots (which is usually very quickly) much of what you see will be familiar. The desktop is pretty straightforward, but different enough from Linux, Windows or macOS to be a little tricky at first.
Rather than a Start Menu-style launcher or a Dock, RISC OS has applications bundled together in folders. Applications can be identified by the prefix !, which in RISC OS terms, is known as pling.
Spend a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the RISC OS desktop, and have a play around with the mouse-driven UI. Remember, rather than two mouse buttons, you have three: left, middle, and right. These work as follows:
- Left mouse button: Select, or double-click to open.
- Middle mouse button: Menu, which opens a contextual menu.
- Right mouse button: Adjust, this varies depending on the context.
You should look out for some other different-but-familiar aspects to using RISC OS. For instance, there is no standard file open/close dialogue. Instead, files can be double-clicked to open the associated program. To open the file with different software, drag and drop the file onto the software’s icon.
Meanwhile to save a file, use the Menu button to find the Save submenu.
Finally, pay attention to the Icon Bar. Running across the bottom of the screen, this will display your attached disks, and the Apps menu. Meanwhile, in the right-hand corner, you’ll find the icons for any open applications.
Currently, there is no wireless support, so once you’ve booted into RISC OS, you’ll need to enable Ethernet connectivity. You’ll find this in the !Configure box. Here, you’ll find settings for managing the Time and date, Screen, Theme, and, most pertinently, Network.
Network should be enabled by default, but you’ll only be able to access the internet via Ethernet cable connected to your Pi.
If you need to enable Ethernet connectivity, find internet > Enable TCP/IP Protocol Suite, then followed by Close and Save. You can then access your network, browse the web, and so on.
Without Wi-Fi support (which must surely come eventually, as RISC OS desktops in the past have had wireless networking) you’ll need to make sure your Pi is close enough to your router to run a cable to. Or you might employ a powerline adaptor, which will avoid messy cables and potential accidents.
Finding RISC OS Apps to Try on Your Pi
Once a connection has been established, you can surf the Web with the !NetSurf app, which you’ll find a link to on the desktop. Several other apps are bundled such as Paint, Edit, and Blocks, a Tetris clone. But if you’re looking for something new, head to !Packman to look for some free software. Or if you’re keen to find paid apps, try !Store.
A number of applications are worth trying, everything from word processing packages to games, art packages to emulators. With so much to choose from, it will probably take you a while to find what you’re looking for… so let’s start with this: there’s a freeware version of Elite available for RISC OS. Elite was first released on the BBC Micro back in 1984. Although this is the 1991 version for the Acorn Archimedes, there’s a nice lineage there that you can have some fun with. Oh, and there’s a version of Doom too.
But RISC OS isn’t really about the past. This OS works in the present, and is capable of much more than being relegated to a Raspberry Pi-based curio. The RISC OS wiki presents a comprehensive collection of RISC OS software you should take a look at.
A Different Path
Although it can take a few minutes to get used to, RISC OS represents a different path for desktop computing, one that was all but abandoned in favor of Apple’s and Microsoft’s take on the mouse-driven GUI. The fact that you can still use RISC OS is testament to its quality.
Oh, and here’s a nice fact: Acorn Computers, Ltd was founded in Cambridge, England, in 1978. RISC OS was developed in Cambridge and launched in 1987. ARM processor designers Arm Holdings opened their doors in 1990 in Cambridge. And the Raspberry Pi was developed in Cambridge (launched in 2012), where I met the man credited with the Pi’s success, Eben Upton, back in 2013.
Have you used RISC OS on your Raspberry Pi, or do you recall it from the old days? Tell us below!