Computers: System that holds the right cards

UNLIKE the new PowerMac from Apple, Acorn's Risc PC can be made PC-compatible by simply plugging in a handy-sized new processor board, rather than trying to fool the computer into thinking it is an IBM clone by using emulation software. For a couple of years a leading Acorn systems supplier, Aleph One, has been developing a hardware solution to running PC programs: a card with an Intel PC chip and related circuitry which plugs in and can use Acorn's disks, screen and other peripherals and can operate as a window in Acorn's own Risc Os operating system. This has led to the latest, neat little hand-sized card which plugs in as easy as an ordinary three-pin power plug - a doddle compared with trying to tyre-lever in a PC add-on card.

The modular design of the new computer allows a PC 486 processor to be added using a card which costs pounds 99 if bought with one of the computers or pounds 199 if purchased later. Using hardware instead of software means the computer can run PC Windows programs as fast as a stand-alone PC with the same processor chip. The cards will not be available until September, but customers who buy now will be given a voucher.

Acorn, like Apple, has had to provide a way for users of their machines to run PC applications because they dominate the computer market. However, the company is confident the new computers will seduce traditional PC users into using them as Acorns rather than IBM clones once they are able to compare the two systems.

The computer uses the company's proprietory Risc-based - reduced instruction set computing - hardware and software. Risc processor chips are faster, cheaper, and consume less power than the normal complex instruction set (Cisc) central processors. Intel's state-of-the-art Pentium chip consists of 3.1 million transistors whereas the equivalent Risc processor, the Arm 700, requires only 40,000.

Risc is the buzz-word of the moment - with the likes of Apple, IBM, and Motorola collaborating to develop the new technology behind the PowerPC and PowerMac platforms. But Apple is also a partner of Advanced Risc Machines (Arm) together with Acorn.

Initially, the Risc PC computers will be available in three configurations. The entry-level machine, at pounds 1,468 (including VAT) comes with 2 megabytes of main memory and a 210-megabyte hard disc; the mid-range machine at pounds 1,644 has 4 megabytes of ram; and the top configuration, at pounds 1,996, comes with 8 megabytes of ram and a 420- megabyte hard disc.

All three configurations are based around the Arm 610 processor running at 30 megahertz which the company claims is faster than a 486DX2 based IBM clone running at 66 megahertz. Future proofing ensures the machines can be upgraded for about pounds 100 with the ARM 700 and 800 chips when they become available later this year.

Because the new computers are developed from the company's Archimedes platform and use the same operating system, more than 3,000 Acorn software packages are already available - besides the whole wealth of PC Windows programming.

Acorns have always delivered high-quality graphics direct from the main processing board - unlike PCs which need an expansion card - but the number of colours that it can deliver - and so the brightness and realism of full-colour pictures, for instance - have been restricted compared with Apple Macs and the newer PCs. The Risc PC machines can now support more than 16 million colours. They are also Photo CD compatable and allow full-motion video - video clips, live television - to be displayed with the company's Replay software.

Together with all the technical 'future proofing' features, the modular art deco case design ensures the computer is sufficiently expandable to last well into the next decade.

The Risc PC 600 is designed to replace the A5000 as the Company's top-of-the-range computer. Acorn says it is planning to continue production of all existing computers, including the A5000, which sells at about pounds 1,600 with 4 megabytes of memory and an 80- megabyte disk. But clearly there will be some price reductions.

Price cuts can also be expected for the mid-range A4000. The only computer likely to remain at the current price is the A3010, which already has a street price of little more than pounds 350 and will continue to target the television plug-in and games markets.