RISC OS /rɪskˈɛs/[4] is a computer operating system originally designed by Acorn Computers Ltd in Cambridge, England. First released in 1987, it was specifically designed to run on the ARM chipset, which Acorn had designed concurrently for use in its new line of Archimedes personal computers. RISC OS takes its name from the RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architecture it supports.

A screenshot of RISC OS 4
DeveloperOpen-source (version 5)

Proprietary (versions 4 & 6)

Written inBBC BASIC, C, C++, assembly language
Working stateCurrent
Source modelClosed source; open source for select versions since 2018
Initial release1987 (1987)[1]
Latest release
  • 5.26[2]
  • 6.20 /
  • 5.xx→26 October 2018 (2018-10-26)
  • 6.xx→1 December 2009 (2009-12-01)
Latest preview5.27
Available inEnglish
Update methodFlash ROM, OTP ROM or, loadable ROM image
Default user interfaceGUI
Official website

Between 1987 and 1998, RISC OS was contained within every ARM-based Acorn computer model. These included the Acorn Archimedes range, Acorn's R line of computers (with RISC iX as a dual boot option), RiscPC, A7000 and also prototype models such as the Acorn NewsPad and Phoebe computer. A version of the OS (called NCOS) was also used in Oracle's Network Computer and compatible systems.

After the break-up of Acorn in 1998, development of the OS was forked and separately continued by several companies, including RISCOS Ltd, Pace Micro Technology and Castle Technology. Since then, it has been bundled with a number of ARM-based desktop computers such as the Iyonix[5] and A9home. As of March 2017, the OS remains forked and is independently developed by RISCOS Ltd and the RISC OS Open community.

Most recent stable versions run on the ARMv3/ARMv4 RiscPC, the ARMv5 Iyonix,[6] ARMv7 Cortex-A8 processors[7][8] (such as that used in the BeagleBoard and Touch Book) and Cortex-A9 processors[9] (such as that used in the PandaBoard). There is a development version for the Raspberry Pi.[10][11][12] SD card images have been made available for downloading free of charge to Raspberry Pi 1, 2 & 3 users with a full graphical user interface (GUI) version[13] and a command-line interface only version (RISC OS Pico, at 3.8 MB).[14]

In October 2018, RISC OS 5 was re-licensed under the Apache 2.0 license.


RISC OS was originally released in 1987 as Arthur 1.20. The next version, Arthur 2, became RISC OS 2 and was made available in April 1989. RISC OS 3.00 was released with the A5000 in 1991 and contained a series of new features. By 1996 RISC OS had been shipped on over 500,000 systems.[15]

Acorn officially halted work on the OS in January 1999, renaming themselves Element 14. In March 1999 a new company, RISCOS Ltd, licensed the rights to develop a desktop version of RISC OS from Element 14, and continued the development of RISC OS 3.8, releasing it as RISC OS 4 in July 1999. Meanwhile, Element 14 had also kept a copy of RISC OS 3.8 in house, which they developed into NCOS for use in set-top boxes. In 2000, Element 14 sold RISC OS to Pace Micro Technology, who later sold it to Castle Technology Ltd.

In May 2001, RISCOS Ltd launched RISC OS Select, a subscription scheme allowing users access to the latest RISC OS 4 updates. These upgrades are released as soft-loadable ROM images, separate to the ROM where the boot OS is stored, and are loaded at boot time. Select 1 was shipped in May 2002, with Select 2 following in November 2002 and the final release of Select 3 in June 2004. In the same month, RISC OS 4.39, dubbed RISC OS Adjust, was released. RISC OS Adjust was a culmination of all the Select Scheme updates to date, released as a physical set of replaceable ROMs for the RiscPC and A7000 series of machines.

Meanwhile, in October 2002, Castle Technology released the Acorn clone Iyonix PC. This ran a 32-bit (as opposed to 26-bit) variant of RISC OS, known as RISC OS 5. RISC OS 5 is a separate evolution of RISC OS based upon the NCOS work done by Pace. The following year, Castle Technology bought RISC OS from Pace for an undisclosed sum. In October 2006, Castle announced a shared source license plan, managed by RISC OS Open Limited, for elements of RISC OS 5.

In October 2018, RISC OS 5 was re-licensed under the Apache 2.0 license.[16]

Supported hardware

Versions of RISC OS run or have run on the following hardware.

RISC OS compatible hardware
MachineARM architectureIntroducedAcorn versionRISCOS Ltd versionCastle Technology / RISC OS Open version
ARM with 26-bit program counter
Acorn ArchimedesARMv21987  19920.203.1xN/AN/AN/AN/A
ARM with 26- & 32-bit program counter
Acorn Risc PCARMv3 / v41994[17]3.50[17]3.714.006.20[18]5.155.24[19]/5.25
Acorn A7000 and A7000+ARMv31995[20]  1997[21]3.60[20][21]3.714.006.20[18]5.155.24[19]/5.25
Acorn Phoebe (cancelled)ARMv419983.80 (Ursula)N/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
MicroDigital Medi[22]ARMv31998[23]3.71[23]N/A4.026.20N/AN/A
MicroDigital MicoARMv31999[24]N/AN/A4.03[24]4.39[18]N/AN/A
RiscStation R7500ARMv31999[25]N/AN/A4.03[25]4.39[18]N/AN/A
Castle Kinetic RiscPCARMv42000[26]N/AN/A4.036.205.19[27]5.24[19]/5.25
MicroDigital OmegaARMv42003[28]N/AN/A4.03[29]4.39[18]N/AN/A
Advantage Six A75ARMv32004[30]N/AN/A4.39[31]N/AN/A
ARM with 32-bit program counter
Iyonix Ltd Iyonix PCARMv5TE2002N/AN/AN/AN/A5.015.24[32]/5.25
Advantage Six A9 (Home/RM/Loc)ARMv4T2005N/AN/A4.42[18]N/AN/A
Always Innovating Touch BookARMv7-A2009N/AN/AN/AN/A5.155.24/5.25
OpenPandora's PandoraARMv7-A2010N/AN/AN/AN/A5.17[34]5.24/5.25
Raspberry Pi[11][36][37][38]ARMv6 / v7-A / v8-A2012  2016N/AN/AN/AN/A5.195.24/5.25
Wandboard Quad[40][41]ARMv7-A2015N/AN/AN/AN/A5.215.25

Note that RISC OS Open Limited adopted[43] the 'even numbers are stable' version numbering scheme post version 5.14, hence some table entries above include two latest releases – the last stable one and the more recent development one.

A special cut down RISC OS Pico (for 16MiB cards and larger) styled to start up like a BBC Micro was released for BASIC's 50th anniversary.[44]

RISC OS has also been used by both Acorn and Pace Micro Technology in various TV connected set-top boxes, sometimes referred to instead as NCOS.

RISC OS can also run on a range of computer system emulators that emulate the earlier Acorn machines listed above.

RISC OS capable hardware emulators
EmulatorMachines emulatedHost platforms supportedLatest release
!A310Emu[45]ArchimedesRISC OS0.59
Archie[46]ArchimedesWindows, DOS0.9 10 February 2001
ArchiEmu[47]ArchimedesRISC OS0.53.3 7 December 2014
ArcEm[48]ArchimedesWindows, Linux, Mac OS, RISC OS1.50.1 18 December 2015
Arculator[49]ArchimedesWindows, Linux

2.0 9 November 2019

Virtual A5000ArchimedesWindows1.4
Red Squirrel[50]Archimedes, Risc PC, A7000Windows0.6 28 October 2002
RPCEmu[51]Risc PC, A7000, PhoebeWindows, Linux, Mac OS, OpenBSD0.9.2 26 October 2019
VirtualRPCRisc PCWindows, Mac OS5 September 2014[52]


OS core

The OS is single-user and employs cooperative multitasking (CMT).[53] While most current desktop OSes use preemptive multitasking (PMT) and multithreading, RISC OS remains with a CMT system. By 2003, many users had called for the OS to migrate to PMT.[54] The OS memory protection is not comprehensive.[55][56]

The core of the OS is stored in ROM, giving a fast bootup time and safety from operating system corruption. RISC OS 4 and 5 are stored in 4 MB of flash memory, or as a ROM image on SD Card on single board computers such as the Beagleboard or Raspberry Pi, allowing the operating system to be updated without having to replace the ROM chip. The OS is made up of a number of modules. These can be added to and replaced, including soft-loading of modules not present in ROM at run time and on-the-fly replacement. This design has led to OS developers releasing rolling updates to their versions of the OS, while third parties are able to write OS replacement modules to add new features. OS modules are accessed via software interrupts (SWIs), similar to system calls in other operating systems.

Most of the OS has defined ABIs to handle filters and vectors. The OS provides many ways in which the programmer can intercept and modify its operation. This simplifies the task of modifying its behaviour, either in the GUI or deeper. As a result, there are a number of third-party programs which allow the OS look and feel to be customised.

File system

The file system is volume-oriented: the top level of the file hierarchy is a volume (disc, network share) prefixed by the filesystem type. To determine file type, the OS uses metadata instead of file extensions. Colons are used to separate the filesystem from the rest of the path; the root is represented by a dollar ($) sign and directories are separated by a full stop (.). Extensions from foreign filesystems are shown using a slash (example.txt becomes example/txt).[57] For example, ADFS::HardDisc4.$ is the root of the disc named HardDisc4 using the ADFS filesystem. RISC OS filetypes can be preserved on other systems by appending the hexadecimal type as ',xxx' to filenames.[57][58] When using cross-platform software, filetypes can be invoked on other systems by naming appending '/[extension]' to the filename under RISC OS.[59]

A file system can present a file of a particular type as a volume in its own right, similar to a loop device. The OS refers to this functionality as an image filing system. This allows transparent handling of archives and similar files, which appear as directories with some special properties. Files inside the image file appear in the hierarchy underneath the parent archive. It is not necessary for the archive to contain the data it refers to: some symbolic link and network share filesystems put a reference inside the image file and go elsewhere for the data.

The file system abstraction layer API uses 32-bit file offsets, making the largest single file 4 GiB (minus 1 byte) long. However, prior to RISC OS 5.20 the file system abstraction layer and many RISC OS-native file systems limited support to 31 bits (just under 2 GiB) to avoid dealing with apparently negative file extents when expressed in two's complement notation.

File formats

The OS uses metadata to distinguish file formats. Some common file formats from other systems are mapped to filetypes by the MimeMap module.[60]


The RISC OS kernel is single-tasking (the cooperative multi-tasking is provided by the WindowManager module) and controls handling of interrupts, DMA services, memory allocation and the video display.[53]


The WIMP interface is based on a stacking window manager and incorporates three mouse buttons[61] (named Select, Menu and Adjust), context-sensitive menus, window order control (i.e. send to back) and dynamic window focus (a window can have input focus at any position on the stack). The icon bar (Dock) holds icons which represent mounted disc drives, RAM discs, running applications, system utilities and docked: Files, Directories or inactive Applications. These icons have context-sensitive menus and support drag-and-drop behaviour. They represent the running application as a whole, irrespective of whether it has open windows.

The GUI functions on the concept of files. The Filer, a spatial file manager, displays the contents of a disc. Applications are run from the Filer view and files can be dragged to the Filer view from applications to perform saves. Application directories are used to store applications. The OS differentiates them from normal directories through the use of a pling (exclamation mark, also called shriek) prefix. Double-clicking on such a directory launches the application rather than opening the directory. The application's executable files and resources are contained within the directory, but normally they remain hidden from the user. Because applications are self-contained, this allows drag-and-drop installation and removal.

The RISC OS Style Guide encourages a consistent look and feel across applications. This was introduced in RISC OS 3 and specifies application appearance and behaviour. Acorn's own main bundled applications were not updated to comply with the guide until RISCOS Ltd's Select release in 2001.[62]

Font manager

The outline font manager provides anti-aliasing of fonts. RISC OS was the first operating system to include such a feature,[63][64][65][66] having included it since before January 1989.[67] Since 1994, in RISC OS 3.5, it has been possible to use an outline anti-aliased font in the WindowManager for UI elements, rather than the bitmap system font from previous versions.[68]

RISC OS 4 does not support Unicode but "RISC OS 5 provides a Unicode Font Manager which is able to display Unicode characters and accept text in UTF-8, UTF-16 and UTF-32. Other parts of the RISC OS kernel and core modules support text described in UTF-8."[69]

Bundled applications

RISC OS is delivered with a number of desktop applications in the form of pre-installed software.

Backward compatibility

Limited software portability exists with subsequent versions of the OS and hardware. Single-tasking BBC BASIC applications often require only trivial changes, if any. Successive OS upgrades have raised more serious issues of backward compatibility for desktop applications and games.[70] Applications still being maintained by their author(s) or others have sometimes historically been amended to provide compatibility.

The introduction of the RiscPC in 1994 and its later StrongARM upgrade raised issues of incompatible code sequences and proprietary squeezing (compression). Patching of applications for the StrongARM was facilitated and Acorn's UnsqueezeAIF software unsqueezed images according to their AIF header.[71] The incompatibilities prompted release by The ARM Club of its Game On![72][73] and StrongGuard software.[72][74][75] They allowed some previously incompatible software to be run on new and upgraded systems. The version of the OS for the A9home prevented the running of software without an AIF header (in accordance with Application Note 295)[76] to stop "trashing the desktop".[77]

The Iyonix PC (RISC OS 5) and A9home (custom RISC OS 4) saw further software incompatibility because of the deprecated 26-bit addressing modes. Most applications under active development have since been rewritten.[78][79][80] Static code analysis to detect 26-bit only sequences can be undertaken using ARMalyser.[81] Its output can be helpful in making 32-bit versions of older applications for which the source code is unavailable.[82][81][83] Some older 26-bit software can be run without modification using the Aemulor emulator.[80][84][85]

Additional incompatibilities were introduced with newer ARM cores, such as ARMv7 in the BeagleBoard and ARMv8 in the Raspberry Pi 3. This includes changes to unaligned memory access in ARMv6/v7 and removal of the SWP instructions in ARMv8.

See also


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