Guess who’s back… my Psion Series 5 is back!

After several years of not working – the screen being dead – my beloved Psion Series 5 Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is alive again. It turns out there is still a marked for repairing these neat PDAs almost a quarter century after they were first introduced. So now that it is alive again, let us have a closer look at this vintage tech. This will be a very different review to what I usually do.

My thoughts on the Psion Series 5

My Psion Series 5, with the stylus in front, displaying the draft of this blogpost
My Psion Series 5, with the stylus in front, displaying the draft of this blogpost

So what is the Psion Series 5?

This Psion is – for most intents and purposes – a pocketable office. The OS comes with a full office-suite; word processor, spread sheet, contact list / database, calendar and more. There was also a lot of other software written for the Psion 5, from massive applications to a Pet Rock Simulator. And since few things put online ever truly disappear, many are still available today as freeware or abandonware. One program – or application to use today’s terminology – that is freely available today is a converter that, uhm, convert the native EPOC file formats to formats understood by modern computers. This lets me be productive on the Psion, even if the PC-software for talking to it was made for Win98.

And the Psion really shines as a productivity tool. It has a good, nay, great keyboard, and no built in distractions. There is no temptation to “just” pop online to check the news, no five minutes more of playing a game, no emails that pops out and derails the train of thought. It is what it is and little more – but it is very good at being what it is.

Although… I cannot resist checking in on Fred – my virtual pet rock – ever so often. Thankfully he doesn’t require much maintenance, so it is okay if I forget him for a few days.

While the Psion5 is underpowered compared to most (read; all) modern pocketable devices. it still have a great keyboard for typing on. The screen may be monochrome and reasonable low resolution – a mere sixteen levels of gray at half VGA resolution – but at the same time the Psion5 was not meant to watch videos or photos on.

Of course, the Psion 5 isn’t perfect. By today’s standard the CPU is anemic – although the 5MX had one that was twice as fast – and the 8 MB of memory would barely be enough for a photo today (again; the 5MX doubled it). The LCD screen can be hard to read if the light is not right. There is a backlight, but that gobbles up batteries as if there is no tomorrow.

Power and communications

Speaking of batteries; the Psion 5 runs of two bog standard AA-batteries, with a CR2032 back up batteries. Do not let the batteries run dry though, because if you do everything that is stored in memory is lost. This is why I save all my documents on the CF-card. Lessons learned the hard way, years and years ago and all that.

Ah yes… the CF card. Back in the day they were the standard form of memory cards, before physically smaller cards with higher capacities all but made them extinct. Along with a serial connection (RS232 compatible) and an infrared transceiver, the CF card is the way the Series 5 can speak to the world around it. And since no modern computers come with a proper nine pin serial connector and the IrDA standard have been pinning for the fjords since Bluetooth became common, the CF card is the only way to easily move data on and off in this day and age.

Even so, having a fully-fledged productivity tool that fits in a (large) pocket is awesome. I can whip it out for a few minutes of uninterrupted typing. I can – in theory at least – do on the road spread sheeting. And I can easily manage a smallish two-dimensional database, be it a contact book or something else. The date planner is good, even if I prefer using the app on my smartphone for that these days. So for me having my Series 5 back is a godsend.

Get a Psion Series 5, or not get one?

So should you start searching the internet for a palmtop computer that went out of production twenty odd years ago? Should you plunk down a sizeable pile of money for something with limited connectivity and limited capabilities? For some old hardware that – lets be honest – have a couple of known issues wth the hinges and screen cable?

I cannot answer that for you. But what I do know is that I wrote the majority this little piece on my Psion Series 5 in much less time than if I had done it on my desktop, and much easier than if i had tried it on my tablet or phone. To me at least the Series 5 offers the possibility of distraction free creativity. I am very excited that my old companion is working again, and even more excited that my fingers quickly relearned their way around the keyboard again.

The Psion Series 5 may not be right for you, but it sure is right for me.

Some specs:

CPU32 bit RISC based ARM 7100, 18.432 MHz
OSEPOC32, pre-emptive multitasking, with memory protection
ROM6 MB, storing the OS and built in software
RAM8 MB, for additional applications and stored data (NB: volatile)
Display640×240 monochrome, 16 levels of gray, backlit, touch sensitive
Keyboard53 “almost full size” keys, with a 12.5mm key pitch and generous vertical travel
AudioMono internal speaker, single microphone for recording
CommunicationsRS232 Fast Serial Port (up to 115kbps), IrDA-port
Power2x AA batteries, CR2032 backup battery, optional 6VDC external supply
Expansion1x CF-slot, capable of reading cards up to at least 1 GB

The inbuilt software

WordA feature rich WYSIWYG word processor. Integrates with the other parts of the office suit, allowing insertion of graphs and sketches.
SheetA spreadsheet application, comparable to Excel97. Over one hundred inbuilt mathematical, financial and trigonometric functions. Strong graphing ability, considering the Psion Series 5’s meager specs.
DataTwo-dimensional database. Comes preconfigured as a contact list, but can be easily set up for almost anything.
AgendaCalendar and ToDo list. Multiple views, can easily insert sketches, word documents, spreadsheets and more.
TimeWorld clock and alarms. The alarms will chime even if the Psion is off.
CalcDual calculators, with both a standard desktop style and a scientific style. The later have 26 memory locations, as well as trigonometric and logarithmic functions. Does not graph, but that that easily be done in Sheet.
SketchSimple drawing program, comparable to the version of Paint that was included in Win98 – except it only does gray scale.
OPLA built in object oriented programing language, that – in theory – would allow you to develop applications for the Psion on the Psion.
RecordFor recording and playing back digital audio. Uses proprietary compression codex’s, so no chance of playing back your MP3 collection.
BombsThe only game that comes preinstalled. Similar to Minesweeper as found in older versions of Windows.

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