My Life Using a Psion PDA in the 21st Century
Handheld Devices

My Life Using a Psion PDA in the 21st Century

People who like to think of themselves as power users of computing technology sometimes refer to smartphones and tablets as 'fondleslabs', because of the covetous stroking actions employed by the users of such devices. It's not always meant in a derogatory fashion – most such people have a glowing pocket oblong of their own – but it implies that there's an alternative, subjectively superior form of mobile technology available. Is there? Not really, but there once was.

Strong gusts of nostalgia for the old clamshell design of PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) still whistle through the web. Whenever articles are written about these pocket computers of yesteryear, comments from readers are nearly always favourable, sometimes fanatically so. The UK firm Psion’s machines in particular (the 3-series and the 5-series) are singled out for devoted praise, being well-designed writing tools with good built-in software and a programming language (OPL) that let end-users easily write new applications of their own.

But that's nostalgia, a lens rose-tinted. What about the reality? Nobody would really want such a machine today, would they? Perhaps they would. There's still a cult following and, judging by forums, blog posts and comments, plenty of people hankering for an up-to-date version. In order to gauge the relevance of these machines to today's connected world, I bought the two finest Psion PDAs the company ever made, the 3mx and the 5mx, and attempted to use them in everyday life in 2014.

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Good ones can be had for about £80 each on eBay and they hold their value well. These machines were loved by journalists, writers, and even soldiers on the front line. They were never bettered in their niche. Then the world moved on to tablets and smartphones with touchscreens, and Psion bowed out of the consumer PDA market in 2001. There was a third-party variant of the 5mx called the PsiXda that ran Windows XP, but it had disappointing battery life and launched at the same time as the iPad. It sank without trace.

It all seems such a long time ago. Steve Litchfield, one of the Psion end-user gurus of the era and an accomplished SIBO/EPOC programmer, told me, "The Psion was great, but you're a bit bonkers trying to use it with 2014 kit/life."

He may have a point.

First impressions: they're big. Very big by smartphone standards. Not easily pocketable, except perhaps in a jacket. The 3mx looks the more svelte and elegant when closed, the 5mx more chunky. But the keyboard of the 5mx can take some serious hammering. I achieved around 50wpm on both machines once I'd got used to typing with my thumbs.

In its time the embedded software was impressive and if anything the SIBO OS of the 3mx being more efficient within its tiny processing confines than the EPOC system of the more powerful 5mx. In 2014, with one-thirtieth of the processing power of today's equivalents, it's still pretty good... as long as you don't need any form of music, videos, internet, camera, collaborative tools, Bluetooth, WiFi or email. The word-processor, spreadsheet and especially the PIM functions are powerful and intuitive even today, though online syncing is obviously not practical.

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In fact you can forget about internet access entirely. It's just about possible to get online if you have an IrDA mobile phone or serial modem lying around, but there would be no point. There's a freeware mail client and TCP/IP stack for the 3mx that's the embodiment of elegant programming, while the 5mx even has an ancient version of the Opera browser. But without up-to-date SSL this is moot. It's just not sane to go online these days without good encryption. You could put Linux on the 5mx for that, but molasses moves faster.

Still, it is possible to connect to a PC. USB-serial cables are cheap as chips and it took me about half a day to get both machines connected with a cable and also via a USB-IrDA adapter. The latter is obviously cooler, because infra-red is a bit like Bluetooth if you don't look too closely.

The 3mx has the clearer screen, the 5mx being dim and muddy due to the touchscreen layer over the top. Both were designed as business tools, and it's no surprise that when Psion (called Psion Teklogix at the time, and bought by Motorola in 2012) left the consumer market, it moved into supplying business hardware for supply-side companies, especially inventory management using handheld computers.

But forget the limitations: it's the form factor of both machines that's important. There is, as far as I'm aware, nothing like them today. Their keyboards take up more space than their monochrome, green-backlit screens. These are production tools first, consumption devices a distant second, and with no worries about battery life. Each returns 25-40 hours of use from a pair of AA cells, with the standby time measurable in weeks. Some of Psion's engineering alumni went on to work at successful companies such as TomTom and Apple, and it's not hard to see why: the design and implementation of these machines was nearly faultless.

Psion PDAs can still be surprisingly practical in 2014. When you have a writing device close at hand, you tend to use it. Since buying these machines a few weeks ago I've written articles on trains, in cars, while waiting to pick up my daughters from school, and while sitting in the garden in strong sunlight – that's one advantage of the archaic screen technology. It's easy to pick up a Psion and jot down ideas, a quick 500 words or so.

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Obviously most of this would be possible with a phone or tablet, too, but there's a big difference between 'possible' and 'pleasurable'. The Psions make writing enjoyable, dissolving the barrier between thoughts and the written word. Even slider keyboards on smartphones don't come close, and you can't use a Bluetooth folding keyboard while standing on a busy commuter train. In some situations there's just no substitute for a good-sized built-in keyboard with tactile feedback.

It's been a revelation to use portable writing devices again after a gap of almost a decade. I wrote over 100,000 words on my old Psion 3a in the 1990s yet I'd forgotten how easy that was. So I find myself joining the chorus of voices asking when such a machine will ever come to market again.

Surely Psion's ageing patents can be negotiated or legally circumvented? Keep the form-factor with the lovely keyboards, improve the screens and the connectivity, fix the weak points (hinges and screen cables), try not to lose too much battery life - job done. It shouldn't be that hard: there's almost room inside the 5mx case for a Raspberry Pi.

Meanwhile, if George RR Martin can write his Game of Thrones books on a DOS PC running WordStar, there's no shame in using retro kit like this to produce content without distraction.

This article was written entirely on a Psion 3mx and a Psion 5mx. If you're still using these machines or similar ones – or if you think the clamshell keyboard design deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history – please tell me about it by leaving a comment below.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.

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Alex Cruickshank

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business.

Comments

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William on January 02 2015

I use a Psion 3MX every day. I keep all my contacts and important information on it. It is never connected to a computer so cannot be hacked and it is an instant on device so no delays. I could not function without it. I bought an extra 1 Mb backup hard drive for it last week for £11 on e-bay. Yes I did type 1 Mb! I also have a Nokia 6310i phone, still working perfectly after 11 years and requiring a charge only once a week. It works in places my partners smartphone thinks are signal free. Ok, I do have an Android tablet and a very powerful desktop computer and a laptop as well but the Psion and the Nokia will be used until I can't fix them anymore.

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Dr. Stephen Wilson on March 14 2015

Great article! I still have m 5MX. I need to replace the screen cable on it. But just this morning, while using my Ipad Air, I was thinking how I have never so so productive as I was with my Psion 5MX and the subsecuent HP Jornada 680, 690, 720 and 728 that I used after that. The size makes it easy to choose to take them anywhere. Plus the Instant On feature. And above all, as you mention, wright without distractions from email, Internet, etc. I later aquired the Linux–powered Sharp Netwalker clamshell.It was O. K., but the Psion and Jornadas were far better. Keep writing, my friend!

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Alex Cruickshankon Mar 16 2015 | 23:08

Heh, thanks! Good to hear from other Psion users. Last week I interviewed someone at a cloud tech company. In the space of 20 minutes I wrote 760 words on the Psion, after which we spent another 5 minutes discussing it. He was very impressed by this old tech. Unfortunately these things aren't getting any younger (like their owner!). The keyboard retaining clip on one of mine has snapped. I think I retrieved all the pieces of black plastic, but putting them back in the right place will be a struggle. Time to dig out a backup machine. PS. I do love the Psion 3mx too. It might even be my favourite, more so than the 5mx. But the CF option of the latter makes data transfer easier these days.

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MX on March 23 2015

Psions were a huge part of my childhood and teenage years (sad but true), and a big part of my computer science education. I had 3/3a/5/5mx models over the years. I've just picked up a 3mx with the view to using it as an on-the-go typing device. Any tips on the use of the IrDA adapter? Ideally on a mac, but PC also doable for me.

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Alex Cruickshank on March 24 2015

Hi MX, to get briefly nerdy... I use Linux so I can't help out with the details at the Mac end, but here are my notes for the Psion end of the IrDA connection: # You can use this straight away from a Psion 3mx that's just had new batteries put in, no other software: # 1. Do Psion-J a few times to install all the built-in programs that aren't installed, including Comms and Script. # 2. Go into Comms, then come straight back out. # 3. Go into Script, loading the newly-created comms.scr file. # 5. If connecting over infra-red, change TTY:A to TTY:I # 6. On the Psion, Translate and then Run the script. # 7. Transmit/receive your text file as ASCII (which is the default). # 8. Perhaps then save the compiled script as ir_text.sco/ser_text.sco or similar, for future use. Obviously you need a terminal emulator on the Mac end to handle that received data from the IrDA adapter. On Linux I just wrote a script based on 'cat' for that part. This works for ASCII data, so that's OK for getting your writing off the Psion (save in Word as plain text). For binary data I found I could send to the Psion this way (using X/YMODEM) but not receive binary from it - I use the freely available NFSC.APP for the Psion for that. Hope that helps, or at least gets you started.

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Joaquín Herrero on April 25 2015

Hi! Just found this article and are happy to hear about more people using this small machine. I have one 5mx since 2007 and write on it almost daily. I changed the flexi cable recently so I think it will be ready for work for many more years. Last year also bought a second 5mx, a Pro version with keyboard in spanish, so now I have a spare machine just in case. Now I'm writing a 80-page essay and it's a pleasure to take this machine with me to libraries and coffee shops for writing. Really love this machine and hope using it for the foreseeable future. Joaquín

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Alex Cruickshankon Apr 27 2015 | 23:01

Joaquín: yes, it's amazing how productive it's possible to be with something so small. The lack of distraction is wonderful. I really wish someone would make something like it today - modern, but with the same ethos. But few designers would be able to resist the desire to add 'features' that spoil the essence of the machine. And possibly the target market is just too small.

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Len Baker on July 15 2015

Great article, started off as a RiscOs fan, then a Psion fan, and now a Mac fan. But always loved my 5mx which I foolishly sold after having it repaired. I then bought another 5mx a few years later that now needs a new ribbon. I could always type faster on the 5mx than I am now on my iPad :) Thinking of repairing it even now - then I'll have a good 5mx and a netBook :)

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jan venter on July 18 2015

good to see there is still interest in the old psions. I used my 3mx until it completely fell a apart.I migrated to a series of nokia communicators ,9210.9210i,9500 9310i. they were almost as good except they had email and net capability. unfortunately they are part of history as well. Rugged robust quick on easy to type. Maybe somebody/company hears the cry and produces some thing special with say ubuntu or such.In the mean time we struggle along on this android touch keybord.

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Peter R on August 06 2015

Amazing to think that after all these years the psion still has fans. It should still be possible to write an opl code for a flash wifi modem but that would only be the start of your troubles. I once rigged it to a hospital broadband via a canon of various modems but that was back in 02 when web pages still displayed in a rudimentary fasion. It worked for AIM AOLs instant messaging service. It went into meltdown when I tried to hack the mic to use as a skype on the service. The audio card was never the strong point of the psion. If they had seen the mp3 revolution coming they could have built a nice little 16bit stereo chip and output and/or input jack. Viola! A mp3 or pocket recording studio. Mine has a staggering 32gb cf in it. I knew it would work when I first tested it with a 1gb then a 4gb cf. Of course the psion can't display the memory percentage correctly but you cant have everything. It is that great keyboard and that ready to go feeling with the psion that inspires. You open it and you are ready to type... no disractions. Old yes but still loved like a fondly regarded retired collie sheepdog.

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Jon Y on August 19 2015

Hi I'm from Singapore. I'm still using a Psion 3a (2mb) with a 1mb model as spare for writing down my thoughts and reflections. Also, the Agenda view is better than the calendar options in most smartphones.

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Alex Cruickshank on August 23 2015

Yes, the 3 Series Agenda is fantastic. For many years I used it as a desktop PIM too, via the 3a emulator and some little DOS tricks. It's a toss-up which had the better PIM tools: Psion or Palm. Both were fantastic. In terms of simplicity, ease of use and just the right capabilities, I haven't found anything to match them even today. Separately, I think the ever-growing number of comments on this article show that the Psions are still great devices.

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Allan Edwards on August 26 2015

"Surely Psion's ageing patents can be negotiated or legally circumvented?" Or perhaps bought with a Kickstarter campaign and open sourced?

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Max on October 14 2015

Great! I've created a FB group dedicated to these amazing machines. It's in Italian and english https://www.facebook.com/groups/2111753558965708/?fref=ts

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Freddy on November 02 2015

hello, it's Nov 2015 and I am still using my Psion 5mx as my PDA and organizer for work and personal life. Nothing beats it. Ever. None of the iphone or smartphone have apps that could matched it. Hence Psion is still recording my life today. Oh, the Psion 3c is my alarm clock.

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Stuart Axon on December 08 2015

Arg, those patents .... if a modern version of this came out I would buy it in a heartbeat for the keyboard.

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Marvin Metzner on January 12 2016

I´m amazed about the numerous Psion and HandheldPC Users in here :). I have all this devices too ...until today in 2016. Psion 3mx, Psion 5mx, Jornada 680 and 720, NEC MobilPro 900, Sigmarion II, Casio Cassiopeia, Sharp Netwalker, HP200LX ... I love them and Change them in everyday use. No fashionable "Touch Phone" can bring me the fascination and Quality of the former Palmtop/Handhelds...

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Michel Munier on February 05 2016

Wow! I can't believe it - finally found somewhere where Psion has a pulse! I actually register on a forum "Psion Guild" to find out it has nothing to do with this! I started with a 3a then upgraded to MX5 I loved it despite its inability to keep up with the progress. But I had all my stuff on this 4 or 5 databases and other things. Calendar was so good. (Now battling with Google to show birthday with ages!) Only one problem the screen needed to be replaced a few times, and once too many ...But the second coming came in the form of an emulator! So I kept going after giving the machine an indecent burial via the bin! Recently my system crashed (W7 64 bits) and I had to get a brand new HD and Windows 7 64bts... Managed to save my Psion folder However I could not start it any more. I use to have a short cut from the "tool" folder "e32-sys" but now from it all I got was a black flash and no more. I actually had it in many places then remember I had it on a "cruiser" usb vault. But again no joy, Then I finally got it working again on my Asus notebook with a fresh install of W10! I've got no idea why the new W7 won't have a bar of it! But I've got fond memories of both. I remember being on holiday in Malaysia KL in rough minibuses going around and typing my diary, the 3a was a little easier but the Mx5 K board was better. Yes info and app were instant with them. I never understood why this machine could not be revamped with some colours and perhaps more compatible with other os (cut and paste etc) Well, with the emulator the databases are pretty good, And I loved the calendar too. I always run it with Crypto for secure file And I'm so pleased to "just now" being able to get the emulator going again. I tried to get it again on the net but got dead pages. I wonder if there is a site that still has it.

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Bo on April 01 2016

I have a Psion 5mx V1.05 (260). One of my calendar files is corrupt so cannot be read even when exported. I think all of the data is in the file but how can I read it?! Anyone any ideas. Willing to pay a person to extract the data if its possible.

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Charles Gauder on April 08 2016

Great article. You wanted to hear from people who still use these devices - well, I'm another one who can't be torn away from my Psion. I've used Psions almost all of my adult life, and have been using a Psion Netbook for about 10 years. The lack of connectivity is a bonus for me - no constant updates, no viruses, no chance of contaminating a clients network, no distractions (I'm looking at you Facebook). Perfect for keeping notes, contact information, passwords, bank account data (using a version of Microsoft Money from 1998) and a calendar that has never been bettered (IMHO). I've even got 3 years of 10 pin bowling scores stored using their spreadsheet application! Backing up couldn't be simpler - take out the CF card, pop it into a reader, backup and replace. I do intend to replace it eventually, when someone brings out a device with a keyboard of similar or better quality, the ability to work off-line, a battery that means I can leave it unplugged for weeks at a time, one that I can use without handing over all of my personal data and one that doesn't require constant updating. I've got a spare Netbook just in case ... (and 3x5Mxs, 2x3Mxs, 1x3c, 1x3a, 1xSeries7, 1xSiena in my little Psion museum)

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Tony Blatcher on April 28 2016

Another 5mx user here, with a spare 5 on the way. I've used Psions since the 3a, though I stopped using them years ago I bought another one and have started using them again. I work in an area where you have to switch mobiles off but needed something for notes other than a laptop, the 5mx fits the bill perfectly. I never lost my love for these PDA's, the Agenda is far superior to anything else, even now, but the thing I really love is the ability to embed documents within all the key apps, a genius idea. No other smartphone or tablet/computer does this as far as I know. Then there are the keyboard shortcuts, it makes the Psions so quick and easy to use. Data is also awesome, most apps are just databases with fancy and overbloated UI's, data is simple and does exactly what I need it to, for multiple uses, and of course, takes embedded documents. If someone bought a modern version of the 5mx out, with decent battery life and the same superb usability I'd buy one in an instant, but I doubt we'll ever see its like again. With that in mind I will buy a few of them and make them last, they're cheap and just brilliant at what they do, you can't beat them.

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Nono on May 28 2016

I have just bought a netbook, to write a book, and it's the better choice I know. Keyboard and instant on, and so on... I love it. I started with a 5.

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Elder William Howard on June 14 2016

So glad for this article. I had a "Wizard", a "Palm Pilot" and others I can't recall, but the Psion has a place in my heart.Me, I am a spreadsheet man and this device fit the bill for me. Compact and , as I remember, a great help. Will check ebay even today. Thanks for the memories.

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Chante Magruder on June 29 2016

Invaluable post . I loved the analysis ! Does someone know if I can find a blank CA FTB 199 example to type on ?

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Adam on November 29 2016

I still use mine daily but am down to my last one and it is a 5 rather than a 5mx. I will either get a new flexi for my 5mx or get hold of a 5 mx pro; the ability to work anywhere with long battery life I feel is still a real benefit and still have a window xp laptop with psiwin on to do a conversion of files to ms office format when I get back from trips out

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Andrew on January 20 2017

I have three or four unused Psion 3 and 5mx units that keep out of pure nostalgia for their elegance, utility, solidity and insanely excellent soft- and hardware design. To 'replace' them and my Ericsson IR GSM cell phone, I need a Windows laptop, an iPad and a (now-)'ancient' US T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy Relay smartphone (which has a slideout Qwerty keyboard, tiny, flimsy in comparison to a Psion, but useable for typing on a train and in a pinch) for BT internet access for the iPad and notebook. That's $3,000 of stuff to replace my 5mx and Ericsson IR phone, on which I could run a law-firm, write appeal briefs, do docketing and billing, handle 100+ emails per day and maintain thousands of contacts and a gruelling international agenda. This is progress? I thank Steve Jobs for this rush to an albeit-beautifully-designed low common denominator of iPhone and iPhone-like dumbed-down smartphone and iPad universe.

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Jan Borchers on January 27 2017

I'm a usability researcher, and while I've used Psion PDAs for text entry since 1992 until today so am obviously biased, there is objective scientific evidence explaining why your Psion is the faster writing tool: If you type a lot, you use most or all of your fingers, and rarely look at the keyboard. The Psion is faster than a smartphone because (a) its bigger keyboard lets you type with multiple fingers, and (b) because you can feel its physical keys and type without looking. Hoggan [1] showed that typing on an iPhone is about 1.5-2x slower than even on a tiny Blackberry-like physical keyboard, and that it stresses people out more. Varcholik [2] showed for full-size keyboards that typing on touchscreens takes about twice(!) as long as on physical keyboards. Chaparro [3] showed that even "soft keyboards" like Apple's iPad Pro Smart Keyboard or Microsoft's Touch Cover slow you down by 10 words per minute because they lack the mechanically moving keys. They also provide references to additional studies. The other thing that modern devices are struggling with is offering the right mix of features. For example, the Psion 5 Agenda lets you schedule something on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, or change the default length of appointments to, say, 90 minutes instead of an hour. Neither is supported on the iPhone. Finally, the physical keyboard also makes it quicker to navigate in and between apps, because its many keyboard shortcuts make interactions faster than tapping and dragging on a touchscreen, and can be used eyes-free. It takes me 11 seconds to open and unlock my Psion 5mx, switch to Agenda, go to today's date, then create an event that says "Bob" Monday 10 days from today from 10:30-11:30, and close the Psion again. Again, this takes me twice as long on an iPhone 7 Plus. Using Siri is about as fast as using the Psion, but it requires speaking that may be awkward in public, decent internet connectivity, and it doesn't give me a look at the calendar at the same time to see what else is going on. The eyes-free use that the Psion's physical, slightly larger keyboard supports is also more appropriate socially - I've jotted down notes on a Psion during a meeting while literally looking the other person in the eye, rather than having to stare at my touchscreen (or even dictate something using Siri). Same goes for taking notes eyes-free while looking at a presenter's slides. So the Psion form factor, and especially its keyboard, clearly remain an opportunity to reclaim the efficiency of mobile professionals who need to enter text or data, which is currently lost on mobile touchscreen devices. [1] E. Hoggan, S.A. Brewster, and J. Johnston: Investigating the effectiveness of tactile feedback for mobile touchscreens. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '08), ACM, New York (2008), pages 1573-1582. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357300. [2] P.D. Varcholik, J.J. LaViola, and C. Hughes: Establishing a baseline for text entry for a multi-touch virtual keyboard. In: International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 70, Issue 10 (2012), pages 657–672, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2012.05.007. [3] B.S. Chaparro, M.H. Phan, C. Siu, J.R. Jardina: User Performance and Satisfaction of Tablet Physical Keyboards. In: Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 9, Issue 2 (2014), http://uxpajournal.org/user-performance-and-satisfaction-of-tablet-physical-keyboards/

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Alex Cruickshank on February 01 2017

I am amazed and impressed that people are still commenting on this article more than two years after I wrote it, and also that so many of you still find the Psions useful, as I do. Many thanks for the comments - and the detailed references - and please keep them coming.

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Frans Eerhardt on February 08 2017

Well, here's one more Alex. Nice to know I'm not the only Psioneer left on the planet! Great to read your stories. Truly a personal assistant, my (Dutch) 3mx never crashed, never lost one bit of data in the 25 years I used it. Easily programmable, instantly ready, 100% safe for storing all passwords. It still excels with its flexible smart Agenda. Having to visit 5 clients daily, in day view I set the right page to 5 fields of 1h45m each and use the left for birthdays / to do's etc. Since I visit clients regularly (every 6 months or yearly) my to-do lists (Shift-Psion-T) are different zip-codes, showing the client I must visit first on top of the list (using deadline and priority) to easily plan my visits in the same neighborhood. Change the name from 'To Do' to 'Day Entry': done. Also, the ability to attach notes to an entry is very useful. Is there an iPhone that can match this flexibility? Or maybe I missed something. The Psions needed no upgrade, because they were programmed by smart people. No bells and whistles. That is, except for the 'Soft Bells' and 'Church bell' of course. Is there no need for a new version of the reliable peace of hardware I'm still using every day? Replace the screen with a slightly bigger digital paper, just black & white, + backlight, maybe with backlit keys, maybe a touch screen to use with a finger. And make it thinner running on AAA cells. Keep the possibility to write programs on it. Same Agenda, plus a key to attach spoken notes to an entry. A possibility to convert all the data from the old Psions. (I know I'm hoping for the impossible here, but it's fun to fantasize). In the mean time I keep collecting 3mx's, if I can find them for under €30. Some of them seem brand new. Agenda works until 2050, meaning the day I turn 89 I will be really pissed. O, and please add the € sign...

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William on January 02 2015

I use a Psion 3MX every day. I keep all my contacts and important information on it. It is never connected to a computer so cannot be hacked and it is an instant on device so no delays. I could not function without it. I bought an extra 1 Mb backup hard drive for it last week for £11 on e-bay. Yes I did type 1 Mb! I also have a Nokia 6310i phone, still working perfectly after 11 years and requiring a charge only once a week. It works in places my partners smartphone thinks are signal free. Ok, I do have an Android tablet and a very powerful desktop computer and a laptop as well but the Psion and the Nokia will be used until I can't fix them anymore.

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Dr. Stephen Wilson on March 14 2015

Great article! I still have m 5MX. I need to replace the screen cable on it. But just this morning, while using my Ipad Air, I was thinking how I have never so so productive as I was with my Psion 5MX and the subsecuent HP Jornada 680, 690, 720 and 728 that I used after that. The size makes it easy to choose to take them anywhere. Plus the Instant On feature. And above all, as you mention, wright without distractions from email, Internet, etc. I later aquired the Linux–powered Sharp Netwalker clamshell.It was O. K., but the Psion and Jornadas were far better. Keep writing, my friend!

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Alex Cruickshankon Mar 16 2015 | 23:08

Heh, thanks! Good to hear from other Psion users. Last week I interviewed someone at a cloud tech company. In the space of 20 minutes I wrote 760 words on the Psion, after which we spent another 5 minutes discussing it. He was very impressed by this old tech. Unfortunately these things aren't getting any younger (like their owner!). The keyboard retaining clip on one of mine has snapped. I think I retrieved all the pieces of black plastic, but putting them back in the right place will be a struggle. Time to dig out a backup machine. PS. I do love the Psion 3mx too. It might even be my favourite, more so than the 5mx. But the CF option of the latter makes data transfer easier these days.

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MX on March 23 2015

Psions were a huge part of my childhood and teenage years (sad but true), and a big part of my computer science education. I had 3/3a/5/5mx models over the years. I've just picked up a 3mx with the view to using it as an on-the-go typing device. Any tips on the use of the IrDA adapter? Ideally on a mac, but PC also doable for me.

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Alex Cruickshank on March 24 2015

Hi MX, to get briefly nerdy... I use Linux so I can't help out with the details at the Mac end, but here are my notes for the Psion end of the IrDA connection: # You can use this straight away from a Psion 3mx that's just had new batteries put in, no other software: # 1. Do Psion-J a few times to install all the built-in programs that aren't installed, including Comms and Script. # 2. Go into Comms, then come straight back out. # 3. Go into Script, loading the newly-created comms.scr file. # 5. If connecting over infra-red, change TTY:A to TTY:I # 6. On the Psion, Translate and then Run the script. # 7. Transmit/receive your text file as ASCII (which is the default). # 8. Perhaps then save the compiled script as ir_text.sco/ser_text.sco or similar, for future use. Obviously you need a terminal emulator on the Mac end to handle that received data from the IrDA adapter. On Linux I just wrote a script based on 'cat' for that part. This works for ASCII data, so that's OK for getting your writing off the Psion (save in Word as plain text). For binary data I found I could send to the Psion this way (using X/YMODEM) but not receive binary from it - I use the freely available NFSC.APP for the Psion for that. Hope that helps, or at least gets you started.

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Joaquín Herrero on April 25 2015

Hi! Just found this article and are happy to hear about more people using this small machine. I have one 5mx since 2007 and write on it almost daily. I changed the flexi cable recently so I think it will be ready for work for many more years. Last year also bought a second 5mx, a Pro version with keyboard in spanish, so now I have a spare machine just in case. Now I'm writing a 80-page essay and it's a pleasure to take this machine with me to libraries and coffee shops for writing. Really love this machine and hope using it for the foreseeable future. Joaquín

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Alex Cruickshankon Apr 27 2015 | 23:01

Joaquín: yes, it's amazing how productive it's possible to be with something so small. The lack of distraction is wonderful. I really wish someone would make something like it today - modern, but with the same ethos. But few designers would be able to resist the desire to add 'features' that spoil the essence of the machine. And possibly the target market is just too small.

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Len Baker on July 15 2015

Great article, started off as a RiscOs fan, then a Psion fan, and now a Mac fan. But always loved my 5mx which I foolishly sold after having it repaired. I then bought another 5mx a few years later that now needs a new ribbon. I could always type faster on the 5mx than I am now on my iPad :) Thinking of repairing it even now - then I'll have a good 5mx and a netBook :)

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jan venter on July 18 2015

good to see there is still interest in the old psions. I used my 3mx until it completely fell a apart.I migrated to a series of nokia communicators ,9210.9210i,9500 9310i. they were almost as good except they had email and net capability. unfortunately they are part of history as well. Rugged robust quick on easy to type. Maybe somebody/company hears the cry and produces some thing special with say ubuntu or such.In the mean time we struggle along on this android touch keybord.

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Peter R on August 06 2015

Amazing to think that after all these years the psion still has fans. It should still be possible to write an opl code for a flash wifi modem but that would only be the start of your troubles. I once rigged it to a hospital broadband via a canon of various modems but that was back in 02 when web pages still displayed in a rudimentary fasion. It worked for AIM AOLs instant messaging service. It went into meltdown when I tried to hack the mic to use as a skype on the service. The audio card was never the strong point of the psion. If they had seen the mp3 revolution coming they could have built a nice little 16bit stereo chip and output and/or input jack. Viola! A mp3 or pocket recording studio. Mine has a staggering 32gb cf in it. I knew it would work when I first tested it with a 1gb then a 4gb cf. Of course the psion can't display the memory percentage correctly but you cant have everything. It is that great keyboard and that ready to go feeling with the psion that inspires. You open it and you are ready to type... no disractions. Old yes but still loved like a fondly regarded retired collie sheepdog.

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Jon Y on August 19 2015

Hi I'm from Singapore. I'm still using a Psion 3a (2mb) with a 1mb model as spare for writing down my thoughts and reflections. Also, the Agenda view is better than the calendar options in most smartphones.

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Alex Cruickshank on August 23 2015

Yes, the 3 Series Agenda is fantastic. For many years I used it as a desktop PIM too, via the 3a emulator and some little DOS tricks. It's a toss-up which had the better PIM tools: Psion or Palm. Both were fantastic. In terms of simplicity, ease of use and just the right capabilities, I haven't found anything to match them even today. Separately, I think the ever-growing number of comments on this article show that the Psions are still great devices.

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Allan Edwards on August 26 2015

"Surely Psion's ageing patents can be negotiated or legally circumvented?" Or perhaps bought with a Kickstarter campaign and open sourced?

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Max on October 14 2015

Great! I've created a FB group dedicated to these amazing machines. It's in Italian and english https://www.facebook.com/groups/2111753558965708/?fref=ts

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Freddy on November 02 2015

hello, it's Nov 2015 and I am still using my Psion 5mx as my PDA and organizer for work and personal life. Nothing beats it. Ever. None of the iphone or smartphone have apps that could matched it. Hence Psion is still recording my life today. Oh, the Psion 3c is my alarm clock.

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Stuart Axon on December 08 2015

Arg, those patents .... if a modern version of this came out I would buy it in a heartbeat for the keyboard.

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Marvin Metzner on January 12 2016

I´m amazed about the numerous Psion and HandheldPC Users in here :). I have all this devices too ...until today in 2016. Psion 3mx, Psion 5mx, Jornada 680 and 720, NEC MobilPro 900, Sigmarion II, Casio Cassiopeia, Sharp Netwalker, HP200LX ... I love them and Change them in everyday use. No fashionable "Touch Phone" can bring me the fascination and Quality of the former Palmtop/Handhelds...

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Michel Munier on February 05 2016

Wow! I can't believe it - finally found somewhere where Psion has a pulse! I actually register on a forum "Psion Guild" to find out it has nothing to do with this! I started with a 3a then upgraded to MX5 I loved it despite its inability to keep up with the progress. But I had all my stuff on this 4 or 5 databases and other things. Calendar was so good. (Now battling with Google to show birthday with ages!) Only one problem the screen needed to be replaced a few times, and once too many ...But the second coming came in the form of an emulator! So I kept going after giving the machine an indecent burial via the bin! Recently my system crashed (W7 64 bits) and I had to get a brand new HD and Windows 7 64bts... Managed to save my Psion folder However I could not start it any more. I use to have a short cut from the "tool" folder "e32-sys" but now from it all I got was a black flash and no more. I actually had it in many places then remember I had it on a "cruiser" usb vault. But again no joy, Then I finally got it working again on my Asus notebook with a fresh install of W10! I've got no idea why the new W7 won't have a bar of it! But I've got fond memories of both. I remember being on holiday in Malaysia KL in rough minibuses going around and typing my diary, the 3a was a little easier but the Mx5 K board was better. Yes info and app were instant with them. I never understood why this machine could not be revamped with some colours and perhaps more compatible with other os (cut and paste etc) Well, with the emulator the databases are pretty good, And I loved the calendar too. I always run it with Crypto for secure file And I'm so pleased to "just now" being able to get the emulator going again. I tried to get it again on the net but got dead pages. I wonder if there is a site that still has it.

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Bo on April 01 2016

I have a Psion 5mx V1.05 (260). One of my calendar files is corrupt so cannot be read even when exported. I think all of the data is in the file but how can I read it?! Anyone any ideas. Willing to pay a person to extract the data if its possible.

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Charles Gauder on April 08 2016

Great article. You wanted to hear from people who still use these devices - well, I'm another one who can't be torn away from my Psion. I've used Psions almost all of my adult life, and have been using a Psion Netbook for about 10 years. The lack of connectivity is a bonus for me - no constant updates, no viruses, no chance of contaminating a clients network, no distractions (I'm looking at you Facebook). Perfect for keeping notes, contact information, passwords, bank account data (using a version of Microsoft Money from 1998) and a calendar that has never been bettered (IMHO). I've even got 3 years of 10 pin bowling scores stored using their spreadsheet application! Backing up couldn't be simpler - take out the CF card, pop it into a reader, backup and replace. I do intend to replace it eventually, when someone brings out a device with a keyboard of similar or better quality, the ability to work off-line, a battery that means I can leave it unplugged for weeks at a time, one that I can use without handing over all of my personal data and one that doesn't require constant updating. I've got a spare Netbook just in case ... (and 3x5Mxs, 2x3Mxs, 1x3c, 1x3a, 1xSeries7, 1xSiena in my little Psion museum)

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Tony Blatcher on April 28 2016

Another 5mx user here, with a spare 5 on the way. I've used Psions since the 3a, though I stopped using them years ago I bought another one and have started using them again. I work in an area where you have to switch mobiles off but needed something for notes other than a laptop, the 5mx fits the bill perfectly. I never lost my love for these PDA's, the Agenda is far superior to anything else, even now, but the thing I really love is the ability to embed documents within all the key apps, a genius idea. No other smartphone or tablet/computer does this as far as I know. Then there are the keyboard shortcuts, it makes the Psions so quick and easy to use. Data is also awesome, most apps are just databases with fancy and overbloated UI's, data is simple and does exactly what I need it to, for multiple uses, and of course, takes embedded documents. If someone bought a modern version of the 5mx out, with decent battery life and the same superb usability I'd buy one in an instant, but I doubt we'll ever see its like again. With that in mind I will buy a few of them and make them last, they're cheap and just brilliant at what they do, you can't beat them.

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Nono on May 28 2016

I have just bought a netbook, to write a book, and it's the better choice I know. Keyboard and instant on, and so on... I love it. I started with a 5.

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Elder William Howard on June 14 2016

So glad for this article. I had a "Wizard", a "Palm Pilot" and others I can't recall, but the Psion has a place in my heart.Me, I am a spreadsheet man and this device fit the bill for me. Compact and , as I remember, a great help. Will check ebay even today. Thanks for the memories.

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Chante Magruder on June 29 2016

Invaluable post . I loved the analysis ! Does someone know if I can find a blank CA FTB 199 example to type on ?

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Adam on November 29 2016

I still use mine daily but am down to my last one and it is a 5 rather than a 5mx. I will either get a new flexi for my 5mx or get hold of a 5 mx pro; the ability to work anywhere with long battery life I feel is still a real benefit and still have a window xp laptop with psiwin on to do a conversion of files to ms office format when I get back from trips out

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Andrew on January 20 2017

I have three or four unused Psion 3 and 5mx units that keep out of pure nostalgia for their elegance, utility, solidity and insanely excellent soft- and hardware design. To 'replace' them and my Ericsson IR GSM cell phone, I need a Windows laptop, an iPad and a (now-)'ancient' US T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy Relay smartphone (which has a slideout Qwerty keyboard, tiny, flimsy in comparison to a Psion, but useable for typing on a train and in a pinch) for BT internet access for the iPad and notebook. That's $3,000 of stuff to replace my 5mx and Ericsson IR phone, on which I could run a law-firm, write appeal briefs, do docketing and billing, handle 100+ emails per day and maintain thousands of contacts and a gruelling international agenda. This is progress? I thank Steve Jobs for this rush to an albeit-beautifully-designed low common denominator of iPhone and iPhone-like dumbed-down smartphone and iPad universe.

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Jan Borchers on January 27 2017

I'm a usability researcher, and while I've used Psion PDAs for text entry since 1992 until today so am obviously biased, there is objective scientific evidence explaining why your Psion is the faster writing tool: If you type a lot, you use most or all of your fingers, and rarely look at the keyboard. The Psion is faster than a smartphone because (a) its bigger keyboard lets you type with multiple fingers, and (b) because you can feel its physical keys and type without looking. Hoggan [1] showed that typing on an iPhone is about 1.5-2x slower than even on a tiny Blackberry-like physical keyboard, and that it stresses people out more. Varcholik [2] showed for full-size keyboards that typing on touchscreens takes about twice(!) as long as on physical keyboards. Chaparro [3] showed that even "soft keyboards" like Apple's iPad Pro Smart Keyboard or Microsoft's Touch Cover slow you down by 10 words per minute because they lack the mechanically moving keys. They also provide references to additional studies. The other thing that modern devices are struggling with is offering the right mix of features. For example, the Psion 5 Agenda lets you schedule something on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, or change the default length of appointments to, say, 90 minutes instead of an hour. Neither is supported on the iPhone. Finally, the physical keyboard also makes it quicker to navigate in and between apps, because its many keyboard shortcuts make interactions faster than tapping and dragging on a touchscreen, and can be used eyes-free. It takes me 11 seconds to open and unlock my Psion 5mx, switch to Agenda, go to today's date, then create an event that says "Bob" Monday 10 days from today from 10:30-11:30, and close the Psion again. Again, this takes me twice as long on an iPhone 7 Plus. Using Siri is about as fast as using the Psion, but it requires speaking that may be awkward in public, decent internet connectivity, and it doesn't give me a look at the calendar at the same time to see what else is going on. The eyes-free use that the Psion's physical, slightly larger keyboard supports is also more appropriate socially - I've jotted down notes on a Psion during a meeting while literally looking the other person in the eye, rather than having to stare at my touchscreen (or even dictate something using Siri). Same goes for taking notes eyes-free while looking at a presenter's slides. So the Psion form factor, and especially its keyboard, clearly remain an opportunity to reclaim the efficiency of mobile professionals who need to enter text or data, which is currently lost on mobile touchscreen devices. [1] E. Hoggan, S.A. Brewster, and J. Johnston: Investigating the effectiveness of tactile feedback for mobile touchscreens. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '08), ACM, New York (2008), pages 1573-1582. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357300. [2] P.D. Varcholik, J.J. LaViola, and C. Hughes: Establishing a baseline for text entry for a multi-touch virtual keyboard. In: International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 70, Issue 10 (2012), pages 657–672, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2012.05.007. [3] B.S. Chaparro, M.H. Phan, C. Siu, J.R. Jardina: User Performance and Satisfaction of Tablet Physical Keyboards. In: Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 9, Issue 2 (2014), http://uxpajournal.org/user-performance-and-satisfaction-of-tablet-physical-keyboards/

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Alex Cruickshank on February 01 2017

I am amazed and impressed that people are still commenting on this article more than two years after I wrote it, and also that so many of you still find the Psions useful, as I do. Many thanks for the comments - and the detailed references - and please keep them coming.

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Frans Eerhardt on February 08 2017

Well, here's one more Alex. Nice to know I'm not the only Psioneer left on the planet! Great to read your stories. Truly a personal assistant, my (Dutch) 3mx never crashed, never lost one bit of data in the 25 years I used it. Easily programmable, instantly ready, 100% safe for storing all passwords. It still excels with its flexible smart Agenda. Having to visit 5 clients daily, in day view I set the right page to 5 fields of 1h45m each and use the left for birthdays / to do's etc. Since I visit clients regularly (every 6 months or yearly) my to-do lists (Shift-Psion-T) are different zip-codes, showing the client I must visit first on top of the list (using deadline and priority) to easily plan my visits in the same neighborhood. Change the name from 'To Do' to 'Day Entry': done. Also, the ability to attach notes to an entry is very useful. Is there an iPhone that can match this flexibility? Or maybe I missed something. The Psions needed no upgrade, because they were programmed by smart people. No bells and whistles. That is, except for the 'Soft Bells' and 'Church bell' of course. Is there no need for a new version of the reliable peace of hardware I'm still using every day? Replace the screen with a slightly bigger digital paper, just black & white, + backlight, maybe with backlit keys, maybe a touch screen to use with a finger. And make it thinner running on AAA cells. Keep the possibility to write programs on it. Same Agenda, plus a key to attach spoken notes to an entry. A possibility to convert all the data from the old Psions. (I know I'm hoping for the impossible here, but it's fun to fantasize). In the mean time I keep collecting 3mx's, if I can find them for under €30. Some of them seem brand new. Agenda works until 2050, meaning the day I turn 89 I will be really pissed. O, and please add the € sign...

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