My Life Using a Psion PDA in the 21st Century

A fresh look at the folding pocket computers that were all the rage before tablets and smartphones killed them off

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.