Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Old Tech Is Great

I have been struggling for a while now from the lack of a decent smartphone. I have been using Nokia phones since 2006, prior to that I used Ericsson devices. Now I am stuck with a pointlessly tiny touch screen phone that has no wifi or decent calendar.

So, how am I to cope when I see all these grinning people with shiny new Android devices? Not to mention the fanboys exclaiming madly about how the iPhone 4 is the second coming...

What do I do then? Well, I turn to a gadget I bought around ten years ago to carry my calendar and contacts with me. This device is the Psion Series 5. I have blogged about old tech in the past, I have an almost working Acorn A7000+, an Acorn Electron as well as a few old consoles. My A7000+ is completely functional, running RISC OS 3.7 at the moment, but I am having trouble getting it connected to the Internet, anyway, that's a post for another day...

So, this Psion device. I don't think many people will remember them all that much, as far as I can recall they were never massive hits with the consumer, despite getting very good reviews. When I first got mine, they were still relatively expensive second hand, so I got myself two damaged ones and took them apart to make one working version. However, back in those days I didn't really need an organiser like that - it wasn't like I needed to keep a calendar of things to do, meetings and peoples contacts. However nowadays I do. On my present phone, I cant do this very easily, the only other device I can use for a calendar is my iPod Touch - but Apple seem to have nobbled first gen owners who don't want to upgrade iOS (and why should I? It is mainly updates for the next gen models - not mine). So, I have gone retro geek chic and pressganged my old Series 5 into action for the first time in a decade (alomost).

When I first started playing with them all those years ago, I found it very hard to get it speaking to Windows XP Pro. I am using Windows 7 Ultimate now, so I was a little concerned that the Psi-Win suite that comes with the device would not work. However, after a very brief install period it all works fine. Next on the list was the serial connection, the Series 5 doesn't use USB, it has either an IR port or mini RS232 jack for connectivity. Again, back in the day of Windows XP this was troublesome for me, but again on Windows 7 it works like a dream. Now I can sync my 10 year old Psion Series 5 with Outlook 2010 with no problems at all!

Another interesting thing about this device is it's heritage. The Psion Series 5 runs an operating system called EPOC - this was the direct ancestor of Symbian. If you look at older smart phones like the Ericsson R380 World Phone, you will notice that the interface is almost identical to that of a Psion Series 5. The same thing can be said about the Nokia 9210i as well, the UI is almost identical to EPOC, right down to the soft buttons on the side of the screen (on a Psion, these were either touch sensitive or a soft menu button).

In fact, Ericsson made their own version of the Psion Series 5MX (a slightly updated version) to work seamlessly with Ericsson phones called the Ericsson MC128. I haven't seen any of these devices at all on Ebay, if I ever did I would snap one up in an instant as I have an Ericsson R320 smartphone (count afford the R380 when it came out).

Anyway, the software that Psion created, EPOC, gave way to Symbian. But there is one interesting thing about this OS. It is very similar to that of RISC OS, the two are not directly related. I know that a RISC OS/EPOC Palmtop device was planned, it was called the Osiris but I don't ever remember it getting released.

The only downside I can see with this device these days is the monochrome screen and the lack of a decent messaging suite straight out of the box. I think the Series 5 MX and Series 5 MX Pro addressed these problems though.

So, lets take a look at my Series 5 in it's glory:

The connector at the back is the mini RS232 jack, on the left is a power cable (I have never seen an official Psion power cable for these, so I am actually using a Nokia ACP-12X charger). The Series 5 is pretty good on batteries, but if you are using cheap rechargeable ones like me, it will gobble them up in seconds.

Now for the device opened:

The Series 5 has a very clever way of providing a decent keyboard for typing, when you open it, the keyboard slides out towards you, pushing the screen back to a decent angle. I think this is one of the most ingenious designs ever for a PDA/Netbook.. You can see under the screen and on the left of the screen there is a silver strip. This is touch sensitive and will open up any of the built in apps. You can also control the screen etc from the left hand controls. On the right, there are some touch sensitive soft menu items, such as the control panel.

Now, underneath the device:

I included this shot to show you the last little surprise this device has. You can just about make out that there is a small black panel there - this clever little thing actually hides the controls for a dictation mode the Series 5 offers. With the device closed, you can actually slide this back and record what ever voice memo you need. If you open the device up, you will get this recording presented to you for playback. I am not sure how many people actually use voice memos these days, but you can see that the Series 5 definitely had a lot of thought and effort ploughed into its design.

One final thing about the Series 5, it even comes with it's own development environment installed as standard. The device offers OPL allowing you to create your apps and scripts for this device. It is actually supported in the Sony Ericsson P800/P900 as well as the Nokia Series 80 Commincators (although I do not remember seeing the development editor available in these devices.

So that is it, the Psion Series 5. I think it is as much of an oddity these days as it was when it was first released. It is a fantastic example of British engineering and was definitely ahead of it's time on it's release considering the popularity of netBooks now on the market, not to mention our smartphones...

I will be using mine for a little while yet untill I can track down the last Psion netbook to be released somewhere.

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