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      09.04.2010 17:13
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      For typing on the move, it's still hard to beat

      With most classic/vintage computers (and let's face it, the 1997-era Psion Series 5 now comes into that category) writing a review for a general audience could be seen as something of a waste of time, since in all probability the great majority of people who would enjoy using one already know about it and are already involved in the retrocomputing scene. The Series 5 is just a bit different, in that there are one or two areas where it still beats the opposition. It's very much a niche product these days to be sure, but that niche does at least still exist.

      And here it is: if you want a computer with a keyboard (not a keypad or on-screen virtual keys) with which to write quite long documents (meaning more than just the odd note), that has laughably small running costs, and that is massively cheaper to buy in the first place than a smartphone or netbook, then the Series 5 might just be it. There are all sorts of caveats, which I'll get to as I go along, but I bought mine almost as a toy and have found myself using it on a fairly regular basis for real work. I didn't actually write this review on it, since I happened to be sitting at my own PC anyway, but I could have done so, and without too much pain at all.

      Even in 2010, the keyboard is remarkable, and not just for the brilliant way in which it slides out smoothly into position as you open the case, thereby supporting the screen at an appropriate angle. In use it feels like a shrunken laptop keyboard, but once you get used to its quirks (a major one being that the comma is next to the space bar) you can type remarkably quickly on it. Some people claim to be able to touch-type; I wouldn't know, but I can certainly use four fingers and keep up 20 wpm or so for an extended period of time. It beats something like a BlackBerry keyboard to a mushy pulp, then stands there and sniggers over the body. You can get going straight away, too: when you turn the computer on, in one second you're exactly where you were - even if it's the middle of a document - when you turned it off. Try *that* with Windows!

      On the other hand, the Psion's 16-greys screen is a bit of a let-down, and really does show the little computer's age. It wasn't great even by 1990s standards, but comparing it with the display of a TI-84 calculator I happen to have here is embarrassing. The Psion LCD is adequate under good office-standard lighting or bright daylight; I have no problems with it on trains, for example. The touch-sensitivity works very nicely, too, and the stylus-controlled Sketch application is a doddle to use. However, the screen is simply not bright enough for an averagely-lit bedroom, where you have to squint in a way that users of the original Game Boy console will appreciate. Unlike that console, the Psion *does* have a backlight, but its sickly green glow is not particularly powerful. Thanks to a stupid design flaw, the internal screen cable may eventually break, too: if it does, these days it's cheaper to buy a new (well, new to you) Series 5 than to try to get it repaired.

      Still, I suppose you can't expect a huge amount from the display given the machine's low power requirements. The main oomph is provided by a pair of AA batteries, which in normal use will last a long time: I managed 24 hours on my last set of ordinary Duracells, though I hadn't been running really demanding applications or using the backlight very much. The backup battery is a standard CR2032 flat cell, so one major problem with vintage kit - finding a proprietary cell that isn't exhausted - is simply irrelevant here. Cleverly, if you take out the backup battery, the main batteries take its place, so you only lose your data if *both* sets are removed or exhausted - so don't swap both at once. Changing batteries is a quick job, requiring no tools beyond your fingers.

      The inbuilt applications on the Series 5 are fairly predictable: word processor, spreadsheet, agenda and so on. You probably won't be using the communications package or the rudimentary internet capability these days, partly because of that screen and partly since there's absolutely no broadband support - unsurprising given the 18 MHz ARM CPU. The word processor (excitingly called "Word" - what a brainstorm that must have taken!) is not bad at all, within its limits, and though it lacks the outlining facility of the higher-spec 5MX it's still more than adequate for bashing out a couple of thousand words. There's a spell-checker, but it's slow and a little bit stupid; the best thing to do is to bring your text over to a PC for that sort of thing. How? With either a serial cable or - if you don't have a serial port but do have a card reader - a CompactFlash card. Easy!

      Getting text from the Psion to your desktop is remarkably easy, though only once you know how. The official method is to use a program named PsiWin (freely downloadable from several Psion archives) and translate your text into Word format, RTF or whatever. However, this is a bit of a fiddle, and if you don't use Windows it's even more of a problem. The secret weapon is the free and cross-platform AbiWord word processor, which can read the Psion's "psiword" files directly. If you like, you can then copy-paste text from there into something like OpenOffice, which will preserve formatting. Going back the other way (PC to Psion) *does* seem to need PsiWin, though there may be some third-party software that does it; I don't know as I never do this.

      Talking of third-party software, there is a reasonable amount of it around, though far less than for contemporary Palm machines, probably because the Psion never really made it big in the US. Most of the commercial software has disappeared (there were ports of V-Rally and Sim City, for example) but plenty of shareware and freeware can still be found if you look for it. The Series 5 isn't really fast enough for rapid-action arcade games (though there are a few) but it's much happier with turn-based stuff. There's a native port of the classic NetHack dungeon-crawl, for example, a very good chess game, and even a Spectrum emulator - sound and all - by Palmtop BV, the forerunner of today's TomTom company! Not that it's *all* games (sadly!) as there are utilities to be explored too: mapping, macros, calculators, astronomy, encryption, etc etc etc.

      You get a reasonable amount of space in which to put all this: although there is a 4-megabyte version of the Series 5, it's pretty rare and the much more useful 8 MB version is far likelier to appear. Remember that when it was new, some desktop PCs were still being sold with that 8 MB! What makes a huge difference, though, at least to me, is the ability I touched on above, to add extra storage capacity by means of standard CompactFlash cards. Once again, using a non-proprietary format in 1997 helps us in 2010. This is also an absolute godsend for transferring files to and from a PC if, like mine, your desktop does not have a serial connection. The Psion is a little fussy with regards to what CF cards it will accept, but I've had good results with SanDisk cards, both 64 MB and 512 MB. And 512 MB of space on a computer like this is enormous!

      The operating system on the Series 5 is EPOC ER3, an ancestor of today's Symbian platform. (That used on the similar 5MX is ER5, which means that a few MX programs will not run on the "classic" 5.) File handling is done in a way vaguely reminiscent of Windows Explorer, and works reasonably well. EPOC has proper multitasking (which I can't help noticing that Mr Jobs is only *now* introducing to the iPhone!), and moving between internal memory and removable drive is pretty seamless. There are a couple of features which are mostly just fun, such as the ability to tell the Psion to switch on when you open the case and off when you close it. You can even write your own programs if you like, in the OPL language (similar to BASIC), though if you move beyond the basics it can get quite involved.

      I could easily ramble on for at least as long again about other features of the Series 5, such as its handy voice-recording buttons (which with the right setup are usable even when the machine is switched off!) or the little spring-loaded cubby-hole the stylus lives in. I've avoided mentioning the web browser or email program because they're now so far behind the times as to be nearly useless, and I'd advise considering the Psion as a strictly offline computer. The IrDA infra-red ability is likely to be of little use to most people in these days of Wi-fi either. But if you do a lot of writing on the move, and are fed up with the feeble attempts at keyboard simulation most phones offer, then this machine may well, even today, be worth a look.

      Since someone is likely to mention it if I don't, I'll touch briefly on the PsiXpda. That device is about as close as you can get to a new one of these, and not just in terms of its name, unsurprising as its creator used to work for Psion. In several ways of course it's better: colour screen, 3G capability, much faster, etc. However, it *doesn't* have several features important to me: it takes 30 seconds to boot up, for example: the Series 5 is on instantly. It has only laptop-level battery life (two to four hours) whereas the Psion has ten times that. And it's incredibly expensive, at something like £450. Way, way out of my range, and probably about £200 overpriced anyway. No; for me, a Psion really is the only practical option.

      So, what sort of amount might you have to lay out for an original Series 5? Judging by a quick survey of eBay, not all that much. The more powerful (16 MB and 36 MHz) Series 5MX you will be lucky to find in good condition for under around £70, which is a lot of money to spend on such an old computer. However, if what you mostly want to do is write, then the "classic" Series 5 is perfectly adequate and a lot cheaper: it shouldn't be too hard to find one for around the £30 mark, and if you're lucky like me you might even manage to get your hands on one for just £20. That's a single month's smartphone contract, and though I may be in a minority here, I know which of those is of more use to me!

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