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A PDA For The Rest Of Us?

Now the smoke’s settling and the mirrors have been removed, many people are disappointed with the Newton. Sure it’s a great idea and the start of something important, but the killer applications have yet to appear. It’s also too expensive to fit the pocket-book budget – at least if you live in the U.K.

However, there’s at least one alternative that might be worth a look if you’re not afraid of a palmtop that looks like a computer. I’m talking about the Psion Series 3a palmtop. Psion is a British company that has been making small palmtops and portables since about 1984. Their earlier machines were frequently non-standard, over-engineered, and tended to sell to niche markets (like VARs in the retail data capture area) – until Psion introduced the Series 3 in 1991. This was Psion’s palmtop for the rest of us. Weighing in at six ounces and sized to fit a hip pocket, the Series 3 was no larger than a pocket calculator but boasted a built-in suite of applications, a multi-tasking operating system, connectivity to PC and Macintosh, and a graphical interface. The new Series 3a machines look the same from the outside – but are twice as fast, have twice the memory, boast twice the screen resolution of the Series 3. Finally, they cost half as much as a Newton. The Series 3 has sold more than a million worldwide, and the 3a’s sales figures are over 100,000 and climbing faster than the Newtons in the U.K.

What does it look like? And what does it do? — If you haven’t seen one, think of a make-up compact. Now stretch it until it’s just under six inches long, half an inch thick, and two inches deep. There’s a whizzy articulated hinge at the back that serves as a combination keyboard rest (when it’s open) and battery holder (it runs for 30 hours from two alkaline AA cells). The whole unit is finished in an unusual mottled grey finish. When you open it up, it looks like a toy laptop – screen in the top half, keyboard in the bottom half – except that nobody makes laptops six inches wide. The keyboard is a QWERTY-style unit with raised buttons; these are smaller than normal keys, but spaced out sufficiently that even a clumsy typist (like me) can manage two-fingered typing. Other people have reported being able to touch-type on the keyboard using all their fingers, although I remain skeptical. Above the keyboard, fronting the battery compartment, is a row of printed icons. These are touch-sensitive keys that invoke the built-in applications. The upper half of the case is given over almost entirely to the display.

The display is a bit-mapped, grayscale, 240 x 600 pixel LCD. It’s quite legible, even in full daylight, and is one of the best non-backlit displays I’ve ever seen. It’s sufficiently clear that it’s readable in all modes. You can work with it in 30-column mode, with clear, large letters; but it can also display text (for example, in the word processor) in smaller sizes, down to 23 lines by 78 columns. Even the smallest text is perfectly legible in daylight; but if you’re not happy, there’s a "zoom" key that enables you to zoom in (or out) in any application.

Speaking of which, there are several applications built in. Indeed, Psion seems to have tried to kill the third-party software market by giving the built-in applications so much functionality that they do everything a portable user could reasonably demand. There’s a WYSIWYG word processor that supports a range of features including style sheets, and that can export to RTF (Rich Text Format – if you have the link kit described below). There’s a spreadsheet with excellent built-in graphing. There’s an amazingly comprehensive Personal Information Manager, a fairly usable flat-file database, a calculator, speech recorder, alarm clock, and all the other stuff you’d expect. There’s also an interpreter for OPL (Organizer Programming Language), a BASIC-like language that Psion palmtops have used for years.

Now for some technical stuff. — The Series 3 and 3a are based on the NEC V30 microprocessor (a low-power CMOS implementation). The Series 3 runs at 4.7 MHz; the Series 3a at 9 MHz. The V30 is an enhanced 8086 clone that typically works about 30 percent more efficiently than the Intel chip it’s based on; it also includes hardware support for the full Z-80 instruction set. Running on top of this, Psion has written a multi-tasking icon-based operating system that is amazingly economical in the amount of memory it demands. It dynamically allocates memory between the running applications and the built-in RAM disk (from the common pool of 256K or 512K that the Series 3a comes with). The OS doesn’t look quite like anything else – but is certainly far easier to use than DOS, and far better suited to life in the pocket.

The expansion capabilities are interesting. Psion for some reason refuses to provide PCMCIA support – probably the major failing of this machine. Instead, they use proprietary cards; either FLASH or battery-backed RAM. These are configured as secondary RAM disks, leaving more of the machine’s main memory available for software. The cards come in a variety of sizes, up to 1 MB (with a 4 MB card due to ship early next year), and the machine has room for two. As it is, 512K is plenty to work with (although the 256K machine should be seen as a minimum usable system).

The serial interface is external, and an optional extra that in my opinion ought to be internal and standard. It consists of a cable that fits the Psion’s tiny adapter port, and a pod containing (among other things) some software in ROM. This consists of a terminal emulator, a scripting language, and the Psion MC Link protocol. Using the Mac or IBM connectivity kit, MC Link enables you to mount the Macintosh’s – or PC’s – hard disk on the Psion, so you can run applications from a directory on the desktop machine, or copy files back and forth. The desktop machine’s hard disk behaves just like a huge, slow RAM disk on the Psion. There’s also a LapLink-like program for the Mac or PC that enables the computer to get and put files on the Psion’s RAM disks. Transfer speed is limited (9,600 bps on the Series 3, 19,200 bps on the Series 3a), but is sufficient (given that the machine only has 512K to transfer in the first place). The point is, the Series 3a can read and write files that are interchangeable with Microsoft Word (RTF), can transparently put and get files and folders when linked to the desktop machine, and generally behaves well indeed in conjunction with a Mac.

In summary, the Series 3a acts like a miniature laptop. It’s not quite as friendly to computerphobes as the Newton, but it’s the latest branch of a ten-year-old series, and the bugs and glitches have been pretty much shaken out of it. It’s extremely good at talking to Macs, to the point where it’s compatible at the file format level. But its main advantages are its size and weight. I have a PowerBook. It seems to weigh a ton after I’ve been carrying it for a couple of hours, and it takes up a lot of room in my shoulder bag. In contrast, the Series 3a isn’t even noticeable; it sits in a pocket and it’s there when I need it. Finally, there’s the price issue. In the U.K., Newtons sell for U.K. pounds 750 (including tax; about U.S. $1,100). Even in the States you’ll find it hard to buy one for less than $700. The Series 3a with 512K, in contrast, sells for U.K. pounds 330 (inclusive of tax at 17.5 percent), and a complete kit with MC Link for the Mac costs 400 pounds (including tax, or U.S. $600). The Newton may be the future of portable computing – but the Series 3a is here today, half the price, and well worth a look.

You may also want to check out the newsgroup comp.sys.psion for more information. Not all sites may have this group yet, but there’s also a mailing list at <[email protected]>. And, finally if you search in Gopher’s Veronica on "psion" you should find a bunch more information, including pointers to FTP sites and FAQs.

[I couldn’t easily find a source for the Psion Series 3a in the U.S., but I’m sure if you check out the newsgroup or mailing list someone will point you to one. -Adam]

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