The Verge doesn’t understand Psion…

Here are some excerpts from a recent article at The Verge called Review: the 1997 Psion Series 5 personal digital assistant. My comments are below each one.

That monochrome screen, however, is the Psion Series 5’s big weakness — it’s really, really bad. Bad compared to a computer. Bad compared to a graphing calculator. Bad compared to the light-up alarm clock I had when I was 10. It’s both low-contrast and glossy, nearly unreadable under anything but artificial ambient light, unless you turn on a green backlight that I’m guessing eats battery fairly quickly. I’d seen this in old reviews of the Series 5, but it’s still impressively awful.

The screen was perfectly viewable in all conditions and was a major part of what contributed to the huge battery life. The stylus was always accurate and it displayed an impressive amount of information on the screen at any time when compared to other PDAs of that era.

Part of the issue is that it takes time to get used to any small keyboard. I have tiny enough fingers that I can type fairly well on the condensed design, but it relegates some important punctuation (like my beloved en-dashes) to awkward corners or secondary functions. Whatever its shortcomings, it’s a fun little writing machine, smaller and more convenient than any laptop or tablet on the market.

This is obviously a highly personal thing, but to this day I struggle to find any keyboard that is not full-sized to be as good as the Psion one.

Even with the guides, it took me about an hour and a half (plus a serial-to-USB adapter that cost half as much as what I paid for the Psion itself) to transfer a file. Something that merited a scant two pages in the Psion’s giant manual required extracting the virtual hard drive from Windows 7’s defunct “XP Mode,” loading it into the VirtualBox emulator, loading drivers for the cables, finding a copy of PsiWin on the internet, synchronizing the baud and port settings across PC and Psion, realizing I’d accidentally unplugged the serial cable, restarting both VirtualBox and the Psion a couple of times, and finally setting up a shared folder to transfer obsolete Word-compatible documents containing my writing.

The Psion was released almost 2 decades ago. I really cannot understand why this is even covered and why it warrants complaining about. Time moves on…

To a modern, casual user, there’s not much to do besides write on the Psion. It’s apparently possible to create and run custom programs on it, but in general, all its uses are marked right on the front: agenda, spreadsheet, sketchpad, world clock. There is also a version of Minesweeper called Bombs. I played it on the subway. It’s okay.

Yeah, like thousands of programs from games to finance apps to anything else you want to do really. It was a phenomenal experience at the time and was much more than just a portable word processor. If I reviewed a piece of tech from the 1960’s, I would at least do some proper research to understand what the product could actually do. 

The Psion’s Achilles heel is, according to complaints online, the cable connecting its dim little screen. Every move of the hinges supposedly stresses it a little, and if I use mine long enough, I’ll eventually stop seeing the display altogether. After all, with few exceptions, there’s no such thing as an antique computer — just an old one. But the Psion was such a good idea that I wish someone would pick it up for a modern device (or that this already exists, and I just haven’t heard about it). If there’s a market for custom train simulator controllers, there has to be one for this.

Not is, was. I owned the Psion 3, 3a, 3c, Sienna, 5, 5MX, 7 and others, and in all that time I did not have one screen cable problem and none of them ‘ever’ crashed. Not once. It was an amazing PDA at the time and when I moved to Palm, the experience always felt somewhat lesser, and that was also true of Windows PDAs, and in some ways even the iPhone. The 30 day battery life, incredible keyboard and impressive screen (yes, it actually was) made it a device that did much more than we could have dreamed of at the time. 

Does it stand up today? In many ways of course it doesn’t, but I am still convinced that it could do a lot for me if I was a vintage computer carrying hipster. This article does not represent the Psion 5 accurately and the writer needs to do a little more research in my opinion.

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