Newest Not Necessarily Niftiest

January 1, 2003

Am I completely mad? When I heard that Psion had effectively stopped producing their palmtop computers I rushed off to nab myself another Psion 5mx. But if I’m mad, I’m not alone: a short item in the FT back in March 2002 featured the TV newsreader John Suchet raving about his 5mx, he even owns a Psion NetBook (similar to the series 7) and had just bought himself a couple of Psion Revos as spares. I think I’ve been eminently sensible, even wise; but read on, and decide for yourself.

For half the original release price, I’ve now got a spare palmtop for when my 5mx goes west, as it inevitably will one sad day, assisted in no small measure by rather too many incidences of palmtop slippage from unspeakable heights onto a variety of interesting surfaces. Through it all, it has kept working faithfully, although only after a few minutes’ recovery time in a couple of heart-stopping instances. It is now literally held together by sellotape, and I have accustomed myself to opening the clamshell just so, in order to avoid the sudden regurgitation of innards that were never meant to see the light of day. (No, that photo isn’t of mine – look, no dents, no tape, no funny angles!)

So why have I resisted the lure of colourful Palm OS-based PDAs or Microsoft Pocket PC products, when normally I’m a sucker for gadgets and toys of all varieties, as long as they’re cute, shiny and tiny enough? Simple:

· the 5mx is a proper palmtop computer with lots of extremely powerful, flexible software available for it

· it has a decent sized built-in keyboard you can touch type on (though it has a touchscreen with stylus too)

· it has a decent sized built-in keyboard you can touch type on!

5mx Joys

To me, there’s no substitute for a keyboard when it comes to speed and accuracy of data entry. The 5mx expands towards you ingeniously when you open the case, so it has a decent keyboard (not the largest, but better than everything else short of a mini notebook computer – in fact the keyboard is just like a laptop’s, but smaller), with good-sized keys and a reasonable amount of travel. It’s also possible to hold the 5mx and type with two fingers or thumbs – even while standing up.

Of course, that’s not all. The built-in applications are great (on which more below) and there’s loads of other software available for it. It uses the EPOC operating system (now owned by Symbian, the Psion spin-off whose shareholders include all the major mobile phone companies). EPOC/Symbian is extremely stable – in all the years I’ve had it, my 5mx has only crashed once, and a paperclip in the reset hole sorted that out easily. It’s instant on and off, without needing to save anything, though obviously saving first is always advisable. Battery life is excellent (I usually get about 15 hours from a pair of Duracell Ultra AAs, I’ve heard of others getting more); there’s also a lithium back-up battery. There are timely expiry warnings for both main and backup batteries. The 5mx comes with batteries but the mains adapter is an optional extra. I use the backlight only occasionally; obviously battery life will be longer without it.

At 12.5oz it’s heavier than a Pocket PC or Palm-based PDA, and it’s horizontal rather than vertical in shape (see photo). Personally I prefer a screen that’s wider than it is tall. Add a couple inches to the top of a Pocket PC and maybe half an inch widthways, turn it 90 degrees and that would make it about the size of a 5mx (6.7” x 3.5” x 0.9”). But it’s still small enough to fit into a jacket or shirt pocket or handbag. I also sometimes carry mine around in a waist “bumbag”, some people use shoulder holsters, camera cases etc. I’ve started using a padded case (since the last time I dropped it!) but previously often carried it knocking round loose in a bag. I’ve also invested in a hard Palmtec case ( to conserve the few remaining lives left to my 5mx.

I don’t use the stylus much, except for Freecell. and even then a fingernail works fine (don’t try that at home!). The stylus is housed neatly, push its end at the back right hand side of the 5mx and it pops out, slide it in and push click again to store it. The storage mechanism for mine however stopped working last year, so I no longer carry the stylus with me, but don’t miss it.

36MHz speed with 16MB of memory may not sound like much, but remember it all depends on how compact the files are and how efficient the computer is. Although I’ve had my 5mx for years, I have used up only 75% of the available space. And there is a slot for a CompactFlash card if you want to add more capacity, eg for further applications (Psion’s specs say 20MB, but I have a 32MB, others use even bigger cards). And of course you can back up onto card.


The 5mx has a powerful diary/calendar function (Agenda) with to-do lists functionality; a database (Data) as well as Contacts application (names, addresses etc); wordprocessor (Word – not MS Word – with basic functions eg formatting of text and paragraphs, styles, outlining, bullet points, even password protection, with a toolbar for commonly used functions), and spreadsheet (Sheet). Not to mention e-mail, Web browser (a Java virtual machine can be installed) and a comms program; Jotter (for notes), Sketch (drawings on the touchscreen etc); Spell (stand alone spellchecker); Calc (calculator with scientific option); OPL (for writing compiling and running programs); Record (a voice recorder); and even games. You can insert certain file types within others, for example a sketch, sound or spreadsheet into a Word file; sounds into a Data file of CDs, etc.

There’s lots of freeware and shareware plus commercial utilities and applications for the 5mx (it can run most software for its predecessor the series 5 too). Just a few examples: an indispensable macro utility (Macro5); file management, security/encryption and other utilities; powerful databases; time recording/logging applications and expenses logging (the lawyers’ essentials!); project management; mapping/route planning/GPS; dictionaries, e-books, reference documents/databases (eg Halliwells’ movie guide; wonderful “PocketInfo” guides to almost anything under the sun); finance/accounts packages; games; sound editors; graphics packages; handwriting recognition; comms/internet software like a WAP browser, the superb Opera browser, HTML tools, SMS messaging; emulators; and specialist software for eg navigators, doctors, engineers, musicians, divers. You can even use the Psion screen as a ruler.

Sound, Connections and Compatibility

There’s a built-in microphone and speaker. So it will dial phone numbers if you hold it to a phone mouthpiece. It acts as a voice recorder, with controls accessible even with the case shut, like a dictaphone, though of course sound files are memory-hungry. Other programs which make use of the speaker exist, eg you can use the Psion as a metronome, or play a keyboard on the touchscreen – not exactly grand piano in sound though.

The (non-standard) cable and PsiWin software to connect the 5mx to a PC’s serial port via the single 5mx serial port are included. I use them mainly to back up my data to the PC’s hard disk (painless – full backup less than half an hour, incremental weekly backups less than five minutes). You can also synchronise Agenda, Contacts and e-mail with Outlook and certain other applications, print to a printer connected to the PC (printing direct to a good range of popular printers is possible but you have to buy the cable separately), manage files on the 5mx with Windows Explorer, transfer files between 5mx and PC, even install Psion software to the 5mx over the cable by doubleclicking .SIS files downloaded to your PC. You can also convert Word files to MS Word format (or Word Perfect, .RTF etc) and vice versa (same with Sheet and Excel/Lotus 123 etc, Data files and CSV, Access etc, Sketch and bitmap, Jotter and text). Or you can just copy and paste text from PC to 5mx, or vice versa. The PsiWin CD-ROM also contains other applications like Opera, demos, PDF manuals (including programming manual, no longer provided in hard copy) and sample files. In addition, I now from time to time clone my backed up data from the PC to my spare 5mx so it’s an exact duplicate of my regular one.

There’s also an infrared port. You can connect to the Internet via a suitable mobile phone with infrared port and modem (or use a special Psion modem, or normal desktop or PC card modem with appropriate – separately purchased – adapters).

Using the 5mx

I use the Agenda and Data applications the most. I’ve already mentioned the ability to sync with Outlook calendar and contacts. But as a stand-alone application I love Agenda. It has the usual features such as day view, week view, “busy” (month) view and year view – as well as a to-do lists view and anniversary view. Appointments can have formatting, symbols and alarms set (audible or just visual – there’s a standard selection but you can also record your own sounds), and be made to repeat weekly, monthly or annually, eg the first Friday of every month. You can configure preferences for entries, lists and views etc extremely flexibly. My day view shows certain “to-dos” on the left (you can set up to-dos that appear every day on whatever day is “today”; but you can also have to-do lists which don’t display in the day/week etc views at all) and hourly slots from 8am display on the right of my screen. It takes a split second to change views using the touchscreen or keystroke combination.

That’s one of the things I love best about the Psion palmtops – the attention to ease and speed of use. The “silkscreen keys” along the bottom edge of the touchscreen enable you not only to call up or switch applications quickly, but also to switch between open files in the same application. (I do have a beef however with Psion’s removal of the very useful “Evaluate” function for quick calculations without leaving Agenda, a feature of the previous series 3 palmtops).

The lists function is brilliant. I use it for all kinds of lists, not just to-dos, eg a list of the songs for my album which I could fiddle about with constantly trying to decide on the perfect order. You can have many different lists, and attach Word, Sketch or voice files to individual to-dos. I use a to-do with a Word document attached, kept in a list which is configured to display list items in other views, for a running to-do list. I also have periodic to-dos for certain bills which pop up say 10 days before the due date, and then show every day in whichever is “today”. I keep most of my to-do lists in a separate file however, so I can quickly switch between viewing the contents of an attachment and my main diary appointments using the Agenda silkscreen key. Macro5 also enables me to assign other functions to silkscreen keys I don’t use much.

On to the silkscreen keys at the left of the touchscreen – other useful one-key functions include zooming in and out (4 levels), copy/paste, and send/receive text/data via infrared (eg beam appointments, text, contacts to another Psion). The Extras silkscreen key at the bottom provides access to the list of extra applications you’ve installed. Many applications have a toolbar along the top of the touchscreen, and also along the righthand side (usually to change views).

Other miscellaneous features I like include the ability to set the 5mx so that, on switching on, my contact details appear, and you can’t get any further except by typing a password. (This barrier can be circumvented by removing the batteries and back-up battery, but that also wipes all your data from prying eyes.) The time/date function allows you to designate summer time on or off, which automatically changes your times accordingly. There’s a neat “show off” Time function you access via the Extras silkscreen key, with a map of the world, where you set your “Home” city and can view times in both home city and any other city you want, and get the dialling code from your home city to the other city plus distance between them. You can even add new cities. The Control Panel lets you add/remove software, adjust keyboard repeat, and other control type settings.

Palmtops: The Rivals

The 5mx is not perfect by any means. Be warned that the wordprocessor is workable but nowhere near as sophisticated as Word (the Undo can be iffy); the spellchecker is slow, the “Find” in Agenda slowish and you can’t switch between a particular found entry and search results easily but have to repeat the search. The spreadsheet is quite good, but the database function is fairly basic (though more than enough for my rudimentary databases of personal and work contacts, music scores, books to read, etc). I personally find the method of reusing previous results in the calculator isn’t very intuitive. Primarily though, I’d prefer the touchscreen to be clearer, but using the backlight helps where necessary. A colour screen will never be possible now that Psion have stopped producing palmtops, but I live in hope of Nokia or another mobile phone company producing a decent Symbian-based Psion replacement – though I must confess I don’t really need a colour screen for what I do with the 5mx.

The Nokia Communicator uses the next generation of the EPOC/Symbian operating system, with a colour screen, and has most of the 5mx functionality (except Data – though third-party databases can be purchased), plus of course a mobile phone. But the keys are much smaller than the 5mx’s and it is rather large and heavy. Other mobile phone companies are also making EPOC-based combination PDA/phones (eg Ericsson). I’m waiting for such units to evolve, ideally with the introduction of a proper keyboard and built-in database (and for the price and weight to come down!) and I’ll probably then buy one of those rather than a Pocket PC or Palm-based PDA.

The Psion Revo Plus is also still around. It’s smaller (therefore “cuter” as well as lighter) but to me doesn’t feel as solid or as well built, and of course the keyboard is smaller, just that bit too small in my view. More importantly it’s not quite as powerful, lacking some of the software that comes standard with the 5mx, although you can get most of it as shareware or freeware. It’s good value for money though, I think, for those who don’t mind the lesser functionality.

I confess, I’m such a Psion fan (since my first, a series 3a) that I’ve never tried looking at Palm or Pocket PC-based PDAs in depth. Why should I, when virtually everything I need, I already have? I feel Psion has always built the better mousetrap, but the world didn’t beat a path to its door because these days what counts is better marketing – and the fact that most people don’t really want a better mousetrap, just a small, basic one (aka Palms etc) – and so began Psion’s unfortunately unstoppable downward slide. But if you want a powerful palmtop computer with a proper keyboard – and for me nothing else is fast enough – then, until virtual keyboards for other PDAs start functioning properly and become available in quantity at reasonable prices (or until Symbian-based mobile phones fill the gap), I feel the 5mx is still the only option. And in this context the phrase “Hurry, while stocks last” really means something – the price keeps going down, but so do supplies.

W K Hon is an Information Lawyer who has had a Psion of one variety or another since 1993 and would like to plug the completely unrelated if the Editor will allow it. All trademarks and service marks acknowledged. Photos reproduced by kind permission of Psion Computers PLC.