Psion-ara Psion?

April 30, 2003

W. K Hon’s article about the Psion (see vol 13, issue 5, p 5) tempted me to dust down my collection of Psion kit – I’ve had just about every machine they produced from the Organiser II onwards and had come to love them. I’ve seen the Psion machines evolve into the sleek machines based on Psion’s own operating system known as “EPOC” ¯ the basis for the Symbian venture into mobile telephones, and said to be the future for integrated mobile devices. Maybe.

For about the last year or so, I have been using the Compaq iPaq – I got an iPaq immediately after Psion announced it was withdrawing from the PDA marketplace. (“PDA” stands for Personal Digital Assistant, by the way, although for some it also means “Public Display of Affection”: for many attached to their gadgets, it amounts to the same thing).

So the question is: how does the Psion shape up against the iPaq, which has behind it the might of Microsoft and its Pocket PC 2002 software?

Form and Interfaces

The beginning of understanding the answer to this question is to look at the different form factors and interface of the two machines. Psions have always had keyboards, iPaqs can connect to an additional keyboard, but the principal way of interacting with these devices is to use the character recognition software (which is in fact very reliable, and much more reliable than you might think for those who remember the early days of the Newton). You can also use the virtual keyboard, pecking out individual letters with the stylus on a miniature screen keyboard, but this will make you go cross-eyed very quickly.

Before you get this far in using the two machines, you will notice the difference in the screens, both in terms of size and colour. Psions were always mono, apart from the last venture into colour with the sub-laptop Series 7/netBook. However, apart from such superficialities, the biggest difference is size – you can actually work on a Psion, typing documents or looking through and editing, because the screen allows you to look at A4 documents with relative ease. I’m not saying that working on a 50-page contract on a Series 5mx would be a pleasure or entirely without frustration but, believe me, it can be done.

The minuscule screen of the iPaq just isn’t up to the job: this is what I mean about the different purposes of the machines. The iPaq is a portable window onto your PC-based data, the Psion is designed from the ground up to be an independent machine which can interact with a PC. More of that in a moment. In years gone past, I happily sat in a hotel room typing on the keyboard of a Psion 5mx while taking witness statements from witnesses based in Wales ¯ this just isn’t possible with an iPaq. (Technically it is possible of course, but the size of the screen and the slow speed of using handwriting recognition will quickly dissuade you from this course. Using the attachable keyboard makes no difference: the screen is simply too small to allow you to see what you are doing).

On the question of screens, of course, the ageing Psion is no match for the gorgeous colour of the latest devices, whether Pocket PC or Palm. In fact, the screen of the 5mx is probably the worst, gloomiest dark green-grey screen you have ever seen. But I don’t think anyone would use a Psion nowadays for its looks; you have to admit that the iPaq has the market cornered there.

Akin to screens is form factor: “is that a Psion 5mx in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me” is a phrase that comes to mind. You really could put an iPaq in your breast shirt pocket, but the 5mx just isn’t going to fit. Putting it in your trouser pocket could cause physical injury.


All that said, the Psion wins hand down for usability. The applications are all fully featured. I am not saying that you can do anything in Psion Word that you can in Office Word (I hate that you can’t do footnotes in Psion Word for example) but it formats text fine and allows you to work on documents on the move.

Pocket PC applications, in comparison, are extremely poor. Let me give an example. If you copy an Office Word document with a table in it to a Psion, Psion Word cleverly inserts a spreadsheet object in the document allowing the table to be kept in its place. Pocket Word, on the other hand, simply loses (permanently) the formatting, leaving a bunch of unformatted words where there used to be a table. Remember: the formatting is now lost on the iPaq so, if you copy the document back to Office Word on a PC, you are still left with a jumble of words where there used to be a table.

This superiority of applications goes across most of the Psion range of inbuilt apps. They are proper apps, designed to be used alongside PC equivalents but away from a PC. In fact, you could use just a Psion for everything as long as you hadn’t set your heart on an impressive DTP’d appearance for your documents. In theory, you could run your office on just a Psion – the latest netBook was designed to allowed network access. The only possible exception to Psion’s superiority here is the inbuilt Contacts app, which doesn’t allow you to categorise your contacts (so splitting them into business, personal, restaurants etc isn’t possible). As against which, the Psion Calendar and Tasks function are a marvel, quite the best way of organising your life. The native apps on the iPaq are just toys in comparison with the Psion.

Working with an iPaq will quickly show up another deficiency: compared with the Psion, it is like working in slooooow motion. Top of the range iPaqs are advertised as having extremely fast processors, but it doesn’t feel like it. I don’t know how Microsoft programmed the Pocket PC operating system, but the applications are all large, and take in some cases a considerable amount of time to load and then to work. With Psion, you just press a button and it all happens in an instant. In practice, I find this a major detraction from using the iPaq.

However, the one area where I appreciate the iPaq is in synchronisation with the desktop. Everything happens automatically when the iPaq is connected to the PC – so if your assistant puts a meeting in your Outlook calendar, it appears immediately and automatically on your iPaq. No need to press any buttons as with the Psion.

Psion’s equivalent, the truly temperamental and frustrating program known as PsiWin, throws up more than a few problems along the way. Many experience problems just trying to get the thing working at all – it depends on a COM port, no USB connection here, and most people don’t know where to look for one of them on a computer these days. Using a COM port also means that transferring documents is slower than with an iPaq’s USB connection.

Best Buy?

So which is better? This note has been typed on my netBook in Psion Word – a joy to carry about, the keyboard is a treat to use, and with a colour screen measuring 16cm x 12cm, you can see lots of text as you type. I remember taking this device on holiday to Thailand in the middle of a transaction and using it to get copies of the latest drafts sent to me over the Internet for review. It is instant-on, has a battery life of some 8 hours, works well with a modem card and is fast and versatile.

If Psion, or someone else, suddenly announced that they were re-entering the PDA market with this beloved EPOC software, with an updated 5mx, better screen, better PC sync-ing, I’d go for it like a shot. The iPaq looks more modern, is more geared to entertainment (it plays mp3 files for those into serious copyright infringement) and is more truly portable, but I’m afraid the Psion wins hands down on plain usability. No, you can’t put it in your pocket, but if you want a machine you can take with you anywhere and without breaking your shoulder (like a laptop would), and which lets you carry on working without too much worry about battery life or formatting, then the Psion is clearly the winner.

Having read W. K. Hon’s article, maybe I’ll change back. Psions are still available ¯ I see is still selling refurbished 5mxs for about £250, and there is still plenty of shareware available (although to judge by the dates of the latest versions, much of it now seems to be abandonware) ¯ what’s more (and this is the key point), for a lawyer, it does what you want a handheld to do. You can work on long documents. Easily.

The latest rumour is that Psion is going to release a new netBook – but running Pocket PC rather than Psion’s own EPOC. We shall have to see what happens. I just hope they give us a choice to use the EPOC apps rather than Pocket PC equivalents.

Typing this on the Psion netBook has made me wonder what I shall take in to the office tomorrow morning …. Anyone out there want an iPaq, one careful owner?

Richard Stephens, Field Fisher Waterhouse