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Pscience5: 'Back to the Future' with a netBook

(This is an article I wrote for FoxPop and which was published there in March 2003 describing why I effectively left the Psion scene - and then why I decided to return...)

‘Back to the future’ with a netBook

(February 2003)

I have a secret to reveal… I have been a closet non-Psion user for the past 18 months! As someone who has owned and used Psions since 1994 (initially with a 3a), who has written software for them since 1998, and who has maintained or help maintain EPOC websites since 1998 also; this is a fairly major admission on my part!

The rot set in back in 2001 when Psion announced their decision to quit the PDA market. I had long been holding out for a colour (and/or updated) version of the 5mx – then my main machine – and this was the final nail in the coffin. That combined with the fact that my wife (then a Series 5 ‘Special Edition’ user) was totally fed up with PsiWin’s then poor synchronisation and wanted to get a Compaq iPAQ with it’s apparently seamless Outlook synchronisation. So we did the ‘dirty deed’ and bought both an iPAQ 3660 and an iPAQ 3630 in August 2001. It was hard moving away from EPOC and the EPOC 'scene' (or should that be 'Pscene'?!). I felt like I was deserting my roots in a sort of self-guilt kind've way...

However on the whole, the iPAQs served us well. Both machines were upgraded to PocketPC (PPC) 2002 when the upgrades became available and (as a confirmed gadget freak) I’ve bought various add-ons (e.g. a Stowaway portable keyboard, a Vaja leather case with integral CF card slot, etc.) and a lot of 3rd party software (e.g. Pocket Informant, Pocket Backup, Pocket Controller Pro, TinyStocks – to name but a few). At first, the joy of having a machine in the palm of your hand – seemingly as powerful as the best that Psion had to offer – and with a gloriously bright colour screen was wonderful. There were downsides too of course… Both my wife and I were used to our Psion’s being fairly self-sufficient machines and not requiring much maintenance by us. The number of times that one of us lost days of entries because we’d forgotten to put the unit on charge at night and hadn’t done a very recent backup were many and varied. Ah, the joys of backup batteries – so simple, yet so essential – so why didn’t they design them into the iPAQ?!?

Over time I realised however that I missed a keyboard. True, I’d bought the (technically extremely clever) Stowaway keyboard that I could plug my iPAQ into – but that doubled the bulk of what I had to carry and was only really usable on flat surfaces (no use perched on your lap for example). Plus of course you tended to look a complete geek if you whipped it out in a meeting to take notes! ;-) Still, you could still peck away at the on-screen Qwerty keyboard (or, in my case, Fitality – a faster 3rd party replacement on screen keyboard) so that was okay, right…?

And then fate took its course. I changed jobs in December last year and my new employer – as part of its corporate strategy – gives all its employees a BlackBerry. I have to admit, the BlackBerry is a delight to use - superb push email technology over a secure GPRS network, basic PIM PDA, and GSM phone in a package smaller and lighter than a Psion revo. Anyway, this now takes care of all my handheld PIM needs – not to mention my business email. Overnight my iPAQ was redundant as a PIM – and looks pretty silly sitting right alongside another handheld device. It seems that now is the time to be looking for a replacement – a keyboard-based replacement.

I did seriously consider looking at HP’s Journada range of clamshell devices. However, having spent some time (and a not inconsiderable sum of money) on PocketPC 3rd party software; I have to admit that I found it somewhat lacking compared with the EPOC software I’d used in the past. True, some of the handheld WinCE software might be different/better than that for PPC – but that wasn’t really the crux of the matter for me. 1) The PIM apps. built into Psion’s range of devices were the best I’ve ever used, and 2) I already had all the 3rd party apps. that I needed for EPOC – and I didn’t really want to have to pay again for yet another set of 3rd party apps. for the clamshell WinCE format.

Also since I now had a handheld unit for portable use (i.e. the BlackBerry), the size of my keyboard unit was no longer so critical. I didn’t feel constrained to use the 5mx/Journada size format. No, what I probably wanted now was something like a sub-notebook. I briefly thought about some of the nice Sony Viao’s that are full-blown PCs – but at anything from £1500 - £2000, these were way over what I wanted to spend.

The conclusion became inescapable. It was going to have to be either a Series 7 or a netBook. I didn’t really want to pay full price for a new netBook (easily my preferred choice between the two since it has more memory as standard, a faster processor speed, better PC Card support, etc.) and so – after a few weeks scouring / – I secured the machine I wanted. There are in fact some real bargains to be had at these places. Believe it or not I paid just £225 for a 6 month old netBook including the 32Mb expansion DIMM! That's less than a quarter what you'd pay for the equivalent new machine. Whilst I count that as unusual (read 'very lucky'!) , you can certainly pick up a netBook or a Series 7 for around the £300 level if you shop around...

And I have to admit, it’s been a joy returning to EPOC on the netBook. Compared with my 5mx, the screen is superb. Yes, it’s supposed to be difficult to use outdoors in strong sunlight - but who am I kidding?!? I live in the UK – strong sunlight; what’s that?? And on the rare occasion when the weather is kind enough to make me want to sit around outdoors, I’m unlikely to be wanting to type letters or surf the web! And as for the keyboard… Well, the 5mx’s is the best I’ve seen in its form-factor – and the netBook/Series 7 is the same – still unequalled in its class. Psion always did know how to design ergonomic devices.

But the killer fun-factor that I’ve been rediscovering is the EPOC Operating System (OS). It’s simple yet sophisticated, intuitive, and fast – but over and above everything else it’s quite simply the most elegant I’ve ever used! I don’t think I can say that I’ve ever enjoyed just navigating around an OS – but I do with EPOC.

Whilst I’m salivating over things EPOC, there are a few other things that I feel the need to gush over...

1) Agenda. Quite simply, it’s always been the PIM (Personal Information Manager) that I’ve compared others to on any platform. The closest programs on PPC were Pocket Informant and Agenda Fusion (both shareware) – but neither was quite as intuitive and easy to use. In my opinion it's the best there is.

2) PsiWin 2.3.3. Ironically, this was released just prior to when I jumped from the EPOC ship originally. This is what PsiWin 2.0 (or at the very least 2.1) should have been - and is perhaps arguably one of the two main reasons that Psion hasn't done well in the mainstream PDA market (the other being extraorindinarily poor marketing in N. America). Finally they got the seamless Email, Agenda, and Contacts synchronisation right. Not that I'm saying this is an easy task - or that Psion was particularly bad at it. The grass always seemed greener on the other side when my only experience was of PsiWin. Having spent some considerable time with ActiveSync (MicroSoft's equivalent to PsiWin), I can confirm that it's not necessarily as perfect as everyone in the Psion world always assumed that it was. It can be equally idiosyncratic - refusing to sync sometimes, refusing to connect quite often, etc. Going back to PsiWin has - believe it or not - actually been quite a pleasant experience!

3) CopyAnywhere. This is - IMHO - one of the unsung diamonds (oops - mixing my metaphors!) of the PsiWin connectivity story. Quite simply it lets the user highlight some text (say) on one device, copy it on that device (Ctrl+C) and seamlessly paste (Ctrl+V) it on the other device. The two machines effectively become one as far as copying and pasting is concerned. A simple concept but extrordinarily powerful in use - and something I sorely missed on the PPC platform. The 3rd party shareware PPC program - Pocket Controller Pro - came the closest to reproducing this feature (I spent some time nagging them to do it!) - but it never became quite as easy as with the Psion.

4) 3rd party programs. Another thing irritated me slightly about the Microsoft platform. Whilst there was a reasonable volume of 3rd party applications for PPC and WinCE, they rarely came close to the EPOC scene in terms of a) sheer functionality, and b) affordabilty. Many (although not all) of the programs written in the Microsoft world seemed to me to be primarily interested in one thing - extracting the maximum amount of money from your wallet for the minimum amount of effort on their part. At a guess I'd say that less than 10% of the programs on the PPC/WinCE marketplace were freeware. I'd compare that with (perhaps) 40% in the EPOC world. And a number of the free (or cheap shareware) programs written for EPOC were quite simply better/more functional than the best full-price commercial offerings in the Microsoft world. Don't get me wrong; I don't object in principal to paying for good quality software. Indeed I must have spent a couple of hundred pounds on shareware or commercial programs for the PPC - and some were worth every penny. It's just the nagging feeling I always had that in the EPOC world it would have cost me half as much - or been freeware - or been built into the OS in the first place! By way of example; Microsoft's Pocket Money on the PPC is free - but effectively forces you to buy Microsoft Money for your PC so that you can import .ofx files, etc. from your bank/building society and then synchronise with the PPC. And compared with an EPOC freeware offering such as Malcolm Brant's superb 'abp5' (which by the way offers this import facility built in), it's got a tiny fraction of the functionality. Another example; 'Bournes' (a card/racing game available on many platforms) is commercial software for the PPC. Frederic Botton's 'MBournes5' (and Francis Goguelat's colour upgraded version for the Series 7 / netBook - 'MBournes7') offers exactly the same functionality/game for free. The list goes on...

5) The EPOC community. I believe that the EPOC community is in many ways going back to its roots. When I first got involved with Psions (a 3a was then 'it'), the online community - such as it was in 1994 - was largely based around the bulletin boards on CIX and CompuServe. There was a real sense of community and a self-help / can-do mentality. With the advent of the Series 5 and then 5mx, Psion moved more into the mainstream mass-market world and the 'community' expanded to such an extent that this level of intimacy (if I can call it that) was - at least partially - lost. Well the Psion community has contracted again with Psion's official withdrawl from the consumer PDA market - and it's once more become a very 'cosy' place to be...

So there you have it. I've gone back to my future with a netBook. And I find myself once more actively enjoying a PDA. I suspect in fact that I'm rather like someone who's recently given up smoking after a long period - I can't help but go on about it (much more than I ever did pre-smoking - erm, PPC)! I've become a 'born-again' Psioneer. An EPOC Evangelist! Haleluia! May the lord have mercy on my soul... ;-)

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