Psion Series 5: the BEST portable computer? 1997 RETRO REVIEW!
5 one of the best portable computers ever made packing a full office suite a surprisingly usable keyboard and a long battery life into something that slipped into a jacket pocket. The british mini computer remains an impressive feat: almost a quarter of a century later launched in 1997 at 499 pounds for the eight megabyte version that you see here. The series five built upon cyan’s years of experience in the handheld personal digital assistant or pda market. Now science started life as a software company, developing the horizons tape bundled with every sinclair zx spectrum, along with a full office suite for the sinclair ql and a bunch of classic games in between its first pda was the organizer launched in 1984 for 99 pounds. But the model that really set the standard for clamshell style pdas was the series 3, which arrived in 1991 for 199 pounds. The series 3 gave us a taste of what a pda really could be, but the series 5’s ambition stretched way beyond at a time when most handhelds were firmly pc companions. The series 5 was a standalone computer with a full office suite and surprisingly usable keyboard. That happened to all fit inside a jacket pocket. I was working a personal computer world magazine in the uk when it was reviewed in the september 1997 issue. Paul wardley wrote the main review, but i remember using my own unit to write many other articles and the one i filmed for this.
Video is in fact my original model, so let’s see how much of it still works. Almost 25 years later, the series 5’s highly efficient, 32 bit processor and epoc operating system allow it to run on just two double a batteries for up to 35 hours, and all i needed to get my unit up and running was to pop in a pair of Charged envelopes and a fresh backup battery, one of the biggest challenges with old devices is getting data on and off them. The series 5 was equipped with serial and infrared ports, but sadly i’d long lost the cable. I didn’t have anything that would talk to the infrared anymore. Sadly, there’s no wi fi either. Although an optional travel modem was available, but there is a slot for compact flash cards and luckily i still have a handful of cards and a usb reader. Worryingly. The first few cf cards, i tried weren’t recognized by the series five, but i did find a one gigabyte, sandisk card that still worked. So i had a means to get data to and from the device efficient software and hardware aside the thing that still impresses the most on the series. Five is the cunning clamshell design, where the keyboard slides out as you open the unit providing counterbalance for the touchscreen. Even today, it turns heads, although the screen cable on some units could break over time. So do beware if you’re buying a second hand unit, the keyboard itself may only measure 160 by 70mm, but remains surprisingly comfortable for typing, with a decent degree of travel on each key back in the late 90s.
I used this actual series 5 unit to write. Many of my reviews and columns for pcw magazine while traveling something i wouldn’t attempt today with the touchscreen keyboards on modern phones or tablets. The five and a quarter inch display sports 640 by 240 pixels with 16 shades of grey and touch sensitivity too. Now you could jab it with your fingers, but the supplied stylus conveniently stored within the unit is more accurate and responsive. Okay, so here’s my original scion series – 5 from 1997. This is the original model, not the updated 5 mx version, and you can pick these up on ebay for around 50 pounds. Although again, do beware of that broken screen, cable now, the first thing you’ll notice other than the immediate startup, is that the screen is very, very low. Contrast and i’ve tried my hardest to minimize reflections and best position, my camera, to show it in the clearest possible light. But the fact is it’s just not very very clear. However, we can backlight it by holding the function key and pressing the spacebar that’s it on. You see that greenish glow that’s it off and that’s it on now having the backlight on, of course reduces the battery life, but it can make it a lot more visible under the right lighting conditions. It is kind of buzzing a little bit when you have that. Backlight on, hopefully, that’s not being picked up by my microphone okay, so this is the basic user interface and the screen is touch sensitive.
You can use your fingers to jab at it, but i prefer to use the supplied stylus. So the first thing we’re going to do is go into the documents folder and here you’ll find the applications, although they are also running along the bottom, in a kind of touch bar. I guess long before apple came up with their own version and you’ll also notice. Some touch controls here, on the left hand, side these change depending on what application you’re in, but basically this first one is a drop down menu that gives you file and edit disk view options below this. Your basic editing, command, cut copy and paste and below that there infrared communications. Now, at the time, infrared did seem like the future of wireless communications, but today, of course, you’re not going to find many things that will talk to it and below this, a control where you can change the magnification of the icons on the screen. I prefer that maximum view now i’m going to start off by showing you the word processor, because this is the application that i used more than any other and i’m just going to try and type something it’s going to be very easy with the camera right in Front of me, but here goes: how are you now, of course the word processor is completely editable, believe it or not. I wrote a lot of articles on this device and i really enjoyed it. You know look, we can change the fonts there’s a huge selection of three to choose from.
I think that original times you new moment was probably best of all and the font size. You can of course change. I’Ve got it on quite a big one here to make it clearer if you prefer other office applications. There is a fully functional spreadsheet database, which i admit i never used an agenda for your schedule and you can see here the date december 1996 to january 97.. We also have a really attractive looking world clock here. I remember being very impressed by this bitmap graphic of the world that will tell you exactly what time it is wherever you’re going to go next up the calculator available in standard or scientific versions with extended functionality can flip those around. If you prefer, oh and speaking of time, the clock in the bottom right hand, corner can be flipped between a digital or an analog format, really showing off the touch. Sensitivity of the screen is the sketch app here which allows you to literally draw right on the screen with different pen thicknesses. We can do some gray, colored shapes you can draw with their with lines. You can draw shapes that are outlined so it’s filled in and these images can be embedded in your word and spreadsheet documents. Next, up on the taskbar is extras, and here you can see, we’ve got a spell: checker a programming language, a communications option, because you could connect the series 5 to a compatible mobile phone or even use scions optional travel modem to get the device online.
But having tried that again recently, the experience isn’t really sufficiently compelling to to really pursue that other than just to see it working. I prefer to use the series 5 today as an offline device and use the cf card to transfer data on and off it now. One of the other standout capabilities of the series 5 was the ability to record audio. You could do voice memos on it and they even included controls on the outside of the case, so you could use it as a voice memo recorder, even without opening the clamshell. However, mine does seem to have a few problems with the the audio quality. If i playback a file i recorded earlier yeah, it sounds like it’s trying to communicate with a uh, fax machine, doesn’t it or or to negotiate with a modem, so maybe it’s picking up some interference from something or other, but that’s not working particularly well anymore, but It did back in the day if i return to the extras tab, you can see that the final three icons are for games now. Bombs is a game that came with the series five but asteroids and reverse here: two that i’ve actually installed in the past couple of days to see how the process works in 2021 and, as i explained, that i’m going to try and multitask in there have a Little game of othello, as i call it or reversey as it’s known in the game, i’m playing white and it’s.
My turn now let’s see: okay, let’s put my counter there and now it’s back to me again so there’s two different ways you can install software on a series. Five one is to connect it with a serial cable to a pc and uh download and install a program that way the actual installation files are called sis files. Now i don’t have that serial cable anymore, so i can’t do that. However, you can install them directly on the series five. I can’t believe it’s, giving me that corner position, not that smart, oh your computer um and you can copy them onto a compact flash card, the sys files and actually install them directly using the series 5.. Now you do need an additional piece of software to be able to add those programs that came on later sounds. It was not available online, but luckily you can download that too and use that to install games. I don’t think i can play either of these positions. Can i no i can’t play here all there. I think you may have won uh, which means, as i continue talking about this let’s just fire up this last game, asteroids and see what this looks like on the series: five. Okay. So now you can reverse this to make it clearer: oh that’s, better isn’t, it so it’s n m. Now all things considered, i don’t think that’s bad at all. You could, while away a few journeys playing asteroids on your series.
Five, then, of course, when you’re done fold it up and off you go. The series 5 was launched at an exciting time for portable computing, finding itself up against companion devices like the mighty palm pilot and rival standalone units running windows, ce each had their pros and cons and scion released, updated versions, but eventually none would survive the onslaughter’s smartphones, Which today provide our pocket mobile needs. Ironically, many of those older phones which displaced the pda market ran software based on scion’s epoch, operating system rebranded to symbian and initially very successful until ios and android became the dominant platforms. But i can’t help wondering if we all made the right choices in terms of form factors. Modern phones are amazing, but i hate typing more than a quick message on them. Tablets may be larger, but still need separate keyboards for serious data entry. Meanwhile, laptops can do almost anything but you’re not going to be sliding one of them into a pocket. Are you of course, as a writer i’m biased towards devices with decent keyboards, but i find it surprising, there’s so little around today that can compete against this almost 25 year old classic. Now some smaller companies have tried to create modern, clam shells, running android with colour screens and wifi, but none have matched the overall charm nor, of course, the battery life of the series 5. right, that’s it for another slice of dynabytes. Did you own a clamshell pda or some other type of handheld computer? Does a modern phone or laptop fulfill your needs, or do you yearn for something in between? Let me know in the comments don’t forget to subscribe for more vintage technology reviews and i’ll see you next time.