A recent question sent to a UK newspaper caught my eye. The poster was asking about if he should bother repairing a gadget. Nothing unusual in that, but the interesting part was the device itself: a Psion Series 5. This Terry Malloy of a device is one of the great coulda-been contenders of the gadget world, a PDA that never made it to the big time. Despite the explosive growth of smartphones, the fact that someone was using this device 16 years after it was launched speaks to the affection that some users still have for it.
Launched in 1997, the Psion Series 5 was a clamshell PDA running an OS called Symbian EPOC. In those days of stand-alone PDAs that either looked like doorstops or were little more than digital address books, the Series 5 offered a potent collection of features in a pocket-sized package, including a big screen and a proper slide-out QWERTY keyboard that you could touch type on. The keyboard was the highlight; although it was small, it had large, responsive keys with decent spacing, making typing much more comfortable than the tiny keys or on-screen keyboards of previous PDAs.
I first encountered the Series 5 at a retail store in the UK in 1997, and I remember spending what seemed like hours in the store opening and closing the device, wondering how it managed the impossible trick of hiding this wonderful keyboard in this small case, and how this clamshell hinge mechanism worked. Both were designed by Martin Riddiford, who is still at the same design company Therefore, and the design and mechanism are still admired by engineers and designers.
The other thing that amazed me was the software built in. There was a decent word processor, spreadsheet, contact manager and email client. The touch screen and stylus meant you could do (admittedly rather simple) sketches on the screen. Rather than take the PC companion approach of the PalmPilot, the Series 5 had everything you needed to work outside of the office. And this package worked; I could take the Series 5 down the pub and have everything I needed to write, sketch or jot down ideas from a beer-fuelled brainstorming session. Combine this with a battery life that could be measured in weeks (it got between 8 and 15 hours use from a pair of AA batteries), and you have a device that went with me everywhere. When I got to work, I could upload the images to my PC via a serial connection or by Infra-Red link.
I wasn’t alone in my love for this device. Former PC World editor and Time editor-at-large Harry McCracken told me that he used to own one as well. “It had by far the best laptop-like keyboard ever done for a product you could put in your pocket. The fact that it once existed proves that the terrible QWERTY keyboards on so many devices are a result of bad design, not an impossible goal.”
The only major problem I found with the Series 5 was the screen. The monochrome LCD screen had poor contrast and was barely visible in sunlight. “The screen was a major issue” recalls McCracken. ”For some reason, Psion’s backlit display was practically unreadable unless you had the backlight on. The one major downside of an otherwise wonderful gizmo.”
In the end, the Series 5 proved to be the last real success from the company. An ill-fated decision to spin off the software side to form the company that developed the mobile phone OS Symbian broke up the team that made it and lost the tight integration of hardware and software design that made the device work. After a series of failed co-development projects, the company stopped making consumer devices in 2001, instead moving into telecoms and industrial products. It was finally bought out by Motorola Solutions in 2012.
For me, the end came in 2002, when the screen on my Series 5 stopped working, and I replaced it with a cell phone. This happened a lot; it turned out that the ribbon cable connecting the mainboard to the screen cracked as it was bent by the opening and closing of the case over time. Eventually, a lot of Series 5 devices failed in the same way, and the fix involved soldering directly onto the motherboard. A company now offers a replacement cable: pretty impressive for a 16-year old gadget. Another group of enthusiasts offer a way to run a more modern version of Linux on the device, replacing the now-outdated OS.
I still miss the Series 5. It was not the most elegant gadget, the fastest or the coolest. Instead, it was a device that did a few things well and opened my eyes to the idea of being able to take my work with me away from the office. I think of it fondly when I am lugging a laptop around or cursing the finicky on-screen keyboard of my cell phone. For that, I say thanks to Psion and the team behind the Series 5.
For more information on the development of the Psion Series 5, see Andrew Orlowski’s excellent history of Psion and the Series 5 at the Register. Amazon still lists the Series 5, but it is unlikely to be in stock soon. They do show up on eBay quite often, though.