Antiquities: Psion 5MX and Retired Life

    Almost ten years ago I wrote one of my first posts on Habr about the Psion 5MX handheld computer. Even then, this keyboard PDA was a pleasant, but completely outdated device, and the mood of the article was appropriate: it's a pity, but it's time to send the device to retirement. June 15, 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the announcement of this model. This PDA did not become more compatible with modern computers and the Internet, but my attitude to old pieces of iron has changed.

    Now I try to put them to business. I write collections on tape (using, however, the entire arsenal of modern sound processing) support the work of their own BBS, write lyrics on temperate ancient typewriter with WiFi. The Psion 5MX is without a doubt my favorite vintage device, so you should definitely get it off the shelf and try to portray something like that on it. Today is a story about the afterlife of the Psion 5MX.

    I keep a diary of a collector of old pieces of iron in a Telegram . In the near future - a study of the second in the list of favorite devices - the Nokia N900 smartphone. And a bit of tape technology from the past.

    This article is also published here. compatible with older devices.


    Detailed specifications and general impressions of the Psion 5MX are in my old publication , so I will not repeat myself. Psion Series 5 appeared in 1997, and was a serious upgrade compared to the very successful third series of keyboard Psion PDAs: a more powerful processor (18 megahertz in Series 5 or 36 megahertz in 5MX), more memory (8 or 16-32 megabytes), Support for Compact Flash cards instead of the proprietary standard. The new 32-bit EPOC32 operating system, which later became the foundation of the Symbian platform. But in this device, not specifications are important, but the tight integration of software and hardware. Almost like Apple's Steve Jobs smartphones. The system and user applications are so well optimized for hardware that so far when using 5MX there is no feeling of working with an old and slow device. The screen of the 5MX is touch-sensitive, but it is not necessary to use it for navigation, everything is duplicated on the keyboard. From the point of view of user experience, this is an ideal device, at the level of modern powerful smartphones, but at the same time it gives you only the information that you requested. No notifications that your photo has been polished by three people.

    In ten years, three more have been added to my original Psion 5MX, which has been working successfully to this day. Not sure exactly why I bought them, apparently in bouts of acute nostalgia for bygone times. It doesn’t matter, but now in my museum stores there is a new device, in the form in which from 1999 to 2001 it could be bought in a store.

    Unusual for a modern consumer, voluminous instruction in detail tells about all the intricacies of working with built-in applications.

    Of the non-standard accessories for the Psion 5MX, in my collection there is an adapter for the PCMCIA modem, a very strange device with four batteries. Unlike the Philips Velo 1 , the internal modem in 5MX no. The accessories really needed for Psion are the power supply and case.

    It was experimentally found that 5MX supports memory cards up to 2 gigabytes in size, and this is exactly what is now installed on my device. This is the limit of the capabilities of the FAT file system used. Such a volume is absolutely useless for Psion: neither listen to music, nor watch films on him. Enough 32-64 megabytes for programs and backup. Now it’s really easier to buy a large flash drive, and it will most likely work in this old device.


    From a modern point of view, the main drawback of the Psion 5MX is its unlimited performance: it copes well with all its tasks. The screen of the device is far from ideal: in the sun or in the dark it is read normally, at dusk there will be problems. The complex design of the device provides the display at an angle, but the tilt is not adjustable. You can read books with a vertical orientation, but a miniature Palm is better for this. The keys are tight and, as with any device with a small screen (still!), Some Russian letters are not placed in the layout. From the collector's point of view, the main weak point of the device is the cable between the motherboard and the display (it breaks, the screen starts to strip).

    With active use, cracks on the case may appear and progress, until the mechanism breaks completely. Why is an external power supply important? Now I use Psion infrequently, mainly for nostalgic purposes, and all settings and some system applications are stored in this device in RAM. If the PDA is not used for a long time, then first the main batteries run out, then the backup batteries, and then you lose data. Fortunately, there is a simple backup program that resets all settings and data from RAM to a USB flash drive.

    This is a fairly reliable configuration, thanks to which my old diaries and notes, contacts and other information were stored on the device for many years in a row. Alas, this year I discovered that the data on the flash drive was lost - the information is still worth dropping sometimes on the computer too. Since it happened, let's see how to set up the device from scratch, and make something useful and interesting on it.

    The regular program for synchronizing PDAs and backups worked well on Windows 7, but it does not start under Windows 10 64-bit. However, it is not required to install programs, unlike PDAs based on Palm OS. It is enough to transfer the installation files to the USB flash drive and run them already on the device itself. For other devices, I usually use a suitable vintage laptop, but in this case I have a different plan.

    To get started, let's get comfortable with the standard Psion interface. The buttons on the edges of the screen are touch sensitive; they are responsible for launching certain programs and accessing settings. You can change the font size, send files via infrared, and copy-paste at any time (also works with standard Ctrl-C / Ctrl-V shortcut keys). The System button opens a essentially simple file manager, with standard options for working with files and programs. Right above the clock are buttons on the context menu that are unique to each application. In System, this is the “Control Panel”:

    There are also buttons for accessing recently opened documents, creating a folder or file. This four-button menu later moved unchanged to Symbian Series 80 smartphones.

    Touch buttons below the screen launch embedded applications, and all other programs are available in the Extras menu. If there are a lot of programs, there are utilities for dividing this menu into separate folders, by analogy with similar "improvers" for Palm OS and Windows Mobile.

    The first thing to do on an empty device is to install crack. On one device I have Elbrus crack, in due time - a commercial product of the McCenter company. Copy protection is implemented there by binding a specific distribution to the serial number of the device. Although this company has put almost all of its development twenty years ago into free access, the official free version of Elbrus seems to still not exist (only for PDA Diamond Mako , also running on EPOC32). Therefore, for other Psions, I use the free CyrLat crack. Its advantage is that it works not only on American and British Psion, but also on devices released for other countries (the 5MX system language is tightly embedded in ROM, and does not change, the only exception is the rare 5MX Pro model with 32 megabytes of RAM) .

    If you intend to use Psion 5MX as a typewriter or offline organizer, you don’t need anything else. The built-in word processor saves documents in its own format, but it is possible to save in text form directly to a Compact Flash card. Importing text files is also possible, but when saving to a computer, the encoding must be changed to cp1251. "Elbrus" displays the layout indicator on the screen, and switching is possible with the usual Ctrl + Shift buttons. Most of this text was typed into Psion without any problems. Is it convenient? It depends on what you compare it to. If with a touch screen phone, then convenient. If with a laptop, then not really. But not a single device, even a modern one, even no less compact, will provide you with 20-25 hours of battery life from one set of batteries. The built-in editor can count the number of words in a document. For character counting, a separateutility .

    There is no Psion 5MX standard browser, only email and terminal. There is, for choice, a browser from the device developer, with the simple name of Web. It can be installed from the bundled CD, and it is free, but very old (development completed in 1999). There is a paid version of the Opera browser - it is more modern (2001), but with a trial period of 30 days. But now any relatively old device you want to immediately connect to the network. At the beginning of the 2000s, this was not necessary, and, frankly, I used the network on Psion quite rarely. I’ll definitely connect this PDA to the Internet, but today the article will be strictly about offline.

    My usual tweak of the system is a small utility nSwitcher, which displays on demand a list of open applications on top of any window (in the screenshot above) and allows you to switch between applications using the Ctrl-Space combination. The utility developer is the Neuon team. They at one time created many useful programs for EPOC32 and early Symbian smartphones, both free and commercial. They are all (paid - with serial numbers) posted on the old website of the company.

    Briefly go through the built-in programs. A calculator - ordinary and scientific - is always useful. The contact manager is not very, as now it is more likely to quickly find a person to send a letter, SMS or phone call.

    The most useful of the built-in programs is the Agenda task and event manager. The program interface is clear immediately, without reading instructions. There are calendar views for the day and week, as well as a scheduler for the year. Adding tasks to the calendar is easiest in the daily view, as in the screenshot.

    The program for taking notes is also very convenient. At any time, you can add a sketch with a stylus on the screen to a text note, for example, to quickly record a phone number. Notes are indexed by text in the first line, it is possible to search. If desired, you can add a voice recorder or text document to the note. The screenshot shows that the touch screen for handwriting is limited. Modern pen devices do better.

    Speaking of the recorder. The Psion Series 5 has a built-in microphone and speaker, as well as buttons that allow you to start recording without opening the device. Basic editing capabilities are supported. Program eNoteM duplicates capabilities built-in voice recorder allows you to compress audio in MP3 format with a bit rate of 8 or 16 kilobits per second. I wrote a little higher that you can’t listen to music on the Psion 5MX, but this is not entirely true. It is possible, for example, with the EPOC MP3 Player utility , but with a bitrate limitation (no more than 64 kilobits per second).


    Most resources, such as developer sites and the site of the producer Psion 5MX itself, no longer exist. With rare exceptions, such as the Neuon program archive or the Russian site . Many thanks to those who support its performance, keep an archive of programs and useful articles that help to circumvent a few "difficult" moments when using this PDA. Most of the links to the programs in this post lead there.

    If you want to continue to use Psion 5MX as a device for working with data and text, then this will certainly be a strange choice, but my experience shows that everything is possible. At least with regard to working with texts, notes, and even the calendar and tasks. Two more ways to use such an old device are personal accounting of expenses and, for example, expenses for a car. For the collector, historical programs with some data will also be interesting. My favorite example is the schedule of flights around the world, as of 1999.

    Ten years ago, it seemed impossible for me to release the device in the Psion 5MX case, but with new hardware. However, this has happened. In 2017, the Gemini PDA was released (there is a post with impressions on the hub ), and the second-generation device, known as Cosmo Communicator, is about to be released. They are developed by a British company, and Martin Riddiford, the designer of the original Series 5, is responsible for the design. These are quite powerful Android devices, with a keyboard that is almost completely identical to the 5MX keyboard, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

    And this is very cool, and I almost decided to buy, but changed my mind. I definitely don’t need to carry two smartphones with me, and using only Gemini or only Cosmo will be inconvenient. As Steve Jobs said, the main problem with keyboard devices is that this keyboard is always present, regardless of whether you need it right now or not. Cosmo is trying to solve this problem with a small external screen so that you do not need to open the device to answer the call and other basic actions. If we consider the keyboard PDA as an additional device, then the original Psion is more interesting to me personally. At the time of publication of the Cosmo article, you can still order it on the Indiegogo page. Mass production has been delayed for a month, but judging by regular updates, the device will arrive to customers soon.

    In my future plans to connect the device to the Internet. When Psion was an actual device, a mobile phone with an infrared connection was used for this. Perhaps now this is the easiest way to bring 5MX to the network, but the problem is that he has nothing to do on the modern web. Therefore, my task is not so much connecting as building a suitable infrastructure for it in my local network. Such a thing will be useful not only for Psion, but also for other old devices in my collection. There will be a separate post about this, but for now I’ll probably go and make backups again.

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