The Folding Society

Portable Paraphernalia
Small Portable Computers - Handheld and Palmtop

Psion Series 5mx

The Psion Series 5 is now a relatively old design in an industry where new products come on the market all the time, and many have a life cycle of less than 12 months. Psion is a much smaller company than most of those in this market, and resources for developing new products are limited. Most previous Psion models have lasted at least 4 years before replacement, although usually getting at least one significant upgrade during that time.

The Psion Series 5mx, showing the excellent keyboard and rather indifferent screen display (photographed near a window, although the angle etc makes overall legibility of the screen appear less than it would otherwise in this well lit position)

Despite its age (around 3 years now since the original Series 5), the machine still offers a very acceptable performance and range of facilities at a competitive price. Although the upgrade from 5 to 5mx was not spectacular in terms of appearance or features, it did result in considerably faster operation, more memory, minor improvements to the software, lower battery consumption and a marginally improved screen - oh, and a change to the colour of the case.

The Series 5mx is a very versatile machine - it has a superb keyboard for a machine of the size (too small to touch type, but still the best of any hand held machine, and by a substantial margin compared with most of its competitors. It has a CF card expansion slot as standard, used primarily for memory cards when required, although the built in 16M of memory is reasonably generous - the Psion uses memory more effectively than Windows CE machines, though not as effectively as a Palm. If it were being launched today we would probably feel 32M would be more appropriate, but even for users who find the 16M a constraint, it is easy to add more via the CF card slot. A serial port is built in, which is normally used to link to a PC for backing up and synchronising data files (diary, names etc), but it can also be used to connect to an external modem or a printer (a special lead is available for use with parallel printers). A well balanced stylus fits into one end and is locked in place by an internal catch o pressing on the end of the stylus releases the catch and ejects the stylus. In the original Series 5, the catch sometimes jammed - a problem which seems to have been overcome on the 5mx.

The Psion in the closed position, with a Palm III alongside for comparison. The footprint of the Palm is around 2/3 that of the Psion, and the thickness at the thinnest part of the Psion is about equal, but a good deal greater at the thickest point, the rear, which is not obvious in this picture.

Most readers will have seen that like most Psions the 5mx has an ingenious folding mechanism, which brings the keyboard out and props the screen at a convenient angle. Unlike some machines, you do not have to hold the machine upright as you use it, and it is well balanced. Unfortunately we now come to the Achilles heel (one of two actually) of the Psion Series 5 - the screen. This can kindly be described as dim and poor. In good (and I mean good) light, it is barely acceptable, with low brightness and contrast, but in other conditions it can become almost unusable. Matters are made worse by the reflective surface. An optional back light is provided, but except in very dark conditions this does little to help, and of course has a bad effect on battery life. Why is it so much worse than the opposition? Well, Psion are I think the only people to use such a large monochrome screen. Oh yes - it's also mono rather than colour. There are good arguments to say that colour isn't really necessary on such a machine; they may be valid, but a good clear screen is necessary, and a backlit colour display of the kind used by other manufacturers is vastly superior - even at the expense of battery life. The earlier Psion Series 3 of course did not have a touch-sensitive screen, and presumably this is the reason it was so much better than the 5. The newer Psion Revos, which have a smaller screen than the Series 5 models, are reported to be significantly better, but the display is still monochrome, and in the Revo there is no backlight in the Revo.

The built-in software is generally excellent - comprehensive and easy and intuitive to use. Menus are called up from a dedicated menu key, or a bar on the side of the screen which can be tapped with the stylus. Help is available, though as it is not context sensitive (ie you have to select what topic you want) it is a bit cumbersome to use - but the system is so well designed you rarely need Help. Toolbars on the screen edges help to control individual programs easily, and to zoom in or out to change font size. The operating system can run several applications at once, with immediate switching from one to another. No less than 9 'buttons' soft icons, which are tapped with the stylus, can be used to easily and quickly run standard applications, return to the system screen, or call up a selection of other installed programs. Application switching is very fast, and starting most applications even when they are not already running is usually only a second or two. The applications include a very good word processor, contacts, database, calculator, simple jotter, alarm clock, email, web browser (loaded from a CD on the PC rather than pre-loaded), sketching program and a spreadsheet. Most of these are comprehensive and equal to the best available on any competitor. The spreadsheet offers only a single level view, ie not multiple sheets within one file. This is generally adequate for what one does on a handheld, but it makes transfer of multi-level sheets from a PC a problem - the translator moves the sheets into a single larger sheet on the Psion, but of course it cannot translate back again, so if you modify such a sheet on the Psion you can't transfer it back to the PC without losing all the additional sheets. The latest web browser (Opera) is a big improvement over the original Psion one (it is now supplied with the Revo Plus, but is a chargeable extra on older machines, which come with the inferior Psion browser), but there are still some types of page which cannot be handled - not a problem which is unique to Psion. Also built in is the OPL programming language - you can develop quite powerful programs using this BASIC-like language, and you can do it in the Series 5 itself. In fact you can also load not only a Java run time machine, but a Java compiler as well, and develop and run Java in the Series 5 itself. The Psion machines are exceptional in this respect - I can't think of any other current handheld or palmtop which is as well equipped in this respect. The OPL program development facility was left out of the original Revo, but has made a comeback on the Revo Plus.

There is a large range of add-on software available for the Psion - not as much as for the Palm, but more than Windows CE, and little that one might want is missing. There is a comprehensive Money program for keeping track of bank accounts (but unfortunately this cannot be easily synchronised with an equivalent on a PC), mapping and route planning and street maps, more sophisticated drawing and painting programs (though not capable of editing digital photo size and resolution), a program to edit web pages, programs for uploading web pages and other data to a remote web server, games, and masses of other software. Free or shareware book readers are also available. There is no facility for playing MP3 music files, though simple sounds can be stored and played, and there is a voice recorder built in, which can be operated from buttons which are accessible even when the main case is closed.

On the hardware accessory side, the infra red port can be used to connect to a suitably equipped modem or printer, and other devices as well (it has a reputation of being rather erratic in some cases - I successfully used it to link to a laptop PC on one occasion, but have subsequently failed with the same computer). A conventional modem can be linked via a special cable, and there is also a special Psion adapter to allow PC (PCMCIA) modems to be used - but not other types of PCMCIA card). The printer cable uses a battery in the rather large printer connector. I have found the supplied software drivers for printers connected direct via this cable to be very unsatisfactory - they seem to be very model specific, and apart from being unbearably slow, output is frequently wrong. For printing, you can also use the synch cable and print through a PC 'direct' to the printer on the PC - this seems to work well, but it is a pity direct printer connection is unsatisfactory, as this reduces the suitability of the machine to be used as a stand alone system when travelling.

Connection to the PC for data transfer is achieved via a cable and the PsiWin software, both of which come with the machine. The connection is via a serial port on the PC, so it is not as fast, nor as simple, as with a USB connection - but the USB was not common when Psion were originally developing their machines. The PsiWin connection system is widely regarded as the other weak link in the Psion system, though I think the problems are rather over stated. Comparisons with the Palm method of connection are not in Psion's favour, but experience with Microsoft's own Windows CE system on palm top computers suggests that it too leaves a lot to be desired compared with the Palm models. With the Psion, loading PsiWin results in several icons being added to the Windows desktop, and clicking these gives access to three main features - a 'My Psion' facility, which presents the contents of the Psion on the Windows desktop in a way very similar to a view of the contents of directories on the PC itself, a backup utility and a synchronization utility. Using the My Psion view, files can be copied or moved individually or in groups from the Psion to the PC - or you can even carry out operations of copying, deleting etc in the Psion using the PC screen. PsiWin can convert files from Psion format to suit PC applications such as Excel and Word, and does a pretty good job of the conversion in these cases. unfortunately I find the database converter is incapable of correctly converting any of the files I need to move between machines - it invariably crashes. I am able to get round this by exporting my databases into a CSV format on the PC, and then copy them to the Psion before importing them into the Psion Data application - it works, but it's tedious and not really acceptable. That said, the competitors do not have an equivalent of the Data database available in the machine as standard anyway. As well as individually copying files, the user can run the Psion Backup program on the PC, which 'intelligently' identifies those files which have changed since the last backup, and copies them into the Psion. Files are copied from both the internal memory and any CF card fitted - care is needed if you use more than one CF card.  In the event of a system failure, the complete Psion can be restored from the backup, though some individual machine settings can be lost in the process. The synchronisation facility allows the Psion to be synchronised with Microsoft Outlook (and some other PIM programs). You can do a simple single stage synchronisation, or select only some data to be synchronised - eg synch just the diary, as this is the thing that changes most often. Diary (including 'To Do'/Task lists) and Contacts are the most usually synchronised items - there is no facility for synchronising the Notes held in Outlook - I find this a serious nuisance, as I use Notes to hold all sorts of reference data. The only way to move notes seems to be to cut and paste them from Outlook into Word documents, and then copy these to the Psion. If a note changes, one must repeat the copying process - very inconvenient. Email can also be synchronised, but this requires the loading of a separate program off the supplied CD, and some people have reported that it is not very reliable - I rarely use it, so cannot comment. The Mail program in the Psion is very comprehensive, and of course supports direct mailing from the Psion via a modem as well as through a synch with the PC. No provision is made as standard with the Psion for synching other data files automatically (eg spreadsheets and word documents), but a third party program, My Pocket, is available which allows you to do this - the program requires you to identify the files in the Psion and PC which are to be linked, and then every time the Psion is connected (or at specified times) these files will be synched. My Pocket is actually supplied with the Ericsson version of the Series 5mx, but not with Psion's own models. PsiWin is certainly not a particularly praiseworthy piece of software, but it does a reasonable job most of the time. It is currently (November 2000) being reported that a much improved version of PsiWin will be launched soon.

The 5mx is powered by 2 standard AA batteries. I find the life of these batteries very disappointing - the old Series 3 models ran for about 30 hours on a set, but I rarely get much over 10 hours out of a set in the 5mx. At least it is much better than the original Series 5, which normally struggled to run for 8 hours on a set. Psion claim much higher life than this, but neither of my machines, 5 or 5mx, can get anywhere near what is sometimes claimed. The 5 was returned at one stage for investigation, but was no better when it came back. I use Lithium batteries with the 5mx, and can get nearly 15 hours of life with these - more expensive to buy, but more convenient. I almost never use the back light facility, and I don't think my use of the machines is particularly heavy or particularly light - certainly I don't use them very differently from the way I used the earlier Series 3. Battery life is of course far better than on a conventional notebook computer, and comparable with that of competitors (though inferior to AA powered Palm models), but is not really high enough for extensive use. Rechargeable batteries are not a good idea, as when they fail they do so very quickly, and there might be insufficient warning to prevent data loss. An internal backup battery provides support during a change of the main battery, or if the main batteries go low. It needs to be replaced about once a year, and is easily accessible to the user for this purpose. Battery warnings are displayed on the screen - it is important that if the backup battery goes low, it should be replaced before the main battery. Data stored in the CF card does not of course depend on the batteries. The excellent optional mains adapter deserves mention - it is built into a normal UK 13 amp plug, barely any larger than a standard plug, not projecting above or below the socket, and is exceptionally light. It can be used to power the special PC card modem adaptor as well, and in this mode both the adaptor and Series 5 are powered. Having to carry mains leads etc is a real pain with most systems - the Psion is outstandingly good in this respect.

Other products

Ericsson sell a version of the Series 5mx under their own name. The differences are limited to colour of the case, some additional international symbols on the keyboard, and, more usefully, a couple of additional pieces of software, including the My Pocket program.

Psion's Revo had some features of the Series 5mx, but with only 8M of memory and no facility for memory expansion - inadequate except for rather basic use. The Revo Plus now has 16M of memory, but still no expansion facility - better, but potentially limiting. The Revos also have smaller screens, both physically and logically (ie less dots and characters), and software originally designed for the Series 5 requires modification for the Revo. The Revo uses rechargeable batteries instead of two AA batteries, so although it is cheap to plug into the charger/docking station, life can be awkward when you are travelling, especially if mains is not available for recharging. The batteries are sealed in the Revo, so there is no option of a spare battery pack. Connection is only possible via the docking station, so you cannot carry a simple cable alone for making connections to PCs if you want to do so at home and at the office. I understand the parallel printer cable cannot be used, as the cable is an integral part of the Revo docking station. The Revo is smaller than the Series 5, which not only means the screen is smaller, as described above, but the keyboard is also rather smaller, though it is still said to be good. The Revo models are cheaper and a little smaller than the Series 5, but they have some quite serious limitations compared with the Series 5, and cannot be expanded to overcome these limitations, so you should think carefully before buying one instead of a Series 5. The Revo Plus is much preferable to the original Revo, as the doubling of memory and inclusion of some additional software makes it a much more useful machine.

The Series 7 is in effect a much larger version of the Series 5mx, with a larger colour screen (limited number of colours though) and a larger keyboard. Much of the software makes limited use of the colour facilities at present. It is expensive and large, and unless you have a very specific requirement which the machine fits, I would not recommend it. The NetBook is similar in most respects to the Series 7, and was originally intended for specialised corporate requirements. It has more memory than the Series 7, and the internal software can more readily be upgraded. The machines also have a PC (PCMCIA) card socket built in, which could be a significant attraction for some users. Apart from memory, modems and specialised cards (always supposing you have a suitable software driver for them!), a special PC card is now available which can be used to drive an external monitor or display projector. Both models use rechargeable batteries, though in this case replacement packs are available to give extended use in the field. A large capacity IBM disc drive can be fitted in these machines if required (330M to 1G capacity). The long battery life and ruggedness of these machines compared with more conventional notebook computers (both factors largely due to the lack of a hard disc drive) could make the machines attractive to journalists and writers. For at least some of these people, it is a pity that although CF cards from certain digital cameras can be put into the machines (as they can into a 5mX) there is no suitable software for editing the pictures in the machine, prior to transmission via a modem to another location (newspaper office, web site etc), and that the limited number of colours on the display would also make such editing difficult.


Although the Psion Series 5mx has been around for some time, it is still a strong contender in the hand held computer market. Its strengths include an excellent keyboard and good built-in software, with a comprehensive range of additional software available commercially and as shareware. Synchronisation with a PC leaves something to be desired, although acceptable for most purposes, and although printing through a PC works well, direct cable printing is poor (in fairness, many competitors don't offer these facilities at all). The greatest weakness in my view is the screen - not just the absence of colour, but the poor legibility. But if you find the screen acceptable, the Psion Series 5mx is a very good machine for many purposes, and although a little larger than some palm top machines, the larger screen area, excellent keyboard and the expansion facilities give it real advantages over these palm sized competitors. If you aren't interested in carrying such a machine with you on the bike, the size factor is less important, and the Psion scores over palm sized machine in a number of respects, though the screen is less clear and it lacks the multimedia capabilities of the Windows CE machines. 

(Most of this report was prepared on a Series 5mx during a train journey, final editing and web page formatting being added later on a PC, and uploading to the web page server also being done via a PC. However, I have in the past generated complete web pages and uploaded them direct from the Psion via a modem).

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Last updated: 8 November 2000