The Psion Organiser

Portrait of the writer with a selection of Psion organisers

Self Portrait from today - me with my Psion 5MX and the box of my 3A. I have a Psion II kicking around somewhere, but couldn't find it. I fired the shutter using an air bulb which is under my right foot. Ilford FP4, large format.

My long association with Psion started in 1987 with the bricky-but-nice Psion Organiser II which although capable of a huge amount, was used by me as a database, calculator and simple alarm. I had a few 16k memory modules as back up, and a nifty memory eraser that was actually a UV light - it would have been cheaper to peel off the backing and just leave the modules in the sun.

I still have the unit somewhere. it ran on a PP9 battery and I fired it up a couple of years ago and .. perfect. It had all my old telephone numbers still on it. London dialling code as '01'. Yes, that long ago.

The Psion brand is one of those British success stories that you don't hear too much about - but did a huge amount of excellent work, and unlike Amstrad and Sinclair, carried on developing their products. They got out of the PDA scene in 1999 when it stopped being niche, but the EPOC software lived on for another 15 years as Symbian, a popular Smartphone OS. Psion technologists carried on their careers elsewhere, and you'll find them dotted around the planet in all the top tech companies.

The Organiser II was replaced by the Psion3, a sort of clamshell designed palmtop computer, but it wasn't until the 3a came out with its bigger screen that I upgraded - and have not been without one since.


1997 and Zorro , with (the only picture I could find) of me using the Psion. This is my trusty 3a; I would have upgraded to the mighty 5 soon after I got back, in 1998. On 1999's Quills I wrote out all the key scene and camera details for the DOP, Rogier Stoffers, which I printed out soon after wrap so he could take them to rushes with him.

For almost twenty years the Psion was my go-to device for addresses, agenda and text input. If Ical and Contacts weren't so seamlessly synched with my iPhone, I might still be using the Psion for those applications - and might yet do again. I had a 'Last iPhone pledge' with Dave, as we were discussing the cutting down of gadgets and air travel. We both agreed to 'use one of those old phones in the drawer instead' when our iPhones die but whether we go through with it, not sure.

Once 1998 came round and I moved to the Psion 5 and then soon after the 5MX, I've never been without one, even in these iPad/iPhone days. The 5MX is just so amazingly useful and simple and convenient and on a seriously robust platform. In all my work with the Psion, which must add up to quite literally tens of thousand of hours, I cannot recall a single crash. Not one.

I can input and edit a huge amount of text, very easily, very quickly, and anywhere. The 5MX has a sort of sliding keyboard clamshell design which is very neat, and the keyboard is just the right size for super quick double thumb typing. I once wrote two blog posts and four emails standing in the tediously slow immigration queue at La Guardia, something not possible with an iPad - and have frequently taken chapters that need work on the train or plane with me, and written numerous short stories, emails, jotted down ideas, the lot. It even has a 'draw' capability, touchscreen display and a world clock and multiple alarms.

It takes two AA batteries - keep a spare in your bag and you will never have a dead battery - and it has a backlit screen and can open multiple files at once. There is a reasonable spellchecker and most basic word processing tools. Best of all, it can save and read files in .doc format, and will also export as .txt, but only on Compact Flash cards, which you then have to plug into a card reader to move across. I have software somewhere that allows me to view JPEGS, I can open PDFs with it, and if I so wish, get someone to programme it to do something wacky. The spreadsheet is very powerful, and is still my go-to application for working out weight and balance in my aircraft. It will record voicenotes, too, without opening the unit - just press a button and speak. You can use the soundfile later as an alarm or agenda reminder.

I have uploaded short stories for reading, sections of text for book talks, and even my schedule for a US Tour - pull out, switch on - boom - it's all there. I would probably not be far off the mark to think I must have inputted a couple of million words into the Psion, and I still use it literally, every day.


There are drawbacks to using old technology, of course. They break and wear out.

Of course, using an electronic device that hasn't been made for twenty years does have drawbacks. The aforementioned CF disc is the only means by which it can talk as IR communication never really took off big time. There is an RS232 port, but switching discs is pretty quick and foolproof. But yes, things tend to wear out and break down. To the Psion designer's credit, there are only two issues that make me abandon my machine and get another: The flexible cable that goes from the main board to the screen, and the keyboard.

The screen cable is a flat cable idea that eventually snaps internally due the opening and closing. In the old days when Psions were more plentiful, I used to simply buy another, but as prices went up and 'mint' examples rarer to find, I found someone to repair them, and unless I spot a bargain example on eBay, then I buy a reconditioned unit from one of the Psion refurbishing companies that still exist. The Keyboard simply wears out - usually the space bar first, so you end up with wordsrunningtogether which is veryannoying.

A 5MX will usually last about 3 years at my current usage state, and I always have a spare kicking around. I keep all my old ones - you never know if they can be repaired - and aside from the six above, I have two in parts during an attempt to mend one myself. Grrr. Those flexible cables are VERY tricky.

There's a company named Gemini that now make a similar device which has WiFi, bluetooth, GSM and the rest. It runs on Android and is a worthy successor to the Psion line, but for some reason I never wanted one. The Psion 5MX with it's intuitive display, software that has never ever crashed and ability to run for twenty hours on a couple of AA batteries is really not to be sniffed at. I can't imagine I will stop using mine, and if I go ahead with the 'Last iPhone Pledge' with Dave, it may actually see more usage.

Written on my Psion 5MX, June 28th, 2020

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