Ode to the trusty Psion 5

Every workman needs good tools, even in the modern technology age. My Viking ancestors spent their winters sharpening their axes before sailing out in spring to the green and plump lands of England, where the monks and citizens of Lindisfarne and Winchester lay defenceless, their treasures ready to be taken back to the cold Viking lands near the Arctic circle.

Somewhat less aggressively I spend a lot of my time honing my tools of the trade by seeking out the right combination of computer, mobile phone and camera software and hardware to be able to carry out my chosen profession, journalism. It’s not necessarily the latest stuff, but it’s what works for me. Basically, I spend my professional time gathering information, sorting it, analysing it and then shaping it into articles and books.

It means an infinite amount of reading, talking to people and note-taking. Hundreds of notes, thousands of notes, on several different devices and I even have a notebook to list where all my other groups of notes are located - a sort-of meta-notebook.

I find smartphones pretty useless for serious note taking, so I always carry around with me a 20-year-old Psion 5. It cost £10 on eBay, but it’s amazing, as many people will testify on the Internet. So why did they stop making it and why hasn’t a modern version been produced? It was a British company. I’ve always wanted to write an article about the travails of British technology through the rise and fall of the Psion computer company’s incomparable handheld product line. Another time.

The Psion 5 the perfect size and shape, about 17cm x 9cm x 3cm, with a keyboard comfortable enough to type on rapidly - touch typing, in fact - and which fits into your suit pocket or the pockets of your cargo pants. It runs on AA batteries and the black-and-white screen is instantly on as soon as you open the lid. It runs on proprietary software, but the calendar, spreadsheet and word-processing software, which can be converted to their MS Office equivalents easily, are excellent, no more and no less than what I need.

In the 1990s – when it cost around £400 and was the latest thing - the Psion 5 was a favourite with engineers. Smartphones, for all their other excellent virtues, simply don’t have that keyboard functionality. The Psion 5, of course, completely lacks Internet facilities – there was once an optional separate modem with 56k dial-up, although I don’t even know if these ancient modems are available on eBay any more - but that’s part of its charm. It’s a distraction-free machine and excellent for quickly typing down notes when you wake up at four in the morning or have an idea on a crowded train.

For longer pieces of writing – my mainstay writing machine – I use a converted Chromebook, the Acer C740. The C740 is an updated version of the very popular Acer C720 and as far as I can tell it is an uncommon variant in the UK. It is hardier, sturdier and faster than the C720 and comes with 4Gb of RAM. It is lightning fast and I’ve made an important modification to it: I’ve installed Linux onto it and specifically the Ubuntu 14.04 operating ‘flavour’ with the xfce desktop.

Chromebooks, for those who don’t know, are great laptops in many ways. They are cheap, light, thin and have excellent battery life. Unfortunately, the Chrome OS operating system – which is a Google invention – usually only works when you are connected to the Internet, i.e. it’s only really effective when you are in Wi-Fi range, which is incredibly annoying if you want to be mobile. The Chromebooks I have owned haven’t even been able to piggyback onto my smartphones’ internet connections either.

I’ve heard it said that Chromebooks are sold cheaply because Google wants you to use their online services more and so don’t encourage offline use. Chromebook companies say that several of their apps can indeed be used offline, for instance the Google Documents writing app can be thus used, but I find that claim unreliable and it’s terrible to go someplace and find you can’t work on your writing project because you are not in Wi-Fi range. It’s happened more than once and is a deal-breaker. I would have given up on Chromebooks long ago had there not been an alternative hack.

Of course, techie types, being who they are, have found a way to maximise the utility of Chromebooks by issuing free software online that allows you to alter the computer and install Linux, which is not only faster than Windows but offers an extensive range of useful software. Above all, it turns your Chromebook into an offline computer. Installation, however, is actually not as straightforward as Linux enthusiasts insist.

It took me a good four evenings to get my head around installation and the codes needed to access the Linux from inside the Chromebook software (I use a hack called Crouton) and it completely fails the “would-it-work-for-mother?” test. An iPad is good enough for her. That said, once it’s working the C740 is even faster and has an even longer battery life than before when it was merely a Chromebook. I take it everywhere and type anywhere - cafes, trains - although, being of laptop dimensions, it’s not as convenient in crowded spaces as my Psion. The trusty old Psion is something you can even tap on standing up during mingling sessions after business conferences.

Then, of course, I also have a big laptop: a Windows Dell Computer, about five years old, top of the range in its day, which is fast, but produces a lot of heat and fan noise. It takes ages to load up and has, at this stage, a pathetically short battery life. However, I think you probably do need a Windows and Apple computer in your collection, just because there’s so much software that is still only available on these two systems. To me, movie editing and long-form text dictation are two reasons why I still need a Windows computer. Windows 7 is the best for me; Windows 10 has automatic updates and takes just as long to start. I don’t quite see the point of Windows 10. Does anyone?

And then those smartphones. I use a Sony Z3 compact smartphone, which is fast and great. Android is a very flexible system but recently I’m using it in conjunction with an iPhone 5 which has a UK-based mobile number and I’m trialling them simultaneously, as it were. My general impression is that Android is more adventurous while Apple iOS feels more reliable and a little bit boring, to be honest. Those adverts which promoted the Apple guy as the creative Bohemian while the PC type was the boring office guy have got it completely the wrong way round, at least as far as Apple’s mobile phone operations are concerned.

I’m a pretty easy-going person, but I find that regarding these work tools I want it exactly the way I have it and if I bought a another computer it could well be a secondhand C740, even though it is two generations old in Chromebook terms. I’ve heard it said that the very latest versions of Chromebooks are harder to hack, precisely because manufacturers don’t want you to maximise their offline utility.

I would install exactly the same flavour of Ubuntu and then the same Ubuntu apps (Keepnote is a better notetaking app than Evernote, as it allows threaded entries). If my Psion broke I’d go onto eBay and buy another one. It’s not that I’m a fogey per se about old technology or that the cost is necessarily an issue. It’s just that these work for me and it’s taken time to evolve and new systems would require a new learning curve.

Do the readers have better suggestions or would they care to share the computer set ups that work for them? Anyone still using a Psion 5?

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