Whenever techies of a certain age are gathered together, one topic is almost guaranteed to stimulate debate: Psion. A decade ago the company dominated the handheld market in the UK, the Series 5 being its crowning achievement in the opinion of many.
The Series 5 is long gone, but the fond memories remain. Now an ex-Psion employee and a Psion evangelist have teamed up to bring us a new device with more than an echo of the company's past glories.
The 430g PsiXpda is an 'ultra-mobile pocket computer' or UMPC. This Windows XP device isn't cheap at £500 (inc. VAT), so we must take a dispassionate look at whether it deserves a place in the armoury of the modern mobile professional.
If you can fit it in your pocket, the PsiXpda will sit quite heavy as it weighs 430g. It measures 174mm wide by 84mm deep by 25mm thick, which makes it a little chunky. It has a full QWERTY keyboard that can be hidden away when not required: in its 'closed' configuration the PsiXpda looks rather like a handheld games console, because its screen faces outwards and because the top section is made from a shiny black plastic. A silver band runs around the edges, while the back is black — this time with a rubberised finish to help it grip when placed on a desktop.
The 5in., 430g PsiXpda comes in black or white and runs Windows XP.
The 800-by-480-pixel screen measures 5in. across the diagonal, and is finger-touch-sensitive. There's also a stylus in a housing on the front left corner. This is one of those small, telescopic affairs you used to find in PDAs, and it's not particularly useful. We found ourselves resorting to the end of a pen or a fingertip instead.
You don't have to use the touch-screen, as it's flanked by a touchpad area and a pair of mouse buttons. These can be used to manipulate the cursor and make selections in the usual way. So, with the screen folded down and facing outwards you can browse the web, find media files and do anything that doesn't require typing. This can include making video calls, as there's a VGA-resolution webcam to the left of the screen, above the mouse buttons. A pair of buttons to the right of the screen let you adjust its brightness.
To expose the keyboard you push the screen section away from you and tilt it upwards until the PsiXpda looks like a mini-notebook. The hinges are strong enough to hold the lid section at any angle up to nearly 90 degrees, so you should be able to find a comfortable setting easily enough.
One of the Psion Series 5's best features was its superb keyboard, which was much easier to use than its small size would lead you to believe. It had nicely defined individual keys that gave excellent tactile feedback. The PsiXpda's keyboard is disappointing by contrast, and delivers a far less satisfying typing experience.
The keys are flat and closely spaced, and some on our review unit required greater pressure than others. This meant we had to apply more pressure generally than we were comfortable with, although this may not trouble more heavy-handed typists. The keys also vary in size, those on the Q and number row being slightly narrower than those on the A and Z rows. All these factors made typing more of a chore than we'd like.
The PsiXpda ships with an AC adapter, a one-piece stereo headset, a PC connectivity cable and a neoprene envelope-style protective case. There's no documentation shipped with the device — you have to download this from the PsiXpda web site, although there's nothing in the box to tell you this. A getting-started sheet really should be included.
The PsiXpda runs Windows XP Professional on a 1.1GHz Intel Atom Z510 processor supported by 1GB of RAM. There is 16GB of SSD storage. With Windows XP Professional, the preinstalled applications and one or two additions of our own to boost security when connected to the internet, we had about 9GB left for data and additional applications. A USB stick or microSD card can also be used to augment storage, and the device happily streamed music and video from both sources.
The device lacks wired Ethernet connectivity, but both Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) and Bluetooth (2.0+EDR) are integrated. A Fn key combination on the keyboard turns these wireless connections on and off. Mobile broadband is also present: you'll need to insert a SIM with a 3G data contract and tweak need some settings on the bundled software for your connection. The manual provides settings for the main UK network operators, and we had no trouble setting up an Orange connection. The software supports text messaging too.
There's a full-size USB 2.0 port on the back edge and a Mini-USB connenctor on the left. The front edge has a docking port, although no peripherals are available to attach to it. Next to this is a microSD card slot — labelled, in a rather old-fashioned way, T-flash (transflash).
The back also houses the on/off switch, a button for turning the screen backlight on and off, the power connector and a 2.5mm headset jack. We'd rather have a 3.5mm connector: one of the PsiXpda's potential uses is as a portable media player, and people are likely to want a better headset than the bundled unit. The latter, with its flat, unprotected, in-ear buds, is neither particularly comfortable nor of very high quality.
Performance & battery life
We've already mentioned our disappointment with the PsiXpda's keyboard. We also have some issues with the screen, which at 5in. and 800 by 480 pixels is underspecified for many tasks. Open a document in OpenOffice, for example, and the text size is very small if you want to see the full width of an A4 page. Boosting the text to a comfortable size leaves only a few lines visible, and is not very satisfactory.
Many of Windows XP's dialogue boxes are also simply too large for the screen to accommodate, so you can't see their selection buttons.
You can work around some of these problems. You can switch to an interpolated screen resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels, for example, although this leaves the display looking fuzzy and is not ideal for extended use. Another option, which might work for the dialogue boxes issue, is to rotate the screen. This can be done through 90, 180 and 270 degrees via an app that sits in the System Tray. It's a fiddle, but it works. The portrait screen orientation is useful for some other activities, such as reading e-books.
General performance was reasonable but not outstanding. Applications load fairly quickly, and as long as you don't run too many at once things are fine.
Battery life is a concern. Anecdotally we have managed to get more than half a day's use from the device. When asked to play music continuously from a USB keydrive with the screen forced to stay on and both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth active we got a paltry 1 hour 50 minutes from the 1,850mAh battery. This does not compare favourably to today's netbooks.
The PsiXpda trades a little on the old Psion name — and arguably does itself a disservice in so doing, because it calls to mind a superbly well-designed and popular device (although the Series 5 was not without its technical issues). The PsiXpda, by contrast, is a good but not great device, the main issues being ergonomics and battery life.
It's difficult to see how this UMPC can find a place in a modern mobile worker's travel bag. Those who want to travel light yet be productive are likely to opt for a high-end netbook or an ultraportable, with a bigger screen and a better keyboard. If you mainly want audio and video on the move, then existing portable media players and many smartphones will do the job just fine.