I’ve been a big fan of the Newton MessagePad since it first appeared. I suspect that I’ve used Newtons harder and longer than most anyone, given the hundred-hour workweeks I frequently endured as a medical student, intern, and resident. When Apple discontinued the Newton product line, I was crushed. Though my MessagePad 2100 continued to perform well, easing almost every aspect of my professional life, I knew the day would come when it would have to be replaced.
Rather than wait for a disaster, I decided to make the transition during two weeks of vacation time in May, 1999. I had spent over a year looking at alternatives. Palm machines, while compact, inexpensive, and ubiquitous, simply lack the power and memory to do the jobs my Newtons had done. Windows CE is simply too unreliable for health care applications. Several people had pointed me in the direction of the Psion Series 5, and after much hesitation I made the transition. Below is a bunch of text about my Psion experiences. If you’re already a Psion user, you might want to skip straight to my Hacks and Macros page.
- Psion vs. Newton
- Psion Series 5 Hacks and Macros
I would never have given up my Newton if my hand hadn’t been forced by Mr. Jobs. I’ve found a lot to like about the Series 5, however, and I don’t think I’d go back to the Newton as it existed in 1997—though there are still some ways that it is superior. Here’s a rundown of how I think they compare:
I bought the limited-edition green Series 5 shortly before the Series 5mx was announced. It wasn’t a mistake — I was pretty sure that Psion was about to release the new machine, but the price on the older models had dropped pretty low and the timing was right for me. As of this writing (21 August, 1999) the mx still isn’t widely available in the US.
The fundamental difference between the MessagePad and the Series 5 is that the Newton device is designed to be used primarily via handwriting recognition while the Series 5 is a keyboard-focused device. There is handwriting recognition software available for the Psion, but it is not as fast or accurate as the Newton’s, and is much harder to use while standing because the Psion’s keyboard gets in the way. For whipping out a quick written note while standing, the Newton is clearly superior.
The Psion is much smaller than the MessagePad 2100, a welcome relief as I carry my PDA in a fanny pack nearly every minute of every day.
One of the first things I did to my later-model Newtons was remove the cover. That left the Newton looking something like a brick — no moving parts except the on/off switch and card ejectors. I never had the feeling that I had to treat the Newton gingerly, except perhaps to keep from scratching the screen. The MessagePad had a thin rubber-like coating that began peeling within a few weeks.
The Psion, by contrast, is an intricate little gadget with numerous little doors and compartments and the famous hinged lid with slide-out keyboard. All in all, it has the feel of fine machinery. At the same time, the intricacy makes it feel somewhat fragile. I worry that it won’t stand the test of time and kind of abuse that my PDAs invariably get in my harsh working environment. Also, since it was new, the Psion has suffered from an ill-fitting door over the compact flash card slot. It sticks out about a millimeter beyond the case. No big deal, but it upsets my obsessive-compulsive sensibilities. The green case of my Psion shows absolutely no signs of scuffing or peeling so far.
One of the big disappointments with the MP2100 was battery life. Though Apple claimed you could get a week out of a set of 4 AA alkalines, I found that at my usage level (long days as a medical resident) three days was about it. I finally bought the NiMH battery pack and an AC adaptor, and charged the device every night. That was fairly painless, except that I couldn’t get through a typical call day (36 hours) without having to switch to a back-up set of alkalines. Carrying the back-up batteries significantly increased the weight, bulk, and complexity of my Newton-based portable office.
The Series 5 runs for well over a week on just two AA alkalines, even though my actual power-on time approaches nine hours per day, with a lot of IR printing. I mostly use Ray-O-Vac rechargeable alkalines, which I exchange every day or two with a set in the charger. I still carry a backup set, but two AA’s alone are much easier to carry than four AA’s in the Newton’s battery case. I will probably give up carrying the backups eventually, as I have yet to actually use them. I also don’t own an AC adaptor for the Psion — even when doing software development, I find I just don’t need it.
I touch-type much, much faster than any handwriting or voice recognition software can keep up. As much as I adored handwriting recognition, I felt that I often really needed a keyboard.
The Newton keyboard has excellent touch and feel, and is more than large enough for touch typing. Alas, it is even larger than the Newton itself, and connects by a cable and an adaptor dongle. I felt as though I spent many minutes out of every day plugging and unplugging the keyboard, and I often didn’t have the keyboard with me, or the energy to dig it out and set it up, when I really needed it.
Folks kept telling me that the Psion has the best PDA integrated keyboard in the business. I’m convinced that it does, though I also think that’s something like referring to the “top-of-the-line Yugo.” I like the Psion keyboard, but it does have its flaws.
It is, in fact, large and solid enough to touch-type. I can get roughly 80 WPM out of it, vs. more like 120 on a top-quality full size keyboard. It is plagued, however, with finicky keys that stick and thus will either miss a stroke or double-strike with frustrating (though not intolerable) frequency.
They keyboard was very stiff when new. It loosened up somewhat with a couple of weeks of use, then started to get bad again. I recently popped off the keycaps and cleaned the detritus out that had accumulated under the keys. The keyboard is much better, and I think some more careful cleaning and perhaps a bit of silicone lubricant on the sliding components might eliminate the shortcomings. I’ll keep you posted.
One surprise came after my vacation, when I went back to a full-sized keyboard after using the Psion exclusively for two weeks. I actually prefer the smaller form factor! My hands tire more quickly typing at higher speeds on the full sized board, where I have to move my fingers a lot farther.
There have been many complaints about the quality of the screens on the Series 5. Maybe I’m just not too picky, but I suspect the limited-edition green Psions got better screens than the stock Series 5s. My screen has good contrast and a quiet, bright backlight. It does require frequent contrast adjustment, but that is a simple matter using Pascal Nicholas’ freeware SetScreen utility.
The Newton screen is also quite good, but if you were a heavy user of handwriting recognition, a screen protector was mandatory to avoid scratches. Since I do much less writing on my Psion screen, I don’t have a protector on it and have seen no scratches thus far.
The touch on the Psion screen is much lighter; I’m not sure whether I like that or not.
Naturally, the Psion screen is quite a bit smaller than the Newton. I expected to really hate that, as limited screen space was one of the more frustrating aspects of using the Newton. I’m not sure why, but I seem to do much better with the Psion real estate than I did with the Newton. At least in part, it is due to the zoom feature built in to most Psion applications. I can work at smaller type sizes to get a broader view of information, but I can quickly zoom up in poor light or when I’m tired. With the Newton, I found I’d usually work in large type all the time to avoid eyestrain when working under poor conditions.
The Newton has two type-2 PC Card (neé PCMCIA) card slots. Cool. I could keep a fax modem in one and a large memory card in the other.
In the interest of size, I presume, the Psion has only one small Compact Flash (CF) slot. CF memory seems to be cheaper than PC Card memory, so I was able to buy a 48 MB card for my new machine. That’s important in my business, as I like to have a comprehensive pharmaceutical reference (currently the US Pharmacopea), a clinical medicine reference book (Griffith’s Five Minute Clinical Consult), and the DSM-IV in my pocket at all times, along with a collection of resources and clinical pearls I’ve gathered over my twelve years of training.
Alas, there is no place for a fax modem or the like. Psion sells an adaptor for a PC Card modem, but the thought of carrying the adaptor and its extra cables and batteries turns me off. Instead, I’m waiting for Nokia to release a US version of their 8800 series PCS phone. That phone (or the Ericsson 888) will link the Psion directly to the PCS network via the infrared port on the Psion, giving direct access to the Internet as well as fax and Short Messaging Service.
There is a significant difference in software style between the Newton OS and EPOC, the Psion Series 5’s operating system. Newton attempts to hide underlying details of operation and create a simple, but rather rigid, operating environment. Opportunities for customization are limited as the Newton comes out of the box. EPOC is a more Windows-like environment, where the details of directory structures and files are evident to the user. Many aspects of the operating environment are customizable without adding custom software.
The Newton interface seems much more well-defined and polished. For example, Newton OS programs nearly always support undo, and tapping Undo nearly always does what I expect. EPOC programs, even the built-in programs, are pretty quirky about how they implement undo. In Word, for example, undo’ing often presents the message “There is nothing to undo.” even after making extensive modifications to the document.
There is another significant difference in implementation. I used to brag that, though I’d had a number of system crashes, I’d never lost any data with the Newton. My Psion, on the other hand, rarely crashes. When it does, though, it takes any unsaved data with it. It otherwise seems quite robust if you save often, but I’m always a bit nervous if, say, I start to print a document and then realize I forgot to save it first.
One big difference, of course, is handwriting recognition (HWR). It’s integrated into the Newton, whereas it’s a third-party add-on with the Psion (both freeware and commercial offerings exist). Though I wouldn’t buy a Psion until I had determined that HWR was available for it, I actually never use it. I find that if I’m standing up I can type on the Psion with my thumbs about as fast as I could write on the Newton, though it is clearly more clumsy.
Newton included a spreadsheet, word processor, notepad (with outlining and checklist capability), a day book program, email, web browser, address book, and phone log. I found the built-in datebook program to be pretty limited, but a demoware replacement, DateMan by Stand Alone Software, did an excellent job of scheduling. I generally lived in the notepad, with its integrated outlining capability I found it perfect both for quick notes and for light-duty word processing. I’m not much of a spreadsheet user, and I found that the word processor only offered a little more functionality than the notepad, at the cost of requiring either the keyboard or a third-party hack. I never could figure out how to make the phone log program useful. The email and web functions, while a bit quirky, were quite usable.
The biggest gap in the Psion is the lack of a true integrated outliner. On the 5mx, the word processor supports an outline view, and I’ve written a set of macros to implement a cheap outliner on the Series 5. Except for lacking outlining capability, Psion’s word processor is a step up from Newton’s. It offers headers and footers with page numbering and date stamping capability. It seems to handle even very large documents with ease. I supports multi-copy printing, text import and export, embedded graphs and drawings, zooming, styles, and a word count — all features missing or limited on Newton.
The built-in datebook program is also nice, handling multiple to do lists and allowing much more flexibility for repeating dates than Newton. The address book on the plain Series 5 is a more general-purpose database program which has some serious limitations but still does what I want with a minimum of hassle. The 5mx has a new “Contacts” program which is said to improve on the original.
I haven’t used the other included software on the Psion enough to really comment on it. It all seems solid, though there are complaints of the limitations of the web browser (no frames or SSL support) and the email program (no filtering or mailboxes).
There seems to be a plethora of user-supported software authors for the EPOC platform. There are many more freeware products than were ever written for the Newton, and there is still a very active shareware developer community. Newton development, as near as I can tell, continues only at a very low level.
I’ve found most everything I need as user-supported software or I’ve written it myself. There certainly is an active community of commercial developers, but I haven’t used many of their products (I’m a starving resident, after all). A good source for commercial goods, I’m told, is New World Technologies.
I wrote a number of Newton hacks and macros, Programming for the Newton requires the use of a desktop machine or a macro package such as Dashboardor GestureScript, both of which are commercial software and are fairly limited in capability though excellent in their own right.
The Psion comes with a BASIC-like programming language, OPL, built in. If you add the must-have freeware macro utility Macro5, you have a pretty powerful programming environment for simple to moderately complex projects.
The Newton’s Internet connectivity was quite adequate, with PC Card slots available for fax modems, ISDN adaptors, Ethernet adaptors, PCS modems, etc. Both the email client and browser were pretty basic, but seemed to be pretty solid. Psion’s Internet package also seems basic but serviceable. I’ve only used it briefly, as hardware expansion options for modems are pretty limited. I’ll report further when I get my IR/PCS phone.
Apple simply never got its act together with desktop connectivity software for the Newton. I honestly was never certain that my MessagePad was completely backed up, and the process was slow and often frustrating on both Mac OS and Windows platforms.
Psion includes a Windows backup and synchronization program, PsiWin, with the Series 5 machines. It appears to be fairly comprehensive, able to translate data files between EPOC and Windows formats and perform synchronization. Macintosh users have to buy a commercial connection package, MacConnect, for about US$70. Folks complain that it lacks synchronization, but it is basically what I want in a desktop connectivity package. It performs backups (to Finder-readable folders), installs software, and will mount your Psion disks directly on the desktop of your Mac OS machine.
Printing remains the big hurdle for palmtop users. I was ecstatic to find that the HP DeskJet 340 with IrDA adaptor that I used with my MessagePad worked great with the Psion Series 5. Printed output with the Psion is of much higher quality than with the Newton. Still, the DJ340 is considerably larger than the Psion; hardly something I’d want to carry with me all the time. I’ve also heard reports that the 5mx currently cannot print to HP printers, though a fix is apparently forthcoming.
With the Newton, I simply kept a fax modem in one of the PC Card slots and a short modular phone cable in my fanny pack. If I was somewhere, such as on the hospital floor, where a printer wasn’t available then all I had to do was find a modular phone and fax to the nearest fax machine. That task is much more difficult with the Psion, since you’d need either the PC Card modem adapter and a PC Card modem, or a portable battery-operated modem, to do the same trick. That’s a lot of extra cables, batteries, and wires.
I’m hoping that the printing problem will be solved when PCS phones with Psion-compatible IrDA capability become available here in the US.