27 years later and the Psion 3a is still wonderful (2020)

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My daughter found my Psion 3a the other day, tucked at the back of a cupboard she was clearing out for me. It looked fine and is still in excellent aesthetic condition, and fortunately I had left no batteries inside it so they didn’t have time to go off and destroy the device. There was also a backup battery installed which had fortunately not leaked any nasty stuff.

I inserted 2 AA batteries and to life it jumped in an instant. Those 2 batteries will give me 30 days of use by the way which is unheard of today and I will obviously need to source a backup battery to that any data inputted is not lost when the batteries need to be swapped out.

The reassuring snap as it is opens is just the start of the process. A bit like unboxing an Apple product except you get to experience it every single time and that hinge mechanism is a mechanical masterpiece in 2020 yet alone back in 1993.

The keyboard is surprisingly easy to use and so is the form factor. This was markedly improved with the brilliant Psion 5 keyboard, but at the time the Psion 3a keyboard sufficed perfectly well. Perhaps more remarkable is the sheer speed and consistently smooth performance offered on a 480 x 160 pixel screen, a 7.68 MHz processor and 1 or 2MB of RAM. These numbers are crazily low, but you also got a voice recording microphone and an I/O port for a modem and PC sync.

At no point in my years of Psion usage did any device ever crash on me. It worked, it always worked and it never stopped working. Everything was instant and there were so many clever design touches that were way ahead of their time. I would argue that the Psion was the most Apple-like PDA of all and it was way ahead of the Newton. I owned a Newton for a month and it was a huge monstrosity of a device.

From the clever hinge mechanism to the shortcut keys above the keyboard to the card slots either side. It was a superb set of hardware features housed in a hard to damage case powered by software that never strained the hardware. It just worked!

I read my first eBook on a Psion 3mx, I played my first mobile games on a Psion 3 and I wrote my first web articles on a Psion 5. To this day the Psion range remain above all others in my mind as to what a PDA should have been.

Psion died and I moved to Palm. At no point did I ever believe that Palm was a proper mobile system and it never came close to any Psion for me. It felt immature and just didn’t work the way my mind wanted it to work although I admit that it was efficient and had that natural sense about it. The occasional Windows PDA was bought, shouted at and then sold and I continued with Palm until the BlackBerry and then finally the iPhone.

It is, Psion, however, that will always be the best PDA hardware and software combination of all to me. And it is remarkable that the Psion 3a when used today still feels modern in many ways. It was way ahead of its time in 1993 and it is definitely not 27 years behind the times in 2020.

Categories: Articles, Retro, Thoughts

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