Psion vs Palm Pilot and Pocket PC

Psion: the best miniature computers on the planet

Comparing Psion, Palm and Pocket PC out of the box.

This is a general introduction to the differences between Psion, Palm OS and Pocket PC, as you receive them in the box.

The best PDA for you depends almost entirely on what you need to use it for. There is no single best model for everyone. There are simply models more or less suited to particular tasks.

My position is clear. Psion is still the best miniature computer on the planet, over eight years after its release, and long after the range were discontinued by Psion. The reason I believe this is true is that the other current model palmtop and handheld PDAs are actually companions to desktop computer. They are designed primarily to work in close conjunction with a PC, rather than as standalone computers. Since what I needed was an independent miniature computer, the Psion was best for me.

I originally made this comparison based on the 1997 model Psion 5, which cost me about A$750. In 2001, with much reduced prices available, I bought a Psion 5mx, which for A$349 gave me twice the speed and twice the memory of my old system, but relatively few other changes.

There are some really fine PC companions, but there are few competitors in the standalone miniature computer range. The discontinued Apple Newton Message Pad and MS-DOS based HP 200LX were probably the major competitors in this area.

Models Introduced

The Psion 5 was announced on 16 June 1997, to replace the Psion 3 range (1991 on). By June 2000 the Psion range included the 5mx (twice the speed and memory, some bug fixes), the Revo (smaller size and screen, no expansion), the 7 and NetBook (much larger, with VGA colour display). The Psion was designed primarily as a stand alone computer that could also connect to a PC.

Palm OS has a number of models at various price points and memory sizes, mostly with a colour display. Palm was designed specifically to be a small, pocketable companion to a PC or Macintosh computer, and not so much as an independent computer. The same comments apply to models like Springboard Visor, TRGPro, Handera, and other palmtops that use the Palm OS under licence. Sony also make Palm OS products, with excellent colour displays with four times the pixel count of the original Palm.

PocketPC models are relatively similar to the Palm in philosophy, however they are generally larger, have a larger display, a much more powerful processor, and much larger memory. All recent models have sufficient processing power for MP3 or other music outputs or for limited animated or video displays. They make excellent portable entertainment devices, a task for which the Psion is almost entirely unsuited. By default, they connect best to Microsoft Office products.

Input Methods

Psion computers have a keyboard, whereas Palm and Pocket PC do not. There are several add-on keyboards available for the others, at prices which appear to be above A$200. There are also tiny thumb keyboards available on some models.

Palm uses a pen and Grafitti handwriting (a modified alphabet you need to learn) to input data. Pocket PC also have a handwriting recognition package included. Palm or Pocket PC are thus better if you walk around accessing your data and can't sit to use the keyboard. I find thumb typing on a Psion keyboard an obnoxious kludge, but if walking you can use it, albeit slowly.

Like Palm and Pocket PC, Psion also has a stylus and touch sensitive display, and most actions can be done using the stylus (including handwriting recognition via several third party products), so it isn't impossible to use the Psion while you walk, but not as conveniently as on a Palm or Pocket PC. I personally don't believe handwriting recognition is worthwhile on a Psion.

IrDA

All models seem to have some parts of the IrDA infrared standard available, but which bits seem to be very date dependent. The IrDA standard has expanded over the years. Very early Palm models did not have IrDA. PocketPC has IrDA and IrOBEX. The Psion 5 could print to IrDA printers in 1997, but I believe needed free patches for some model mobile phones. I think it fair to say that all PDAs can now connect to IrDA phones (but some phones with infrared ports do not have IrDA and thus will not work).

It gets even more complicated when connecting a Psion to Windows via IrDA for synchronising purposes. Windows NT does not have any IrDA support. Windows 9x does, and works fine with Psion. Windows 2000 has IrDA but lacks IrCOMM, and won't work with Psion's PsiWin synchroniser. You use IrOBEX to transfer files without synchronising. I don't know about Windows XP, as I've given up on it.

You can basically get any PDA to beam to any other, but need a third party package (Peacemaker) on Pocket PC. A Psion can send single items to Palm, but if you want to send multiple items you need the 3rd party plBeam. Even then, you can't expect to send an arbitrary file to a Palm, as there seem to be limits to what Palm is happy to receive.

Even when you do beam things, unless the applications are compatible, you can't make any sense out of the results. For example, you can beam say a Psion Contact to a Palm DataBook, or a export a Psion Agenda entry as a vCal entry and beam that. You should expect to do some experimenting to see what works for you.

RS232 Serial Ports

All early model Palm and Pocket PC systems had serial ports. Of late most models have USB ports, or both.

Psion have a standard 9 pin serial port cable, and include Comms terminal emulation software (except for the Revo which has a less useful serial cradle and no Comms software included). They connect easily to any computer with a serial port. By using a null model cable adaptor you can use external modems, GPS units and pretty much anything that accepts a serial connection and has communications software. Psion does not have USB, however some PC USB to serial converters work (and many do not).

Memory and Memory Expansion

The Psion has a larger memory (8 MB for 5 and Revo, 16 Mb for 5mx and Revo Plus) than the earliest Palm (2 MB or less), but I believe all Palm models now have 8 MB and some have 16 MB. Pocket PC models always have much larger memory sizes, 32 MB and 64 MB are not unusual in base models. Unfortunately, there are some indications that Pocket PC applications can be rather large and may need this extra memory.

Earlier Palm models were not able to accept any expansion memory for holding files. If you carry lots of data (or programs) this can be very limiting. Their clones and recent models can accept file memory of various types, some like Handera take standard Compact Flash, and some like Sony and Visor, accept proprietary Memory Stick and Springboard modules. Some take newer MMF modules.

Except for the bottom of the line Revo models, all Psion models accept standard Type 1 Compact Flash cards. Also, these cards are used as standard MS-DOS FAT file systems. You can put a digital camera CF into a Psion and view the photos. You can put a Psion CF (in a passive PCMCIA adaptor) straight into your Windows notebook computer, and read and write the files. You should note that the Macintosh prior to OS X does not handle MS-DOS FAT file systems correctly, and will often corrupt Compact Flash (it fails on filenames starting with 0, which normally indicates they were deleted).

Display Sizes

The Psion 5 display is 640 x 240, or 153,200 pixels (480 x 160 for Revo, or 76,800 pixels, 640 x 480, or 306,400 pixels for Psion 7). The standard Palm is 160 x 160 (some Handera 240 x 320, Sony 320 x 320 and now 320 x 480). You basically can fit more data on a Psion display. The Revo has three times the pixel count of a Palm, the Psion 5 has 6 times the pixel count. The Pocket PC with 240 x 320 or 76,800 pixel also has three times the pixel count of the original Palm, same as the Revo, half the Psion 5. There are some very nice highly visible 240 x 320 colour LCD displays available in Pocket PC models.

Display areas are also a factor. The Revo display is 115mm x 38mm. The Psion 5 is 133mm x 50mm. The Palm Vx is 54mm x 54mm, the IIIxe is 56mm x 56mm, the IIIc is 57mm x 57mm, the m105 is 46mm x 46mm. So the Palm Vx has 5266 pixels per square inch, the Revo has 11337 pixels per square inch. The Palm has 72 dpi, the Revo has 106 dpi.

The Psion display has an instant zoom feature that has four levels of font sizes, varying from almost unreadably small to very decent. Psions have featured this since at least 1991. No other miniature computer seems to have this feature, and it is wonderfully convenient for anyone whose eyesight is less than perfect.

Sizes

Palm devices (also Pocket PC) are smaller and lighter than any of the Psion (even the Revo) and thus you are more likely to carry it with you. A computer you don't carry with you is no earthly use. Palm and Pocket PC win big in this area.

Sound

Psion (except Revo) models have a microphone and speaker, and can be used as a limited personal tape recorder for quick notes thanks to recessed external control buttons on the 5. You can easily record your comments at a meeting while you type minutes. Palm does not have sound recording, although Palm compatibles may have these facilities. Pocket PC now have superior sound facilities, including stereo MP3 players.

Alarms on the Psion can be set to any sound you record, and are much louder than on the Palm. In addition, an LED will flash when an alarm sounds (you can also turn off the sound during meetings, etc.) If a Palm is buried in a bag, or is in noisy surroundings, you won't hear the alarm.

There is an MP3 Springboard add-on for Visor, and Sony support MP3. Some Pocket PC models have sufficient horsepower to handle MP3 playing in software, and some have a stereo sound plug. You are more likely to get sound and video support in the Pocket PC range than anywhere else. You can get a freeware MP3 software player for Psion, but it is pushing the processor hard, and the speaker is no better than a transistor radio.

Battery Life and Type

The early Palm models generally have a better battery life than a Psion. The Psion 5 and 5mx models won't exceed 20-30 switched on hours. Both Palm and Psion have much better battery life than any Windows CE computer, however in virtually all PDAs the models that use rechargeable batteries (in the Psion range, this means Revo, Revo Plus, Psion 7 and netBook) do not have the battery life of models that use alkaline batteries. If you mostly commute between home and office, this will not matter. If your business trips involve weeks in the field without power sources, it most certainly will.

Operating Sytem

The Psion has a true industrial strength multitasking operating system with extensive and elaborate memory management and recovery facilities. The original Palm has none of these behind the scenes features. Windows CE has multitasking, but its memory recovery seems a little haphazard (memory is recovered after a crash and reset).

On a Psion you can do twenty or more things at once using it. You can leave multiple programs open all the time, you don't lose your place in any of them. You can have multiple copies of a program open, each working with a different file. Epoc uses an elaborate memory management and cleanup system designed to allow the system to recover all memory used, and not be rebooted for years at a time. This demands much additional work from programmers, and makes programming far more difficult, and very unlike traditional Windows C++ programming.

The Palm does not have multitasking, but can change tasks quickly. When a task is not in foreground, it closes and is required to save its data, thus recovering its memory use. Since applications close frequently, memory is cleaned up frequently. This method works well for the style of Palm applications, however it probably would not scale well to a multitasking environment. Palm has very little place to go if it needs to become significantly more elaborate. As a result, they changed operating system in the past few years.

Windows CE is derived from Win32, however Windows does not demand efficient resource allocation nor cleanup (since the machine will be switched off frequently). Set your Windows swapfile to 1 MB and open a bunch of applications to demonstrate this (applications will break, and files will be lost). Windows CE has a deferred memory cleanup. When memory gets short, or an allocation may fail, WinCE uses a hibernate message to applications. Applications should then free up memory, or the user should close some applications. If this doesn't happen, the OS will close the oldest used applications. If data hasn't been saved when an application is no longer in foreground, then it will be lost. CE basically isn't designed for small resource systems, although you can write applications that compensate for this lack of industrial strength. It is designed to make it easier to use Windows knowledge in writing programs. I'd guess that a Windows programmer would find Epoc at least four times harder than WinCE.

Windows CE Installations are usually fussy about CPU (ARM, MIPS, SH3, SH4) _and_ platform (HPC, Palm-size PC, HPC Pro, Pocket PC). This can be a problem for new users. Since 2002, PocketPC is targetted only at the AIM processor, thus avoiding this problem.

Compatibility

As well as Windows, Palm had good support for Macintosh.

Pocket PC systems are compatible only with Microsoft Office products under Windows. They do not synchronise with Lotus, Word Perfect or non-Microsoft products out of the box.

Psion will synchronise with all of the above out of the box, but not with Macintosh, or other systems. You can transfer files without conversion via serial port to any system with a decent communications program.

Built in Applications

The Psion has more built in applications as delivered. Not only a more extensive PIM with day, week, month and year, contacts, 100 todo lists, time, calendar, two calculators, sketch pad and a jotter, but a capable word processor with outliner, a spreadsheet with graphics, sound recorder, a database, email (POP3 for Psion, also IMAP for Revo), web access and fax. Many of these need to be added to a Palm.

Agenda, Calendar and ToDos

Psion and Pocket PC have day, week, month and year views. In Pocket PC you can associate Contacts and places with any appointment and assign categories. Psion users would be more likely to run a separate Agenda for each major project, and use embedded Word, Sketch, Sheet and Voice Notes associated with entries for Contact information. Pocket PC does not appear to allow you to freely edit the layout of your appointments, and doesn't even seem to wrap text. Unlike Psion, you don't seem to have easy ways to change what appears where in various views. Anniversaries in Pocket PC don't seem to support running year totals like Psion.

Pocket PC Tasks (ToDo within Psion Agenda) don't seem to be integrated into the Calendar, but you do get told the number of open tasks in the Today view.

Calculator

Epoc has both a simple calculator (like Pocket PC) and also a limited scientific calculator. It provides a paper roll imitation on the simple calculator. Both can be flipped left handed or right handed. Naturally lots of third party calculators are available for all PDAs.

Contacts

Relatively simple vCard style fields. Pocket PC searches only for the start of a name in List view, rather than searching for anything you like as with Psion. However there is a general Find utility in Pocket PC that substitutes very well. The Pocket PC Contacts don't seem to support word wrapping. Contacts in Epoc is also a vCard based address book.

Data

Neither Palm nor Pocket PC have a built in database as such, although naturally many third party products exist, ijncluding full relational databases.

Psion Data is a simple flat file database with card or list views. The appearance of the data can be changed in a relatively flexible manner (for example the Psion Help application is a specialised example of Data). Like many Psion applications, fields in data records can include embedded applications. So it is possible to include unlimited length records (by embedding a Psion Word document), or drawings (by embedding a Sketch), or audio records (via the Record application). The most versatile results come from embedding Psion Sheet applications in fields. These can then provide interactive calculations for tasks such as conversions, or graphs from Sheet calculations.

Excel

Pocket Excel looks excellent. Even handles multiple sheets, which conversion to Epoc Sheet converts into one big spreadsheet (so you can't go back to multiples from a Psion). Psion Sheet supports graphics.

Email

Pocket PC has a very easy Inbox, and seems to handle email well. As well as POP3, unlike Epoc it has IMAP and LDAP support. Psion email supports SMS and Fax which Pocket PC does not.

Jotter Notes

Pocket PC Notes seems to create a new document for each note. Epoc Jotter can store any number of notes in each document. Searching tends to be easier within Jotter as a result, although you can use the general Pocket PC Find to good effect. Both can insert sound and graphics, but Epoc Jotter can also accept Word and Sheet objects. You can do some pretty fancy Jotter notes as a result.

Media Player

Only available on Pocket PC. Plays MP3, WAV, WMA, and even (after a download) videos. If you are into that sort of stuff, your choice is clear. There is a freeware MP3 player available for Psion, but it pushes the slower processor very hard, and the speaker is no better than a transistor radio.

Microsoft Reader

Reads proprietary eBooks, available only for Microsoft systems. Epoc reads only ASCII ebooks. Personally I'd never buy an eBook done in any proprietary format. Various eBook readers are available for all PDAs.

Sound

The sound facilities in Pocket PC are much better than Epoc's simple sound recorder. Several bit rates and sample rates, more compact storage. New sounds are recorded as a sound object in Notes (although you can save as a separate sound file).

System or Start

Pocket PC shows about 10 programs, against thirty or so in Epoc, reflecting the larger pixel count. Both systems scroll if you add more than will fit. The Pocket PC general Find is very quick at searching for text in the My Documents folder, but didn't seem to find files elsewhere. The Epoc Find is limited to finding files rather than text they contain, but finds them anywhere. Epoc has a File Manager based popup underlying its System screen if you prefer not to use the more graphic oriented screen. It also automatically installs all applications on the program Extras Bar.

Time

Easy to use in Pocket PC, however you don't seem to be able to add cities or change city or country information. Epoc shows sunrise and sunset, distance between home and local city, and international phone codes. Epoc is easier to set alarms, and it has a map you can touch when you want to know the local time elsewhere.

Web Browser

Pocket Internet Explorer is easy to use, and supports frames (unlike Epoc Web). Both support scripting.

Word

Pocket Word seems very basic compared to Epoc Word. No headers, footers or borders. You can embed sounds and some graphics, like Epoc, but not spreadsheet files. You can however read and save as RTF files, and as several MS Word formats, whereas Epoc Word does only its own format and text. No print preview, no pagination in Pocket Word. No printing support, not even via infrared, unlike Psion. If you receive an MS Word document by email, Pocket PC will convert to Pocket Word, however it loses headers, footers, borders, shading, and all objects and graphics.

Palm

On the other hand, there are many different versions of add-on programs for the Palm range, so you can get the same style of applications.

There are probably more 3rd party applications available for the Palm than for the Psion. However I know there are several thousand for the Psion (some of which I list on this site), so mostly applications aren't a problem with either.

It would be interesting to see if there are Palm applications that can't be imitated with a Psion.

Installing Software

The Pocket PC uses two formats:
CAB files must be copied to the handheld then run from File Explorer (Start-Programs-File Explorer, then go to the \My Documents directory and tap on the CAB file's icon).

PocketPC Activesync installed files must run the setup.exe or install.exe under Windows, and then follow the instructions.

Psion .sis files can be copied to the Psion for the internet and clicked to install. The same .sis files can also be installed from Windows.

When the Psion is connected to a Windows PC, just click the .sis file on the Windows PC. PsiWin will then extract and install the application files on the Psion.

Total Cost of Ownership

A 2002 report by Gartner gives the annual total cost of ownership (TCO) for a handheld device as up to an astonishing $3000. More advanced devices such as those running Microsoft's Pocket PC platform, have the highest TCO.

The addition of wireless capabilities adds an average of $50 per month per user to the TCO, plus a further $1392 for the annual TCO of a wireless modem. On this basis, an employee carrying a wireless handheld could require nearly $5000 annually in associated costs, such as hardware, software, network services, technical services and support, peer support, application management and development, evaluation, implementation and training.

Conclusions

If you want a stand alone business computer that can replace a desktop system for long periods of time, go for Psion. If you want a very small desktop companion that is connected frequently to your desktop, go for Palm. If you want a sound and video player, go for Pocket PC. The systems are aimed at different audiences, and you need to decide what suits your type of work habits.

Please note however that a disorganised person with an organiser remains a disorganised person. Any PDA is only as good as the work you can put into it. None of them are magic bullets for getting you organised. None of them avoid the need to think about what things are important in your life, and how you need to work to accomplish your goals.

This site will look much better in a browser that supports W3C web standards but it is accessible to any browser or internet device, including Psion Web and similar PDA or limited browsers. Netscape 4.x users - turn Style Sheets off. Your style sheet support is too broken to use (sorry).


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