Kathleen Peel tests the pocket computer that fills the same space as £100.
Psion the software company that produces much of the Sinclair Spectrum official software and the bundled software – Quill, Archive, Abacus and Easel – for the new Sinclair QL, has branched out into the computer hardware business, an area that has seen many recent failings by both large and small companies.
The excursion into the apparently risky hardware manufacturing side of the business comes about by the desire to produce what Psion describe as a new type of computer product called the Psion Organiser.
The Psion Organiser is a calculator-sized pocket computer featuring a 16-character LCD display, a 36-key keyboard and an 8K plug-in Eprom memory pack or datapak. The calculator-type keys are protected while in the pocket by a sliding cover which, when withdrawn, exposes the plug-in memory underneath the keyboard and the display contrast adjuster control on the right-hand side of the display. Complete withdrawal of the cover gives access to the PP3 9 volt battery compartment.
The computer is based on the Hitachi 6301X CMOS 8-bit processor, which contains 4K of on-chip ROM. This is supported by 2K of RAM for the calculator working registers, system variables and an 8K Eprom for program and/or data storage.
For £100 the user gets a bare bones calculator with a 16-character alpha-numeric LCD display – no scientific functions with parenthesis limited to a depth of two – and a built in database facility, capable of searching the 10K of character storage – 8K Eprom – for a specific number or character string within five seconds.
The Organiser is activated by using the On/Clear key and powers up with the display showing the time, date and month. The time may readily be adjusted as indeed it needed to be. The machine provided for review stopped the real-time clock from running when the machine was switched off, the replacement machine had no such problems.
The Mode key selects the current operating mode, that is:
- Enter for general purpose free format database entries and editing.
- Call for performing calculations.
- Off which the user Executes to switch off.
Each individual process is performed by use of the Execute key – calculations are entered in the normal manner and the Execute key pressed instead of the more usual calculator = or Enter key.
Data is simply typed while in the Enter mode using the alphanumeric keyboard, each file being saved using the Save key with the display indicating whether the data is saved in datapak 1, or 2 if two datapaks are installed, according to the user’s choice.
The database needs to be fairly static, data changes simply overwrite the existing data in memory to make it unreadable and the new file is written into a clean area of memory. Fast changing databases will become extremely wasteful of memory.
The database in each datapak must be consistent; the user can store telephone numbers, train timetables and appointments together within one datapak but there is no way of restricting a search to a specific segment or groups of files in an individual datapak.
Find2 string$ will find every occurrence of string$ within all the databases in datapak 2. Therefore as an electronic notepad, the user is required to keep with the Organiser all the necessary databases separately which could become expensive in terms of datapak cost, and add considerably to the amount the user has to carry around.
The 8K Eprom can store about 200 names, addresses and telephone numbers. A search may be conducted using the Findn string$ function, every record containing string$ will be displayed, otherwise the computer keeps searching for a match. If there is no match, the message “not found” is displayed. If a string$ is not given for the search, the computer will step through every file within the database.
By adding a program pack – £30 Finance, Mathematics or Science Paks are available – the Organiser is provided with further modes of operation:
- Copy for copying between datapaks.
- Cat used to access programs.
The Organiser is also capable of performing the same trigonometrical and scientific functions as found in the more comprehensive calculators.
And lastly a procedural language POPL is added. Each procedure is limited to a length of 200 characters, with an individual line not exceeding 100 characters. POPL supports 26 variables and can pass parameters between procedures – there is Goto a label and looping facilities.
Under normal conditions, rewriting code is not a problem as the program storage media is reusable. With the Eproms it is not and once written to, that space cannot be re-used until the datapak is re-formatted which clears the whole of the datapak ready for a fresh start.
The Organiser may be expanded to incorporate two 16K Eprom datapaks, these cost £20 each but increases the in memory storage capacity up to 40,000 characters. The user may install 8K Eprom datapaks which cost £13, but either way strikes me as being pretty expensive for storing data.
The datapaks may be reused up to 100 times by reformatting – wiping clean all of the Eprom; remember you cannot selectively erase. This will cost £3.50 if done by your local stockist or the large user may purchase a Formatter for £45 which can reformat two datapaks in 30 minutes.
The manual supplied is 1/4 A4 size of about 50 pages of text and diagrams. Most details are explained twice but for those who so far have shown no interest in computing, the documentation will be difficult to understand. The average computer user will find no problems other than the programming requirement of learning yet another language, POPL, which can hardly be of use in any other context.
The RS-232 expansion unit, which costs £25, permits the user with a modem to downline load data via a telephone line to a remote computer. Computer to computer data transfer is also possible.
- Although very simple to operate as a database with a single integrated data file, the Organiser cannot handle separate databases residing on the same datapak.
- The database being searched needs to be fairly static, if it is going to change daily as a stores inventory might do, then the necessary changes to the database are going to use up the available memory space extremely quickly.
- Program development is likely to suffer the same fate. It is not possible for a user to write and enter a program without faults, and the Organiser will allow the user to work on only one procedure in RAM at any one time.
- The Organiser is going to be very expensive to run as a computer. The development of software which is
always subject to change and revision does not lend itself to the type of storage media employed in this computer design.
- The use of Eproms as the storage media imposes restraints on the programmer, a requirement for a local Eprom formatting service and fairly substantial power requirements on the hardware designer.
- The Organiser appears to fit those types of market where data security is essential and, of course, using
Eproms gives a very high level of security, but logistically I’m not sure. The data typed in is secure, but whether it can be entered correctly using the calculator-type keyboard and very small screen display without a lot of careful checking at the time of data entry, which the average person is unlikely to perform, is doubtful.
First published in Your Computer magazine, September 1984