Upgrading A 20 Year Old PDA

Before we had our iDevices and Androids, even before Blackberry, we had PDAs. The most famous of these mid-90s computing appliances are the Apple Newton and the Palm products, but the world of 90s PDAs was significantly more diverse than these two devices. Palm had a competitor in Handspring who released a cheaper and better version of a Palm OS device with the Visor. HP made hardware at one point, and you could run Windows – including Excel and Word – on a handheld device in 1998.

A company name Psion made PDAs with a clamshell design and a keyboard back then, too. Disregarding the operating system, these little clamshell PDAs could arguably be called the forerunners of yesterday’s netbooks and today’s Surface tablets. [RasmusB] is turning his Psion 5 PDA into something modern by replacing all the important bits while still keeping the clean design of this 20-year-old PDA.

The goal of this project is to completely replace the electronics of the Psion 5, while keeping all of the mechanics. That means the keyboard will stay the same, the device will run off of two AA batteries, and all the switches and ports will work. This effort began by making the Psion keyboard Arduino compatible by reverse engineering the keyboard matrix with a pencil and paper, and turning the keyboard into a USB keyboard.

Efforts to turn this Psion into a modern device are ongoing, but at least the outline of the main board is now in KiCad, with a microcontroller to decode the keyboard, switches for the lid and other buttons, and the correct space for the CompactFlash card and battery contacts. The next step is selecting a microprocessor and designing a circuit, but [Rasmus] is off to a great start to make this ancient PDA a modern computing device.

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Classic PDA finds second life as a network touch screen display


[Tomas Janco] had an old Casio Pocket Viewer PDA collecting dust. Rather than throw it away, He decided to re-purpose it as a display for time, weather, and the current status of his garage door.

The Casio Pocket Viewer was a competitor to the Palm Pilot. The two systems even shared the same LCD resolution – 160×160 monochrome. [Tomas’] particular model is an S660, sporting 6 megabytes of ram and an NEC V30MZ (Intel 8086 compatible) processor. Similar to Palm, Casio made an SDK freely available.

The SDK is still available from Casio, and [Tomas] was able to get it running on his PC. Development wasn’t without pitfalls though. The Pocket Viewer SDK was last updated in April of 2001. Software is written in C, but the then new C99 standard is not supported. The SDK does include a simulator and debugger, but it too is not as polished as todays systems – every simulator startup begins with setting the clock and calibrating the touch screen. Keep reading after the jump to learn about the rest of the hurdles he overcame to pull this one off.

Continue reading “Classic PDA finds second life as a network touch screen display”

Building a PDA from scratch

Extremely powerful ARM microcontrollers have been around for ages now, but only recently have they been available for just a few dollars with a good enough toolchain for some serious development work. [Jose] wanted to develop something awesome with an ARM chip he had lying around, so he built a PDA (Spanish, translation) that can be used as a game console, an oscilloscope, a clock, or a wristwatch. Basically, it’s a portable homebrew computer that can do just about anything.

The hardware is built around an ARM Cortex M4 chip clocked at 170MHz. Included on the PCB is an SD card slot, a JTAG interface, a USB port (only used for charging the battery at this point), and a touch screen LCD controller.

After designing the PCB and enclosure, [Jose] looked around the Internet for a decent GUI library without much success. He eventually found Gwen, a lightweight library for programming GUIs that is easily ported to [Jose]’s hardware.

So far, [Jose] has a few GUI demos up and running on his homebrew PDA, but nothing very useful yet. Still, the fact that [Jose] can get a full-featured ARM tablet-like piece of hardware off the ground without a team of developers brings a smile to our face. We can’t wait to see the state of homebrew ARM devices in a few years when everyone has the requisite hardware and software knowledge.

Reverse engineering old PDA software

[Troy Wright] acquired a lot of twenty broken Dell Axim PDAs. This type hardware was quite popular a decade ago, but looks archaic when compared to a modern cell phone. That’s why he was able to get them for a song. After a bit of work he managed to resurrect eight of the units, but was dismayed to find there’s no published method for controlling the back light from software. For some reason this is a deal-breaker for his project. But he knew it was possible because there are some apps for the device which are able to set the back light level. So he found out how to do it by reverse engineering the software.

The trick is to get a hold of the code. Since it’s not open source [Troy] used IDA, a graphical disassember and debug suite. He had some idea of what he was hunting for as the Windows CE developer documentation does mention a way to directly control the graphical hardware independently from the display driver. A few hours of pawing through assembly language, setting break points, and testing eventually led him to the solution.

Smartphone anti-virus software


With DEFCON and Black Hat going on, a lot of security issues are being made public. This year, cellphones have been a larger target than before. More and more people are carrying complex smartphones that have more ways to go wrong. Even worse, since phones are tied to a billed account, it is possible for malicious software to charge phones discreetly. However, Flexilis promises to keep your phone safe. It’s a free mobile anti-virus that works on most smartphones and PDAs with more clients in the works. It also provides easy backup and recovery options, as well as the ability to wipe the phone if it’s lost. The phone makers really need to fix the probelms, but in the meantime Flexilis can provide a quick response.

[via WSJ Digits]

Apple Newton dev kit?

[phooky] picked up this bizarre bit of dev hardware three years ago and isn’t really sure what it is. It has lots of general purpose switches, LEDs, and audio jacks. The processor is a StrongARM chip in a ZIF socket. It has two serial ports, a CF, and PCMCIA slot too. Commenter [Glen Raphael] says it looks a lot like the early prototype development boards for the Apple Newton which also used a StrongARM chip. It’s definitely an interesting piece of history. Make sure you check out the full item on NYC Resistor.