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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43 thoughts on “Upgrading A 20 Year Old PDA

    1. Making me feel old now, I still use my Zaurus. I recently sold my HP200LX and was shocked that I got what I paid for it 20 years ago, apparently it is still sought after as it runs proper Microsoft DOS.

      1. The Zaurus(I love a real keyboard) was my pocket computer for years until I got a N900(slider keyboard), but I especially loved my Z for a satellite tracker using Pettitrack, giving be both doppler correction and and where to aim/track in the sky with sun and moon landmarks. http://www.qsl.net/n1vtn/petittrack.html the only thing more it could have done was tune a radio directly
        The Zaurus and a DJ580t 5w HT on a duplexed 2m/70cm DIY yaggi stick and I was set to talk to the ISS or the better old satellites like AO-27 or AO-51. I still have no replacement for either that radio(full duplex two tuners) or the PDA/software, both were close to perfect.
        Micro and nano-sats are neat but they use up the extra room on space launches which formerly was taken by larger full service amateur FM(good for backpacking) and linear transponder comm sats.

      2. Ahhh the Zaurus. As far as I am concerned OpenZaurus with GPE was best but even the stock image with Qtopia was better than today’s iOS and Android. Yah, they would both be super dated today but had development continued…

        The great thing about those is that they were so slightly removed from Desktop Linux, especially GPE. It was GTK + X-Windows. If only they had a decent build environment, either a reasonably easy to set up and install cross-compiler or even just a regular old build environment to run on the device itself.

        Ever since the Z I have been dreaming of an environment where a simple “./configure; make” would get me any of my favorite desktop software on the portable device. Sure.. the UI would be a poor match for the form factor but it would mean that ANYTHING your desktop does your handheld does too… given enough patience to deal with the tiny screen.

        Once this was common I thought that maybe application (what is an app?) developers would start building multiple interfaces right into their programs so that it comes out good on a handheld OR a desktop.

        Android is pretty good at this with it’s separate tablet and handheld interfaces. iOS is a worthless piece of @#$% though due to it’s refusal to suport a mouse. Either one sucks compared to what the Zaurus could have been because they are whole new environments requiring all new applications with no good way to port existing desktop ones. Unbelievably after all this time now it is Microsoft that is closest to getting convergence right!

        Oh, and yah, the Zaurus keyboard was a million times better than any other handheld device I have ever used. I’m convinced to this day that the reason we don’t have slideout keyboards on phones anymore is that manufacturers wanted that feature dead. Sure.. people didn’t use them. I hardly ever used the slideout keyboard on my last phone to have one. It sucked though. Every generation of phones had worse hardware keyboards than the last. It’s no wonder that the hordes of smartphone users that came later and so outnumber the early adopters never wanted keyboards. The only ones they ever saw were pieces of #$%&!

        Alas, for me though the Z stopped seeing the light of day shortly after I bought my first Windows Mobile phone many years ago. (later replaced w/ Android) I loved the Z’s software better but it just couldn’t compete with anything that had a built in cellular modem!

        1. My phone is thick enough the way it is. I experienced fat thumb syndrome with the sliders as much as I do with the touch screen. The only thing I miss with the slider is the navigation keys

    1. Yep, that would have been perfect if the RPi foundation had released a driver for the MIPI DSI interface. As it stands now, you can only use their screen on that interface :(

  1. I still used an HP ipaq as a Calendar and MP3 Player replacement as my Smartphone died in 2014.

    That battery was still quite good for a Day and it even could get me internet with a PCMCIA backpack and gprs card pluged into…

        1. I didn’t pay an exorbitant price for the one I got, but I had to wait for a few months for it to show up on Tradera. eBay was helpful for getting cheap “donor” units since I don’t care what keyboard they have :)

      1. You don’t think keeping track of calendars was work? There’s a reason they called these things Organizers; we were all so totally DISorganized (at least I was — am… was.. you know :) )

    1. Not really. I haven’t made a hard decision on what SCB to use for the final build. But the Pi symbol kind of looks like an lowercase n, and “Pi”-names are everywhere now :)
      That said, I might end up using a RPi Compute module. We’ll see what happens.

      1. I thought it was already finished by looking at the title… Choosing the right title seems hard nowadays here.

        Dont know all the spellings of pi, nor give a f… about it. It has the potential of getting more iterations of its name then the arduino.

    1. Replying to myself, but I got hold of an HP 200LX. The screen is going bad so i am going to gut it. I’m going to try and keep all the original parts though.
      Plan was to put in a Pi zero but since those don’t exist, I’m looking for other options. I have a couple other Pi’s maybe unsolder the ports?

  2. While modern phones can use a Bluetooth keypad (with separate battery) I must admit the clamshell design is – appealing.
    How much travel is on those keys?
    I’m mighty tired of devices thin as a sheet of paper – but the keys have zero travel.

    1. I had linux on my Psion 5 sometimes between 2003 and 2005, I used it as serial terminal to a fulltower pc i found in the middle of the road close to my home that I used as mythtv box for years.

  3. I have an HP iPAQ (Model: rx1955) and a Palm One Lifedrive that are languishing in a drawer. If anyone is interested in either or both of them, they can be yours for the cost of shipping to you. Message me on Hackaday.io.

  4. I have a HP iPAQ I used in the same period as the psion5’s, a 3870 with pcmcia cfjacket I used to use with bluetooth, wifi and network cards in cf format), and I ran first netbsd then later familiar linux on it. I also have the snap out keyboard that folded out this small clamshell case into a reasonable sized keyboard and acted as a dock for the main pda for when commuting if you could stand the embarassement factor. How society has changed.
    I rememer the familiar linux community getting continually trolled by one guy, nobody had heard of florian mueller back then but he caused so much crap I think everyone just wandered away in the end. I think he was being paid to disrupt open source a lot earlier than anyone thought. But the seeds of that idea ended up in OE and angstrom and other places so not all lost.

    I had a collegue with a psion 5 who loved it and tried to convert me but by then I was already having my trousers pulled down by the weight of a nokia 9000i as my “smartphone” and that and the ipaq seemed like better partners. I still have 3 9000i’s in the shed but none of the later 9210’s because in the quest for lightness and slimness, it seemed they also threw away robustness and I RMA’d 6 in a year then gave up, I might see if one of the 9000i’s still works to use again for the sheer comedy factor of having a phone you can comfortably defeat muggers with using only a single blow.

    You know when you pull this out when its finished, you’ll still feel a bit of a pratt if you try to use it as a daily device round a office dont you, but hey go for it, the embarassment factor wears off pretty quick :)

  5. i have one of those psion5mx but branded as ericsson mc215 along with the irda adapter for internet connectivity.
    and also a Palm treo 180G with the transparent flip. but i intend to keep them as they are.
    i actually used the mc215 as traveller serial console, it was so easy to keep this in my pocket when i had to configure cisco boxes.

  6. The only PDA I owned I found was in Walmart’s toy section, while shopping for Christmas gifts. Granted it only a toy, but for six bucks it worked as a PDA all the same.

  7. I’ve got an MX5 and spent a couple of days a while ago wondering how it could be gutted and the innards replaced with a cheap Android smartphone guts. Just love that keyboard!

  8. I loved the Psion5 but hated it’s fragility. It was so useful when it worked. The screen cable got me twice. I also dropped it and broke the hinge.
    Good luck with this.

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