This Home-Made PDA Is A Work Of Art

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when a PDA, or Personal Digital Assistant, was the height of mobile computing sophistication. These little hand-held touch-screen devices had no Internet connection, but had preloaded software to manage such things as your calendar and your contacts. [Brtnst] was introduced to PDAs through a Palm IIIc and fell in love with the idea, but became disillusioned with the Palm for its closed nature and lack of available software a couple of decades later.

His solution might have been to follow the herd and use a smartphone, but he went instead for the unconventional and produced his own PDA. And after a few prototypes, he’s come up with rather a well-executed take on the ’90s object of desire. Taking an ARM microcontroller board and a commodity resistive touchscreen, he’s clad them in a 3D-printed PDA case and produced his own software stack. He’s not prepared to release it just yet as he’s ashamed of some of its internal messiness, but lets hope that changes with time.

What this project shows is how it is now so much easier to make near commercial quality one-off projects from scratch. Accessible 3D printing has become so commonplace as to be mundane in our community, but it’s worth remembering just how much of a game-changer it has been.

To see the device in action, take a look at the video below the break.

39 thoughts on “This Home-Made PDA Is A Work Of Art

  1. When I was in elementary school, I had the idea to build a PDA using a microcontroller, but didn’t know enough about them to actually do it. That was when even a very basic PDA was a few hundred dollars. And multimedia PDAs were still largely a dream.

    As for why the PDA seems to have gone away, it actually hasn’t. It merged with the cell phone to make smartphones, or expanded in size to become tablets.

    1. There’s something to be said for a device that does one thing, and does it well. Without the disadvantages of a jack-of-all-trade with it’s size, and track-ability, not to mention security.

      1. Yes, back in the day, YOUR Contacts could be saved to YOUR PC, and not on Goooogggggles cloud.
        (It really tees me off that Ggl has several Contacts folders for me to access from various gmail accounts and such.
        It lets them know who my Contacts are (birthdates, spouses, addresses, emails, phone numbers et al) and cross correlate them with Contacts they have from other people’s accounts.

        1. Yes, I still have a Handspring Visor form a work project. We used a cell phone case (they actually sold us the shell) to make a EEG monitor to ensure your were “out” during surgery.

          That was probably the very first smart phone as we know it.

        2. I got a Palm pilot III. It had it’s serial port or a backpack modem so it could dial out on a land line directly from your contacts. I mainly used TomTom City maps when it was just free ware made by two Dutch students and it just contained a vector street map with address lookup. other favourite softwares were a star map and translators, which at that time only existed as expensive language specific devices.

          1. I have a Palm Pilot IIIx with the add-on modem and used it while on vacation in the UK to dial long distance back to the US to access my ISP and get to my email. This was summer of 1999 I believe.

            If I put batteries in it, it still works, or at least did the last time I tried it. Kinda useless though, compared to modern smart phones and so forth.

  2. “What this project shows is how it is now so much easier to make near commercial quality one-off projects from scratch.”

    What it also shows is how people create things that never get shared with others because they will only release it when it’s ‘finished’, while they will never reach that state due to setting too high goals for themselves. ;)

    1. “What it also shows is how people create things that never get shared with others ”

      Is that a bad thing? We have plenty of commercial “cookie cutter” products out there.
      I like that we can make things now that NO ONE ELSE owns in the whole planet.
      I prefer custom stuff. I can always look at what someone else made, adapt it to my needs and make it my own.
      :P

  3. I have a massive box containing many old palm PDAs.
    The software development for dragonball processors is quite fun and easy.
    I want to make a PDA with a dragonball processor, but I can’t find them for sale anywhere online.
    I like the case this project sets forth. It’s a shame palm PDAs have lost all of the developer resources.

    1. I bought myself a Palm Tungsten T a couple years after release, only to have it become obsolete quickly when smartphones hit the scene.

      I just loved the snap-open “tricorder” feel of the design, even if it wasn’t terribly user-friendly. The screen got broken in a move or I’d still play Lemmings on it now and then.

      1. Ah, I always hankered for a portable device and finally took the plunge with a Tungsten T not long before feature phones became a thing (smart phones were still a pipe-dream) – I still resisted as long as I could (I even bought an official Sonic the Hedgehog game for it). I tried to justify the purchase by getting one of the slot-in digital cameras for it (which also rapidly became obsoleted)

    2. I have a box as well, as a friend used to writer programs for Palm PDAs and gave me a bunch of old ones.

      My first one was a Palm IIIxe, then later went to a Zire 71 (good screen and camera for its era) and then to a TX. I used the TX whenever I traveled because I could use the WiFi to email or browse the internet. I also really liked the desktop application. Using it could use your Palm was a “flash drive” for taking files home to work on.

  4. “He’s not prepared to release it just yet as he’s ashamed of some of its internal messiness, but lets hope that changes with time.”

    Applied to houses, one would never get released to the market.

  5. That is really nicely done!

    I’ll bet an enormous of work went into that GUI–I have a home-built alarm that is using (what I assume is) the same touch panel, and it takes quite a bit of fiddling to get placements and orientations correct when you’re putting your own GUI together, let alone getting it all to mesh to touching certain points on the screen.

  6. If you still have a Palm OS PDA that works, all the stuff at http://palmpowerups.com/ is now freeware.

    What is a problem for Palm OS these days is Palm never supplied support for WPA2/PSK2 for any models with WiFi. There’s supposedly a near mythical ‘enterprise’ software addon for the T|X that includes WPA2/PSK2 support but I’ve not been able to find it anywhere. I have a LifeDrive (microdrive replaced with 4gb CF) and a Tungsten E2, plus my old Visor Platinum. IIRC Dmitry (the palm powerups guy) was working on a WPA2 addon for Palm OS but never released it.

    Palm OS also never got Unicode support, so converting e-books for it, I had to pre-process the files to swap all Unicode characters for their ASCII equivalents. If your text is English or almost any language using essentially the same characters, you do not need to use Unicode. There’s a large number of languages whose alphabets and special characters are all in the Extended ASCII set. Except Norwegian. One Norwegian special character isn’t in Extended ASCII.

    I’d love to see a universal ebook reader for Palm OS (with built in unicode support), Android, Windows Phone, iOS, Windows, Linux etc. It should be able to open any non-DRM ebook file. Most of them are basically bastardized HTML/XML in a ZIP archive with the extension changed. The rendering engine could be the same for all, just use simple text files with lists of markup commands etc to be interpreted/rendered by the equivalents in the rendering engine.

    Unicode support for platforms that don’t natively have it could be done quick and dirty using a simple substitution table to extended ASCII, or the hard way by having a full Unicode font and text rendering engine.

  7. IIRC Hewlett Packard used to have free downloads of all the software, PCB files, parts list etc for building a PDA. The specified screen was monochrome and only something like 160×200 pixels. Since it was way before the advent of cheap desktop 3D printing, an enclosure was up to the builder.

    I can’t remember what they called it. I thought it was Helio or Helios but all that gets me is the old V-Tech Helio that was sort of a Handspring Visor knockoff with a 75Mhz CPU and more RAM/storage, but running VT-OS and also supposedly able to run some kind of Linux.

    1. I saw this article and straight up flashed back to my Helio. Picked it up on clearance from the shop I worked at the time, and it was a fairly decent little machine.
      I liked the handwriting recognition a lot more than Graffiti, it came in handy when I would occasionally lose my voice completely as I’d write on it in order to communicate with customers.
      There were a few apps and such ported, as well as several text adventure engines, most here: http://www.capitalware.com/helio_latest.html
      Some other resource links, a lot dead: http://helio.coolbegin.com/

  8. 90s? Were indispensable in the first seven years after 2000. Were as common on the hip as sliderules were back in the 70s, at least in the busy engineering environment I was in at the time. “Beaming” information to a co-worker over IR link was a common practice.

  9. I thought it would be novel (but of little utility and possibly infeasible without the source code) to run Palm OS for m68k (Palm OS 4 and earlier, based on AMX for m68k) on a Compact Mac, such as the SE/30, with a 9-inch monochromatic CRT. I queried DuckDuckGo to see if I could find anything about this idea but this article appeared to be the closest to a relevant result.

    Apparently no one mentioned OpenMoko either, maybe because it (the OpenMoko GTA01 and GTA02) has integrated cellular telephony capability.

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