Remember DAB Radio? The Psion WaveFinder Gets A Teardown

With digital music making a clean sweep in the 1990s over almost all listening media, it’s a surprise to find that there’s one area in which an analog hold-out is still very much alive and kicking. We’re talking not of a vinyl resurgence here but of FM radio, which has managed to effectively hold off its digital competition for a few decades now. Twenty years ago its days seemed numbered though, and in Europe the first generation of DAB digital radios looked ready to conquer the airwaves. Among them was a true oddity and one of Psion’s last significant consumer products, the WaveFinder USB DAB radio receiver. [Backofficeshow] has one, and has given it a teardown for our entertainment. He describes it as the first consumer SDR product which may be a little hyperbolic, but nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at what would become one of computing’s backwaters.

Inside the peak-90s-style translucent blue case is a single PCB with a lot of screening, on which sits a USB controller and a bunch of DSP chips. Radio demodulation was done in hardware, but signal demodulation was apparently done on the host PC. At the time its £299 price made it the affordable end of DAB reception, and The Register opined that its ability to download broadcast broadband data made it a revolutionary product, but sadly neither consumers nor broadcasters agreed and it was heavily discounted before making an ignominious exit. DAB itself would struggle to meet the expectations, and a multiplex-based licensing model for broadcasters making it unattractive to local stations means that even now FM is still full of stations. Perhaps as listening moves inexorably to streaming its time has passed, indeed Ireland has gone so far as to abandon DAB altogether.

If you’d like to know more about DAB, we took a look at the technology a while back.

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Psion Organiser with a Pico memory pack.

Proto-PDA Regains Its Memory With The Help Of A Raspberry Pi Pico

Remember the Psion Organiser? If you do, chances are you were an early adopter, as the 8-bit pocket computer had its heyday in the mid-1980s. Things have come a long way since then, of course, but just how far is illustrated nicely by the fact that a Raspberry Pi Pico can stand in for the Psion’s original memory packs.

Like many of the early attempts at putting a computer in your pocket, the Psion II had removable modules, which were dubbed “Datapaks”. The earliest versions of the Datapaks were little more than an EPROM chip on a small PCB, and the technical limitations of the day plus the quirky way of addressing the memory made it possible for [Amen] to mimic a Datapak using a modern microcontroller.

The first version was a breakout board that extended out of the Datapak slot significantly, with a Pico, OLED display, SD card slot, and a bunch of pushbuttons. That prototype proved that the Pico was indeed fast enough to fool the Psion into thinking a legit Datapak was plugged in. [Amen] later refined the design by making a board that stuffs everything into the Datapak slot, with the exception of the OLED which still dangles out where it can be seen. He puts the faux memory to the test in the video below.

It’s great to see groundbreaking tech of yesteryear like the Psion being taken care of and returned to use. We’ve seen others try before; here’s a hack that uses a Pi to connect a Psion Organiser to the internet through its RS-232 serial port.

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Raspberry Pi Helps Vintage Psion Find Its Voice

Ask a hacker to imagine computing in the 1980s, and they might think of the classic 8-bit all-in-one machines from the likes of Commodore and Atari, or perhaps the early PCs and Macs. No matter the flavor, they’ll likely have one thing in common: a lack of mobility thanks to being anchored down by a bulky CRT screen in the form of either a television or a dedicated monitor. Mobile computing at the time was something of an expensive rarity, consisting of various quirky handhelds that today have been all but forgotten.

Looking to see if one of these so-called “pocket computers” could still be of use in 2019, [James Fossey] set out to get his circa 1986 Psion Organiser II connected to the Internet. With a Hitachi CPU, two-line text-only LCD and ABCD keyboard it’s a world away from the modern smartphone, yet as an early stab at a PDA as well as general purpose computer it’s visibly an ancestor of the devices we carry today. Of course, as the Psion was produced before the advent of affordable mobile data and before even the invention of the Web, it needed a bit of help connecting to a modern network.

Psion sold an RS-232 cable accessory which came with both serial terminal and file transfer in ROM, so with one of these sourced and a little bit of hackery involving an RS-232 to TTL converter and a DB-25 connector, he was able to hook it up to a Raspberry Pi. That means it’s reduced to being a dumb terminal for a more powerful machine that can do the heavy lifting, but those with long memories will tell you that’s exactly what would have been done with the help of a modem to connect to a BBS back in 1986. So far he’s got a terminal on the Pi and a Twitter client, but he’s declined to show us the Hackaday Retro Edition.

Psion has rarely featured directly on these pages, but despite being forgotten by many today they were a groundbreaking company whose influence on portable computing stretched beyond their own line of devices. One we have shown you is an effort to put more recent hardware into a Psion Series 5 clamshell.

Beautiful Raspberry Pi Laptop Inspired By Psion

In the four years since the first Raspberry Pi appeared, there have been many takes on a portable computer based on it. The choice of components is fairly straightforward, there is now a wide selection of suitable keyboards, displays, and battery packs to choose from. You might therefore think that there could be nothing new in the world of the portable Pi, indeed another one might be as mundane as just another PC build.

News reaches us from Japan this morning of [nokton35mm]’s “RasPSION” Pi laptop build (machine translation) inspired by the Psion portable computers of the late 1990s.

That hinge, in close-up
That hinge, in close-up

The RasPSION features the Raspberry Pi 7″ display as well as a Bluetooth keyboard, 5V battery pack and the Pi camera. What makes it special is its laser cut case, and in particular its pivoting hinge mechanism. This is the part that takes its inspiration from the Psion machines, and its operation can be seen in the video below the break.

He claims the finished laptop gives him about two hours of battery life, which is no mean feat given that it lacks the sophisticated power management you’ll find in a commercial laptop. We hope that in time we’ll see him posting the details of the build somewhere other than Twitter, as this is a laptop we’d love to know more about.

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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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Hackaday Retro Edition Roundup

It’s time for another update chronicling the adventures and misadventures of getting really old computers to load our retro edition!

First up is [Andrew Hull] and his brilliant use of a Raspberry Pi to get an old Psion 5mx PDA on the Internet. The Raspi served as a wireless bridge, taking in Internet from a WiFi dongle and sending it back out via a serial port. Here’s a great guide for enabling PPPD on the Raspi, and giving just about anything with a serial port an Internet connection.

It may push the limits of being a retro submission, but [Glen]’s use of a modem to get on the Internet calls to us like a siren song.

Did you know Corel made computers? Well, [Victor] has one, and it’s actually a pretty interesting machine. ARM processor, an actual hard drive, and dual Ethernet ports. It was built in the late 90s and the hard drive has since died, but [Victor] booted it into Red Hat over his network and loaded up our retro site.

Finally, we come to [Greg]’s submission. He could have sent in a Mac SE/30 submission, but figured that was old hat (do you see one on there, [Greg]. No. And it’s the best computer Apple will ever make). Instead, he had an old Powerbook Duo 2300c with a Duo 230 screen lying around.

Powerbook Duos are pretty weird; they only had two ports – a single DIN-8 serial port and a dock connector. [Greg] had a Powerbook Duo dock that surprisingly had an Ethernet port. Third-party peripherals to the rescue, it seems. After plugging his Duo to his network and launching iCab, [Greg] was able to browse both the retro and main Hackaday editions. Picture Not bad for the smallest laptop Apple made before the Air.

Oh, [Greg] was also cool enough to write a tutorial for getting just about every Macintosh on the Internet. We’ve put that up on the retrocomputing guide portion of our retro site, and we’re always looking for new submissions.

You can check out the pics from all these submissions in a Web 2.0 WordPress gallery after the break, or head on over to the retro site and view them the way the gods of HTML intended.

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