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Psion netBook finally and belatedly becomes unspeakably wonderful

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Stupidly Late Review A long time ago* (in computer years, at least) Psion launched the netBook, which was (and still is, in its own small way) a useful subnotebook variant of the Series 5, but with a decent-sized keyboard and a reasonable, backlit, colour screen. I instantly pounced on Psion demanding an eval unit, not merely because I was a journalist who wanted to review it but because I wanted to check it out as a potential customer, and all being well, I'd maybe buy (this was before the dotcom crash) five for the team. Now read on.

They said yes, they'd sort it out. So I called them at regular intervals over the next year, and finally, when I made a sour reference in The Reg to the impending first anniversary of the dialogue, they shipped me one. As the dotcom crash had now happened buying a bunch of them wasn't too likely any more, but there was another piece of the equation missing - a network capability. Ethernet was promised for something like Q1 2000, but the odd loose beta driver aside nothing much happened prior to May of this year, when a buggy rev of the OS was released and then pulled, giving me time to screw up a download but not notice I'd screwed it up until it was gone again.

In the meantime the eval netBook which I have spent two years not reviewing because I hadn't got all the bits yet has done sterling service. It's light, highly usable (especially once you've substituted Opera for the browser it shipped with), and although you couldn't do networking as such it would support a modem via the PC Card slot and was fairly simple to run with a GSM phone via the infrared. No doubt it can be made to work with some of that weird mobile phone stuff you Americans have as well, but one of my happiest moments in this business was writing, editing and posting a nasty story about Microsoft while I was still at the Microsoft presentation in Seattle, with the aid of nothing more than a netBook and a GSM phone. And they didn't notice a thing.

I love this piece of kit, and if Psion pulled the plugs on it - as it has with the consumer PDA line - I'd probably pay the stupidly high asking price for a spare, just in case. As and when somebody comes up with an alternative with superior functionality** I'll consider switching, but right now I don't see it.

Back, however, to that missing bit of the picture. Prior to last Friday, when Psion reissued the netBook OS build with Ethernet capability, the netBook was a special-purpose piece of gear. It was too big to be rational solely as a pocket organiser, and too small and low-resource to function as your only computer. It was a great lightweight unit for people on the move, like journalists, but the internet via GSM really is not fun, and tethering it via a landline was kind of contradictory. If you had a PC handy, then you'd be unlikely to use the netBook.

You will however recall that in the past few years we've seen a succession of companies bashing on about devices in the webpad category. These are intended as untethered, lightweight, long battery life devices that you can use in the home, around the office or just plain around to do all your stuff. They have not taken off as yet, and the Tablet PC (see **, below) may not take off either, but as I've been wandering round the house over the past weekend it's been occuring to me that the now-Etherneted netBook has turned into a webpad, really.

Chez Lettice we have one of the higher-spec DSL systems that were on offer prior to the great UK consumer push. It's not cheap, but it provides bandwidth in fairly yummy quantities, and one of the nice things about being a business customer is that support answers the phone promptly and salutes. Along with this we have a Lucent 802.11 system which I bought specifically because I knew Psion was using Lucent Orinocos in its netBook development, and because Googling suggested to me that Orinoco gear would be pretty do-able under Linux (this turned out to be not exactly the case, but that's another story).

The new netBook OS supports Orinoco and Cisco Aironet cards, so although it took around 18 months longer than I'd anticipated, this turned out to be a smart purchase. The new rev also substitutes Opera for the old Psion browser, thus automating one of my other requirements (this isn't just bigotry - the Psion browser also had several fundamental disagreements with our site's content management system).

Setting it up was simple enough, the only glitch being that switching from a fixed IP network to a PPP dialup connection vaped my settings, but this was my own fault for foolishly forgetting to set up separate network settings for dial-up. The OS is designed to make it easy for you to use multiple network profiles, so you need to agree with it and recognise that a dial up connection is a different network. I'm not sure if this is just sensible or an example of Psion's legendary, irritating, logical rightness, but I can live with it.

Once it was going, the change in the device was quite entrancing. Where previously it might have been a handy device to use with a mobile phone to check email when I was too comfortable slumped where I was to go over to a PC, now it's a rather compelling device I can use to whiz around the web when I'm too comfortably slumped to get up. It's not like my wretched ThinkPad, which despite being one of the light ones is too heavy and large for comfortable slumping, runs too hot for you to want to keep it on your lap for long, and has a somewhat erratic endurance. Sometimes as low as 20 minutes, and it's really not very old at all.

It's early days, but this morning I did the slump bit for about an hour and a half while sorting the email and checking the news with the netBook. This is longer than I usually slump as I gloomily contemplate the prospect of having to start work, but I don't ordinarily do any work while I'm slumping, so it's a clear productivity benefit. I've used the netBook for various bits and bobs during the rest of the day, but the battery meter is showing only a slight nick.

And despite years of striving with things like the Intel "Always On" initiative (which as far as I can gather merely resulted in portable computers that sometimes won't switch off), the PC industry remains very much an either on or off environment. If an idea or an impulse pops into your head you are not going to whip the PC out of your bag, switch it on and take a note of it or act on it. Nor are you going to seek out your nearest desktop machine and sort it there. You are going to mean to remember to do something about it next time you're in front of a PC.

The PDA model is quite different. The devices are sufficiently unobtrusive to be whip-outable, and if you press the on switch they're on. Or very nearly, anyway; I noted with the netBook that you can often lose the first character of what you type in the split second after you've switched it on. I trust this disturbing trend in Psion design will not continue in future revs, should there be any. But anyway, the always there, instant on, totally connected device does seem to me to have clear benefits, and is quite different from a PC-type device or an unconnected or barely-connected PDA.

I am not, of course, suggesting that the netBook or its consumer sister machine the Series 7 will now sweep the world (matter of fact, I don't even know if the 7's likely to get Ethernet - anybody able to enlighten me and at least one reader?). World domination is something that might have happened if Psion had got its act together earlier, if consumer wireless networking had taken off two years ago, if DSL had become ubiquitous then, if, if, if... But although Psion had a clear and coherent vision of the consumer market (not, as far as I know, for this class of product) two years ago, none of this happened and its mass-market plans crashed and burned instead.

However, the machine as it is now provides an interesting pointer to what might have been, and I can't see why it shouldn't do useful duty Chez Lettice, at Reg Towers and in some 802.11-ed variant of Starbucks with a smoking zone for quite some time to come. If its GPRS handling proves good then that'll be an added extra. I haven't been able to check this as yet, but as the Nokia 7110's keys are currently refusing to function after I was out in today's rainstorms, I fear I may be in the market for a new phone, and it'll have to be GPRS. And a 7650.

Psion may or may not produce netBook derivatives in the future, but if it does these will probably be for specialist markets, and it'll be for someone else to open up the consumer market for webpad-style devices. These will have to be always on, long battery life, crash-proof***, efficient, functional and idiot-proof. With the expection of the last (and the final footnote), Psion machines are these things, so they're a tough act to follow. Now, Mr Microsoft, about that Tablet PC... ®

* Seeking to confirm exactly when a long time ago was, I Googled 'psion netbook history' and the number one result was The Psion and EPOC Museum. Oh dear. Unhappily, the date it gives is wrong, although it may be accurate for shipments in Switzerland. The netBook was announced in mid-1999.

** Suddenly, I am reminded that Microsoft has invited itself round real soon now to extol the virtues of Tablet PCs. Can they convince me, I wonder?

*** Until relatively recently I was under the impression Psion machines never crashed, because it had never happened to me. The old Series 5/7/netBook browser did crash occasionally, however, probably because it ran out of memory. The app would hang and, it being the case that Psions don't really switch off, they just suspend, it would stay like that. When I called tech support they told me to press the reset switch ,of course. But I'd been using Psions since the original Organiser back in the 80s, and until that point hadn't realised they had reset switches, because I'd never needed one. They're that crash-proof.

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Psion produces netBook refresh, OS upgrade

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