A palmtop to drool over

Roger Frost

Psion Series 5. Pocket PC palmtop computer with touch-sensitive, backlit screen. 4 megabytes Pounds 439; 8 megabytes Pounds 499.95. Built-in word processor, spreadsheet, diary, drawing, voice dictation, address book. Includes cable and PsiWin 2 software for Windows 95. Mac kit available shortly. Fax, mail and Internet capability using optional modem or PC card adaptor. Battery life: one month on 2 AA cells.

Information: www.psion.com. From high-street retail outlets

It is highly likely that, at a meeting close by, someone is whipping out their electronic organiser and using it to take notes or check their diary. The odds are that the gadget is a Series 3 or Acorn Pocket Book, made by Psion. With the launch of the Series 5, the company hopes to win yet more to the electronic habit that puts writing, diary, address book, alarm clock and calculator in one pocket.

The new one is a mature, well designed product. Most remarkable is its grown-up keyboard, with laptop-sized keys closely arranged. Its "near touch-typing" quality will win converts, while one-finger typists will find it better too. It opens up to show menu buttons spaced around the screen frame - keeping them off-screen saves precious space. You press these to move between different functions, much like you do with Windows 95, only this seems better. The software is like Windows, with icons for the files where you save your work, and you use a stylus to touch the screen to choose things. This is no gimmick, as you can speed through appointments and setting alarms. In the word processor, normally fussy things, such as formatting text, checking spelling, copying and pasting, are very accessible. In fact, these tasks were rarely used before.

The spreadsheet works like a real spreadsheet in that you can build formulae by pointing, add cell shading and draw graphs with little hassle. Spreadsheets, tables and graphs can also be pasted into documents. An intriguing "sketch" program lets you draw a street map or add your signature to a letter.

Schools might consider this a cheap PC - the address book, diary and list features make it a great teacher's organiser. These features offer unusual benefits, such as searching for when you last met someone, finding people by their address, or getting a reminder every last Tuesday of the month. Finding a date is quick, thanks to buttons marked Today and Go-to; otherwise a double-click on a title bar brings up a calendar.

You can connect to a PC (cable provided) and the software will automatically switch it on. On the PC desktop you can drag files across which are converted to PC files transparently. It will run a weekly back-up, and, for the desk-bound, it will synchronise the schedule diary on the PC. Best of all, when you choose Print on the Psion, the work is sent to the printer on your PC system. Again, this is quite transparent.

Existing Psion users will find much to drool over. A voice memo lets you record notes - up to 15 minutes long on the larger model. You can do this without even opening the case or losing an older memo. There's no telling how handy it could be for jotting down phone numbers, directions or who you've put in detention.

Those with the cash will find the larger-memory version a slicker product. The case is a great piece of design - it sits solid when you tap the screen. Those without cash should console yourselves with the thought that touch-sensitive screens are less clear and really need their battery-juice-eating backlight. Note, too, that your Series 3 work is converted, though none of your old applications, flash discs, or power supplies will work with this. It was really intended for the fresh buyer.

There are countless personal organisers competing for your pocket. Next to the Psion's no-fuss software, they don't look so smart. If e-mail and fax matter, check Psion's Internet package, due out shortly.

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