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Psion's newest: netBook

When I first saw the Psion netBook at Jon Pepper's Mobile Focus event at PC Expo in New York this past June, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. The netBook looked like a giant Series 5 with an almost impossibly sharp and vibrant color screen, and an almost full-size keyboard. It used's Psion's innovative "modified clamshell" design and seemed blindingly fast. At that point I thought Psion had pretty much given up on the US market and feared that we'd never see that magnificent new device on these shores.

As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. Psion will indeed bring the netBook to the United States, albeit as an enterprise tool and not a consumer product. The netBook, incidentally, is very closely related to the Psion Series 7 which was introduced in the UK in September.

What is the netBook? It is, and as a great supporter of Windows CE it almost pains me to say this, what CE-based "Jupiter" devices should have been, and perhaps some day will be. At 9.3 x 7.3 x 1.3 inches and weighing 2.55 pounds, the netBook is almost identical in size and weight to the HP Jornada 820. Coincidentally, both devices are powered by a 190MHz version of Intel's vaunted SA-1100 StrongARM processor, both have 90%-scale keyboards that make them suitable for even extended typing and data entry tasks, both have 256-color screens measuring roughly eight inches diagonally, and both are primarily designed for corporate/enterprise use.

That, however, is pretty much where the similarity ends. Even though the Jornada and its CE-powered brethren benefit from the might and vast expertise of Microsoft, a company that dwarfs Psion in every respect, the netBook is a far more polished and far more powerful computer. Due to Microsoft's ongoing struggle to formulate a clear vision for Windows CE, H/PC Pro devices seem sluggish, held back in their development, as if their makers were afraid to set their sights too high.

The netBook, on the other hand, is neither timid nor underachieving. Every aspect of its design and operation is just right. It's quite obvious that the people who created the netBook weren't cautiously trying to figure out how to build a workable PC Companion that was good but not too good. They wanted to build the best darn handheld computer in the world, and many will argue that they succeeded.

Speed demon
Let's take a look at what the netBook delivers. Speed for one thing. This machine is fast. Whereas even the mighty StrongARM cannot provide more than CE-typical leisurely performance in the Jornada 820, the EPOC-based netBook sizzles. Everything happens instantaneously. You never have to wait for an application to load, they all appear in the blink of an eye.

The 7.7-inch screen is so quick and vibrant that you'd swear it was a TFT instead of a passive design. Fonts and icons are nicely designed and eminently readable. Scrolling-the bane of many a CE device owner's existence-is never even an issue. Screen redraw is instantaneous as well, even when you quickly cycle through the five levels of magnification available in every netBook application. And as nice as some of the CE "pocket" applications are, the ones on the netBook are superior in almost every respect. They never look limited or scaled down. They are the real thing. EPOC applications include the usual utilities (time, alarms, a calculator, and a voice recorder), a PIM (note taker, contacts, scheduler, and database), a powerful word processor and spreadsheet, PC connectivity with synchronization to most leading PIMs, e-mail, and web browsing.

The only problem here is that the interface can be a bit complicated and that not everything is intuitive. At times there seem to be two or three different ways to do the same thing, or you have to tap three or four check boxes where even Windows does it in one or two.

RAM-based OS
Unlike the UK-only (for now) Series 7, the netBook is not a ROM but a RAM-based device. The EPOC operating system is actually loaded at cold power up into RAM from a Compact Flash card or a serial port. This means that the OS can easily be upgraded and that Psion can extensively customize the netBook to the needs of a customer. The other reason for this is that Psion conceived the netBook as a Java platform. It comes with a very fast Java Virtual Machine. While the standard EPOC applications already provide a lot of power and versatility, Java based applications can turn the netBook into a perfect mobile enterprise system in markets such as healthcare, insurance, curbside check-in, banking, logistics, and so on.

Our pre-production netBook came with a total of 32MB of RAM, of which 13 were used as "ROM" and 19 were available. The shipping version will come with either 32 or 64MB of RAM.

Psion offers a special netBook Development Kit that geared towards easy creation of applications for both EPOC and Java. The kit includes a netBook, a docking station, a Psion Dacom NetGlobal 56k + 10MB integrated modem and ethernet card, a PC/CF card adapter, an ImageMate CF Card Reader, a 15MB CF Card preloaded with netBook OS, the netBook CD-ROM, and the Development Partner CD-ROM.

Incidentally, when the netBook was announced on June 15 in the UK, the press release indicated that the netBook was just the first in a range of Psion clamshells and tablets geared towards enterprise-wide computing. We can hardly wait.

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