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Switching from Newton to Psion June 1998

Here's how one former Newton user handled it

The first time I saw a Psion Series 5 handheld was in an ad in one of the multitudes of computer mail order catalogs we all receive. I was intrigued by the size of the keyboard—and then just moved on to the next page of the catalog. No big deal. I had a Newton I had been using for a couple of years and I was perfectly happy with it. Or so I thought.

The next time I saw the Series 5 was in the First Look article that David MacNeill wrote in this very magazine. By the end of the article, I knew I had to get my hands on one and at least try it out. But questions kept nagging at me: how can I get my data out of my Newton and into a Psion? Can I print? Can I use a modem? Is this even compatible with the Macintosh I own, or is Psion taking the WinCE approach and ignoring the entire platform? And the biggest question: will I be as productive and functional with a Psion Series 5 as I am with my Newton?

With the fall of Newton in February, I decided to jump to another platform. I didn’t want to have the option of going back to my Newton, so I arranged to sell it almost as soon as I bought the Psion. Using Apple’s Newton Connection 2.0.2 software, I did a full backup of my MP100 onto my Macintosh LCIII. (Notice my affinity for older machines. Believe me, it is not intentional.)

When I really looked at what I have been carrying around with me on a Newton, it generally fell into these categories: calendar items, notes of different sorts, address book items, and electronic books. The only items that could not be backed up on my Mac were the electronic books, most of which I had created myself using Newton Press. More on that later.

Once backed up, I looked at the data to see how it could be transferred onto the Psion. Thankfully, a little utility from Psion, MacConnect 1.1.2, helped make this process easier. Now, Psion-using Macintosh owners are put in a rather small box by Psion, while Windows95 owners are given a cable and a rather robust connection utility (PsiWin) with the purchase of a Series 5. Mac owners pay an additional amount to get a pale version of the connection software and a cable converter (DB-9 to DIN8) that fits on the end of the PC cable. It doesn’t seem quite right to Mac users, but Psion thinks that the Macintosh market is rather small and mostly in the United States (their words, not mine.) It’s a little hard to argue with a corporate philosophy, so I won’t bother. Does that make the software any less useful? Not at all.

Notes to myself
The Notes that I had accumulated in my Newton all backed up quite nicely and I was able to export them from my Macintosh using a MS Word 4.0/5.0 translator, which would have been great if the Newton had actually saved the notes as text. However, many of the notes were massaged by third party software extensions somewhere along the line and turned into pictures of the data rather than the data itself. So, out of 35 notes or so, only three were translated. Not to be deterred, I brought those into MS Word 5.1a on my Macintosh, then converted them into both RTF and text documents to see which the Psion would take gracefully. Using MacConnect to link to the Psion, I simply dragged the documents into the Psion, whose internal memory simply acts like a mounted disk drive to the Macintosh. Very elegant. Once transferred, I opened the documents with the Word application in the Psion. What I found was a bit dismaying; the RTF documents did not translate at all and the text documents lost all the carriage returns at the end of paragraphs. I tried again, this time formatting the documents as text with line breaks. Same problem; data as one long string. Since the raw data was there, I simply reformatted the documents on the Psion rather than spend time trying to figure out what combination of formats would work best. I ended up typing in the remaining documents that I wanted to keep on my Psion, deleted the failed RTF documents and turned to the next category.

Names: The Saga
This was a tough one to crack. I had about 175 Newton name cards that held not only the usual address and phone information, but crucial notes that I had taken about each person, client, and contact. This was all vital information that I could not lose, so this transfer had to go well or I was going to spend a few hours re-entering an awful lot of information. You also have to remember that the MacConnect software from Psion does not do any conversions on its own; it is simply a connection from your Mac to the Series 5.

The Newton Connection backup from the MP100 was intact, so I formatted the output to go into a tab delimited format and imported everything into Filemaker Pro. I had to massage the data a little to get it all into a format that I thought would just blow right into the Data application (a database) on the Psion. I exported the results out of FM Pro as a comma delimited file. When I brought that file into the Psion and tried to import the records into Data, I ran into my first problem: none of the records would import. I then tried formatting the output to be in tab-separated text form; only the first record would import. I did this process a number of times in a number of ways and found one of the oddest solutions ever. I formatted the output from Filemaker Pro in a comma delimited format, pulled that into MS Word, then saved the file as a RTF file, and the records came in almost perfectly when copied into the Psion! I had to get rid of some extraneous characters in the notes field I mentioned earlier, but other than that all 175 records came in unscathed. It was right about here that I wished the Psion MacConnect software had its own set of translators. This process should have been much easier.

Dates and such
Here is where I simply caved and re-entered all of my calendar items. There is absolutely no information with the Psion that would indicate that there is a way to import calendar items in the Agenda application, and I’d just about had enough of troubleshooting for one day. I printed out the calendar items that I had on my Newton and simply put them in by hand. Most of the information I had was birthdays and anniversaries anyway, so I didn’t feel this was a huge task to undertake.

As for the electronic books that I had created, I ended up going back into Newton Press and copying the text into text documents in MS Word, then putting those documents into the Psion. Granted, these documents are no longer as cool as Newton Books, but I was more concerned about the information they contained, not their format. However, really long documents that I had created (like the huge sound listings I have for each of the synthesizers in my recording studio) are still a puzzle. I don’t want to create a text listing of the sounds since I like to find sounds by category. I will probably end up re-entering the entire sounds listing as separate databases on the Psion, or forego that approach entirely and keep it all Mac-based again. Just haven’t made up my mind yet.

But, is it alive?
When you are replacing one machine with another, all you can usually remember is how you used to work. It becomes a constant quest to try to figure out how to make what is in front of you work like something that used to be in front of you. And that can be hard to do sometimes.

As part of my computer consulting business, I had come to rely on my Newton almost exclusively to keep track of when I visited a client, how long I was there, and what I did. I would use a simple invoicing utility called EasyBill that compiled all the information on a particular client and created an invoice. I then faxed the invoice from the Newton to my client using the little Newton fax/modem that everyone seems to have. Moving to the Psion has proved very troublesome in keeping track of what I am doing. While I can easily enter information into Agenda when I make an appointment with a client, there is no utility that I’ve found that works in compiling that data for an invoice. What I have ended up creating is a Word document on the Psion that has an imbedded spreadsheet which contains the invoicing information. So while I use Agenda to make the appointment, I use the spreadsheet application to keep track of the time and activities. Not exactly automatic, but it works for now.

The most troublesome aspect of all this is the lack of support for standard Macintosh peripherals. There are no Apple printer drivers built into the Psion (again, everything is PC-centric, including accessing a printer via PC connection, which looks for PsiWin, not MacConnect.) As a Macintosh user, you have to go around and look for PC peripherals to use with your Psion. I walked into one office, saw an HP Laserjet with an IR port and sent a print job to it to see if it worked. Everyone was stunned (including me) when out popped my report, wirelessly printed.

Also, because of the differences in connector types, there is no way to easily connect a Macintosh modem to the Psion Series 5 (Again, the Psion cable ends as a female DB-9 or, with the Mac-extender, as a male DIN8. Most Mac-compatible modems are female DB-25.) You are left with a few choices; try a number of cable converters and hope one of them works with existing peripherals, purchase the 14.4 mobile fax modem that Psion sells, or purchase the Psion PC card adapter and use a PC card modem. The bottom line: I will have to make an additional investment in hardware if I want to go back to work using a handheld. Not good.

And therein lies the rub, I guess. Here is a great handheld that has more potential than most, that is being hobbled for Mac users by its lack of hardware and software options. So now I’m trying to borrow PC stuff to see if it works with the Psion. Is it fair of Psion to ignore an entire hardware platform and its peripherals? Looks like they are taking the Microsoft approach after all.

- Kevin Brislin

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