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Psion PSection

EPOC32 vs. Windows CE

By Mark Esposito
October 1998, issue 24

By popular demand I’ll be treating you all to a Psion Series 5 (EPOC32) vs. Windows CE (HPC) comparison. Rather than giving you a one sided mine-is-the-best speech, I hope to do an honest comparison.

In order to get this done, I started out by purchasing a Sharp Mobilon 4600 without the add-on digital camera, since this wasn’t really needed for my evaluation. The camera is a unique feature, albeit an expensive one. For fans of other CE-based devices, the reason I chose the Sharp was due to my own preference for pocketability, which the others don’t seem to offer. The Sharp isn’t really very pocketable either, but it comes closer than the others I’ve seen.

To set some guidelines for the comparison, I’d like to save us all some time by acknowledging that you can find good hardware on either platform. I’m willing to admit right now that the CE devices are ahead of the current Psion S5 on the hardware side. Psion doesn’t yet offer a machine with a color screen, or built-in modem of any kind. The Psion also sells for some $400 less than the Sharp Mobilon, and for this reason I don’t want to center the comparison on the screen. I’ll leave these questions for a future column. If we can agree that there is good hardware on both sides, we can move on and look at the more important issue of what these machines can do.

Of course if your only objective is a color screen, Psion has nothing to sell you. I think most would agree that the potential handheld user needs more than just a color screen. Having said that, the color screen on the Mobilon is absolutely beautiful, and after using it for awhile, it is very compelling, and makes it hard to go back. However, it is also a bit ahead of its time for a handheld mobile device. On my first day with the Mobilon, after giving the rechargeable batteries a full charge, I got 3 hours of use before being told that the batteries had gone south. A color screen is not an absolute must for a mobile device since it can’t meet the requirements of battery life that many users have. I typically get twelve hours from my Psion with the backlight on the whole time. Others who use the backlight more sparingly get 22–30 hours. Quite a big difference.

What makes a good mobile device?
Let’s look at the issues that make for a good mobile computer. To make a long story short, Psion’s 32-bit OS called EPOC32 and Windows CE 2.0 both handle the job of multitasking, including communications over TCP/IP, which is the de facto standard these days. There are some arguments that can be made that the Psion is a better real-time OS, but that argument isn’t really relevant for this consumer machine comparison. To Microsoft’s credit, they have achieved the goal of a common user interface, which makes the CE device fairly easy to learn for a Windows user like myself. This is one of the strengths of CE as an OS. Although Psion can’t claim to offer quite that level of instant recognition, they did do an excellent job of developing their own GUI. Anyone that has tried a Psion or Geofox-One knows that it is not some kind of cheap Windows copy, but a very elegant user interface with pull-down menus, graphic dialogs, control panel, add-remove capabilities, and so on. The Psion doesn’t have a "Start" button, but it does have an extras bar where all of your applications pop up. It’s not that difficult to learn that if you press the button that says "Word," the Word processor will be launched.

Bundled software
This is the area that we need to concentrate on, since it is the most important issue for the kind of user that buys a high-end handheld device. Great hardware doesn’t make a great computer. Great software with decent hardware makes a great computer. Imagine a beautiful color screen, built-in modem, and no email client or web browser. The hardware becomes a slab of silicon and plastic. It doesn’t come alive until you have well written and designed software. In this area the Psion Series 5 takes the lead over Windows CE, which is the reason I stick with Psion as a user.

The other reason is form factor. The built-in suite of applications on the WinCE machine are noticeably light on features. I’ll go through the suite to give you examples. Before I do that, let’s talk about embedded objects, since this is an important feature that is found in all Psion applications. Embedded objects give the Psion user the ability to do things that are taken for granted in Windows, and yet not possible in WinCE. Objects are things like spreadsheets, pictures, signatures, and voice notes that can be inserted into word processor documents, agenda entries, and databases. In this case Psion gives its users more typical Windows functionality than does Windows CE!

In Psion Word you can insert a voice note or a spreadsheet graph. Imagine a database with pictures of your friends alongside their name. I don’t believe that people who spend close to US$1000 on a computer don’t care about features. This plays partially into my conclusion that the Psion has better built-in applications, but it is not the only reason. Read on.

The personal information management (PIM) capabilities on both machines are good; however, Psion’s software seems to be better designed. For example, the Agenda on the Psion has the To-do list (tasks) functionality as one of the views, integrated into the one application, rather than a separate application. The Psion Agenda is more customizable than the Calendar app in Windows CE, and also has an integrated view for anniversaries. When a birthday reminder pops up on the Psion, it can tell you how old the person is automatically, since it lets you enter a starting date for the Anniversary item. As I mentioned before, the Agenda lets you embed images and voice notes into your schedule. On a day that you have a flight, there can be an image of an airplane next to the entry, or a voice note to remind you to do something. If you need extended notes in an Agenda entry, just attach a Word file to it. The actual embedded object is stored in the Agenda file, not loose in the system.

The Psion database is better in a few ways than the CE Contacts program. First, there are two views in the database, the card view and the list view. This lets you see all information at once after doing a search while in the card view. Being forced to always be in a list view means that there is info that is always off the screen, forcing you to press Enter on an item to see the info you need. Next, CE’s Contacts program limits the number of fields that you can use by using cards with fixed space for fields when entering new data. The Psion database scrolls downward, letting you use and see all 32 fields on one screen. Both programs have editable field names, field orders, and field widths.

On the Internet side, which includes the email client and web browser, there are pros and cons on each platform. CE’s web browser is a clear winner because of the fact that it supports frames and the Psion browser does not. Psion’s browser does support most everything else you would expect, but this is a weakness in Psion’s browser. The Psion email client wins the email client comparison by including faxing capabilities as an integral part of the program, and not an add-on. On the Psion you fill out a page as if it were an email message, but send it as a fax. The WinCE Inbox application compares fine with Psion’s email client except for the fax feature. I found it easy to setup and use. The Psion did made it easier for me to connect with my CompuServe account by including built-in scripts to get me online with a system that requires a non-standard text logon. The WinCE software didn’t offer any scripting so I had to type the correct information at the CompuServe logon prompt to start PPP.

Word processor
The last application we’ll look at is the word processor. Surprisingly, Psion’s Word is decidedly better than Microsoft’s Pocket Word. Psion Word has style sheets, graphic borders with shading, embedded objects, word count, and printing support for various printers, none of which Pocket Word supports. These are not trivial features. The ability to create a style sheet to set various preset font sizes and styles is basic to a word processor. The ability to insert a spreadsheet, graph, or drawing inside your document makes the difference between producing professional documents and producing boring pages.

Desktop connectivity
Both platforms have reliable products for desktop connectivity and synchronization, and each have their good points. Microsoft’s CE Services offers integration into the Windows desktop and synchronization with their Outlook and other Office modules. I believe CE Services does a better job at syncing with Outlook than Psion’s PsiWin 2.1 does, which doesn’t surprise me too much. PsiWin offers integration into the Windows desktop as well, and synchronization with various products including Outlook, Office, and others like Lotus Organizer. Psion has the advantage here of synchronizing with non-MS products right out of the box, without a third party product.

My conclusion is, I hope, a fair one. Both machines do the job, but in different ways and with different strengths and weaknesses. On the hardware side, the Mobilon wins for having a great color screen, built-in modem, and attachable PC Card digital camera. If these things are exactly what you need, and you are willing to pay an extra US$400–750, it’s a great choice. On the software side the Psion wins with its much more mature applications. If you want a mobile computer with great software that can do serious work and still fit in your pocket, you need an EPOC-based computer, currently a Psion Series 5 or Geofox-One. For those of you who are worried about Psion’s future, and therefore feel you must go with the Microsoft solution, remember from my last column that Psion software is now Symbian, jointly owned by Psion Software, Ericsson, Nokia, and soon Motorola. The EPOC OS will likely become the standard on nearly all future smartphones. EPOC isn’t going away anytime soon, so you don’t have to worry about your investment. If you are worried that the Psion is non-Windows, don’t. Microsoft Windows CE is non-Windows too, in the sense that it is a completely different OS that won’t run any of your Windows software. The same synchronization and file conversion is necessary on each platform.

Mark Esposito can be reached via e-mail at

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