Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Alex Cruickshank's writing machines: Psion Series 5mx

December 2014

One of the advantages of portable writing devices is the ability to work anywhere discretely. Although it's rude and disrespectful to fire up a laptop or tablet in the middle of your children's end of term ballet performance*, a small writing device can be used without attracting opprobrium, especially if it emits no light.

I know this for a fact, because I'm writing these words at my children's end of term ballet performance. I've been using this machine for so long that my thumbs fall naturally onto the right keys, so I don't need to use the dim green backlight to see what I'm writing. And even if I did, the emitted light wouldn't be enough to annoy anyone.

Psion Series 5mx

It is, of course, still rude to be writing when I should be watching my daughters, but in my defence that's not what I'm doing: I'm writing instead of watching other people's daughters. This mammoth 140-minute presentation will suck up my entire afternoon, yet my daughters will only be on stage for ten minutes of that time. For the sake of my sanity I have to distract myself somehow. Especially as it hasn't even started yet.

So, to the point. My writing tool of choice this afternoon is a Psion Series 5mx, the last of that company's pocketable PDAs, 2001 vintage, and one of the best. They still command good prices second-hand, though these days it's increasingly hard to find one that has no screen problem. Buying a machine with a replaced screen 'flexi' cable is therefore a good idea, if you can.

I've also discovered over the years, having owned many of these machines, that the keyboards vary considerably. Some, like this one, are light and sensitive to the touch. Others are hard and must be hit in exactly the right place. The latter are no good for fast typing, so try before you buy if it's a writing machine you're after. And why else would you buy one?

I've mentioned elsewhere that the best technology is technology that endures, often due to being single-purpose. Although the Psion 5mx machines were sold as general purpose tools for the busy executive, one look at the relatively enormous slide-out keyboard tells you all you need to know about the real intended use. This is a writing tool.

All sorts of add-on software was created for these pocket computers, most of it completely obsolete in 2014. But the word-processor still works perfectly and it's easy enough to transfer documents to and from a PC. You could fiddle around with the serial port or infra-red, but it's much easier to simply dump text files directly onto a CompactFlash card.

The monochrome LCD screen is a bit hard to see in dim lighting, but easier than most to see when outdoors, which is a nice incentive not to lock myself away when writing. But what's particularly appealing about...

... hang on, someone's just fired up an iPad in the middle of the performance, illuminating the faces of everyone around them and ruining their 'enjoyment' of this extravaganza. Inconsiderate witch.

See what I mean?

Anyway, back to my discrete typing. What's particularly appealing about these machines is the combination of lovely keyboard (if you get the right model) and epic battery life. 40 power-on hours means you only really need to change the two AA cells on a monthly basis.

I keep a Psion 5mx in the car, ready to jot down ideas, but really it's far more versatile than that. So I have another that I can carry with me and use anywhere. I can write at over 50wpm while standing on a train - try doing that with a smartphone. Not that there are many trains in this part of the world, and they usually aren't busy enough to necessitate standing.

Still, if I ever find myself trapped on the London Underground again, I will first of all curse my bad luck and poor life decisions, and then reach for my Psion 5mx and get some writing done.

Oh, that's my daughters' cue. Got to go.

* Really, it is.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and knows how to make good use of time.

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