Motherboard

Was This the Best Small Computer of the 90s?

The keyboard-laden Psion Series 3 personal digital assistant helped prove that computers could be both small and highly functional—though the real star of the device turned out to be its operating system.

by Ernie Smith
Apr 2 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Getty

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives.

For a long time, ultra-portable computing came with a whole lot of compromises. Think "Eat Up Martha."

So when a device that could fit in your pocket actually managed to do things really well, it was a thing of beauty. Psion's Series 3 personal digital assistants were kind of like that, with their full-fledged keyboards and ability to handle word processing, spreadsheets, and basic programming tasks—the latter relying on the company's Organiser Programming Language.

The UK-based company had a head start on much of its competition when designing computers for small sizes, launching its first one, the calculator-like Psion Organiser, way back in 1984.

But it was with the Series 3 where Psion came into its own, moving to a clamshell design with a full QWERTY keyboard, a high level of capability, and a solid battery life. (The Series 5, first released in 1997, had an even better keyboard.)

The computers did have some limitations; They used a proprietary form of storage at a time when most other companies were diving knee-deep into PCMCIA, and connected to computers through a pokey serial port connection. Also, it wasn't really an internet-capable beast, though people have pulled it off.

The Psion 3c (shown above) nonetheless drew such passionate fans that in 1997, roughly six years after the Series 3 first came to life, PC Magazine's Brian Nadel compared the device to the Windows CE-based personal digital assistants of the era and argued that it still held up despite its more modern competitors.

"PDAs are as personal as toothpaste, and over the years I keep coming back to Psion," Nadel wrote. "Sure there's no stylus or pointer, but navigation within its simple interface is so straightforward that you really don't need them. And there's no pen to lose."

The legacy of the Series 3 didn't end with Psion or its cult computing devices. The operating system used at the time, EPOC, provided the roots of the Symbian operating system, which found wide use with mobile phones during the pre-iPhone era.