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Through the Looking Glass: An Old Hand Tries Some New Tools

The Psion Revo

A reviewer for Byte.com puts this Palmtop contender through its paces.

By Ernest Lilley

 For the past several months, I've been carrying around an HP 200LX and a Palm Pilot 3x. I do all my work on the HP Palmtop but I organize all my work on the Palm Pilot since I can more easily synchronize it with my desktop organizer, Outlook 98.
 
 

The Quest for a PDA
As fond as I am of the HP Palmtop, it's time for an upgrade to something with the Palm Pilot's speed and synchronization and I've been on the lookout for a likely candidate. I tried the HP Jornada 680, but found it too bulky and the screen too hard to see in sunlight. So I kept looking.

 I first saw the Psion Revo handheld at ComdeX '99 in Las Vegas and was taken with its slim, sexy style (Byte.com awarded it a Best of Show award). See Screen 1 for a picture of the Revo's Case.

 The Revo, brought to market in November 1999, is smaller than the Psion Series 5mx or the HP 200LX. It has a "thumb-able" keyboard as part of its design specification. Its rounded case fits easily into shirt or pants pocket and feels comfortable in your hand.

 The touchscreen display is crisp and has excellent contrast (Screen 2). Psion promises that it will provide software to synchronize the data in the Revo with popular desktop organizers like MS Outlook.

Don't Ignore the Cool Factor
In my opinion, the Revo is one cool Palmtop. Typically, when I open my HP Palmtop or take out my Palm Pilot, people start looking for a pocket protector in my shirt. When I produce the Revo, they want to play with it. Even Palmtop users find it intriguing.

 The Revo does almost everything the HP Palmtop does: only faster and with more options. The Revo's strength is that it's pocketable, comfortable and fairly fast. It's not as fast as my Palm 3x, or its bigger brother, the Psion Series 5mx, but fast enough to be useful. If you're tired of carrying around a Palmtop the size of an HP 200LX and can live without the backlight of a Palm Pilot, then the Revo may fit your needs.

 Synchronization is at the top of my list for PDA functionality, and the Revo promises to talk seamlessly with programs like Outlook and Notes. Mostly it lives up to that promise with the installation of PsiWin 2.4, which allows agenda and contact synch with a PC, as well as backup and file transfer.

 A few flaws showed up, making this process less than perfect. "Jotter" the Revo equivalent of Outlook "Notes" doesn't update, you have to export and convert it, at which point it becomes a text file on the PC rather than a collection of notes in Outlook. Note that the Palm Pilot does this without batting an eye.

 Otherwise I found the transfer and conversion of files between Revo and PC to be fairly good.

 The Revo's applications have a very Windows-like look, and the menus are easy to navigate. File formats must be converted, using software that installs itself under Windows. The software lets the Revo's word processor talk to MS Word, and the Revo's spreadsheet to be read by Excel. Both applications are fairly sophisticated, allowing you to embed sketches and notes. Although the Series 5mx has spell checking as part of its applications, the Revo does not.

 The Revo has a nice display of useful daily information that you can get to from the system display. It shows appointments and tasks next to each other and still has room enough to show information about power and memory usage. Infuriatingly, you can't edit items displayed in this view.
 
 

Infrared Transfer Really Works
Though Web browsing, e-mail and the ability to dial a cell phone are touted as strengths of the Revo, the ability to use the infrared port to link to cell phone works well with many European GSM cell phones. An IR modem is due to start shipping shortly for around $200.

 As an exercise in transferring data with the IR port, I was able to exchange my contact list with a Palm Pilot as well as transfer files and databases to a Psion Series 5mx. Although I haven't seen it, Psion has an infrared printer pod that hooks up to a standard parallel port and allows printing from the Revo using almost any printer.

 The operating system for the Revo is epoch32, developed by Psion and used by all their handhelds. Psion Software, which created epoch32 is now called Symbian. It's actually a partnership between Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and Panasonic to use the operating system in cell phones and other wireless devices.

 Stability is always an important concern and the epoch32 operating system appears to be very stable and reliable. Throughout several weeks of testing, the Revo never crashed.
 
 

Epoch Isn't DOS or Windows
Psion marches to its own drummer and the Revo operates a bit differently than HP users are accustomed to. Files are constantly updated and you can't save them with new names. You can however rename files after they are saved. Psion prides itself on having the best file management system. I, on the other hand, found too much of the screen devoted to field names and menu buttons in the data and contact applications.

 Typing on the keyboard is fairly easy and the ability to enter data without setting it down is a major plus for me but the lack of a "sticky" shift key like my HP Palmtop uses makes capital letters an awkward stretch.
 
 

The Revo Can Grow on You
I put aside all my other PDAs for two weeks to give the Revo a thorough test and, after the first week, I started to feel at home with the different applications. I downloaded an electronic book, "Three Men in a Boat," and found that the Revo made a very usable ebook reader. The display has a zoom function that makes reading a lot easier depending on lighting conditions. After a few days I got used to its touchscreen and kept forgetting that my laptop doesn't have one.

 I also found that the Revo's alarm is the best I've ever had. The Revo comes with 12 different tones, from a "soft bells" that sounds suspiciously like the contamination alert from "The Andromeda Strain" to a piercing "high phone" that demands instant acknowledgement. Just try to ignore an alarm and it will keep repeating itself, louder and louder.
 
 

Is the Revo a Replacement for the Palmtop?
It could be, at least for a while, until HP comes to its senses and reincarnates the 200LX or Psion retools the 5mx with a readable screen and crisper keyboard, or even if someone licenses the Palm OS and puts it in a Palmtop with a keyboard. The final answer is, as usual, "maybe." You have to see how it fits into your portable computing style.

 Used in conjunction with a laptop, the Revo can provide much of the data access of a Palm Pilot as well as the data entry capability of the HP Palmtop while keeping its size down to something that fits in your pocket.

 The final analysis of any device I get for reviewing is how much I'm going to miss it when I send it back. Though the Revo has room for improvement, it's an improvement over my HP/Palm duo and things aren't going to be the same without it.
 
 

Will the Revo Succeed?
I had a chance to go to London, where Psion is based, shortly after Comdex. I visited the Revo headquarters and talked with Helen Blackburn, the Revo's product manager about the design and marketing of the Revo. Handheld market share in Europe looks like the U.S. market in reverse. Psion handhelds are common, Palm Pilots are gaining acceptance and CE devices are largely ignored.

 Although Psion wrote off the U.S. market after poor sales two years ago, they are now looking to build a strong presence and the Revo figures prominently in that effort.
 
 

A Final Note
Did I write this article on the Revo? In part, yes. I kept my notes on the Revo using the Jotter application, the Revo memo database, and roughed out a draft there before exporting it to my laptop.
 
 
Summing Up
I liked the Revo for its size, cost, keyboard, speed, touchscreen and rechargeable battery.

 I disliked the lack of backlighting, the proprietary file formats, lack of tactile response on the keyboard, and the lack of PC Card support.

iPhone Life magazine


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