How small can your computer get and still give you what you need?
I've been playing with several small systems lately, looking for the atomic unit of computing: the smallest system that is still practical.
Why do I want it so small? For two reasons. First, I travel a lot, and want to take my office with me. Second, I've succumbed to the lure of putting everything on my computer. No longer is it just a word processing-spreadsheeting-drawing machine. Now it carries my schedule, calls to make, to do list, address book, and so on.
Palm-tops offer the wonderful advantage of running for a week on regular AA batteries.
The Psion Series 3 (Psion, $495, 203-274-7521) is a palm-top computer, about the length and height of a checkbook, though three times that thick. It opens like a checkbook, too, to reveal a small screen which shows 8 rows of 40 columns on top, and a full keyboard on the bottom. However, this keyboard has been shrunk to fit, and so the keys are calculator-size.
It won't run PC programs. However, the Psion folks make a decent argument that most people don't need PC program compatibility in hand, they just need data compatibility. And the Series 3 has built-in programs of its own that can share information with PC programs and in some cases can even read PC file formats.
The most impressive compatibility is in the Psion word processor. This can read Microsoft Word documents, even to their style sheets -- something unique to the Psion palm-top. There's also an outliner in the word processor, and a printer driver.
There's a scheduling program, a calculator, a free-form text data base, clock, and map that includes the names of cities all over the world along with area codes, local time, sunrise and sunset hours.
The Psion has 256K of memory for $495 or 128K for $425. You cannot use standard RAM to upgrade the Psion, but must purchase the extensive add-on RAM from Psion Inc. at $625 per megabyte.
Neither model has any disk drive, offering instead two slots for Flash ERPOM cards, memory cards the size of credit cards, that can hold from 128K ($105) to 2MB ($775). These are not compatible with the palm-top PCMCIA memory card standard. For exchanging information, there's a serial interface ($99 extra) for moving files to a Mac, PC, modem, or printer.