FORGET pocket protectors. You can tell modern nerds by the computers sticking out of their pockets.
New pocket-sized devices have so far been most useful as repositories of personal data. But none has managed to take the place of a typical portable computer because their keyboards (when they have them) have been finger-busters and their screens can induce permanent squints.
The British-made new Series 5 model from Psion Inc. comes so close to solving those problems that its shortcomings are particularly frustrating. At about $700 for an eight-megabyte model, it is not cheap; neither is a four-megabyte model for $100 less, which has been announced but remains unavailable. But in a 12-ounce package no bigger than a typical pocket organizer, it packs not only an electronic address book and calendar but also a decent word processor, spreadsheet and calculator, not to mention a drawing program complete with handy icons of such things as street intersections and snowmen.
None of that would be of much consequence were it not for a screen you can read without going blind and a keyboard you might be able to type on. On four crowded flights, the Psion Series 5 earned the honor of becoming the first tiny machine I have been able to use to write this column.
Some of the unit's quirks must be mastered, but if you have used any standard computer, figuring this one out is fairly simple, thanks to intelligent design. Icons arrayed around the touch-screen let you switch instantly between one application and another. A handy zoom icon lets you work with big, clear text or sacrifice readability for more information. Menus remember where you were the last time you used them.
Though tiny, the keyboard's sculptured keys give you a fighting chance of being able to hit them accurately, after an hour or so of practice. The alphabet and numbers are more or less where you expect them, but punctuation marks are in odd places. Need a hyphen? Hold down the function key and hit the letter O. At least they're clearly labeled.
The backspace key is woefully undersized, and for some reason it did not always work properly when held down. The most likely culprit is simple overuse.
The sharp, clear monochrome touch-screen is propped at a fixed angle, which keeps it from flopping back when you press it. But that also keeps you from adjusting it when reflections obscure your view. The feeble and battery-eating back-light can help in some low-light situations.
The highest zoom level makes it easy to select text with your fingertip rather than having to reach for the little stylus that tucks away in the back of the machine. But finger-pointing after eating an airport pizza can lead to grease smears that are hard to remove and can make the screen slow to respond.
Still, you can actually use this thing on a tray table in coach without worrying that the sleepy passenger reclining in front of you will crunch the unit to death. Your typing speed will inevitably slow, so you might not get as much work done as you would on your laptop machine, but your back will thank you as you sprint from gate A12 to gate D79.
An AC adapter is an optional extra, but because the machine runs quite a while on two AA cells, it makes more sense to throw a spare pair into the briefcase. Battery life is nowhere near the 35 hours the company claims; after a bit over six hours of use, the juice ran low enough to make the built-in voice recorder quit in protest.
That recorder, incidentally, tends to eat both memory and batteries. But it might come in handy in a pinch, particularly as buttons on the outside let you take quick voice notes even when the unit is closed.
Removable memory comes in the form of standard compact flash disks; a four-megabyte wafer costs about $100. One nice engineering touch is that the little doors for things such as batteries do not fall off and cannot get lost.
The software engineering is not quite as successful. For "Psion," the sluggish spelling checker suggests the alternative "Poison." And the software that lets you connect the device to a Windows 95 computer is less amusing.
The glaring omission in the built-in hardware is a modem. An outboard adapter that accepts standard Type II PC Cards and uses four AA cells for power is available for about $140, but not all modems will work with it, and the communication software built into the unit is hopeless for most users. Fax, Web browser and e-mail software will not be available until October; I would not consider buying one of these computers before then.
Still, this little behemoth points to a day when our computers will live in our pockets.
Pub Date: 9/22/97