back to article Riding in Sidecar: How to get a Psion online in 2023

Code whizz and tinkerer Kian Ryan's ingenious "Sidecar" is a self-contained, battery-powered Wi-Fi-to-RS232 bridge that enables his elderly Psion 5MX PDA to access a little bit of the modern internet. The Sidecar is an inspired homemade device which combines an assortment of bits of hardware and software, a 3D-printed case, …

  1. Pen-y-gors

    Very interesting

    This could be useful for Archives. It's not unknown for people to deposit granddad's "papers" with a local Record Office, said papers often containing a load of old floppies or even, gulp, 3" Amstrad disks. How to retrieve the content? Getting a working Amstrad PCW may be possible, but how to link it to more modern machines to transfer the data? Both of these solutions could be quite helpful.

    1. Dave 126

      Re: Very interesting

      The plot of a 1990s Iain Banks (no M) novel involved a family secret being held on a 1980s non-standard floppy disk format. It was something like a Hong Kong knock-off of an Amstrad PCW that the protagonists father had bought on a work trip.

      I won't say which novel.

      1. Steve Graham

        Re: Very interesting

        "That was the day my grandmother exploded..."

    2. Tom 7

      Re: Very interesting

      That will run Fuzix which has internet code. Not sure if its got SIP but it shouldn't be too hard to knock one up from other versions.

    3. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: Very interesting

      > or even, gulp, 3" Amstrad disks

      I for one would be ready to pay to get stuff off my old 3" PCW disks (hundreds of pages, 6 books...).

      1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: Very interesting

        [Author here]

        > I for one would be ready to pay to get stuff off my old 3" PCW disks (hundreds of pages, 6 books...).

        Multiple companies will do that for you.

        Here's Google's first hit:

        https://disktransfer.co.uk/floppy/amstrad-3-inch-floppy-disk-pcw-cpc-word-file-conversions.php

        1. ThatOne Silver badge
          Thumb Up

          Re: Very interesting

          Thanks!

          1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: Very interesting

            We had those 3' FDD's hooked up to a BBC Model B when I worked at Modem House.

            Icon for the fun days.

      2. andy gibson

        Re: Very interesting

        Ask this on the FB group "Spectrum for everyone", there'll be someone there happy to help.

        I don't have any physical hardware anymore, but before I sold it all I copied all my 3" disks to 3.5" and then used the emulator REALSPEC to convert them to IMG files to run on an emulator.

      3. DuncanLarge Silver badge

        Re: Very interesting

        Buy a working amstrad PCW off ebay with two drive bays.

        Fit a 3.5" drive into the second bay, or fit a gotek USB floppy emulator.

        Transfer data from 3" disk to 3.5" disk or to the gotek. Then access on PC using any USB floppy drive.

        Sell PCW on ebay.

    4. DrXym

      Re: Very interesting

      I've used Greaseweazle which is an inexpensive board with a USB connector to recover Amiga content from floppy disk. I had to have a 3.5 floppy disk drive and I jury rigged a power connector for it but after that it was a doddle.

      The project says it supports Amstrad so in theory if you can lay your hands on a drive and hook it up with the right cable / power supply you can extract the data straight to a PC.

      I'm not sure any of this would be applicable to a Psion organizer though. Some of them did have external solid state storage so you'd either have have to hook an RS232 up to the actual device, or deep dive into how the storage cards worked and hope someone already has a solution or lash together something using arduinos.

      1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: Very interesting

        [Author here]

        > applicable to a Psion organizer though

        Again: it's not for data recovery. It's for getting online.

        If you have a working Psion, then plug it into a modern PC with a serial cable, going to a £5 USB-to-RS232 interface, and run PsiWin.

        You can get PsiWin from the Internet Archive:

        https://archive.org/details/psiwin-2-3-3-english

        (Note who uploaded the final release, some years ago.)

        1. petefoth

          Re: Very interesting

          > You can get PsiWin from the Internet Archive:

          AKA "My first Windows program" :) I worked for a small software house who got the job of implementing PsiWin for Psion Software.I spent a lot of time learning about the workings of the Windows, SIBO and EPOC OSs, having previously worked on MS-DOS and embedded software. I got a good deal of online help from the Cix conferencing system of blessed memory.

          For a while, when PsiWIn was on sale in Dixons (ancestor of PC-World) they would have a display setup of a PC, running PsiWin, connected to a Series 3. One of my colleagues who was familiar with outstanding bugs, would walk up and crash the system using a small number of keystrokes. Happy, innocent days :)

      2. DuncanLarge Silver badge

        Re: Very interesting

        Just use the RS232 "soap on a rope" to connect the PSION and transfer data.

    5. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Very interesting

      [Author here]

      The snag is that this talks to a serial port. The Amstrad PCW series don't have serial ports, and finding the hardware to add them today, such as the official one:

      http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/31831/Amstrad%20Centronics/Parallel%20RS232%20Serial%20Interface%20for%20PCW%208256/

      ... today would be considerably harder than just reading the disks on another computer.

      Secondly, while the Psion 5 is a 32-bit Arm machine with a TCP/IP stack, the PCW is an 8-bit CP/M machine without one.

      So, no.

      This is not for data extraction or recovery. A simple serial lead to a PC would do that fine.

      This is for getting a vintage computing device online via a wireless connection.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Very interesting

        Once you've got a serial port set up somehow... KA9Q had TCP/IP and started out on CP/M. It could probably be persuaded to FTP files from floppy disk to an FTP server on the LAN from what I vaguely remember. Looks like it can be downloaded from the links here.

      2. Spoonsinger

        Re: Very interesting

        Build your own. Fun and educational , (probably).

        http://www.freetimeweb.nl/home/computer/cpc/web/Amstrad/fvempel/amstrad/metia/26.jpg

        http://www.freetimeweb.nl/home/computer/cpc/web/Amstrad/fvempel/amstrad/metia/27.jpg

        http://www.freetimeweb.nl/home/computer/cpc/web/Amstrad/fvempel/amstrad/metia/28.jpg

    6. DuncanLarge Silver badge

      Re: Very interesting

      > Getting a working Amstrad PCW may be possible, but how to link it to more modern machines to transfer the data?

      Working PCW's are on ebay and some still in active use so that will be ok.

      As for the second point, get a PCW that can handle two floppies then just fit a gotec USB floppy emulator into the other bay. Or a PCW with two bays one with a 3" drive and the other a 3.5" drive which they moved to and of course 3.5" floppies are easily usable.

      All you really need is the books/instructions etc on how to move data off the 3" amstrad discs onto the other drive in a DOS compatible way.

    7. Dwarf

      Re: Very interesting

      GreaseWeazle is a solution for reading data off old floppies in a variety of formats

  2. Eclectic Man Silver badge
    Happy

    Psion Series 3A

    I have one of those, somewhere, but the screen is shot, I think. Nice to see someone thinking of the very legacy equipment that is still out there. Not sure I'll be trying to us it instead of my iMac just yet though.

    1. Dave 126

      Re: Psion Series 3A

      Maybe another tinkerer will develop a way of using the Psion as a keyboard for a smartphone!

      1. Evil Scot
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: Psion Series 3A

        Looks at my Cosmo.

      2. kianryan

        Re: Psion Series 3A

        There's a USB keyboard adapter for the 5 keyboard.

        I have a slow burning Cyberdeck project using a spare 5 keyboard and a Pi3.

        It's a short leap from there to a Bluetooth adapter.

        https://www.tindie.com/products/rasmusb/usb-keyboard-adapter-for-psion-series-5-keyboards/

    2. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Psion Series 3A

      [Author here]

      > the screen is shot,

      PsionEx will fix that for you. They fixed my 3C for me.

      No other connection.

      https://psionex.co.uk/repairs/pda

      1. Phones Sheridan Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Psion Series 3A

        Their website seems to have been overloaded by the sheer number of commentards following that link!

        https://psionex.co.uk/ Error 503: The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

      2. Dante Alighieri
        Angel

        Fix a 5

        So wish I had found that.

        Had (past tense) 2 x 5mx with broken flexi cables to display. got 2x replacments

        temperature controlled soldering iron but still borked 2x replacements (soldering skills not shabby) binned chasis

        Consoling myself with the just delivered (couple of years delayed) Astro Slider :)))

        Still have a 3a and a semi-eqivalent as 232 terminals with screens for my headless server.

        Waiting for the Kali on Astro ...

    3. fromxyzzy

      Re: Psion Series 3A

      iMac will work just fine with an off-the-shelf ethernet/wifi bridge. Check macos9lives.com for software.

  3. ThatOne Silver badge
    Happy

    Good news

    Great! I still have a fully functional Psion 5 somewhere in a box.

  4. WonkoTheSane
    Boffin

    Deja Vu all over again

    A friend of mine was involved in writing the TCP/IP stack for the 5MX back beyond the mists of time, and still has one of the prototypes (painted flourescent green) in his desk drawer.

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    As an aside...

    When I were but a lad, if you wanted anything beyond the stuff that came in the box, particular for the single board computers popular in the late seventies, you reached for the spec sheets with one hand, the yellow Texas Instruments book with another, and the soldering iron with the third...

    While you can still build stuff that way if you're into vintage tech, it's difficult to get a video output because these days everything is on HDMI or similar. It feels *wrong* to use a Raspberry Pi as a video co-processor for a 6502...

    1. Liam Proven (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: As an aside...

      [Author here]

      > It feels *wrong* to use a Raspberry Pi as a video co-processor for a 6502...

      I know what you mean and I agree.

      OTOH, the £3 Pi Pico doesn't seem quite so crazy... although it does need external circuitry to do that.

      TBH this is how modern phones and laptops work. It's easier to implement various networking stacks in software on an embedded Arm core than it is to design *and debug* hardware to do it.

      So, an iPhone has something like a dozen+ Arm cores, some running Bluetooth, some running Wifi, some controlling the screen, some controlling the storage. Even a cheap tiny SD card contains an Arm core running the actual storage, and multiplexing the data over the card's few I/O lines. As an exercise, people have installed Linux onto the Arm in SD cards, as well as onto the Arm on SATA hard disk controllers.

      Your phone doesn't contain an Arm processor. It contains a cluster of clusters of Arm cores, all talking over different interlinks of different speeds.

      It does in fact contain an internet: a network of networks, working together to let you connect to the planetary internet.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: As an aside...

        Oh yes, couldn't agree more. The move to using cheap processors to replace dedicated hardware is an obvious one that's been going on for decades: you can get an ARM chip for a cent and a half in bulk.

        And I've just designed an EEPROM programmer so I can program a 6502 SBC using, er, an STM Nucleo dev board, cost about a tenner[0]. It's fast enough on its own to replace the ROM and RAM in the 6502 system, and in some versions fast enough to replace the processor as well... but where's the fun in that?

        [0] About the same price as I paid for my first memory expansion chips, 4 bit by 256...

      2. Dave 126

        Re: As an aside...

        > Your phone doesn't contain an Arm processor. It contains a cluster of clusters of Arm cores, all talking over different interlinks of different speeds

        If you make anything complex enough it begins to resemble biology

    2. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: As an aside...

      The yellow Texas Instruments book I remember as The TTL Data Book.

      I’m off to the web to see if I can find one from the 80s. Thanks for the reminder of such lovely times.

      1. BenDwire Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: As an aside...

        I've got both volumes, and no, you can't have them!

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: As an aside...

          Wasnt it more sort of Orange?

          It's been a long time........... I need another beer to forget.

          1. BenDwire Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: As an aside...

            They start off orange, but turn yellow if you leave them on the windowsill ...

  6. WhyAHandle?

    Oh memories

    I remember using my Psion Revo connected to my Nokia 5210 by infrared while I was at school. All those WAP pages that could be loaded and were far easier to use than on the phone itself.

    1. Gob Smacked

      Re: Oh memories

      I once needed my Psion IR to Nokia GSM connection during the holidays in the woods in Sweden to work with a terminal link, then VPN, on a UNIX system of a client to manage some Samba connection in their office in the Netherlands. Cost a pretty sum working over that low baud rate telephone connection, but it did the job. The happy customer payed gladly... :)

      Yeah, memories...

    2. BenDwire Silver badge

      Re: Oh memories

      I had the docking cradle for my 5mx which cleverly used infrared-transparent plastic so I could still communicate with my Nokia while docked with my PC. Writing SMS messages on the 5mx was so much easier than on the phone.

      Like most Psions, the screen went faulty due to the flexi circuit splitting (design fault by Psion - they put a tooling hole in the wrong place) but I bought a replacement from some enterprising chap who had a batch made and all was well again. It was eventially replaced by a Sharp Zaurus and was put away in its box somewhere with all the manuals and disks. Mabe I should put it on eBay now that there will be such a huge demand from this project..! (/s)

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh memories

      I used to send and receive email whilst out and about using my Revo and a tiny Nokia 8210, sitting them on pub tables with their IR ports facing each other. Happy days. Wasn't long after that I got my first integrated "smartphone" though (something running WinCE I suspect).

  7. Dave 126

    https://m.xkcd.com/2699/

    "Feature Comparison"

    Randall compares the features of vatlrious social network protocols against the Cybiko, a wireless PDA designed for teenagers and sold in 2000. Cybiko, I thought, what was that again?

    So I naturally googled said gadget, and read a guide on how to make the thing useful today. Spoiler alert: it involves bypassing the gizmo's proprietary data port by soldering wires onto the circuit board. I reminded of this guide by this article about the Psion.

    ( In the year 2000 I was still using Zip Disks, minidisks and a Nokia 3310... Sony digital cameras used floppy disks and camcorders used tape. The Cybiko passed me by, but I was aware of Palm Pilots and their modular descendants, Handspring Visors and Sony Clies)

    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
      Pint

      I went through

      Palm IIIe

      Palm IIIc

      Tungsten T

      Then Tapwave Zodiac (When they went bust) - Best of all of them.

      1. Barry Rueger

        At least once a week I find myself thinking "Is this smartphone really an improvement on my old Palm Pilot?"

        Ignoring the Internet, the answer is consistently "no". Calendar was better, contacts were better, and everything was so, so, so much simpler.

        And, praise be, nothing needing 2FA.

  8. fromxyzzy

    A browser this old would have issues with SSL and be pretty much restricted to the purpose-made retro sites like frogfind and 68knews. The webone proxy server can help get around that pretty easily: https://github.com/atauenis/webone

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ok, so what about...

    I have some files stored on a Sinclair Spectrum Microdrive (cartridge) and somewhere I have a 48K Speccy with the Microdrive attachment - plus it has a parallel port adaptor too...so I might be able to download some Speccy games via the web :-)

    Plus I also have an Apple Newton with some (old) work stored on it...I even have a 2400/9600 PCMCIA modem fitted to it...and I think there's a (hardware) 9-pin serial port on it somewhere (memory is a bit fuzzy on this). So, trawling the net on that would be cool...

    And I can wield a soldering iron and some Veroboard to make up a nice series/WiFI adaptor !

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge
    2. the spectacularly refined chap

      Re: ok, so what about...

      Newton's can do wireless directly. It's been a while since I misplaced mine, back then you were limited to 802.11b with WEP encryption, don't know if it's advanced since then but the hardware is limited to 5V 16bit PCMCIA cards so I suspect not. And yes you could browse the web, at the time it wasn't even particularly uncomfortable, but of course bitrot set in a long time ago. 20+ year old browsers are not a lot of use on the modern web.

  10. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Ericsson MC218

    Used to connect it via the IrDA port to a Nokia 6310i - It was usable for email when travelling, and at a stretch, web access, provided the page was not graphics heavy.

    https://phonedb.net/img/gallery/big/ericsson_mc218_open.jpg

  11. the spectacularly refined chap

    From the article:

    We suspect that it wouldn't be a huge amount of work to exchange the RS232 port for Ethernet, such adapters exist. That could turn the Sidecar into a Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet adapter.

    Congratulations, you've just invented the wireless bridge. Also available off the shelf from Amazon for perhaps £20...

  12. Jim Willsher

    Someone with clearly too much time on their hands.

  13. Stuart Castle Silver badge
    Pint

    Happy memories of my Psion..

    I used to have a Psion Series 5. I used to have hours of fun with it. While it was monochrome, it ran for 30 days on two Duracell AAs, and had the best keyboard (IMO) I've ever experienced on a PDA.

    I also used to have a Nokia 7110 with WAP internet access and the serial interface cable.

    So, my then colleague and I used to go to the pub for long (ish) lunches, set up the Psion, run the terminal emulator on it, dial in to one of work's computers that enabled terminal access via a modem, and sit there doing work on a Psion. Not much work happened, and it got progressively harder as the afternoon went on. Plenty of drinking though. Thirsty work accessing a Solaris server via a modem.

  14. Stuart Castle Silver badge

    I miss my old Psion Series 5. Lovely little machine. Sadly, while I found mine in the loft a couple of years back, the screen was cracked, so it's unusable..

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