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Getting online with a 1987 Psion Organiser II

Bringing an Eighties handheld classic into 2019 with a little help from a Raspberry Pi. At least, that's the idea.

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Who needs an iPhone XYZ or a Samsung Galaxy S47 in their pocket when you can get online with a quirky British handheld computer from the late 80s, a Raspberry Pi, a handful of wires and rudimentary soldering skills? Why wander around looking like everyone else when you could instead roam the streets with your very own Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (or at least the Hitchhiker's Guide to the BBC News RSS Feed...)

In this project I'm taking an old Psion Organiser II and 'upcycling' it (to slip in a trendy term) into a little handheld RPi terminal, which I can then use to read my emails, check on the latest news and weather and maybe post the odd tweet.

Update: This Psion Organiser II is now on Twitter! See @PsionOnline (twitter.com/psiononline)

Update #2: Thank you and hello to all the new followers/likers :)

What is this Psion Organiser II?

Arguably the first pocket computer that wasn't just a glorified programming calculator. It was made in the UK and sold in mainstream high street shops and department stores. Plenty of programs ('apps') were available and - crucially - it was marketed as a 'lifestyle accessory' rather than a computing tool thanks to its built-in diary, alarm clock, calculator and information database. In spirit, I'd say the Organiser II was the first smartphone - though of course it did not have a mobile phone built in! (A plug-in pager was developed though...)

It was launched in 1986, at which time it was truly a cutting-edge device. It dominated its market for a good few years. However, by the turn of the nineties sleeker and shinier competing machines from the likes of Casio and Sharp were starting to enter the UK market, and from then on the Organiser II's days were numbered. It was effectively replaced in the shops by the slimmer and more capable (but more boring) Psion Series 3 in late 1991, which was a more traditional clamshell device with a QWERTY keyboard. The story wasn't quite over though - the Organiser II's durability and versatility meant that it had a remarkable afterlife in industry, and production trickled on until at least 1994. In all, over 700,000 Organiser IIs were sold.

My Organiser II is an XP model with 32 kilobytes of RAM, made in late 1987. At the time, this would have been the top-of-the-range model, available from your nearest Dixons for £139.50 - about £385 at 2019 prices!

So how does this 'getting online' thing work then...

Here's a simple(ish) explanation.

Back in the late '80s, in the days before Bluetooth and WiFi, the only way to move your information between the Organiser and a 'proper' PC (which back then would have had a 25-pin serial port) was via a special device called the Psion Comms Link. The Comms Link was essentially a 25-pin serial cable (plus a bit of software) that plugged into the top of the Organiser.

Fast forward 30+ years to 2019 and the brave new 5G world. 25-pin serial ports have long since vanished from PCs. However, it is still possible to buy a small chip (called an RS232/TTL converter) which essentially adds a 9-pin serial port to a Raspberry Pi. A little modification later, and the 9-pin connector can be substituted for a 25-pin alternative. So essentially my Pi now has a 25-pin serial port...

Boring cable-talk over. What this all means is that I can plug the Comms Link cable into the Raspberry Pi as though it's a 1986 PC. The COMMS software built into the Comms Link includes a terminal emulator, meaning that when everything is wired up I can command a Pi console session using the Organiser's screen and keyboard.

Of course, the Pi is a modern device with WiFi and all that jazz. So it should be possible to do things like reading emails via the Psion.

Has anyone else tried anything similar?

Similar 'retro computer as a serial terminal' projects exist, involving TRS-80s, Apple IIs and even the little Psion Series 5 from the late nineties. I have not seen any Pi-Organiser projects though, unless I've missed something.

Having said that, the idea of the Organiser as a portable 'connected machine' goes back over 30 years! I have read articles from old editions of IPSO FACTO - the newsletter of the long-deceased Psion user group  - in which authors described reading email on an Organiser II via a Comms Link, a battery-powered modem, and BT's Telecom Gold service - a pioneering 1980s 'dial-up' email system. All you needed for true on-the-go email communication was a phone box and an acoustic coupler, to hook up your modem.

Email in your pocket way back in 1987 - wow!

  • 1 × Psion Organiser II I'm using the 32K XP model (sometimes also called the LA) introduced in 1987. There was a cheaper model with 8K RAM called the CM, and a 'deluxe' model called the LZ which was introduced in 1989 and had a 4-line display. Ooh, fancy!
  • 1 × Psion Comms Link A remarkably hard-to-find Organiser peripheral. Vintage units from the 80s have an RS232 port, modern units have a USB.
  • 1 × Raspberry Pi Pretty much any model will do, though for added elegance you might want to pick one of the newer ones with WiFi.
  • 1 × RS232-to-TTL converter (+ maybe a serial adaptor) To convert Ye Olde RS232 signals to modern flashy TTL signals, and back again.

  • 1980s Twitter @ WOMAD 2019

    James Fossey07/29/2019 at 20:18 0 comments

    Organiser II with Twitter client & Comms Link
    Let me tweet it like it's 1986 yeah...

    The Pi-on Organiser made its first festival appearance yesterday - but hopefully not its last...

    ...To explain: I am an IOP outreach volunteer, and they kindly allowed me to include '1980s Twitter' as one of the many interesting diversions on offer at the World of Physics at this year's WOMAD festival in Wiltshire. Sunday afternoon punters could type their tweet on the Organiser II then send it via the Comms Link to the Raspberry Pi. The Linux command-line Twitter client 'PTT' and the WOMAD wi-fi did the rest. 64 tweets in total - not exactly 'trending' but still a respectable number. You can browse the tweets @PsionOnline - do give us a retweet or a like (twitter.com/psiononline)

    Me and my Psion @ WOMAD 2019. There were more people here earlier on, honest...

  • An upcoming 'gig' and a bit of added elegance...

    James Fossey07/26/2019 at 18:43 0 comments

    ...well, 'elegance' might be overdoing it a bit. With a mixture of skill, cunning and brute force (read: a vague plan and a pair of scissors) I have equipped my Raspberry Pi 3 with a 25-pin serial 'port'. Essentially I removed the old 9-pin female connector from the RS232/TTL converter I was using with a 25-pin male connector. This means that all the fiddling about poking wires into serial connectors is no longer necessary, as I can just plug the Comms Link into the Pi for lovely reliable 1200-baud communication :)

    Suffice to say this all relies on some slightly dodgy soldering, but I think it's a great improvement on last week's experimental arrangement. The entire device now fits in the palms of two hands!

    The Pi-on Organiser (yes that's what I'm going to call it!) can be used to read RSS feeds, by means of a simple Python script. I can also read mail using mailx, though it is a little difficult.

    Assuming my soldering survives, I'm going to be demonstrating the Pi-on Organiser as part of Institute of Physics events this Sunday at the WOMAD festival. (Fits in quite nicely with the 'history of electronics' theme of the day!) I'm setting up Python Twitter Tools - a command-line Twitter client - on my Pi 3 so hopefully punters will be able to write and post tweets from the Organiser II over the Comms Link. Whether anyone will find this remotely interesting (pun not intended) is, of course, yet to be seen...

    Update about 2 hours later: Twitter client installed & working! Keep an eye on @PsionOnline this Sunday 28th.

  • It works! (well, sort of)

    James Fossey07/18/2019 at 10:51 0 comments

    The Comms Link duly arrived on Tuesday, and after a bit of fussing around with serial connectors I have managed to get the Pi and Psion physically connected. Better still, they are actually talking properly to each other at a not-exactly-zippy 1200 baud, using the terminal emulator included with the COMMS software (see previous log). In other words, the Organiser is now acting as a 'dumb' terminal for the Pi. Trouble is, it's not exactly portable at the moment...



    In this picture you can see the Organiser with Comms Link attached (bottom right) and the hefty Comms Link cable, which terminates with a female DB25 connector on the left of the photo. My Raspberry Pi 3 (top right) has an RS232/TTL converter attached. The female DB9 connector on this converter is connected to the DB25 connector of the Comms Link by three red wires poked into the relevant holes. This bit is, unsurprisingly, rather fragile. See the table at the bottom.

    What can I do so far? I can login to the Pi using the Organiser's keyboard and do all the basic terminal stuff. The only awkward quirk so far (other than the Organiser's tiny 16x2 screen, of course) is that the Psion's EXE key does not act like ENTER. Instead I keep having to press Ctrl-J on the Psion. The left arrow key takes on the role of Control in the Psion COMMS software.

    Table of connections...

    DB25 on Comms Link - DB9 on RS232/TTL converter
    TTL side of RS232/TTL converter - Pi GPIO pins
    Pin 2 - Pin 2
    VCC - Pin 1 or Pin 4 (3.3V or 5V)
    Pin 3 - Pin 3
    TXD - Pin 8
    Pin 7 - Pin 5 (Ground)
    RXD - Pin 10
    All other pins unconnected
    GND - Pin 6 (other ground pins are available...)

  • The Comms Link cometh

    James Fossey07/09/2019 at 22:31 0 comments

    I've ordered a Comms Link. Well, in fact, it's an original Psion Comms Link with a free Psion Organiser CM included. Yes, that's the right way round - the cable is worth more than the Organiser now! Total cost £22, but I hope to recoup some of that by re-selling the Organiser CM. This is good news for the project, because it means all that fiddling around with machine code and SSCR now won't be necessary. The disadvantage is that the solution won't exactly be compact. Oh well.


    What exactly is a Comms Link? It's a device that equips a Psion Organiser II with an RS232 plug. They were sold by Psion as a must-have Organiser accessory for the eyewatering sum of £60 in early 1988 - bear in mind the cheapest Organiser II sold for £99 at that time!

    (picture of Comms Link from Centre for Computing History)
    http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/userdata/images/large/65/95/product-86595.jpgSee that grey box with 'Comms Link' written on it? In there is a little chip which contains some terminal emulation/file-transfer software for the Psion, imaginatively called COMMS. If I connect the RS232 end to the Pi (via an RS232-to-TTL converter and possibly a 25-9 pin converter) and the other end to the Psion, I should be able to control a Pi terminal session using the Psion. Which is basically the aim of this project.

  • Is the Psion actually useful in 2019?

    James Fossey07/03/2019 at 20:49 0 comments

    OK, I admit this project hasn't advanced very much recently as I've had quite a lot of other stuff to be getting on with. But I have been trying to make use of the Psion (in its standard form!) in my everyday life. Is it worth buying a Psion Organiser II for a few pounds off eBay in 2019 - if you don't intend to modify it? Well, here are a few uses for the device.


    - It's a good, loud alarm clock. You can set 8 alarms up to a week in advance.

    - The database is good for storing small amounts of information for short periods of time. I've used it to note down things like phone numbers and brief 'reminder' notes.

    - Psion Tetris (see last log) is good fun for whiling away 10 idle minutes.

    - You can buy a selection of Datapaks* containing original 1980s Organiser programs on eBay for £7.50 a pop. Things like word processors, the 'Travel Pack' and the 'Games Pack.' I haven't tried any of these but some of them could still be fun and/or useful.

    Of course, if (unlike me) you own a fancy smartphone you can do all of these things at lightning speed in glorious Technicolor. But hey, that's what ordinary people do - and being ordinary is a bit of a waste of time.

    As a final note - I have noticed recently that some modern (USB) Psion Comms Links have appeared on eBay for the not inconsiderable sum of £35 + postage. Realistically I think the Comms Link route is the only viable way to get the Psion (sort-of) online, so I am tempted to take the plunge. If I do, rest assured I'll witter on about it here...


    *'Datapak' was Psion's commercial name for a removable storage device for the Organiser. A Datapak is just an EPROM in a plastic case. It was possible to buy blank datapaks of various sizes (I have a 32K and a 16K Datapak) and also 'pre-recorded' datapaks containing commercial programs. They plug neatly into the back of the Organiser.

  • Talking to the pins

    James Fossey06/13/2019 at 19:16 0 comments

    The good news: I have managed to physically connect the Pi and Psion. I have also managed to send a simple 'signal' (literally 'pulses' i.e. single bits) from the Psion to the Pi's UART RX pin using SSCR* - but not the other way round. At least, not yet.

    It turns out that reading and 'toggling' the pins in the Psion top slot isn't easy! As far as I know there is no simple command in OPL (the Organiser's built-in BASIC-esque high level programming language) that will let me set/read the state of the 3 general-purpose pins in the top slot. It looks like I will need to concoct some simple (?) machine code routines to toggle and read these pins. Until then, I have to stick to Organiser Tetris for my 8-bit entertainment...


    Reading data from the Pi using SSCR would only be possible if I get hold of an 'official' Psion Organiser Comms Link, or something hardware compatible with this device. The Comms Link was the commercial name of the RS232-based device Psion produced in the '80s to allow the Organiser to communicate with the PCs of the time - back when PCs had serial ports and monochrome monitors. Psion Comms Links still pop up on eBay from time to time but they aren't cheap. A modern USB version has also been produced and sells for 20 Euros plus postage.

    For now, though, I'm going to try and do without a Comms Link. Let's delve into the wonderful world of 1980s machine code...

    *pedantic note:  the only pin I can toggle with SSCR is pin 2 on the top slot (SD0) which is not the pin I showed in the table in my last post!

  • First steps...

    James Fossey06/08/2019 at 20:56 0 comments

    So this week I've soldered the low-voltage side of the SparkFun converter board 'onto' the Raspberry Pi. I've let four long leads run freely from the high-voltage side of the board that can be pushed into the pins of the Psion top slot (breadboard-style!)

    I've put the connections so far into a table. Now I need to put a fresh Raspbian Lite on the Pi and try to work out how to 'use' the Psion top slot. I believe it has 3 general purpose pins that can be read and written to using some kind of machine code. This page is proving very interesting https://www.jaapsch.net/psion/topslot.htm#p16.

    PiLogic level converter
    (low voltage side)
    Logic level converter
    (high voltage side)
    Psion
    Top Slot
    Pin 1 (3.3V)
    Low Voltage reference
    (LV)
    High Voltage reference
    (HV)
    Pin 13
    (5V)
    Pin 6 (Ground)
    Ground
    (GND)
    Ground
    (GND)
    Pin 9
    (Ground)
    Pin 10 (GPIO15)
    Low Voltage 1
    (LV1)
    High Voltage 1
    (HV1)
    Pin 15
    (SOE)?
    TBC
    Pin 8 (GPIO14)
    Low Voltage 4
    (LV4)
    High Voltage 4
    (HV4)
    Pin 16
    (SMR)?
    TBC


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Tom Nardi wrote 06/04/2019 at 17:08 point

I owned my fair share of similar smartphone precursors, from the little Casios up to the Palm Pilot and Sharp Zaurus, but this is the first time I've ever seen this one in particular.

Very interested to see where the project goes from here.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Starhawk wrote 06/02/2019 at 23:46 point

I'll just leave this here...

http://forum.psion2.org/YaBB.pl

  Are you sure? yes | no

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