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In Sickness and in Health

Revised and republished in Dec 2003, with permission, from my own article in Palmtop magazine, issue 33.


Palmtop computers aren’t cheap, so it makes a lot of sense to do what you can to keep yours in good working order and prolong its life. Not just for your own benefit, but so that when your eye is taken by a follow-up model you’ll be able to sell the original for a good price and put the money towards the new purchase.

This applies to software as well—I’ve heard of many cases where a Psion palmtop was abandoned as broken or useless for want of a hard reset and a little file restoration. And of course you’ll want your palmtop to be working as effectively as possible all the while it’s acting as your ‘brains’.

Due care and attention

Let’s get a few very obvious points out of the way first. Keeping your Psion in a good, protective case (e.g. those on Proporta) when not in use and treating it with reasonable care will help enormously. Due to the complexity of a keyboard-equipped palmtop and the required (small) size and weight, it’s inevitable that you’re not going to be able to knock nails in with it; there are a number of fragile mechanisms and some easily damaged components.

Chief among these is the screen and ribbon cable assembly (where it joins the screen), which is flexed through almost 180 degrees many times every day. According to folklore, this is famous for failing just after the statutory year’s warranty expires, necessitating a costly repair (over £100). Your best protection (apart from the care and attention mentioned above) is to take out an extended warranty on the unit when you buy it. Although such schemes are rarely worthwhile on other consumer goods, they make more sense for something like a palmtop computer that lives its life in the day-to-day firing line.

Also worth taking care of are the screen’s surface and the tip of the stylus, both of which can gather dust and grit, leading to ugly scratches and faulty touch-screen input. A wipe with a soft tissue once a day is usually sufficient, perhaps with a weekly or monthly application of a polymer-based polish. Also important to keep clean (on the Series 5/5mx/7) is the backup battery, as it’s surprisingly easy to lose a good contact and thus all your data come the next main battery change. When it comes to replacing the backup cell, take the opportunity to clean out any dust or grease in the battery compartment and perhaps bend the metal contact gently to re-tension it. Make sure you don’t touch the new cell with your bare fingers, but use a tissue or lint-free cloth instead.

Known problems

Every PDA has its own little idiosyncrasies and the Psion range is no exception. The Series 5 was famous for peeling paintwork, though this seems to have been sorted out in the 5mx version. An unresponsive Tab key is also very common, and is caused by this unusually narrow key catching on the right hand side of the rubberised membrane that lies beneath it. You can see the problem more clearly by popping off the key to the right of it and observing how the membrane gets trapped and squashed.

This problem can be fixed by popping off the keytop and applying a little home surgery, carefully shaving off a little of the plastic along the edge of the Tab key and on the side of the ‘C’ shaped ridge within it with a sharp knife. Similarly a Spacebar that doesn’t work evenly can be fixed by removing it and bending the ends down gently in front of a heat source. It goes without saying that if your unit is still in warranty or you’re unsure what you’re doing then you should not attempt either of these solutions or disassemble your Psion in any way.

Surgery!

A Series 5/5mx stylus that’s jammed in place is also fairly common. The cure is to turn the Psion upside down with the battery end facing you. Put your finger into the RS232 opening and gently pull the bottom out (up) until you hear the latch mechanism click back into place.

Releasing a stuck pen

Screen matters

Over time, any touch-sensitive screen may wander from its original calibration. If you notice any problems selecting application icons or on-screen objects, it’s probably time to recalibrate. Go into ‘Control panel | Screen’, tap on ‘Calibrate’ and follow the instructions. Screen contrast may also vary, usually because of temperature variations. Although this is quite normal for LCD screens, note that several third party utilities (including Macro5) are able to adjust contrast according to time of day, which usually helps somewhat.

Final hardware tips

Make sure your infrared window is kept clean and as scratch-free as possible. If you still have problems beaming then experiment with different ranges: too close and the receiving infrared sensor will ‘saturate’, too far away and the signal won’t be strong enough.

Some Revo owners have reported battery charging inconsistencies, usually due to not letting the unit charge fully when first unpacked. All is not lost however, as you can restore the full range of your Revo’s battery by backing up, discharging the battery completely (by disabling the auto-power-off and leaving it turned on), hard resetting and then charging for a full five or six hours. You can then restore your files.

If you use a Series 5/5mx/7 then be careful of battery state when writing to CompactFlash. It’s far too easy to run your batteries low and risk corrupting the filing system on your CF disks. Psion’s advice to use alkaline cells in the Series 5 range is well-founded, because writing to or formatting a CF disk takes a lot of current and the last thing you want to happen mid-operation is for your batteries to ‘die’.

Software—room to move

Without software, of course, any computer is little more than a pile of components, so it pays to keep the EPOC operating system as happy as possible, to avoid unwanted crashes or conflicts. First priority, as with any computer system, is to make sure there’s always enough free memory.

It’s tempting to try to cram as much as possible onto your internal disk, but the EPOC operating system needs to be able to grab extra memory for itself dynamically as necessary. Newly-launched third party applications will also need their own allocation when running. If possible, keep at least 1MB (and preferably 2MB) free, even with all your regular applications and documents open. Running with a smaller safety margin carries some risk of program and operating system crashes and maybe even data loss.

The same goes for CF disks. Both EPOC and the electronics on the chip need room to manoeuvre when deleting files and moving them around. If you run your CF disk at 95 percent capacity then you can expect slow performance and possible corruption.

Turning on the System screen ‘disk gauge’ (with [Ctrl]+[U]) can help a lot, keeping you aware of how much memory (disk space) is free at any time.

Keeping your house clean

Related to making room on both internal and CF disks is having a periodic clear out of old and unnecessary files. Deleting old documents is obvious, but what about a trawl through the System folder, removing leftovers from long-deleted applications or perhaps a crashed web browser session? Do you really need all those messages in your Email ‘Sent’ folder? And check \System\Temp periodically for files to delete manually.

See our feature ‘Inside the System folder’ in issue 28 for more detail on what is and what isn’t supposed to be there. The freeware utility CleanIt (www.vorbauer.com) can help too, specialising in the removal of application remnants.

Cleanit

Common problems

Many EPOC error messages are symptomatic of a slightly confused operating system. Your main applications may still be working properly, such is EPOC’s robustness, but something’s obviously wrong and needs attention. Common symptoms are a ‘Not found’ message appearing when in Email or when trying to turn on the Remote link, or a negative or ridiculously high battery current being shown, but any number of other strange things might appear to happen. In each case, a soft reset will almost always cure the problem.

If not, then try a full backup, hard reset and restore from backup. If this also fails to get everything working fully, then as a last ditch solution you might like to try a very hard reset (achieved by removing both backup and main batteries and leaving the palmtop for 30 minutes, to give any charge still stored in its circuits time to leak away). Failing all this, you might have some conflict between various third party software or even a hardware problem of some kind. The former can usually be deduced only by time-consuming trial and error, testing different combinations. If the latter, then refer to POS Ltd.

Disk, file and folder problems, typically seen on the System screen as corrupted names or items that can’t be deleted, are rare and more worrisome. There’s nothing EPOC itself can do about these, short of a hard reset, checking the backup and restoring, but CheckDisk (part of the commercial Essential Disk Utilities), will almost always restore your files and folders back to a clean and consistent state. It’s worth running CheckDisk over your Psion’s disks regularly, even if you haven’t noticed a problem—it’s better to catch a disk problem early as part of regular maintenance than discover it during the middle of a rush job.

CheckDisk

Kill or cure

There will be occasions when an application locks up completely, perhaps obvious because it’s in the ‘foreground’ and not letting you use any keystrokes, perhaps less obviously by simply hanging around in the ‘Open files’ list and taking up valuable memory and resources. When trying to track down an elusive problem, it’s always worth checking this list for something that shouldn’t be there.

If stuck in the foreground you can kill it stone dead with [Shift]+[Ctrl]+[Fn]+[K]. If you can get at the ‘Open files’ list then [Shift]+[Ctrl]+[E] is usually enough. It goes without saying that if the application misbehaves again then you should report the fault to the appropriate developer.

Don’t worry

Psion palmtops are normally reasonably reliable and serious problems are rare. All the same, they’re complex pieces of electronic equipment running even more complex software, and having to solve the occasional problem is to be expected. Hopefully you’re now just that little bit more prepared.

Article originally published in Palmtop magazine.

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