Geofox One – 1998 review

The Geofox One – a short-lived Psion 5 rival that’s extremely rare now!

It happens less now, but in the ’70s through to the early 2000s, computer companies would pop up with genuinely interesting, innovative solutions, only to disappear a little while later. Feeling nostalgic? You could always back a retro computer project on Kickstarter, I suppose…

Geofox were a British company in the heartland of the UK’s tech industry, Cambridge. They introduced a Psion Series 5-esque baby laptop; and I reviewed it. Before it failed, I used it for writing articles, maps in my car, the usual contact/etc. jobs and ‘online text editing’ – websites, articles, it was all text and FTP back then…

Here’s my original review from Photon Digital magazine, March 1998 edition; I’ve added a few headings as I can’t remember how it was formatted in print!

Photo Digital March 1998

Photon Digital, March 1998

The business of computers and technology is usually pretty easy to follow. There are established companies, producing and refining products and occasionally forming monopolies (allegedly) or taking each other to court. Nice and simple.

Then, one day, I’m trawling the web looking for Psion software, and I see a logo. Geofox. Hmmm…

In October 1997 this new British company (founded late 1996) popped up and launched a really, really impressive handheld computer. Aimed at people who would otherwise use a notebook, the Geofox One ships with either 4 or 16 Mb memory and has a large, clear 640 x 320 pixel greyscale display.

It uses Psion’s EPOC32 operating system and all Series 5 software is, in theory, compatible – giving access to a huge range of cheap shareware programs which are often as polished and useable as commercial equivalents.

The Geofox One - from 1998.

Around the size of a small paperback book – and slighty thinner – the Geofox One provides equivalent processing power to a 33MHz 486 PC. It’s a strange claim to make, but the 16Mb Professional model could be the only computer you need, despite the small dimensions. The supplied applications include a wordprocessor, with syles, formatting, outline view, support for different fonts, in-line graphics (which can be created with the Sketch application) and reports from the database and spreadsheet. The screen is large enough for prolonged use, and extremely clear – it also has a backlight, which improves the visibility of the display in dark areas.

Significantly, the backlight offers two brightness levels, one for battery use (which reduces the heavy drain on the two AA batteries) and one for the mains adaptor. Of course, when using the Geofox plugged in it is possible to leave the backlight on constantly.

Supplied with the Geofox One Professional models is a Psion Dacom Gold card modem. These usually cost around £160 and support speeds of up to 33.6kps, as fast as most desktop systems. Whilst the power drain on the machine is quite high when using the PC card modem, it shouldn’t present a problem – if there is a phone socket, there is likely to be a power outlet as well.

Both modem and Geofox power adaptor are useable worldwide. Without the adaptor the modem will operate for around 20 minutes before a set of decent AA batteries are unable to power it and the Geofox.

It is difficult to stress how much of a difference having a good, fast modem makes. When collecting email or browsing the web it can save a lot of money in phone time, and the neat design of the Geofox allows the modem to fit completely internally. The Geofox’s most obvious competitor, the Psion Series 5, requires an external modem (more cables and batteries), either in the form of the Travel modem (14.4kps, self-powered, £99) or the PC card adaptor and a similar PC card modem (adaptor is self powered by two AA batteries and costs £99, modem typically around £150 for 33.6).

Whilst the Series 5 itself is a smaller and rather elegant device, having a bunch of cables hanging out of the side spoils the effect slightly and it does cost a lot more for a similar configuration – there is no 16Mb Series 5, the largest memory being 8Mb.

The internal PC card slot of the Geofox has other advantages. It can use PC memory cards as well, which are available in large capacities. The Series 5 uses the new CompactFlash cards (same as many recent digital cameras) which promise to be cheaper, but are currently only available in smaller capacities. When they are significantly cheaper, a CompactFlash to PC card adaptors allow their use in the Geofox. Unfortunately it doesn’t allow the use of Type III cards such as small hard discs.

All maps welcome: EnRoute

Software on the Geofox is the same as the Series 5, with the exception of two programs which are supplied with the Geofox and cost extra on the Series 5 – EnRoute, a route planning program for the UK and US, and Chess. EnRoute is fast and well organised, and can display a route plan in text form. With the combination of the large screen and a large font, it is possible to rest the Geofox on the car dashboad and read route instructions easily at a glance – although I cannot stress enough the importance of observation on the motorway (especially the M4).*

EnRoute on the GeoFox One's large screen is pretty usable

Far safer, and more convenient, is the option of using a hand-held Global Positioning Satellite receiver. Usually accurate to within 15 meters, Garmin and similar GPS recievers cost around £200 and can can connected to the Geofox through the serial port. EnRoute can then use the information to provide a navigation service – similar to current in-car navigation, but much cheaper, and with greater coverage and the option of using them when walking.

For owners of Windows 95 PCs, PsiWin is supplied in EPOC32 form, and allows synchronisation between PC applications and Geofox equivalents. It also backs up the entire machine, allows installation of software and printing through the PC (connect Geofox, and print, and it uses the PC printer).

Shareware programs are many and varied. Amusement is provided by a Sinclair Spectrum emulator and Biorythm programs, both found from various sources on the Psion Webring, and functional accounts software (which is intended for home use, but with a tax calculator could easily be used for small businesses).

Software can also be purchased from companies like Widget and Purple Software. The enthusiastic Psion following will only help the Geofox as regards software and connection to alternative platforms.

Geofox – internet on the move

Finally, the Geofox’s forte is connction to the biggest bunch of computers anywhere. Internet. The provided 33.6 modem allows send and recieve of faxes, but also provides a fast connection to the World Wide Web, and email. Messenger, the built-in email client, offers a good connection system and easy storage and replying to email.

As with most good portable email systems, it is possible to leave messages on the server so you can also collect them on your desktop computer. The Web browser copes with most current websites, and loads images quickly on the 16Mb machine. A software update is planned to improve the speed of web access even further as comparisons with Windows CE machines has suggested that it may be an issue – the example article I read was presented on MSNBC (a partnership of… Microsoft and NBC news…) and I have had no problem with the speed of web browsing – but any increase in speed is welcome.

Downloading software can be done on the Geofox with the addition of another shareware program, PsiZip, which allows decompression on the Geofox rather than the PC. My access is through Demon, and I had few problems configuring access. Geofox have found Mistral (http://www.mistral.co.uk) to be especially helpful where setting up the Geofox is concerned.

It isn’t any more complicated than a Mac or PC to configure, but many service providers will supply self-configuring disks for the main platforms.

The Geofox can be bought direct from Geofox in the UK by calling 0845 844 0109 or on their website at www.geofox.com. The 4Mb model costs £385 including VAT, with the 16Mb, 4Mb Pro and 16Mb Pro costing £449, £499 and £599 respectively. The 16Mb Pro system undoubtedly offers the best value, with the 33.6 modem and wordwide power supply included.

A Geofox One Professional with Peli case. I still have the case - the Geofox, RIP

Geofox currently supply a choice of two leather cases to house the Geofox and modem, however if you want to use the modem a lot, or travel frequently I have found the Pelican Protector 1300 case to be small enough to carry around, but large enough to hold a lot of accessories.

Not only can it contain the power supply, Geofox One, cables, modem (and quick reference card), adaptors for both phone and mains sockets and a couple (or four) spare batteries, it also, as the name suggests, protects the whole system against water, impact – and falling off the car seat in an emergency stop.

Epilogue: Geofox

As often happens when you’re a voracious tech reviewer (my office was referred to as ‘the cargo cult’ back then) I bought the Geofox One; I’d been a Psion user for a long time, and really liked the baby laptop form factor, it was a nice midpoint between my everyday MC400 and pocket Series 3a. Geofox was the first company to use EPOC outside of Psion, a significant step towards the ultimate fate of one of Britain’s most significant mobile tech firms.

However, protector cases or not – the Geofox didn’t last long, and neither did the company. Something failed in the battery compartment, and I sent it for repair just as Geofox themselves went under. I’ve since read just a handful – perhaps 100 – of these machines exist now. Psion’s range became oddly diverse, but ultimately would be eclipsed by a new era of smartphones – the operating system would evolve into Symbian with Nokia

Photon ultimately became Cameracraft, still published – in print – by Icon Publications..

* ah… yes. An interesting six months waiting to lose my licence, which thankfully didn’t happen. For what it’s worth, a 1997 Fiat Marea 1.6 is a lot quicker than you might expect