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One of my favorite PCs in old times were HP Jornada handheld pcs(680, 720) - perfect match of usable hardware keyboard, large-enough screen, protected by keyboard when closed, and usable OS designed for doing tasks and not only multimedia/calls/browsing. All this perfectness was in case, small enough to fit inside pocket (ok, rather big pocket) and was able to work 4-5 hours (psions much longer and from generic AA batteries)

This market was rather large - HP, LG, Psion, Philips and many more, but somewhere near y2k they all just ... gone. Yep there were some efforts from Nokia with E90 but it was "even not as good as 9500" with s60 Symbian designed for different tasks.

I understand that some part of this market moved to qwerty phones, which actually disappeared couple years later. Some part moved to tablets and "business-oriented" phones. Sony made some attempts with it's sub-notebook series but they were too slow with first generations of inlet atom cpus (really, i was surprised that windows 7 took about 5 minutes to start on fresh pc). All modern stores are full of different types of ultrabooks, they all are thin but they all can't fit in a pocket because of large screen.

Nowadays it is so easy to adapt a power-efficient cpu like ARM A53 or something from entry x86 Intels into a HPC-size form-factor with good old proven qwerty keyboard - so why is nobody making one? I mean not entertainment device, but a "smaller than sub-notebook" workhorse

Image from wiki of 720 model: Image from wiki

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  • What Journada are you talking of as there where many sizes from Palm and Pocket over handheld to what now would be a sub-notebook - not to mention the phones? So far this question is way to unclear to generate any useful answer, but chitchat and opinion. You may want to remove all personal musings about how great some (unclear) aspects were and refine it down to answerable point - making sure they are asking for facts, not opinion.
    – Raffzahn
    Apr 3, 2019 at 9:57
  • Edited question, jornada 680-720, psion 5mx etc. Apr 3, 2019 at 10:22
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    Still this writing is more of a personal blog entry than a question. Please remove the distraction and formulate an exact question that can be answered - not just guessed, producing opinion based answers. So far even the form factor you ask for isn't clearly defined.
    – Raffzahn
    Apr 3, 2019 at 10:46
  • Does your form factor include something like the pyra-handheld.com ? That is in development, and there are other similar niche machines. I struggle to find a clear question here too. Apr 3, 2019 at 12:07
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    I would have thought that the smart phone and tablet market will have killed a more traditional hand held PC.
    – JeremyP
    Apr 4, 2019 at 8:23

2 Answers 2

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This answer is not quite about retrocomputing, but anyway...

They are making them, though it is a bit of a niche market.

One of the newer ones (designed by the original Psion designer!) is the Gemini PDA, running Android (and some rudimentary Linux support), trying to spiritually continue the Psion experience (at least from their PR standpoint). The new offspring Cosmo Communicator enhances the "mobile phone" aspect (since the Gemini falls into the dark spot, it is too limited as a subnotebook and too bulky and clumsy as a mobile phone), but with rather unfortunately botched the cover display design (though much better Linux support). The new Astro Slide fully embraces the mobile phone aspect (and is probably what Cosmo, or even Gemini should have been from the usability point of view), but the production seems to be halted (as of the second half of 2023), because the Chinese company producing the units has been sold and stopped the production.

Then there are conceptually miniaturized notebooks by GPD, such as GPD Win (mostly for gaming), universal GPD Pocket, GPD Pocket 2, GPD Pocket 3, GPD MicroPC, or the two-in-one almost-clone One Mix Yoga.

And then there are devices following the Alphasmart tradition, such as Freewrite or Freewrite Traveller (bulky; conceptually a smart typewriter, not a computer).

Some of interesting recent additions are the DevTerm (quite retro oriented, with some very interesting features - exchangeable "motherboard" (computing module, including Raspberry Pi), replaceable 18650 batteries, full open source and 3D printable open design, full Linux support, built in thermal printer (!)), though the keyboard is tiny, even smaller than Gemini (i.e. Psion) which hinders typing, but DevTerm does not fit in a pocket, which limits the portability somewhat. (It also does not include phone capabilities, i.e. no SIM card).

The uConsole from the same company (pre-order) is basically DevTerm's keyboard in a fixed portrait orientation (i.e. bigger display) - it is an interesting, less tried approach that has its appeal.

Pinephone got a portable clamshell keyboard case (includes a huge battery to charge the phone), obviously inspired by the Gemini, and this is perhaps the most productive route phone producers could have taken (but did not). However, note that Pinephone is for die hard hackers (that might want to make a phone call from time to time); it is a 100% open source Linux phone not meant for mere mortals.

Very interesting product is the Chinese Hand 386 - new (as of 2023) handheld notebook featuring 40MHz 386SX compatible CPU (!), 8MB RAM, supporting MS DOS and Windows up to 95. It was sold out quickly after the introduction, but after a few months hiatus, it seems to be available again.

Also note that while subnotebooks were rare in Europe (and USA) and almost disappeared, in Japan they were quite successful and more widespread.

EDIT: Updated in the beginning of 2022 to reflect new development (especially the Pinephone keyboard and DevTerm; the latter brings it on-topic). EDIT2: Updated in late 2022 to add uConsole. EDIT3: Updated in mid 2023 to add Hand 386.

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  • wow, you actually made my day! both gemini pda and gpd pocket look very nice, ideal is somewhere between (gemini's keyboard and size + gpd's x86 faster cpu and direct desktop os support) but gemini anyway seems to be must-have :-) Apr 3, 2019 at 13:19
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    @StanislavOrlov Well, I am generally happy with the Gemini, though I bought it basically for its claimed Linux support, which failed to materialize, and it has some rather unpleasant gotchas. However, with Cosmo addressing (hopefully) the mobile phone aspect, I am tempted to switch to Cosmo once its on sale (but to use it as a mobile phone and ssh terminal, not as a subnotebook). Apr 3, 2019 at 14:16
  • Also keep an eye on the DragonBox Pyra. I have its predecessor and, thanks to having attracted some really brilliant community members, like notaz and ptitSeb, it was always a joy to use despite being a non-Android ARM device. (eg. notaz made an SDL port that does scaling on the video hardware, and the community managed to negotiate to port various closed-source indie games like VVVVVV.)
    – ssokolow
    Feb 8, 2022 at 12:30
  • @ssokolow There is also Popcorn P.C., small (open Gemini sized) Linux computer, status unknown (webpage claims shipping planned in 2021), distinguishing feature: LoRa. Then there is the READY 100 shipping about now (to the backers). functionally a modern equivalent of TRS-100 (i.e. biggie). Originally "just" a shell for your RB PI module, there is also a complete system. It looks absolutely retro-gorgeous, the keyboard has individually illuminated keys (!), it has A LOT of connectors, distinguishing feature: good HAM radio support Feb 25, 2022 at 12:43
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On the issue of qwerty keyboards on handhelds, I sympathise with you entirely (as the owner of a Nokia N900 and a Blackberry KeyOne).

Looking at a modern smartphone as the nearest equivalent of a handheld PC, a physical keyboard competes with the screen for space on the front of the device. If one generalises that most people consume more media on their smartphone than they create (and specifically create with a keyboard), then perhaps a larger screen is perceived as being more useful. A larger screen is certainly one of the selling points marketed by phone manufacturers in the last decade. The associated trend towards thinner and lighter devices also biases against having a clamshell device like the Jornada 720: it will be thinker, and look bulky compared to candy-bar or slate-shaped devices.

Back in the heyday of HPCs, they were comparatively expensive, and marketed mainly at professional and technical people. It's a similar market to the one BlackBerry aims for; note that they're the main manufacturer of smartphones with physical keyboards. But a physical keyboard doesn't appear to be a key selling point for the (much broader) smartphone market as a whole.

There may be some light on the horizon: the advent of foldable displays like Samsung's Galaxy Fold may make manufacturers look again at the clamshell format. Perhaps a manufacturer may think it worth their time to put a large, foldable screen on one side, and put a smaller screen and a keyboard on the other side. Who knows?

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