IPC MagicWriter

Recently, I had the rare joy to open the still sealed box of a PDA computer. Normally, one would think twice about opening a still sealed box, but this is a model that is so rare that there is almost no demand for it. I got it for 20€, postage included.

The manufacturer’s name on the box is IPC, a very well-known (in fact, the largest) Singapore computer manufacturer at its day. During the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s its computer ventures dwindled and IPC nowadays is into property investing.

The model name is the “MagicWriter”. Does not ring a bell? Don’t worry, it did neither for me nor probably for any other person outside the handful of people that were involved in its development.

So, what is the IPC MagicWriter?

As I mentioned, the MagicWriter is a PDA or Personal Digital Assistant, a moniker for a relatively small, light-weight pen-based mobile computer (typically without keyboard) that usually included applications such as a notebook, an address book, a calendar, and the like. One can distinguish between a dedicated PDA which can exclusively execute the contained applications and a PDA computer, which also offers a built-in programming language or at least some way to execute programs that can be loaded into the computer. Unfortunately, the MagicWriter seems to be a dedicated PDA (because I like the computer variety more).

The MagicWriter was sold from 1994 or 1995. It was designed by a Singapore company, Imagique Computer Design Pte Ltd. It was manufactured by IPC. I read a rumor that can be read that 10,000 devices were sold for deaf and mute people in Japan, but I cannot confirm that.

Another source mentions that Com 1 (French company) designed a PCMCIA GSM/telephone/fax card (maybe also the software?) for the MagicWriter, and a corresponding hint to the existence of such a card can be found also in the manual.

The MagicWriter came with some applications bundled with it: a File Explorer, a Database, a Spreadsheet/Calculator, a Calendar, a Schedule, a Memo, and a Phonebook/Address Book. You could also search in the data. Due to its nature of being a pen-based PDA without a keyboard, the MagicWriter has some basic handwriting recognition in the sense that you can enter single characters in some pre-defined boxes when input is required. A virtual keyboard could also be used.

Quite a mystery for me is the Operating System of the MagicWriter. As we will see later on, the PDA is basically a mobile PC hardware-wise. It has a PC chipset, a (Phoenix) BIOS, 1 MB of RAM and 2 MB of (Flash) mass memory. Still, neither the package nor the manual (or any other source for that matter) mentions an Operating System, PC-wise or otherwise. There is also no GUI on the screen, just a sea of text. The functionality of a dedicated PDA also does not require an explicit Operating System, and the PC BIOS supplies already a base layer of I/O and other functions. Maybe the applications directly sit on the BIOS.

The sealed MagicWriter package contained:

  • the PDA itself
  • 3 AA batteries (partially spilled out, but as they were still sealed separately, no harm was done)
  • a (dumb) pen
  • a faux leather 6-hole ring binder with some paper in it where the PDA could fit in
  • a PC 3.5″ floppy disk titled “Windows Application”
  • a 40-page, loose-leaf manual to be inserted into the ring binder (but without holes)

Now, let’s have a look on the inside of the MagicWriter:

PCB

The PCB seems to be quite clean at first, but after a closer look one can find a major revision done to it (using even an own small PCB, hand-connected to the major PCB components). This seems to indicate that a) there was a major problem to the PCB revision and b) that the device was priced high enough that just tossing the original device into the bin was not an option.

The used CPU is a 1994 Chips & Technologies F8680A SoC which unites the CPU, RAM management, power management, and CGA video. It is said to be 80286 compatible through emulation on the chip which is a enhanced 80186 clone. It runs on 14 MHz. It was used in all sorts of subnotebook and embedded computers. There is also a predecessor, the 1991 8680 running on 10 MHz. It was used in the 1992 Gateway 2000 “HandBook” DOS (but not Windows) subnotebook.

Major chips found on the PCB

  • C&T F8680A (CPU SoC)
  • C&T F87000 (Multi-Mode Peripherial Chip, handles PCMCIA cards) x2
  • Toshiba TC518512FTL-80LV (PSRAM) x2
  • UM62256DM-70LL (128kB SRAM)
  • Intel E28F008SA-120 (1 MB Flash) x2, one having a
    • PhoenixPICO BIOS PRODUCT and one having a
    • Phoenix PCM+ sticker

As I said, the box was in the original shrink wrap, and the content of the box clearly never taken out. Still, when took the PDA out, there were some loose screws rattling in it (which I tossed out before switching it on). Unfortunatly, I could not convince the thing to switch on, neither by using batteries, nor by attaching a power supply to it. I did not find any popped condensators nor batteries inside, so either the thing did never work, or it deteriorated in an silent way over time.

Why was the MagicWriter not succesful? We do not know the initial price or whether there was a major flaw preventing the usage of this device, but let’s assume it did work and that the price was not too high. What chance would such a device have had in 1995? Large, tablet-sized pen computers in numbers existed since 1991 (NCR 3125). They were heavy, and they were pricey, and they were something for the professional user. In 1993 some mid-sized and quite portable pen-based machines were released: the Apple Newton, and the Tandy Z-PDA. The Newton promises recognition of cursive handwriting, but basically falls short of this promise with the first models. In 1994 General Magic and its conglomerate of Sony, Motorola, and other heavy-weights give the PDA idea a new twist by putting the focus on communication, allowing some of their devices to even communicate wirelessly. All these devices have some sort of GUI, the General Magic devices even a very graphic one. From 1996 USR will revolutionize the PDA market by making the devices cheap, very lightweight and small. Pocket-sized DOS PCs (even if the did not have a pen) exist since the Atari Portfolio in 1989. So, in 1995 bringing out a text-based PDA that is not even DOS-compatible seems like a recipe for failure (and it probably was).

From a collector’s point of view, dedicated PDAs are not very interesting, and there are many makes. This model, however is at least very rare (my MagicWriter seems to have the serial number 461), and it uses a quite rare, interesting chip set. The Operating System is a mystery. Maybe there is a way to execute an arbitrary program.

Technical Data

CPU: Chips&Technologies F8680A@14MHz (80286-compatible)
RAM: (PSRAM) 1 MB
Mass Memory: 2 MB Flash
OS: unknown
Interfaces: 2 x PCMCIA type II slots, RS232 (proprietary connector)
Batteries: 3 x AA Alkaline
Size: 210x135mm
Weight: 455g
Released in: 1995
Number of produced machines: unknown
Initial price: unknown

References

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