EOL 7 Technology  Review

Multimedia field note-taking on the Psion 5mx

Psion 5mx
current price: $470
www.psion.com;      www.psionusa.com

memory: 16 MB, expandable; display: 640 x 240 pixels greyscale; processor: 32-bit RISC; speed: 36 MHz; dimensions: 6.7" x 3.5" x 0.9" (170 x 90 x 23mm); weight: 12.5 oz (354 grams): powered by 2 AA batteries and 1 CR2032 memory backup battery; built-in microphone; operating system by Epoc, Ltd.

Clone: Ericsson MC218
200 ($278); available through www.expansys.com
Specifications and operating system are roughly identical with Psion 5mx.

Review by Paul D. Greene

In the past decade, handheld computer technology has become miniaturized, reduced in price, and diversified in software to such an extent that certain products now warrant serious consideration as fieldwork tools in ethnomusicology. Not only do most handhelds have the capacity to store thousands of pages of typed text, but some allow the ethnographer to record, edit, and catalog digital sound files, affording ethnomusicologists unprecedented powers of on-site field documentation.

Although such technology does not yet facilitate CD-quality recording, it does offer the musical ethnographer unprecedented opportunities to capture and retain encounters with sound and to integrate limited recordings closely with field notes, typed into the keyboard. The result is that the moments of encounter with live sound—so crucial and yet often so elusive in ethnomusicology—can be captured as part of the process of taking field jottings on site. Whereas some handheld computer lines, notably those using the Palm operating system, are discontinuing recording technology in favor of playback only, the Psion 5mx retains the technology.

Because several handheld computers, including the Psion 5mx, are reviewed elsewhere as general tools for taking ethnographic field notes (Greene 2001), one can focus on features of the Psion 5mx as a fieldwork tool specifically for ethnomusicologists. In particular, one can examine the capabilities and limitations of the computer as a tool for taking multimedia field jottings. Field "jottings," as defined by Bernard (1988:181), refers to the  ethnographic practice of taking down field notes at the immediate moment of encounter, as opposed to more detailed information one might write down later, which Bernard calls "field notes." Field jottings on the Psion can be multimedia in nature because they can include words typed into the keyboard and sound files recorded through the microphone and integrated into the very same document.

One can therefore look beyond merely weighing the benefits of a specific handheld computer. Multimedia field jotting technology is still in the early stages of development, and it is quite likely that new handheld technologies will emerge in upcoming years, rendering some of the limitations of the Psion 5mx moot. Therefore, it is appropriate to consider new and emerging methods of electronic musical ethnography that may allow field encounters with sound to be more deeply and easily integrated into ethnomusicological field jottings. This line of technology will likely improve and become more useful to ethnomusicologists over time.

Section 1. Introduction to the handheld computer, its power requirements, keyboard, operating system, and other general features.

Section 2. Taking multimedia field jottings using the computer.

Section 3. Review of the capabilities and limitations of the Psion 5mx as a fieldwork tool for ethnomusicologists.


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