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A > AMSTRAD  > PenPad   


The year 1993 saw Amstrad release a handheld computer capable of handwriting recognition just weeks ahead of Apple's much-hyped Newton. However, Amstrad's approach with the PDA600 was very much more primitive with users only able to input one letter at a time in a box at the bottom of the screen.

The device was based on a Z80 compatible Zilog Z8S180 microprocessor running at 14.3MHz and memory was expandable from 128KB up to 2MB with PCMCIA cards. Batteries life was 40 hours, from three 'AA' size batteries and the device weighed just 400 grams.

Other features included a search function, world time clock with multiple alarms, information transfer capability to and from PCs, metric-imperial conversion and the ability to input drawings.

But despite being less than half the price of Apple's more advanced machine – $430 compared to $920 - the PDA600 bombed, although it does seem to have been popular in Germany, for some reason.

Cliff Lawson, PDA600 project manager, writes on his web site:
The PDA600 is one of my favourite Amstrad projects which probably has something to do with the fact that I was the Project Manager!
Unfortunately, The whole PDA concept was a bit of a plot that failed and as we were left with huge stocks of the PDA600 we have recently [c1996] sold them all to Tandy (Radio Shack). This does have the huge advantage that you can now buy one for £50 (which is less than half what it cost us to build them!)
Interesting fact number 37 is that we got about 95% of the way through developing a replacement for the PDA600 called the PIC700 that included a radio pager but it ran hugely over budget and schedule and was eventually shelved ... shame, it was brilliant."

Those that actually spent money on the PDA600 were less enthusiastic.
Mark Stevenson () says on his page:
What can I say about the PDA600? This must be in my opinion the worst computer ever! It was supposed to be able to convert handwriting to text to allow quick and easy entries to be made, but it could never read my writing so I was forever going back to correct my mistakes.
The machine was also short on memory, it came as standard with 128kb. This could be filled with around 20 free form notes without any database entries being made at all.
The database was completely uncustomisable, being suitable really only for a phone book. It also had a diary function which I don't think was too bad - if you could ever get the entry in with the handwriting recognition.

Thanks to Alan Sampson and Graeme Burton

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I wrote the spreadsheet for this piece of junk, so I spent a lot of time using it. It was innovative at the time, but the handwriting recognition was really poor which let it down. My spreadsheet was good though $-)

Friday 23rd April 2021
Nick (UK)

Hi. my (ex) wife bought me one of these when they were reduced to £50. It was great in theory but the processor wasn''t fast enough to keep up with handwriting, and the handwriting reader never managed my handwriting. The main problem was unit was driven by three AA cells if I remember right, and the memory wasn''t backed up with a lithium cell so I had a battery failure and lost all the data. As I was using the thing as my diary and contacts list, I lost all my work (needless to say I didn''t have a backup, so it was as much my fault).
Losing all my diary entries caused so many problems and so much work to put right I have never since used an electronic diary - only a paper one.
After the loss of all my data I never trusted the unit to work and I can''t remember what became of it after that (I probably sold it or smashed it up)

Monday 29th April 2013
Roger the Dodger (UK)

Hi, Diego. I doubt you''ll get this (or care if you do), but I just unpacked an old PDA600 that had been in storage and found that it, too, had that melting problem $ it was like it was covered in honey. Disgusting! I was able to clean it off with rubbing alcohol, a rag, and lots of elbow grease.

I suspect the sticky stuff was the rubberized coating it used to have. Once it''s removed, it''s covered with a sort of plain, slick plastic. Good luck!

Wednesday 30th June 2010
Tom Geller (USA)
Tom Geller''s site


NAME  PenPad
TYPE  Pocket
ORIGIN  United Kingdom
YEAR  1993
KEYBOARD  Touch-screen
CPU  Zilog Z8S180 (Z80 compatible)
SPEED  14.3MHz
CO-PROCESSOR  2 x Zilog Z8 for power management and chars. recognition
RAM  128 KB
ROM  Unknown
GRAPHIC MODES  240 x 320 dots
COLORS  Monochrome
SOUND  Beeper
SIZE / WEIGHT  6.3 (H) x 4.3 (W) x 1 (D) ins / 0.87lbs
I/O PORTS  Serial RS232, PCMCIA Type I cards
BUILT IN MEDIA  RAM backup by Lithium battery
OS  PenPad specific
POWER SUPPLY  3 x AA size batteries
PERIPHERALS  RAM cards - up to 2 MB
PRICE  About $430

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