Who wouldn’t check out a Linux-based personal organizer? I couldn’t wait to see Agenda Computing Inc.’s VR3 prototypes at last August’s LinuxWorld conference in San Jose. The new device was small and inexpensive, was running a full version of Linux on its 66 MHz processor, and was expected to be shipping in October 2000.
A lot has changed since then, and not necessarily for the better. The product was delayed for eight months, and the price increased from the originally quoted $149 to a much heftier $249. Although the unit is still small and still runs Linux, it’s turned out to be underpowered, and its built-in data syncing software is designed to work exclusively with Microsoft’s Outlook personal information manager.
Hardware and Features
After evaluating the VR3 for a month, I can’t help but judge it against my current PDA-of-choice, the Palm IIIx. The VR3 wins hands down on the hardware side. It’s smaller than the Palm, yet has a larger 160×240 pixel screen with 16 shades of gray, driven by the X Window System. The computer takes two non-rechargeable AAA batteries and includes a built-in, flip-down cover; there are seven buttons, a USB-based docking cradle, and infrared capabilities.
Like most handheld organizers these days, the VR3 supports handwriting recognition. Unlike the Palm, however, you can write anywhere on the screen, but keep in mind that different quadrants of the screen are used for different things (uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols). These areas are not marked, so you have to remember them. The computer’s handwriting alphabet is different from Palm’s Graffiti, but not too difficult to learn; I found the pop-up virtual alpha keyboard faster to use when working from the command line.
Agenda packed a lot of software into the little box, including a bunch of games, a calculator, a calendar, an address book, a notepad, and a few other applications. They’re all adequate but not spectacular. The VR3 also has the capability to play audio files through headphones and records sound files through an external microphone; I’ll be honest, I didn’t use those features. The last thing I want is to fill up a handheld’s limited memory (8 MB RAM, 16 MB flash memory uses for a hard drive) with MP3 files. The real value of the device, and its Linux OS, is that you can download (or ftp) files to the device and run them. While Agenda did include file-transfer utility for Linux, in order to use it, binary applications need to be recompiled for the NEC VR4171 processor.
The VR3′s biggest problem is that it’s underpowered. Due to the small processor and limited RAM, if more than three of the built-in apps are launched, the machine’s performance slows to a crawl. Launching all of the built-in apps froze the machine, introducing me to its hardware-reset button. Another problem is that despite the claimed one month of battery life, I never got more than a week’s use out of it.
The VR3 is a very clever handheld, but as a consumer PDA, it doesn’t hold a candle to the much more mature Palm devices. Its appeal would be greatest for Linux hackers who want a pocket-sized Linux device to fool around with or for application developers who want to port standard apps to this platform instead of writing them from scratch for Windows CE or PalmOS.
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