Reviews

Sharp's Zaurus Intrigues




Zaurus SL-5000D (Developer Version)


Sharp Electronics Corporation

$399 (low-$500s for 64 MB SL-550)

Additional Resources

Yahoo Group for SL-5000 (free Yahoo account required)


ZaurusZone.com


Zaurus IRC chat group



  • channel #zaurus on irc.openprojects.net

Sharp PDA

Hardware Specifications

CPU



  • 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor

Memory



  • 32 MB RAM

  • 16 MB Flash ROM (for storing operating system image)

Screen



  • 320×200 TFT “Quarter VGA” reflective, active-matrix touch screen color display

Input



  • Retractable QWERTY keyboard

Audio



  • Stereo minijack audio output with integrated monaural audio input

  • Piezoelectric buzzer

Expandability



  • CompactFlash card slot

  • Secure Digital/MMC card slot

Software Specifications

Operating System



  • Lineo Embedix for StrongARM processors running on a 2.4x Linux kernel

Interface



  • Trolltech Qtopia Palmtop Environment

  • Trolltech Qt/Embedded 2.3.2

Browser



  • Opera Web browser

Java VM




  • Insignia Jeode Java VM conforming to Sun Microsystems PersonalJava 1.1.8 specification

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are among the most coveted of geek toys; however, none of these — the Palm and the Pocket PC included — have been able to bring the full power of the PC to a handheld device. Due to the limited hardware it must run on, the current Palm OS lacks multitasking and rich networking, and while the Pocket PC provides a powerful hardware reference platform with multimedia, multitasking, and a Microsoft Windows API, its developer environment can be oppressively difficult to port applications to; it’s also limited to interpreting with only Microsoft’s back-end services.

One would think Linux would make an ideal PDA operating system. We all know why Linux is good — it’s fast, stable, efficient, networks extremely well, and is completely Open Source. However, it’s never been used successfully in a PDA.

Agenda failed to provide a product that was powerful enough to rival the Palm or Pocket PC and found itself out of business. Samsung’s GMATE division has had its YOPY under development for almost two years, with no commercial product to show for it.

Samurai Penguin

Like a knight in shining armor, or a charging samurai army straight out of a Kurosawa movie, comes the Japanese consumer electronics giant Sharp Electronics, with its new PDA platform, the SL-5500, and its plans to reinvigorate the Linux PDA market.

On hardware specifications alone, Sharp’s SL-5500 is impressive. It comes with a 206 MHz Intel StrongARM CPU, 16 MB of Flash ROM, 64 MB of SDRAM, and a 320×240 color reflective TFT “Quarter VGA” touch screen display, as well as a unique built-in slide-out keyboard, a replaceable Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery, and dual expansion slots for CompactFlash and Secure Digital cards.

The software included with this PDA is also notable. It runs on Lineo’s Embedix Linux 2.4-based operating system, utilizing Trolltech’s Qtopia user environment for running graphical Qt applications (similar to those in the KDE environment, but in a smaller form factor) and Insignia Solutions’ Jeode PersonalJava VM for running Java applications.

To entice the developer community, Sharp introduced an early-access version of the SL-5500, the SL-5000D, and a preview release of Trolltech’s Qtopia SDK. The SL-5000D sells on Sharp’s developer Web site (http://developer.sharpsec.com) for $399 and is virtually identical to the SL-5500, with the exception that it has 32 MB of RAM instead of 64 MB.

Trolltech’s Qtopia SDK Preview edition is a free download and includes a free commercial license of Qt Embedded for those who wish to develop commercial software applications during the preview period. Trolltech is expected to sell Qtopia for $200-$300, with a single commercial developer seat, but will be free for developers of GPL applications.

Mostly Baked

How well does everything come together? The SL-5000D is like a really good chocolate chip cookie, but it’s still in the gooey stage and is not quite ready to come out of the oven — only hardcore chocolate freaks willing to get a little messy need apply. Since the platform is completely Open Source, there’s room for modifying the recipe, and all armchair chefs are invited to participate.

Not all the applications are complete, and some of the functionality of the unit isn’t quite there yet (such as IRDA beaming to Palms and Pocket PCs). In fact, voice recording applications that use the audio-in interface haven’t even been written yet.

As we were going to press with this issue, many drivers were still being written and tested; the 802.11 wireless CompactFlash cards and the PC sync software (made by Pumatech of Intellisync fame), which will be capable of syncing with both Outlook and the Palm Desktop, are still under heavy development. Additionally, while the core PIM applets — such as the e-mail client and the address book — are usable now, they are still having new functionality added.

Working with Qtopia

Trolltech’s Qtopia environment provides for a rich PDA user experience with a very small learning curve. Qtopia’s user interface is reminiscent of both the Palm and the Pocket PC, with some KDE and Mac OS thrown in. Overall performance is snappy; applications load quickly; and text is highly readable due to Qt’s anti-aliasing capabilities.

For Internet access, Qtopia includes a PDA version of the award-winning Opera 5 Web browser, which uses the same high-speed HTML rendering engine that its desktop browser for Linux and Windows uses. Qtopia’s built-in Media Player allows for high-quality MP3 playback through the unit’s built-in stereo headphone jack (which also doubles as the microphone jack) and allows for relatively smooth playback of MPEG-1 video files.

Java applications execute quickly, thanks to Insignia’s Jeode. Trolltech made special modifications to Insignia’s VM so that Java applications look exactly like Qt ones, allowing for a consistent user interface.

Strong Developer Community

Because the SL-5000D is a Linux machine, you can also run console applications from the built-in Terminal applet (which is essentially a PDA port of KDE’s kvt) and also by installing a third-party ssh or telnet daemon on the device. This is available from the Sharp Web site and other third-party sites, such as the SHARP-LINUX Yahoo Group and ZaurusZone.com (see Additional Resources).

The unit also has a built-in FTP daemon that allows you to transfer files via your favorite FTP client using port 4242 over the USB link. Wireless file transfers can be accomplished using SCP over the ssh port.

Since the Zaurus was introduced to the developer community, many Linux and GNU tools have been ported, such as various micro Web servers, an embedded version of the Konqueror Web browser from KDE, network security tools (such as nmap and libcap), the IBM Jikes Java compiler, text editors like vi, pico, and MicroEMACS, Java SQL database engines, as well as script engines such as Perl and Python, with more and more third-party software being added every day.

Although the device has only been out for a short time, community support for the Zaurus has been surprisingly strong, with more than 800 developer participants on the SHARP-LINUX Yahoo Group and dozens of people interacting daily on the #zaurus IRC channel on irc.openprojects.net.

Great Expectations

The Zaurus SL5500 series clearly will be the most advanced PDA on the market when it begins shipping, which should be by the time you read this. However, it remains an open question whether the open source methodology and Linux — even with its superior technology and proactive developer community — can unseat the Palm and Pocket PC giants, especially at this time of economic recession for the computer and consumer electronics industries. Whether the Zaurus is ready to come out of the oven or not, handheld computing will never be the same.

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