image: zaurus keyboard
The Zaurus has a hidden keyboard with a slide-down protective cover.
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msnbc.com

Sharp has been making PDAs for years. Heck, my first handheld was a Sharp Wizard in the early ’90s. Recently, Sharp has nixed jumping on the Palm or Pocket PC bandwagons — opting for their own, proprietary operating system. But now, with their Zaurus SL-5500 they’ve decided to switch their handhelds to Linux.

InsertArt(1587086)THE ZAURUS IS THE first mass-market Linux PDA to hit the market. I believe Linux fans will herald the move and welcome and embrace the Zaurus. But, what about everyone else? Will the PDA buying public be willing to bet on the Zaurus instead of one of the better-known available models?

I hope so, because the Zaurus is an amazingly good handheld computer — especially for a first-generation model. As a matter of fact, the Zaurus really deserves the handheld computer moniker. It’s powerful and very, very fast.

First some numbers. The SL-5500 is 2.9 by 5.4 by 0.7 inches, weighs nearly 7 ounces and has a front-lit, 3.5 inch (240 by 320 pixels) Color TFT reflective touch-screen, which is protected by a flip-up, semi-transparent plastic cover. The processor is the famous 206 MHz Intel StrongARM chip. If this sound a lot like the previous generation of PocketPCs, you’re absolutely right. It’s more H-P Jornada than iPaq.

The Embedix Linux 2.4 operating system with Jeode PersonalJava, the Qt/Embedded environment, plus the built-in applications all fit in the 16 MB of ROM. There’s also 64 MB of built-in RAM. The battery is replaceable, a rechargeable Lithium-ion module. Battery life ran to 4 to 5 hours while using a wireless Ethernet card, similar to what I’ve been getting with my Toshiba e740. Also like the Toshiba, there’s both a type-2 Compact Flash and SD card slots for expansion.

With a stereo headphone jack, an IR port and a USB cradle, you’ve got a pretty swift little package in the 5500.

The Zaurus’ big feature is the built-in QWERTY keyboard with sliding cover, which might remind you of a recent Sony PDA design. The keyboard has 37 keys which are quite well-spaced for two-thumb typing. I preferred that input method to the on-screen soft keyboard or the built-in character recognition methods.

A lot of built-in software comes with the Zaurus. PDA staples like an address book, calculator, calendar, city time clock, stopwatch, POP3/SMTP/IMAP4 e-mailer, a Microsoft software compatible office suite including HancomWord, HancomSheet, and HancomPresenter, a version of the Opera Web browser, an MP1/MP3 media player, an image viewer, a text editor, a voice recorder (you need to add a headset/microphone) a whole bunch of games and lots more. Plus, there are some terrific third-party titles being developed for the Zaurus (especially one Mahjong game I purchased).

SUPER FAST, SUPER POWERFUL

I’ve put the 5500 through the paces. I tried it with a CF card modem. Setting up a connection with my Internet provider was fast and easy. I tried it with a CF Ethernet card. Set-up and connections were just as easy. It was here I noticed how fast the Zaurus is. More about that in a minute. I also tried it with wireless Ethernet cards. There is a driver built-in for Type-2 802.11a devices. Worked flawlessly. Sharp is working on a driver for Type-1 802.11a cards. I can report the beta driver worked just as well. Type-1 cards are physically smaller and don’t block the stylus or headphone jack when in use.

The Opera browser people have done a great job with porting their software to the Zaurus. The browser is pretty quick and accurate at retrieving and drawing Web pages. I was taken aback when I opened one page and the Opera screen split in two. I was then asked if I wanted to continue with the top or bottom. It took me a second to realize the Web site was trying to get the browser to open a second page (shown at the bottom) and Opera was asking if I wanted to ignore it. Opera also seems to do a very good job at letting you see a lot of the page at one time — a better job than Handspring’s Blazer or Pocket PC’s Internet Explorer.

image: Zaurus closed
With the keyboard cover closed, the Zaurus looks like many other handhelds, but with a really fast, powerful computer inside.
The Zaurus is fast. The Linux OS seems to work well with the StrongARM processor because Web pages downloaded in record times for a handheld device. I downloaded a Linux/Unix shell program from the Zaurus Website and tried to see just how fast everything was. I tried a number of built-ins and I couldn’t believe just how responsive tasks were performed on the Sharp. Even simple things like Vi and Ping were similar in speed to desktop computers. I guess that’s why someone is porting the Apache server software to the platform. Handheld servers. Cool.

The e-mail software seemed to do whatever it was asked when I was logged in to a private Internet provider. It wasn’t able to handle my work e-mail though. Pocket PCs are the champ there because of their ability to VPN (Virtual Private Networking) and their compatibility with Microsoft Exchange Servers. The Zaurus’ built-in Hancom software was able to open Word and Excel attachments without problems. All the other software I tried seemed to deliver.

SYNCH SOFTWARE CLUNKYExcept for one thing — and it’s a biggie. The synchronization software is nowhere near as good as the Palm or Pocket PC equivalents. Zaurus comes with a version of Intellisync. Intellisync only works on Windows PCs. No Macintosh and no Linux? What’s up with that? Once you set it up it does what you ask it to but it is incredible clunky in its operation and it’s really ugly. With Chapura or ActiveSync you begin the process and that’s that. With Intellisync you’re asked questions at every step and the process is much more interactive than it needs to be.

Same for importing software to the handheld. It’s way too complicated compared to the competition. It does work, but with little finesse. Sharp is aware of Intellisync’s shortcomings and say they will address the problem.

I’ve left the price for last. Sharp set the suggested retail price at $449. Check the Web for bargains. At $449 though, it’s $100-$300 less that comparable PocketPCs. Yes, the new iPaq has the best screen in the industry — but the Zaurus more than holds its own against the better known brand.

Palm OS products are in the same price range. Palm’s m515 currently lists for $399. Handspring’s Treo 90 is only $299. As good as those PDAs are, they are built on older versions of the Palm OS and the Zaurus is a better handheld computer than either of them. In fact, the Zaurus is like a big desktop computer disguised in an organizer’s clothing. On the other hand, new Palm organizers are expected soon — with promises of an improved OS and faster processors — so we’ll revisit this comparison in the near future.

By the way, I expect that Sharp won’t stand still either. I expect we might see some improvements in the Zaurus by year’s end also.

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