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The Icon Bar: News and features: Review - Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000 Palmtop
 

Review - Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000 Palmtop

Posted by Jeffrey Lee on 19:01, 27/11/2006 | , , , ,
 
Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000The Zaurus range from Sharp are fairly unique in the world of PDAs. Not only do they have keyboards - a rare feature for a PDA since Psion left the market - but they also run Linux. Combine this with the high-res screens, fast processors, and copious amounts of memory sported by the latest models and you have a go-anywhere, do-anything personal computer that fits in your pocket.

This review will concern itself with the SL-C1000 model - a clamshell design PDA (Or as Sharp call it PMT - Personal Mobile Tool) with 64MB internal flash memory for storage and 64MB RAM (Half of both of these are taken up by the OS however). With practically the same dimensions as a DS Lite, the Zaurus features a full colour 640x480 touchscreen, full QWERTY keyboard, CF and SD slots, IRDA, builtin rechargrable battery, and a combined USB host/client port. This means you can either connect it to a PC as a client, or connect it to standard USB devices such as keyboards or mice as a host. The wealth of USB drivers available for Linux allow you to connect it to pretty much anything. Out of the SL-C series, the SL-C1000 is the lower-end model. The current high-end model, the SL-C3200, is essentially identical in design except it sports more memory and a 6GB internal hard disc.

The hardware

Coming from a Psion background, the main concern for me was the keyboard. Psion keyboards are fairly large and easy to type on, and after seeing the dimensions I was worried that the Zaurus might be too small. The good news is that I was wrong - although the keys are small, the spacing between them helps to avoid pressing multiple keys at once. After a few minutes of use I was able to touch-type with an acceptable level of speed and accuracy. The only downside is that the keyboard was designed for the Japanese market, so some of the symbols you may be after may not be directly visible (e.g. is mapped to Ctrl-Q).

My second concern was the screen - at only 3.7", I was once again worried that it was too small. The screen doesn't even fill the top half of the unit. Luckily, I was wrong again. The resolution of the display and the sharpness of the pixels more than make up for its small size. What's more, the backlight comes in a variety of strengths, ranging from bright to super-bright. The screen also has a swivel feature - you can turn it a full 180 degrees and fold it flat onto the keyboard, converting the device into a tablet PDA. The OS detects this and the display automatically changes to portrait mode. A jog dial and OK/cancel buttons on the side of the device work with the stylus to provide input. You can also choose between handwriting recognition or an on-screen keyboard (or the real keyboard, if it's accessible). Unfortunately the swivel action of the screen does mean it is on a weaker mounting than a standard clamshell design, so extra care must be taken not to push it too hard or twist it the wrong way.

The software

Zaurus programs
Zaurus programs
Browsing the Icon Bar
Browsing the Icon Bar
Droooooobe
Droooooobe
news.bbc.co.uk
news.bbc.co.uk

Although the some of the original tablet style Zaurus models were sold in the US and Europe, the new clamshell models (SL-C range) are only sold in Japan. This means that all the default software is in Japanese. But such is the popularity of the Zaurus that independent resellers have taken it upon themselves to import the units and sell them outside of Japan, complete with English translations of the software. My Zaurus was purchased from FigLabs, a UK company that provides Zauruses with English translated ROMs and manuals. They also throw in some extra software, and can provide many of the extras you may need such as bluetooth/wifi cards, memory cards, and replacement parts.

The software you do get with a FigLabs Zaurus is quite extensive - there's the usual range of PIM and office software, as well as a PDF reader, paint program, image viewer, music player, email client, two web browsers, two movie players, and the all-so-important Linux terminal access. The browsers provided are Netfront and Opera; I still haven't tried Opera yet, but Netfront is fast and responsive when browsing over a wifi connection, and its custom page layout options do a good job of fitting websites onto the 640x480 screen. The two movie players - Sharp's own MPG1/WMV player and Kino2 (a frontend for the flexible mplayer) allow you to watch movies in practically any format. The 416MHz PXA270 XScale processor as used in the C series means that, especially with an internal hard disc, you can easily use a Zaurus as a general purpose media player. Wifi access is sufficiently fast to allow you to watch movies streamed from a host computer, and the multimedia extensions to the ARM core means that you should be able to get significantly better video performance than an Iyonix.

For those hip and trendy people, you even get software to help download podcasts, and information in the manual about how to set up your own blog.

For those who are interested in the PIM applications: No, it doesn't have enough memory to download 448 email messages. And yes, it probably will crash if you try. Luckily the reset button (hidden in the battery compartment) can be easily pressed with the stylus, and the internal flash memory means that if it does crash you should only lose your unsaved work.

One minor irritation with the Linux OS is that it does take a few seconds to come out of suspend mode - compared to, say, a Psion which is ready almost as soon as you wake it up.

Connectivity

There are basically five ways of getting data to and from your Zaurus:

  1. CompactFlash/SecureDigital cards. With a card reader for yuor PC, you can easily transfer data to and from the Zaurus.
  2. By using the Zaurus as a USB mass storage device. This will require no extra drivers on the host computer, so in theory should work just fine with RISC OS. In reality though the mass-storage mode is flawed, and FigLabs openly admit this. I've been unable to get it to operate with either my Windows PC, Iyonix, or UniPod.
  3. Using the Intellisyinc software for Windows. This will allow you to use the USB cable to synchronise data from the PIM applications with their Windows equivalents, but is useless for transferring files.
  4. Via infrared. As I understand it, this will allow you to transfer data from the PIM applications of another PDA, but isn't a proper networked filing system.
  5. Via a network connection. The Zaurus supports full TCP/IP networking via either WiFi or Bluetooth (providing you have a compatible CF/SD card), as well as via the USB cable. FigLabs provide some USB networking software for Windows with the Zaurus, as well as information on how to set up the networking for Linux and MacOS. They also sell compatible WiFi/Bluetooth cards, to save you from playing guessing games.

The benefit of using a network over any other system is that it allows not only your PC to read the contents of the Zaurus, but the Zaurus to surf the internet and read the contents of the PC, or anything else on your network. The downside is that it can be a bit tricky to set up - for example the WiFi setup tool doesn't appear to have an option to scan for access points. There have also been some concerns over the security (or lack of) of the standard Zaurus Linux install, but I haven't done any proper research into how secure the Figlabs install is.

The Zaurus supports NFS and Samba out of the box, but for me setting up file sharing wasn't very easy. I can mount RISC OS drives shared out using Moonfish, but am unable to mount Windows drives either using Samba or the TrueGrid NFS server (Which I'm using to mount the drives on RISC OS). As far as I know everyone else who's tried Samba has had it working fine, so it must just be where I messed with my Windows networking settings to increase security. Also one thing to take into acount when using Moonfish is that the current version won't automatically add Unix filename extensions to files, so if your files don't have them you will have difficulty using them from the Zaurus. The only other file sharing alternative I know of for RISC OS would be Samba, but the current ports of the RISC OS Samba server aren't exactly stable or feature-rich.

Once you've successfully mounted a network drive using your Zaurus, you'll then be disappointed to find that you can't directly browse its contents using the builtin software. This is because the Qt file browsers are by default limited to /home/root/Documents/, and if you've been sensible you'll have mounted the drive in /mnt/. You can easily fix this using a symlink, but then (for example) if you launch the package manager and choose to see the list of local packages you may find that it follows the link and starts to scan your 100+GB of networked storage! Alternate file browsers are available, but there's no fix I know of to allow the regular browsers to see byeond /home/root/Documents/.

Extensibility

Quick and dirty ArcEm port
Quick and dirty ArcEm port
This is perhaps the Zaurus's biggest point. Ever since the first Zaurus was released people have been porting software to the platform, including fairly major programs such as Apache, GCC, OpenOffice, and even Quake 1 and 2. The cheapness of flash memory (As little as 10 for a 1GB SD card) means that if you don't feel like spending 100 extra on a Zaurus with hard disc (and don't plan on doing something that would quickly wear out a flash card) you can easily get enough storage space for whatever you want. You can of course use any local network drives for extended storage as well. The downside is that, although there are several sites giving listings of software, many of the links are out of date or the software was compiled for older models of the Zaurus. Software compiled for the old models will run in 240x320 portrait mode by default - but you should be able to fix this by holding down the stylus over the program icon in the Qt browser and changing the settings. A more serious issue is that prerequisites for packages aren't always clear, and if something fails to run you're very unlikely to get an error message.

To get the most out of the Zaurus, it seems you'll need to be prepared to get your hands dirty in the Linux terminal. This may just be to copy files to the right place and edit configuration scripts, or to get and compile source code to build your own versions of software (Cross-compiling from a Linux PC is also possible if you find the right tools). Several different Linux distributions are available for the Zaurus, including a full Debian install, so if you've got the know-how you can get the system to do practically anything. For example Hd Luc's website contains lots of up-to-date information about exactly what he's been able to do with his Zaurus - and it's quite a lot.

Conclusion

The 300+ price tag may seem a bit expensive to some, and if all you're after is a basic PDA then the Zaurus probably isn't the right thing for you. However if you like your computers to have keyboards then you can't go far wrong in buying a Zaurus. The hardware design looks sturdy enough to last many years of heavy use, and the wealth of software available means you can get a Zaurus to do almost anything you want. The dual expansion slots mean that you can easily add wireless networking without gimping your storage potential, and the rechargeable battery means you don't have to mess around buying alkaline ones. And if the battery does run flat, the builtin flash memory storage will keep all your documents and settings safe (assuming you remembered to save them!)

However the downside is that Linux isn't the most user-friendly OS in the world, so if you have little or no experience with it then you won't be able to use the Zaurus to its full potential.
 

  Review - Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000 Palmtop
  ad (19:13 27/11/2006)
  Phlamethrower (02:10 28/11/2006)
  pjwerdna (09:30 28/11/2006)
    richcheng (16:07 28/11/2006)
  Jaffa (22:54 28/11/2006)
    Phlamethrower (01:14 29/11/2006)
      filecore (10:20 29/11/2006)
  monkeyson2 (00:13 1/12/2006)
    speculatrix (23:04 10/12/2006)
 
Andrew Duffell Message #94478, posted by ad at 19:13, 27/11/2006
ad

Posts: 3229
That looks like a neat little machine. £300 puts me off though.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #94551, posted by Phlamethrower at 02:10, 28/11/2006, in reply to message #94478
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15055
The new site is a rather cramped compared to the old one. I think some tweaking is in order :)
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
AJP Message #94558, posted by pjwerdna at 09:30, 28/11/2006, in reply to message #94478
Member
Posts: 7
Had me fooled for a minute.

I thought this was a new version rather than something released 18 months ago.

Good luck in finding one. I think Sharp stopped making them months ago.

PS They only ever released them in japan so theyre all english conversions.

[Edited by pjwerdna at 09:34, 28/11/2006]
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
richard cheng Message #94623, posted by richcheng at 16:07, 28/11/2006, in reply to message #94558

Posts: 649
You can buy them from FigLabs, which is linked to from the article, just below the part where it states that Sharp only sell (or sold, if you're right about them being discontinued) them in Japan.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Andrew Flegg Message #94657, posted by Jaffa at 22:54, 28/11/2006, in reply to message #94478
Member
Posts: 49
The Nokia 770's newer and cheaper. No keyboard, but a larger screen and a similar Linux OS with powerful community and SDK.

Still supported by Nokia, there's a successor on the way and the keyboard deficiency can be overcome with USB or Bluetooth.

Oh, and quick and dirty ArcEm ports work there too:
http://www.bleb.org/software/770/arcem-002.png

It's another ARM-based device running Linux but is quite nice for on-the-go web browsing, email, RSS feeds, SSH, video, music, PIM, office etc.

Interesting to note that the Zaurus' email client can't load 448 email headers. The built-in 770 email client is crap, but there's Sylpheed and Tinymail is in development which can quite easily handle over 30,000 email headers on a device like the 770:

http://tinymail.org/trac/tinymail/wiki/MemoryStats

More info from the blog syndication at http://planet.maemo.org/ and the forums at http://www.internettablettalk.com/
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #94672, posted by Phlamethrower at 01:14, 29/11/2006, in reply to message #94657
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15055
The Nokia 770's newer and cheaper. No keyboard, but a larger screen and a similar Linux OS with powerful community and SDK.
For me, if it doesn't have a keyboard, I don't care :)

Interesting to note that the Zaurus' email client can't load 448 email headers.
It was downloading them all, not just fetching the headers. Apparently the client's better for POP3 than IMAP, which might explain why it tried downloading them all instead of just getting the headers. And several of the mails had multi-MB attachments, which didn't help. I'm still not sure why it caused it to run out of RAM though - I would have expected it to save the mails straight out to 'disc'.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jason Togneri Message #94680, posted by filecore at 10:20, 29/11/2006, in reply to message #94672

Posts: 3867
a clamshell design PDA (Or as Sharp call it PMT - Personal Mobile Tool)
I can just see it now. "Not tonight dear, I'm using my PMT" :frown:

[Edited by filecore at 10:21, 29/11/2006]
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Phil Mellor Message #94899, posted by monkeyson2 at 00:13, 1/12/2006, in reply to message #94478
monkeyson2Please don't let them make me be a monkey butler

Posts: 12380
The top photo makes it look a bit Pay As You Go.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Paul Message #95657, posted by speculatrix at 23:04, 10/12/2006, in reply to message #94899
Member
Posts: 1
the zaurus is alive and kicking; most people with them hang out on www.oesf.org in the forums. Many English-speaking people don't stick with the original Sharp linux distro but instead install Cacko ("jewel" in Russian), OpenZaurus with Opie or GPE, or pdaXrom.

the 3100 and 3200 zauruses have the best selling PDA in Japan for quite some time, probably due to proper Japanese support.

whilst UK prices are high, direct import from Japan makes them MUCH cheaper, at the risk of no warranty (but they are quite robust) - see the OESF wiki for details of dealers, and the forums for for-sale/wanted.

--Paul
- a happy owner of the 6000 and 3100 models.
- www.zaurus.org.uk
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 

The Icon Bar: News and features: Review - Sharp Zaurus SL-C1000 Palmtop