April 3, 2001

The Linux-powered VR3 handheld is (almost) here

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes-

Chicago -- There are times when it seems that the promises of a Linux handheld device have been around almost as long as Linux itself. At long last, the promise has turned into reality, with Agenda Computing's release of the world's very first Linux PDA. It's a shame that none were actually for sale at Comdex in Chicago.Save for a multimedia kiosk, a few dummy product boxes, and a stack of literature, Agenda Computing's small display at this year's Chicago Comdex event was bare. A steady stream of traffic entered the booth, then quickly exited after taking what available literature they could find. Most, it turned out, were disappointed that the new VR3 wasn't available for purchase.

Some were more disappointed than others. Stacey Leveque, a San Francisco-based system administrator, said the VR3 was the only reason she attended this year's show. "I really wanted to be the first kid on the block with one," said Leveque. "If this was going to be just some sort of media announcement they shouldn't have made a public announcement."

Agenda officials say the extra time was needed to ensure that enough units are available to meet demand. To compensate customers for the extra waiting time, Agenda is offering a $20 rebate for all orders placed before the end of April.

There are a few demonstration units floating around the show, and judging from their performance, Leveque won't be disappointed when she actually gets her hands on one. Down at booth level, there was a single VR3 on hand for inspection. It's a curvy little device, with no hard edges and lots of small buttons. In its see-through "H20" color scheme, the VR3 hardware looks a lot like Mac OS X software (which just happens to be named "Aqua").

If the exterior appearance hasn't done its job to convince you that this is a PDA of a different color, just wait until you power on this baby. In some respects the software and its functions look and behave as they do on any PDA, but there's just something slightly to the left of center about the whole operation -- something that lets you know right off the bat that this not just a handheld PDA, but a handheld computer.

Make no mistake about it, this is a computer. Running Agenda Linux, a compact distribution of the operating system that was designed specifically to power this handheld unit, the VR3 is capable of doing many of the things a full-blown desktop unit can do. In the coming months, we'll probably see a few pages devoted to "hacking" the VR3 to do things other than keeping phone lists and scheduling appointments.

No matter what use is found for the VR3, its users will have far more memory available than in any other handheld on the market. With 8MB RAM and 16MB Flash Memory, the VR3 can hold almost contact information for over 9,000 entries, and store up to 5,000 e-mail messages. All this extra storage doesn't add up to extra heft -- the VR3 weighs in at just less than 4 1/2 ounces.

The initial system setup to ship on April 23 will include all the handheld basics: to-do lists, calculator, calendar, games, and so on. According to the fact sheet handed out to reporters at the Agenda display, a faxing program and software to turn the device into a remote control will be available "after June 2001" -- how far after June 2001 remains to be seen.

If Leveque and countless others can wait a few more weeks for their Linux handheld fix, they won't be disappointed.

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