I've tried PalmOS-based PDAs and I've tried Pocket PCs, so I was excited to get my hands on a Linux-based alternative -- the Sharp Zaurus SL-5600. While this revised version of last year's SL-5500 has a lot going for it, it isn't the killer product one might hope for.
The new Zaurus offers all the personal information manager basics -- a calendar, address book, to-do list, calculator, memo pad, voice recorder, and multimedia player, all part of the Qtopia application environment. It offers Web browsing with Opera version 6, and Microsoft Word and Excel compatibility with Hancom Word and Hancom Sheet. And it comes bundled with seven games, though not my favorite handheld time-wasters, Reversi and Mancala.
Zaurus's screen layout is fairly intuitive and makes fairly good use of the limited screen space, though the scroll bar on the right side of the screen is much thicker than it needs to be. You can move between open applications by clicking on tiny icons at the bottom of the screen.
Synchronizing with a desktop computer is simple and standard. Put the device in a cradle that's attached to a USB port on the desktop, press a button on the cradle, and presto -- the device will synchronize its address book, calendar, and to-do list with the information in Microsoft Outlook, Palm Desktop, or Qtopia Desktop. Oddly for a PDA based on Linux, there's no Linux desktop software; Sharp expects its customers to be running Windows. Transferring files happens in real-time and not as part of a synchronization operation, which I found surprising at first but ultimately logical and preferrable. There's no need to perform a full synchronization when all you want to do is move a file or two to the device.
You can easily install new applications to the Zaurus. I downloaded the OpieReader book reader, transferred it to the device, and used the Add/Remove Software application to install it with no trouble. I found a great collection of applications at http://killefiz.de/zaurus/, a less comprehensive repository at zaurus.loveslinux.com, and a suite of commerical products at theKompany.com. Add-on applications are in the ipkg packaging format and carry a file type of .ipk.
Under the applications is a fully functional and highly customizable version of Linux, Embedix Plus PDA, based on the 2.4.18 Linux kernel. It's really Linux -- you can enter terminal commands if you install the terminal application from the product's installation CD.
The hardware itself is pretty impressive. Built around a 400MHz Intel Xscale processor (twice as fast as its predecessor, the SL-5500), its subjective speed is comparable to the HP iPaq 3835 running Pocket PC 2002 on a 206MHz StrongARM CPU. Internal memory at 96MB is more than adequate, and the Zaurus offers built-in expansion slots for both Secure Digital and CompactFlash memory cards. A 1700mAh lithium-ion battery gave me enough power to get through a day of fairly heavy usage, but wouldn't go much longer without recharging. The 240x320 backlit screen displays images crisply in 65,536 colors.
Below the screen are the typical four hardware buttons for invoking applications, which can be customized and mapped to other applications. There's also a Home button that takes you to where you'd expect, cycling through the five Home screens that show all the available applications and the file manager. You move the cursor by pressing on a ring that circle a Select button. On the right and left of the cursor keys are OK and Cancel buttons, the latter of which also acts as the On/Off switch.
The Zaurus, like RIM's BlackBerry, offers a tiny built-in keyboard that's accessible by sliding down the lower part of the device. I found the keyboard keys too tiny for speedy touch-typing. I couldn't type any faster than I could pick out words on a screen image of a keyboard with the stylus, and since you need to use the stylus (or a fingernail) for many operations on the touchscreen, I didn't find much value in the keyboard. The one place it came in most handy was in editing document, where using the Shift key and tapping the end of a long section of text let me easily select large sections of a document to format or delete.
Because the Zaurus can hold its own against Pocket PC devices (and beats the pants off PalmOS), a potential user's subjective reaction is probably the deciding factor in what PDA to purchase. I found Zaurus's form factor, which is slightly narrower and longer than that of an iPaq, to be more comfortable, and its hardware button layout is the best of any handheld device I've tested. But the Pocket PC platform has a wider variety of ebook readers and a broader assortment of available third-party applications.
With a list price of $499 and a street price as low as $445 the Zaurus SL-5600 is in the same price range as new Pocket PCs. I'd like to see Sharp offer a low-end Zaurus without the keyboard and one of the memory expansion slots, but with a built-in 802.11b network adapter, at an aggressive price. That kind of networked handheld could make a lot of customers happy.