April 3, 2002

Sharp Zaurus PDA has all kind of potential, but some small problems

- By David Cafaro -

I've been playing with my new Linux-powered Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 PDA since last Thursday and I wanted to pass along my impressions so far. First off, I have to say this is the coolest little gadget since sliced bread. I have lived with a Palm IIIx for almost three years as my steadfast companion, but this device just blows my mind with its potential.

Secondly, I have to say that the Zaurus is far from perfect. There are
"gotchas" a-plenty that I will elaborate on later.

Hardware

The best description of this PDA is that it's a Linux laptop that
fits in one hand. With its hardware, it's pretty well set:

The 206MHz ARM processor seems to hold up well. I only lost one application.
Playing MP3s, with the text editor open, terminal window open, file
browser open, Hancom Word open, and address book open, caused the MP3
player to close. Oh well, I just closed the text editor and started the
MP3's again.

It has 64MB RAM and 16MB ROM. The OS loads out of ROM into RAM so you have about 24MB of free "memory" and 32 MB of free "storage" with the OS using the
rest.

Compact Flash type-two slot that accepts CF memory cards (officially
up to 384MB, unofficially a lot more), micro-drives (yes, IBM 1GB
micro-drives have been reported running, as well as Iomega CF drives),
LAN cards, WLAN cards, wireless modem cards, and more to come.

Secure digital card slot that also accepts multimedia cards, though
not officially, for memory (up to 128MB right now), with other types
(Bluetooth in the works) coming eventually.

It has an IR port that you can use to beam to another Zaurus as well as other PDA
types. So far, I have tested it with my Palm IIIx, and it seemed to
transfer pretty well (thank goodness, otherwise migration would have
sucked). The IR port is on the side, which is a little odd for me, but
so far it has worked out well when transmitting stuff from my Palm.

"Stereo out" jack for headphones. (Headphones are sold separately.)
The unit has decent sound, though I would prefer better bass (probably an MP3 issue;
I ripped the MP3s to 64 bit so I could fit a whole CD onto the Zaurus).

A Piezo speaker does a good job of making beeps (a full fledged
speaker would have been nice).

Mono line in for a microphone. (You have to provide your own microphone.)

Stylus that has plastic tips and a metal body, with a decent feel.

240x320x16 Color TFT touch screen with a back-light, good brightness,
fairly easy to see in general lighting conditions. A little hard to
read in full sunlight outside, but very easy to read in the dark.
The quality is great, jpegs look great!

The front buttons all have a good feel to them, and the rocker/select
button is very nice -- you can navigate through menus, selections, etc., by
pressing the rocker up, down, left or right, and selecting each item with
the center button.

The slide-out qwerty keyboard is a very nice feature, though I'm still
getting used to it. It is nice to be able to type away, but I have to
train myself to use the little keys. The keys have a good feel to
them, though it would have been nice if they were more rubbery so the
stylus could be used to type with them. The keyboard is laid out more
for PIM usage than for Linux console usage, but you can access the
CTRL-C, pipe and other keys through key combinations.

The Li-Ion battery seems to hold up well. I haven't really done a run
test to see how long it lasts, but I'm planning on getting a charger and
dock for the office as well as the one at home. I have doubts that
serious use (I commute by train so one hour of MP3 playing in the
morning and one hour in the evening, plus general office use) will probably
drain the battery before I make it home at the end of the day. Better
safe than sorry, but it's just a lot different from the month-long battery use I
got out of my Palm IIIx.

Software

This thing covers all the software basics. Navigation is very easy,
and everything is clear and uncluttered. There are five major groups:
apps, games, jeode (java apps), settings, and documents, for all files that
aren't applications. You can navigate to each easily with the
buttons on the front of the Zaurus, or using the touch screen. The menu
bar at the bottom of the screen gives you easy access to time, volume
control, battery status, external card status, network status,
application switching, and a start button. Again, it's all laid out to
make it pretty easy to get around and do stuff; there's no confusion.

The address book can store just about any info you need; it has lots of fields,
customizable categories, quick look-up using the keyboard (start typing
the name into the keyboard and it starts matching a search). I do
wish it had more customizable fields, though the fields it has cover
just about everything. Also would like to have the ability to jump to a
category with one or maybe two taps, but instead you have to go three taps
and a slider bar.

The calendar covers the basics: events, categories, notes, alarms,
repeat event etc. Unfortunately, you can only set the alarm to go off
in X number of minutes, there is no day/month/year choice. (How am I going to
know when birthdays are coming?). I have yet to figure out how to
delete an event that is a "yearly recurring" on the Zaurus. Every time
I try to delete one it says okay, but the event is still there. The only way I
have been able to get rid of a repeating event is to delete on the
desktop software and sync with the PDA. Ugghhhh.

Notes: Think Gedit but even more basic, but it works nice.

Email: I haven't used this yet, because I haven't purchased a network card for
the Zaurus yet. And I have no need to sync with my real email app on the
desktop. It's supposed to support POP, IMAP, SMTP.

Hancom PDA Office: This is supposed to let you read and write MS
Office documents such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. I haven't really
played with this much (I don't do office stuff often), but Hancom Word
seemed to be laid out nice, and the text was easy enough to read.

Input devices: You can input with an on-screen keyboard, a pick
keyboard, or handwriting recognition. The handwriting recognition is
pretty good, I just have to un-teach myself Palm Graffiti.

Other apps include CityTime (program in your favorite cities to get
their local time quick), Opera (haven't played with that yet), Media
Player (MP3s and Mpeg1 movie playback, very nice, I love this!), a to-do
list, a few games (Asteroids, Go, Mindbreaker, etc.; all look great),
and Java app support -- there's not much written in this department yet, though there
are several in the pipe.

Software that I have downloaded and installed include a file manager
(looks a little like gmc from Gnome), and a terminal window (hey it's
Linux -- I need my command line). There are other apps as well, like an
http server and OpenSSH, but I just haven't needed them yet.
There isn't nearly as much software out there as for Palm or PocketPC,
but hopefully that will change soon. I, for one, have two programs I plan
on writing myself: a password manager and some kind of firewall (more
on firewall later).

The sync software, the good

The Zaurus comes with two kinds of sync software: Qtopia Desktop and
Intellisync. The Intellisync is for syncing with MS Outlook, and because
I don't run Outlook, I can't tell you anything about that. The
Qtopia Desktop I do run; it's basically the same thing as Palm's Desktop
software. I had no trouble setting it up with Windows 2k. I followed
the directions, and it hooked up no problem. Setting up the Linux
version was a little more difficult. The Windows version comes with the
Zaurus on CD, the Linux version I had to download from Trolltech. They
screwed up and put the Win32 install instructions in the .tgz file
instead of the Linux instructions, so I had to go download an older
version to get the correct install instructions.

Mandrake 8.2 almost
recognized the Zaurus from scratch. When you plug in the Zaurus, it is recognized
as a USB device, and Mandrake tries to load the driver for it.
Unfortunately, it loads the wrong driver. Messing around with
modules.usbmap I changed a couple of values for the usbdnet driver and
now Mandrake loads up the correct driver. I added an ifcfg-usb0 file in
the network-scripts directory, and now I have a hot-plugable
interface. The Qtopia Desktop hooked up, no problem, and I was able to
sync from the Zaurus to my Linux desktop without any trouble.

The sync software, the bad

The Qtopia Desktop software is flaky. I would not recommend this setup
to a novice PDA user. It is possible that my impression is influenced by my coming out of a Palm-based world, but the software doesn't seem to work the way I would
expect it too when syncing. I have twice lost significant amounts of
address entries or calendar entries do to syncing issues. I have found
that the only way I can reliably enter stuff is to leave the sync
software on "PDA overrides desktop." When entering lots of data in
the desktop side, I then manually switch it to "desktop overrides PDA," do
a sync, then back to "PDA overrides desktop."

The issues mostly come up
when you enter stuff on the desktop or change things on the
desktop while there are already similar entries on the PDA. It
doesn't handle this well. For this reason, I would say this setup is not
for the general consumer. Only people who know how to be careful should
use it. The Intellisync software may be better, but again, I haven't
tested it. The Linux version I have was just
released this weekend (it's listed as a beta version).

Miscellaneous issues

There is one major security issue: The version of Linux the
Zaurus runs does not come with support for IPtables or IPchains. This
wouldn't be horrible (it actually disables a lot of the normal daemons
that are problems) except for one screw-up. Someone decided to use FTP
as the syncing software's conduit, and even better, it logs in as root
with no password! So the qpe daemon (which is the Zaurus GUI interface)
also has an ftp daemon running on port 4242 with root login and no
password, and it is bound to all ports, all IP addresses! The Zaurus
comes with tcpwrappers, but qpe doesn't run through that, so if you
hook the Zaurus up to a network, root file read/write access is
available to all. You can set a root password, which at least puts a
password into the mix, but reports are that it kills the sync ability (I
haven't investigated this yet).

At the moment, this isn't a terrible
issue for me, because I'm using my Zaurus as a PDA without an Internet/external
network connection for now. But because I plan on purchasing a network
card for it, I also plan on figuring out some way to firewall this thing
off from the outside world.

Summary

The Zaurus is a great hardware device with some minor and major software
issues. I would recommend this device to Linux and computer-savvy
people who want a very flexible PDA, with warnings about the
potential issues. Most of these issues can be avoided with some care.

This is a new product, and like many new products it has bugs. I hope
these bugs will be fixed quickly, and given the Open Source nature of
the device, this should be possible. It would be a shame for a couple of
stupid mistakes to ruin the Zaurus potential. I'm happy with my
purchase, and look forward to putting this little beast to some hardcore
sysadmin/programming work!

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