April 12, 2001

VR3: Linux handheld has potential but still needs work before release

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

I was excited to have a new toy when the review copy of the Linux-powered Agenda Computing VR3 arrived at my doorstep recently. I have to admit that I've never played much with a PDA before; I work mostly from home, my appointment book is made from dead trees, and my email address book is provided by the fine folks at Yahoo!

I've seen the reviews of the VR3 on brighthand.com and LinuxHardware.org, and the reviews have been, at best, mixed. Brighthand said the unit's a "sow's ear" that's been rushed to market, and LinuxHardware.org said it's "well designed and a joy to use."

So is brighthand.com being overly pessimistic about an Open Source product as some in the mainstream press have been lately, or is LinuxHardware.org cheering too strongly for the home-town team? My experience so far with the VR3 is somewhere in the middle, although I share of the of same frustrations as the brighthand reviewer.

The evening I received the review copy of the VR3, my girlfriend and I put it in its spiffy little leather case and took it out to dinner with us. It booted up after cycling through a Linux start-up menu, and we played with the handheld for about 20 minutes. Although the default contrast was a little hard to read, the VR3 seemed to work smoothly after the first start up; programs booted fairly quickly, and we were able to play the VR3's version of Minesweeper while waiting for a table at the local Tex-Mex joint.

But the handheld locked up after about 20 minutes, and we weren't able to get it rebooted until I removed the batteries.

Since then, my experience with the VR3 has been mostly frustrating -- frustration over things that don't seem to work right and frustration over what could have been (and, to be fair, what still may be).

After Agenda Computing sent the review machine, it followed up with an email explaining about 30 bugs that the company was working on and promised to have fixed by the time the VR3 ships for customers April 23. The final version of the Agenda Linux OS is expected to be available for download April 17.

The bug list has a bunch of stuff, things that could easy get overlooked in a company's rush to get a product out the door. Among the bugs are things like no scroll up or down function in the notes program, and the sort order broken in the expenses program. Most of it's small stuff, but small stuff adds up in a customer's experience, so here's hoping Agenda does have these things fixed as promised.

A bigger issue that Agenda Computing didn't ship the the QuickSync software with the CD that came with the VR3. "The developers are finalizing it as we speak," emailed Agenda's P.R. person. "I can tell you that Brad LaRonde, our president and CEO, has tested the software and says that it works great." I'd like to tell you it works great, but I can't, although Agenda promises the VR3 will sync with Outlook, Outlook Express, Goldmine, Act, Palm OS, and Lotus Notes, plus the Linux applications K Organizer and Gnome PIM.

The most annoying issue by far is the frequent lockups, which seem to happen when I'm trying to launch a program using the VR3's graphical LaunchPad. The LaunchPad -- which is one of three ways to launch programs -- seems to work spottily at best, and the lockups seem to happen when I make multiple selections on the LaunchPad. I haven't discovered a consistent way to solve the lockups other than removing the batteries and completely rebooting. Even turning the VR3 off and back on again usually doesn't help; it often returns you to the locked up screen.

I asked my Agenda Computing P.R. contact about the lockups, and she emailed me a conversation between herself and James Smith, Agenda's senior developer. Smith said fequent lockups might be a faulty unit, but the VR3 can also slow down if a user has several applications running at one time.

Smith said he normally has five or six applications running on a VR3 with full batteries before it starts to slow down. Applications do launch slowly, so I may have had several applications running during what I thought was a lockup, but it's still annoying.

A more minor complaint I have is with the VR3's documentation; while the documentation takes you through the basic start-up procedure, there are several buttons on the unit that aren't explained anywhere that I can find. I haven't figured out what a couple of those buttons do yet.

The VR3 comes with a wallet-sized leather case, two styluses (or is that styli?) batteries, a synch cradle and cable, and a small headset. The documentation explains that the VR3 can record and play back audio, although it gives no instructions on how to do so. VR3 users can also purchase optional keyboards and modems.

The VR3 has a 66MHz 32-bit NEC VR4181 MIPS processor and comes with 8MB RAM and 16MB flash memory. With that kind of memory, the VR3 should be able to store 85,000 to-do items, 2,000 notes, 9,500 contacts, 4,500 appointments, and 500 emails. The VR3 runs on two AAA batteries, with expected battery life of six to eight hours. The unit weighs four ounces without batteries, and it comes in three colors, matrix (black), shark (aqua) and H2O (clear).

As an early entry into the Linux handhelds market, the VR3 will face some large expectations. It's a cute little device, with the leather case, about the size of a large men's wallet, but the cute needs to be backed up with performance. Agenda Computing promises the problems are being fixed and the synch software is on the way. Right now, I couldn't recommend spending $249 on the device without seeing the bug fixes and sync software, but I might change my mind after the new version of the Agenda Linux OS comes out. This handheld has potential. I'm hoping Agenda Computing can fix those things that are holding it back.

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