Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 Review

by Ian Reads (142,621)

Review of Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 from Dynamism
reviewed for bargainPDA by Ian Giblin

Introduction

The new Zaurus SL-C3000 from Sharp is a linux-based PDA incorporating an Intel XScale PXA270 CPU at 416 MHz. It has a 640 by 480 pixel screen and is physically quite similar to the previous Zaurus clamshell models, the main difference being that it has a 4 GB hard drive built in. That’s quite a step forward and delivers speed and mass Storage at a price which would be very hard to match in Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) format.


The Zaurus SL-C3000 in various configurations

Our review device was kindly provided by Dynamism, who import and customise these devices and many others. They add value by converting the Japanese device to English and providing technical support and a warranty programme.

Contents

The “front page” of this review, which you’re looking at now, carries the introduction, features and conclusions, while mid-sections will open in separate pages for anyone wanting a full in-depth analysis.

The content sections of this review are listed below.

Hardware:

Software:

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Packaging

The SL-C3000 comes in a simple cardboard box with no clear plastic window. Just a few pictures of the device and some Japanese writing. The packaging is simple, light and easily recyclable.

Inside the box is the PDA (which Sharp would prefer we call a Personal Mobile Tool) securely positioned with cardboard spacers, USB connector (not a cradle), power supply, CD-ROM, manual (in Japanese), another shorter booklet which looks like the quick-start guide, and what looks like a registration card. Just about the only English text on this documentation was the Zaurus name and numerous references to ezaurus.com, the Japanese support site which does have some cool animations.

First Impressions

The Zaurus SL-C3000 is a beautiful piece of hardware. The build quality is very high, there are no gaps or rough edges, all the parts move the way they should and there were no dead pixels on the screen. The C3000 is on the left in the picture below (click for the unscaled original):


The Zaurus SL-C3000 (left) and its predecessor, the C860

These devices are smaller than they might appear in the pictures; in fact they each fit almost perfectly across a CD or DVD (5 1/4 inches).

You can see some of the differences between the C3000 and the C860 here; the design is chunkier and the keyboard is constructed differently – the C860 has a membrane-type keyboard, albeit a very good one, whereas the C3000 keyboard is built from individual plastic keys. Also, the screen on the C3000 recesses into the keyboard slightly, which does make the unit feel more solid when closed, with the screen either outward- or inward-facing.

The new C3000 Zaurus is a little heavier than the C860, which I’ve been using for a year, and I think it’s at the point where you need to replace your jacket pocket with some sort of belt pouch or shoulder holster. The 4 GB hard drive, the main selling point of this version, seems to be fast, almost completely silent and the device doesn’t feel any different to use, versus my other Zaurus which has no HD. It is nice to have a hard drive light blinking while things are happening; this type of feedback is something I miss when using only CF cards.

The instant-on capability of this PDA is one of the characteristics which sets it apart from the smaller PC compatible devices like the OQO, and that feature is still present in the C3000 – it doesn’t seem to have been compromised by the hard drive. In fact one of the advantages of the HD is that it is not “umnounted” in suspend mode the way Compact Flash cards are.

Initially I felt that Sharp had sold out the the iPod crowd a little with this design, but that’s not really the case. There’s nothing wrong with having some cosmetic details (case colour, typeface, rounded edges) in common with something as nicely designed as an iPod. Not to mention the fact that “the iPod crowd” is forecast to approach 100% of the world’s population around Christmas 2005.

With my own Zaurus C860, I have really tried to leverage its power to let me write Word documents, manage my contacts, write perl and C++ code and listen to MP3s, and I haven’t regretted the choice of platform. The fact that none of the Clamshell Zaurus models come with built-in Wi-Fi is still frustrating – some people argue that the design leaves the users’ options open, but I am within Wi-Fi coverage for all but about 2 hours each day and I’d like to have instant net access without having to swap out a CF card (I’m not quite annoyed enough to gvie up my Zaurus, though).

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Features

  • XScale PXA270 CPU at 416MHz
  • 640×480 transreflective touch screen, 3.7″ diagonal, backlit
  • 4 GB internal hard drive (3.6 GB formatted, 2.9 GB available as shipped)
  • 64 MB SDRAM (for running applications)
  • 16 MB Internal Flash (for Storage of OS [?])
  • USB host capability, albeit not well supported
  • Weight 298g, Size 128x87x24 mm
  • Compact Flash (CF-II) and Secure Digital (SD) expansion slots
  • Infra-Red port
  • 3.5mm stereo audio out, plus small built-in speaker
  • Landscape/Clamshell or portrait style, hot-switchable
  • Full QWERTY keyboard with bonus Japanese characters
  • Operating System: Linux kernel 2.4.20 from Lineo
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI): Qtopia 1.5.4 from Trolltech
  • Suite of Personal Information Management (PIM) applications
  • Hancom Mobile Office
  • Broad compatibility with established Sharp Zaurus software base

Linux users might be interested in the details of the installation so I have dumped some of it in these text files:

The table below summarises the features of key members of the Sharp Zaurus range, plus a very rough indication of their current prices. Links will open the BargainPDA reviews where available.

Zaurus CPU Screen Released Availability Price
SL-5500 SA-110, 206MHz 240 320 March 2002 USA $100-$200
SL-5600 PXA250 or PXA255, 400MHz 240 320 March 2003 USA $150-$300
SL-C750
SL-C760
SL-C860
PXA255, 400MHz 640 480 June 2003
June 2003
Nov. 2003
Import $600-$750
SL-6000 PXA255, 400MHz 480 640 March 2004 USA $400
SL-C3000 PXA270, 416MHz 640 480 Dec 2004 Import $600-$900

Note that although I’ve listed the SL-6000 at $400, it seems to have been discontinued as a consumer device.

Just so you know where I stand, I fell in love with the clamshell design when I reviewed the C750, but I’d bought an SL-5600 only a few months before and I couldn’t justify the price of the imported clamshell models to get one for myself at that time. Since then, my wife went to Japan on a business trip and bought me the C860 for 58,000 Yen, approximately $540. I chose to “flash the ROM” myself to convert it, but if that sounds at all scary, it isn’t; see the discussions on the Zaurus User Group for details. Just be aware that [at the time of writing this review] this type of conversion is not yet possible on the C3000 because none of the custom ROMs have been made available yet.

I tested the C3000 using an SMC Wi-Fi card (SMC2642W), a Viking 512 MB Compact Flash card, and a SanDisk 64 MB Secure Digital card. There were no compatibility problems.

For more details, follow the links in the contents table.

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Conclusion

This is a beautifully designed and built device with a solid, versatile OS. The translation from Japanese is not 100%, but the main things missing are help files and some address book functionality. The Windows connectivity was a bit of a problem for this reviewer, but should not be for most people. Overall, the software which ships with the C3000 is beginning to look quite dated.

For my part, if I lost or broke my Zaurus C860 today, I would buy one of these to replace it almost without hesitation. The “almost” is because I have upgraded the ROM on my C860 using Cacko ROM 1.21 and it was such an improvement that I’m not sure I could go back to the retail ROM. If I didn’t buy a C3000 I would get another C860.

The lack of built-in Wi-Fi or BlueTooth may be an issue for some users, but if you’re prepared to add your own CF Wi-Fi card the networking is silky smooth and the outstanding 640×480 screen turns this into the ultimate couch (or street) surfing accessory. Above and beyond what many people expect from a PDA, if you need to edit Word or Excel documents, this device comes close to putting laptop power in your hand.

Everyone has their own idea of the perfect PDA. If your most important requirement is the PIM functionality, this is probably not the device for you. If Office and OpenOffice compatibility, networking (including browsing the web), programming or any kind of image viewing are high on your priority list, this is an excellent choice, but be prepared to do some customisation – including perhaps paying for some third party software – to really leverage the power.

Pros

  • 4 GB hard drive gives plenty of space
  • Excellent screen, very high defnition
  • Rugged build does not compromise on style
  • Full QWERTY keyboard of a nice size
  • Fast, responsive OS and applications
  • Nice USB connection, doesn’t need a cradle
  • USB host capability gives large potential
  • Can function as an external USB hard drive
  • High level of office compatibility out of the box
  • Network setup is a breeze
  • Can sync with Outlook for email and contacts
  • Hot-switchable landscape/portrait works nicely
  • Excellent battery life

Cons (General)

  • Lacks BlueTooth, Wi-Fi, microphone and SDIO
  • Screen is hard to read in direct sunlight
  • Some ambiguity over what Zaurus software will run on it
  • USB hard drive feature may by tricky to set up
  • PIM apps are adequate, nothing more
  • A few gaps in the linux software stable
  • Not well suited for left-handed use
  • No games in the retail build
  • Not exactly a bargain PDA
Cons (Translation-related)
  • Incomplete OS translation from Japanese to English
  • The bundled PC software is pretty scary to use

The Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 can be purchased from Dynamism, currently priced at $819.

Footnote: After discussing the translation issues with Dynamism Support, they told me that you can use the command reconv as the super-user to completely convert the device to English as well as enlarge the fonts. I tried it and it works, resulting in a far more readable display. It also removes the confusing Japanese character translation tool from the icon bar. The address book is still hard to use, and the video player has unreadable menus, but apart from these issues the C3000 is effectively now an English Language unit.


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