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Sharp Zaurus SL-5600 Review by Ian Giblin



The new Zaurus SL-5600 from Sharp is a linux-based PDA with a 400MHz Intel XScale (PXA250) CPU. The street price is currently around $500 for the SL-5600. Sharp calls these devices Personal Mobile Tools, and if it were up to me I'd call the Zaurus, say, an "Ultra-Light Computer", but I'll use the term PDA here. The 5600 is an upgraded version of the 5500 which has been widely available for over a year, and the appearance is almost identical including the distinctive miniature keyboard which hides behind the quick button panel. The Zaurus is a very feature-rich device with plenty of power and expandability.

The only aspect I haven't tested to my satisfaction is wireless networking; I'll add a section in a week or so covering this, or treat it as a separate review of the wireless CF card I've ordered. The sections of this review are listed below:

Packaging

The SL-5600 comes in a simple cardboard box with no clear plastic window. Just a few colour pictures of the device, the basic specs, and the clever Zaurus logo which looks like the Zorro logo from the old TV show. You gotta love those marketing guys. I was pleased that the packaging is simple, light and easily recyclable.

Inside the box is the PDA securely positioned with cardboard spacers, cradle, power supply, CD-ROM, a printed 100-page Quick Start manual, plus a fold-out summary for those of us without the patience for Quick Start Manuals. The full 200-page User Manual is on the CD-ROM (along with a lot of other documentation) as a PDF file, which you can read on the PDA but it takes a long time to open and is largely redundant due to a very extensive built-in help system. (back to contents)

Design and Features

The main casing is a light, hard, silvery grey plastic with a non-reflective finish. The device weighs 8 oz (230g) and measures 2.5 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches. That's slightly thinner and taller than the Dell Axim. The Zaurus design is very Sharp... er, I mean angular. None of your curvacious PDA design here, it's all corners. The picture below shows you the front view, with the transparent screen cover down. Click here for a high resolution version of the second image.

     small picture of the Zaurus SL-5600

Below the screen are seven quick buttons which match the case, and the cursor pad is made from a shiny plastic and provides directional control plus a central "select" button. The five buttons above the cursor pad allow quick access to (from left to right) the Calendar, Contact List, Home Pages (link), Menu and Email. These buttons are customizable. Larger Cancel and OK buttons are on the left and right of the pad; these are roughly equivalent to the Close icon OK buttons on the screen but have extended functionality and the Close button can be customised. Separate LEDs below the screen indicate when new email has arrived and when the battery is charging.

On the right of the body are the Infra-Red (IR) port, the Secure Digital (SD) socket and the microphone. At the top are the stereo headphone jack, an anchor point for a wrist strap, the Compact Flash (CF) socket and the stylus. There are no ports on the right side of the device. The SD card socket does not support the Secure Digital "copyright protection" feature. The only feature I'd say is missing from the Zaurus in the current marketplace is integrated Wi-Fi; you could add a CF card but other devices (e.g. the Toshiba e750) already offer Wi-Fi without sacrificing a CF or SD slot.

I did accidentally press the buttons a few times while the Zaurus was in my pocket (acting as an MP3 player), so a "lock" button would have been a nice addition. This problem might be solved with a good carrying case.

Overall the build quality is good but this is not a rugged device by any stretch. With the screen cover open and the keyboard exposed, I don't think you could drop this far without pretty seriously damaging it. I got the feeling that I could use an iPaq, with its metallic case, to hammer nails and it would still work fine. Not so with the Zaurus. (back to contents)

Display

The screen is a 3.5" diagonal, 240x320 16-bit (65000 colour) display. The clarity and contrast are excellent, the colour rendering is great too and is not done justice by these screenshots which are produced using a software tool to save BMP files. The application icons use colour very well and web pages in Opera look fine, as do photographs opened in the image viewer.

The screen has a fold-down cover of tough clear plastic. The cover can be easily removed but won't fall off. In carrying my Zaurus in my pocket for a week I didn't pick up any significant scratches on this fold-down cover.

The light (which is a front light rather than a backlight) can be switched on or off and the brightness has four settings. This is one area I which could be a lot better; the light just isn't bright enough for all situations. I compared the Zaurus to a Dell Axim and an iPaq 3670 and found both to have far brighter lights. I didn't actually have any trouble using either of the three indoors during tests, but outside the Zaurus was at a disadvantage. On the other hand, in direct sunlight where you can switch off the light completely and use reflected light, all three were perfectly usable, with the Zaurus possibly having and advantage due to it's more crisp display. Just don't expect to use the Zaurus as a flashligt, as you can with some other PDAs. (back to contents)

Stylus

The stylus is pretty standard, plain black plastic, with a good click when it fits into its home on the right side of the device. There is no danger of the stylus falling out. It is quite uncomfortable to remove with the left hand, and also a little short for left handed use. What am I talking about? Well, most of the precision action on a PDA happens on the right hand side of the screen. Closing windows, scrolling up or down, etc.; all right-handed. A right handed user can rest their hand on the right edge of their PDA and accurately reach the scroll bar, but a leftie has to reach right across the screen, without touching it. I know some of you are thinking "what a whiner!" but spare a thought for the one in seven people who has to use all these intrinsically right-handed devices. The programmability of the Zaurus might even allow someone like me to stop complaining and actually do something about it - e.g. by allowing the window furniture to be horizontally reflected. Let's hope so. (back to contents)

Comparison to SL-5500 (the previous model)

The SL-5600 sports a number of improvements over its predecessor. Visually the only difference from the front is that the previously frosted folding screen cover is now completely transparent and has lost the Zaurus logo (which now doesn't appear anywhere on the device). This small change has made a large difference: With the transparent cover down, you can't touch the screen with the stylus, but the Zaurus itself is almost completely usable through the keyboard, cursor pad and shortcut keys. I say "almost" because a few high-level tasks still seem to require touching something on the screen; one example is switching between applications, or switching back to an app if you accidentally press the Home button; this requires that you click their icon on the icon bar at the bottom of the screen.

The other physical changes are the bigger battery compartment (don't expect to share your old 5500 cradle with the 5600 - it won't fit) and the addition of a proper speaker which is in the back and will be just above your right index finger in normal operation. The rear half of the case is now dark plastic. (back to contents)

OS and Basic Navigation

The underlying Operating System is linux, but at the top level looks like any PDA OS.

The main functionality is organised into five "Home Pages": Applications, Games, Jeode (Java applications), Settings and Files. These can be customised and edited, including a custom icon from a choice of what looks like hundreds. I added a page called Ian's and moved the terminal client and extended file manager to the new page very easily. You'll see this as the fourth tab in the screenshot, with the "tux" icon (the linux penguin). The picture on the left is a GIF animation of six frames which should change once every 2 seconds on your browser, equivalent to pressing the Home button on the Zaurus each time.

a cylcling display of the home pages     the menu and media player

The Home Pages (with the exception of the basic File Manager) are also accessible through the Q icon in the bottom left of the screen, which acts like a Start button. Any customization of the Home Pages is reflected in the menu structure. I like this feature a lot and have already started to use it in preference over the larger tabbed windows. The second picture above shows what I mean (I moved ToDo and Address Book from the main page to the Ian page between taking those screenshots). In the background is the media player, which is discussed later.

The system overall is very responsive and feels a lot faster than a 400MHz Axim running Pocket PC 2002. This is just a subjective judgement. You can change the theme of the interface easily and the differences are significant but not Earth-shattering. I ended up choosing a theme that just uses a small font, minimal design and fits as much as possible on the screen and menus. (back to contents)

Memory

Total memory on the device is 96MB, divided between 64MB of Flash Memory (for storage of programs and the OS) and 32 MB of SDRAM, i.e. program data memory. In real usage this translates, for me, into somthing like the following (these numbers are from the Zaurus System Info applet)

Total Memory: 29888kB internal storage, 18956kB used.

Internal Flash total 35840kB, 10736kB used.

So, of my 64MB Flash Memory, approximately half has been used up by the OS (hence the 35840) and of the remainder, I have used up about one third. This is after installing GCC (6 MB) and a large game (4 MB) so it makes sense.

I managed to legitimately max out the memory a few times by loading Brians Sony Clie PEG-NZ90 review into the Opera browser and editing this review at the same time, plus playing MP3s. When you hit the top, passive apps (e.g. the web browser) will quit automatically if they're in the background and do not have unsaved data. In normal usage, I did not encounter the memory limit. (back to contents)

Keyboard

The mini keyboard is probably the most eye-catching part of the Zaurus. The keyboard normally hides behind the button pad, which slides up and down by a distance of about 25mm. With the keyboard exposed, the top edge of the button pad provides a sort of thumb rest which I found very comfortable. The keys provide good tactile feedback as well as an optional audio click, and the majority of key operations are easily carried out. Shift and Function keys allow you to access numbers, symbols and so on. Hopefully you can see the character set in the first picture. Yet more characters are accessible through undocumented shortcuts, for example { and } curly brackets come from holding down Fn and Shift before pressing < and > respectively. Other subtle features include just Fn-C which is equivalent to Ctrl-C on a normal keyboard, with the same for X and V. These usefully provide Cut, Copy and Paste functions in most editors. Incidentally: to learn about these or any other undocumented (or badly documented) features, try putting "Zaurus FAQ" into Google. (back to contents)

Other Input Options

Aside from the keyboard there are also four stylus-based methods: Handwriting, On-screen Keyboard, Pickboard and Unicode.

Handwriting recognition is excellent although you may need to train it for one or two characters. For example, I write the letter 'o' with a clockwise circle, but the Zaurus offers no match at all to that. If I remember to write it anti-clockwise, it works fine. Alternatively there is a powerful 'trainer' accessible by touching a button on the right of the handwriting pad, which lets you watch the expected stylus strokes for each symbol and if necessary retrain the system. I have done this with the 'o' which now works every time, and I just learned how to write the 'k' which was also not being recognised.

The Pickboard has two components; a picker for single characters and another which tries to guess your words as you select successive letters in groups of three. The word matcher is a nice idea but the dictionary is rather inadequate; for example it lets me type "select" with five keystrokes (that is, it offers the word after "sele") but won't help me with "successive". It knows the word "synonyms" but not "antonyms". Given that it is most useful for long words, I would have hoped for a few more. Also if you happen to accidentally double-click a letter group it really gets confused and the pickboard needs to be reset. The pickboard may be useful for some special characters just because its screen footprint is very small, but some pickable keys such as Page Up and Page Down, don't actually do anything.

The tappable keyboard hardly offers any advantage over the phsical keyboard and it takes up a lot of space, but might be needed for some special keys like Alt.

Unicode gives you access to a standardised, expandable character set in tabular form; the three sets selectable on the retail SL-5600 are "Basic Latin", "Latin-1 Supplement" (international characters etc.) and "Currency Symbols" . (back to contents)

Software (overview)

Out of the box, the SL-5600 offers 15 applications (if you count the Help Browser), 7 games, 2 Java demonstration programs, and a Settings page with 15 icons.

The Jeode Java applications seem a little out of place; they're completely useless except as demonstrations. It would have been nice to see a real Java applicaton instead of an infinite number of coloured circles (no kidding, this really is what one of the apps does, pretty much). Clearly these are meant as demonstrations, but if they are to encourage Java programmers then they are out of place; they should have been left on the CD as optional extras. (back to contents)

Personal Information Management (PIM) Tools

The basic PIM tools are the Calendar, Address Book and ToDo List. These all seem to me to be very capable and will sync with Outlook or Qtopia Desktop on your PC.

The Calendar allows a day, week, month and year view and you can set up reminders, repeating events, and so on. In the month view you can have a text format (which soon gets crowded) or graphical, which uses colour coded stripes to show events. This works well.

The Address book is pretty standard - adding, deleting an editing entries is easy. You can choose which fields appear on the list and their order, as well as the overall sort order. The display uses colour very well. Also, when typing in a numerical field such as a phone number, the keyboard "knows" you want to type numbers, so there's no need to keep pressing, say, Fn-Q to get number 1, you can just press Q. Sounds trivial but it helps a lot.

Contacts can be beamed back and forth between the Zaurus and any other IR-capable PDA easily, although only one at a time from what I could tell, using .vcf files. I tested the IR beaming with the iPaq 3670 and Dell Axim, it worked fine. I was hoping that I'd be able to hold the Zaurus near a telephone and have it tone-dial a number for me, but it can't do that. (back to contents)

Office Tools

Hancom Word provides word processing and compatibility with Microsoft Word, Hancom Sheet does the same for Microsoft Excel. Both of these office apps performed very well and offer a remarkable breadth of functionality. I'm writing this review using Hancom Word, and the only problem is the lack of spell checker. The Zaurus knows spelling in at least two other contexts - the Word Game and the Pickboard - so the dictionaries are there, but you can't get at them in Hancom Word.

If you need to load a large Excel file you will really appreciate the SL-5600's 400MHz processor and it handles all this with ease. I loaded a 400kB spreadsheet, using about a dozen separate worksheets (many interconnected), with no trouble at all, although the window furniture can be a large overhead if your spreadsheet uses multiple panes. Actually editing a spreadsheet and doing serious work would probably be a challenge given the limited keyboard, but it could be done. You can zoom the view out but, not surprisingly, it quickly becomes unreadable. The only other complaint I have with the office tools is the lack of import and export options. You can't load or save HTML in Hancom Word, and you can't load or save comma-separated (CSV) files in Hancom Sheet, for example. I also once came across a situation where the cursor in Word would not move down even though there was text under it. Tapping below the cursor fixed it. I mention this because it is the only bug or anything like it that I could find in any of the Zaurus apps, which is pretty impressive. (back to contents)

Other Tools

Image Pad is an image manipulator and slideshow tool which also lets you create hand-written notes using the stylus; you can fit an 8 or 10 item handwritten shopping list on the screen, although you might just find a pen and paper better suited to that task. Image Pad can load a variety of image formats but always saves as PNG.

The Text Editor, Calculator and Clock are basic tools which do what you'd expect and not much more. I would have liked to see a full-featured scientific calculator but this one is utterly basic.

Voice Recorder is just that; it can be activated using the stylus or by holding down the leftmost quick button. The quality is good and it really benefits from the upgraded speaker in the 5600.

City Time tells you the time zones and current time in six different cities and has a neat world map you can click on (it shows you the nearest city it knows and local time there).

One gripe about the text editor. It is fine for editing plain text files but anything more ambitious (say, a C source file) gets .txt appended to its filename when you save it. This annoyance is worsened by the fact that files on the "Files Home" page are listed as if their names stopped at the first period. For example, let's say you have a file called hello.c on the device. In the Files view it appears as a text file called hello of type C, which you open in the text editor. After editing the file you select Save and the file is saved as hello.c.txt and you get two files called hello on the Files page, one of type C and the other of type txt. This is a peculiar feature which hopefully won't affect too many people. Better text editors are avalable (and see the later section on linux terminal usage). (back to contents)

Games

The seven games which ship with the Zaurus are Asteroids, Go, Mindbreaker (fit colored pegs onto a board), Mine Hunt (like Minesweeper), Patience, Snake (eat stuff, the snake grows, try to avoid colliding with your tail, etc...) and Word Game which is ever so slightly like Scrabble. I play a lot of games on the PC but I've never really played any of these micro-games so it's hard to compare them to any other versions. They all work without crashing and there's nothing particularly wrong with them, except maybe Asteroids, which has great graphics but no sound at all. That may be realistic (we all know there's no "sound" in space) but I don't think that counts as an excuse. (back to contents)

Multimedia

The Zaurus Media Player can handle WAV and MP3 audio files as well as MPEG-1 movies. The MP3 sound quality is excellent though the headphones, and movie playback is smooth if your film is the same size as the screen or smaller. Overall though, this application is disappointing. The audio player interface is big and ugly and looks like you're supposed to tap the screen with your fingers (yuck!) when it could have fit into a little strip the size of the pickboard. You can make playlists of files, but you can't save them. You can list all the media files on the entire file system, but if they're on a CF card they stay there even if they're subsequently inaccessible (they are marked in red). You cannot pause a movie once it starts playing. I was looking forward to filling up a few 512MB CF cards with music and using the Zaurus as a mobile jukebox but that would be completely unworkable with this software. The Media Player is definitely a candidate for being replaced witha third-party application as soon as possible after you get your Zaurus. As far as I can tell it is not possible to uninstall applications you didn't add yourself, so even if you replace the Media Player you won't easily be able to reclaim the storage space. (back to contents)

Email

This has to be one of the most advanced email clients ever to ship with a PDA. It offers multiple mail boxes and accounts, filtering, download rules, file attachments, and can be used either as a stand-alone email client (if the Zaurus is networked) or as a synchronized partner application to Outlook. You can also switch back and forth between internal email folders any on a CF or SD card.

The email systen is well integrated with the Address Book, allowing easy transfer of addresses between the two. If you haven't networked the Zaurus then you can write "synchronization emails" offline and send them from your Outlook account. A few screenshots are below.

   
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Opera WWW Browser

The Opera web browser is an excellent application which is the match of any desktop browser and has some outstanding PDA-friendly features. You can scale the whole page you're viewing anywhere between 20% and 400%, you can choose to render images or not, you can go full-screen with or without scroll bars, and on top of that there's a feature called "content column layout" which attempts to give you a cut-down version of the page without any substantial formatting or images. I found this gave mixed results on complex pages but helped on simpler ones which were badly designed for PDAs. The browser also has a total of 17 keyboard shortcuts for common functions. Below is a picture of a web page (actually, it's the C++ tutorial which comes with the GCC distribution I used) in "normal" (first image) and "content column" formats.

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More Applications

Several more apps are on the CD. Installing extra applications is easy - copy the .ipk file to the Zaurus, run it, decide if you want to install the software internally or on a CF or SD card, and you're done. Any application you install yourself can be uninstalled easily using the Add/Remove Programs tool, and trying to install a later package of something you already installed prompts you to remove the previous version before you get into trouble.

I added a terminal client to play with the linux OS and the expanded File Manager which Sharp provides for people who want to explore the entirety of the file system. This is distinct from the "Files Home" page in that the latter is limited to the "My Documents" folder and sub-folders when browsing the internal flash memory. Unfortunately the interface is somewhat different between the two file managers and can be confusing. Also, files cut from one cannot be pasted into the other, which is just inconsistent; a global clipboard is available to all the other applications. That said, the enhaanced File Manager is an optional extra and many users may never need to install it.

There's also an installation package on the CD for Hancom Presenter, a viewer for PowerPoint files which I didn't test yet. (back to contents)

Battery Life

The SL-5600 comes with one removable battery rated at 1700 mAh, advertised when the SL-5600 was announced as the largest capacity battery in any similar device. Short battery life was one criticism levelled at the SL-5500. The technical documentation for the 5600 gives the expected battery life as between 2hrs under maximum load (playing MP3s continually with the light on max) and 18hrs with the backlight off and displaying just the calendar. While writing this review I used the SL-5600 almost continually for about 4 hrs before getting a low battery warning. This was without playing MP3s, but with the light on. In a second experiment, after charging all day, the Zaurus played MP3s through my stereo for about 1 hour (with the light off) before showing any visible battery use at all on the task bar icon. I was impressed. (back to contents)

It's not about Linux. Or is it?

I am a fan of linux, but not for its own sake. The linux aspect of the Zaurus is initially almost completely hidden from the user, and unless you install the Terminal application you'll never need to know a linux command. The down side of having a linux PDA may be in a few specific cases where you cannot get the software you want. As far as I know, there is no streaming Real Player for linux, so you probably won't be able to use your PDA as a mobile internet radio (this is something I wanted to do). There's a work in progress for this, apparently, but don't hold your breath. Also bear in mind though that there's a lot of really good stuff you can get for linux, or even do for yourself, which may outweigh the disadvantage of losing a few specific applications.

If the mention of linux makes you cringe, skip the next paragraph and try not to be drawn in by these fascinating screenshots...

So, anyway, I did install the terminal app and what I found was an almost complete linux OS with a nice bash shell prompt and most of the fun tools like 'grep'. After a bit of googling I installed the gcc compiler, copied a few C source files across from my CF card, and had those compiled in a few minutes. These are not trivial programs; my 4000 line program compiled in 10s including optimization. The XScale CPU lacks a floating-point unit so it's not going to be much of a number cruncher. For fun and reference, I benchmarked it at about 1/500 of the speed of my Athlon XP 2000 linux box when running very numerical code. The test program took 90 seconds to run on the Zarurus (compiled using GCC 2.95.1) and I also tested it on a Acorn RiscPC which is a desktop machine with a 206 MHz StrongARM (using GCC 2.95.4), where it took 28 seconds.

Just having the ability to test ideas and algorithms on a PDA can be really useful. I also installed a port of micro-emacs which runs in the terminal window and has the advantage of using a fixed space font rather than the proportional font used by the Text Editor application, not to mention the fact that it doesn't append anything nasty to your filenames. So, it's not about linux. Unless you want it to be. (back to contents)

Cradle, Syncing and File Transfer

Out of the box, the Zaurus can only sync with a Windows PC - ironic, considering the linux OS - although linux connectivity can be set up with a downloadable package. You can sync to Microsoft Outlook if you already use that as your information manager or email client, or you can install Qtopia Desktop which is a simple database for names, addresses, calendar entries, etc.. However, you can't use both on the same PC. I happen to use Eudora Mail at home, and Outlook at work, so I tried both systems.

The cradle is perfectly unremarkable. The PDA goes in, the PDA comes out. On the front of the cradle is a button marked 'sync' which does exactly that.

Qtopia Desktop initially feels like just a backup tool for your mobile lists, and it can't handle email, but it is a capable enough address book and timetabling tool. It includes a drag-and-drop file transfer tool which is a bit clunky but very stable. I was hoping that the Zaurus drives would be available as network shares (through the USB cradle) but that was not the case. The transfer rate is pretty crummy too, around 200kB/sec on my system, so it you want to fill a 1GB compact flash card you'll be better off getting a high speed writer for your PC (and a high speed card).

The Intellisync tool for sync'ing with Outlook is perfectly adequate and performed without a hitch. The features are basically the same as for Qtopia including the file transfer tool.

The syncing process in either case is triggered by pushing the "sync" button on the cradle; a feature I personally like a lot versus the alternative of the system deciding when to sync or trying to sync continuously. (back to contents)

Summary and Conclusion

This is my first PDA. When I saw a Zaurus earlier this year and learned that the SL-5600 was on the way, I began to think I might find a use for a PDA and at the same time I wondered, "How much computer can I really fit into my pocket?" I've found that the answer is "a lot", and all the other PDA functionality is pretty cool too. Here's my overview.

Bad Things:

No spell checker in the word processor.
Somewhat weak front light.
Impossible to lock the buttons.
Miserable media player.
File transfer is a bit clunky.
Some key applications may not be available for this linux.
Cannot be used as a flashlight or hammer.

Good Things:

Fast, versatile, stable linux operating system.
Very robust set of applications with good compatibility.
Plenty of memory and room to expand via CF and SD slots.
Outstanding web browser and email tools.
No problem sync'ing using either Qtopia or Intellisync.
High quality build with a great mini QWERTY keyboard.
Good screen.
Good battery life.
Feels more like a tiny laptop.

I've written this review entirely on the Zaurus and have gone neither blind nor insane in the process, which is both fortunate and impressive. I never lost a document or file through a crash, and I had not a single moment of PDA rage. When I'm finished I'll transfer it to my PC for spell checking, converting to HTML, and to include the pictures.

The Sharp Zaurus SL-5600 is both a great PDA and in some senses "the littlest laptop". The power of this device is remarkable, even if you choose never to explore the underlying linux OS. The bundled applications cover pretty much all the bases, and with the exception of the Media Player I found them hard to criticise.

As for "the linux factor", unless there's a specific app you want from Palm OS or Pocket PC 2002, I don't think you'll find the linux OS to be a hindrance; in fact I think you'll enjoy its stability and responsiveness. The Zaurus has not crashed or even stuttered once since I started using it; no reboots have been required. That's pretty impressive considering that in the course of writing this review I have made a point of running every application and testing almost every feature over the course of a week.

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View Always Updated Pricing for SL-5600 Here