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Sharp's Zaurus SL-6000L: A Free Software PDA

by Guylhem Aznar
07/15/2004

Sharp is the #1 PDA seller in Japan, due to excellent hardware and perfectly localized software. However, its latest attempt to find its place between the Palm and PocketPC handheld has failed. Many factors contributed to this failure, like the absence of a GNU/Linux desktop client, which means only Windows users could take advantage of the sync functions; the inclusion of a substandard PIM suite which even a ten-year-old Palm Pilot outperformed; the lack of compatible software; and most of all, poor marketing, which did more harm than good to its product line. A faster CPU in the SL5600 corrected the sluggishness of the SL5000/SL5500, but this happened far too late.

Therefore, the SL5500 and SL5600 never really caught on, except maybe in the GNU/Linux community, where running free software on a PDA is an advantage.

The SL6000 is Sharp's comeback attempt. It only fixes one issue, that of software. There are many applications available online, and the integrated software has improved. Unfortunately, the marketing part is still very poor. There's no information on Sharp's zaurus.com web site, no user support, no official availability outside the U.S., and poor press relations. It's as if Sharp wanted the Zaurus to fail.

To illustrate this poor marketing, my repeated requests to Sharp's PR service for a review unit went unanswered. I then asked the U.S. office if they could sell me one directly. I told them the U.K. office had declined since they did not sell this model in that country. The U.S. then suggested I contact the U.K. office! Since Amazon.com refuses to sell the SL6000L outside the U.S., I had to purchase one while visiting in the states. This is not exactly what I expect from marketing and press relations. It turned out to be lucky that I did purchase one, since the 6000N (N for No Wi-Fi) series and the 6000 (W for Wi-Fi and BlueTooth) series are only available in Japan, and the 6000L is not available outside the U.S. and Japan.

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However, these last three weeks, I have finally been playing with my latest toy. I'm happy I overcame all these difficulties because this handheld is worth every cent. I have been trying to leave my Palm for the last two years, but my previous attempts with the Zaurus 5000d, 5500, and SLC-700 all failed. The SL-6000L has now replaced my Palm Tungsten W as my main handheld, for many reasons. I'll outline them here.

Hardware

While this new Zaurus takes aim at the corporate market (which is not a good reason to make purchases so painful), it features everything a Linux geek may need on a PDA. Powered by a StrongArm PXA 255 running at 400MHz, with 64MB of ROM and 64MB of RAM, it features a small keyboard, a serial and an infrared port, one compact flash, and one SD slot--just like every other Zaurus currently sold, with the exception of the 128MB SLC-860.

The first thing you notice on the 6000L is its form factor. It's a portrait-mode PDA, not a landscape-clamshell like the SLC-7xx series. Each has its pro and cons. Clamshells are better for typing, but portrait-mode PDAs are easier to read. Personally, I prefer the portrait-mode since I rarely type. The small QWERTY keyboard is good, with shift keys on both left- and right-hand sides; it's surprisingly comfortable enough for my thumbs. I rarely enter data and frequently read data.

With the inclusion of a quasi-instantaneous software screen rotation function, you can also make a landscape-mode PDA of your 6000L! You must purchase an infrared keyboard like the excellent Pocketop, because the standard keyboard with its 90 degree rotation is useless. I can nearly touch-type on the Pocketop. Only the Esc/Caps/Tab swap is confusing, and the IRK driver doesn't allow remapping of the keys.

The 6000L is better than the other Zauruses, thanks to an integrated microphone and speaker and a bright and crisp 640-by-480 transreflective screen. It may be hard to believe, but this screen is even better than the famous SLC-7xx clamshell series screen. It's easier to read in the sun, with a better contrast and a bigger screen. Unfortunately, my unit has at least ten dead pixels, but since they are very small you can hardly notice them unless you carefully look for them. I was really surprised when I discovered them, because that's usually the first thing I notice on an LCD screen. This means that the DPI is high enough to overcome such problems.

The uniqueness of this PDA comes from integrated Wi-Fi, which frees a Compact Flash slot, as well USB host capabilities, which allow you to connect USB peripherals to your Zaurus through a dedicated cable. You will never regret leaving your Wi-Fi card at home when you come across a hotspot at an unexpected time. This alone would justify the purchase of the 6000L.

You can also kiss the cradle good-bye to enjoy wireless syncing, which is very nice due to the undescribably ugly 6000L cradle. Not only is it ugly (big, made of cheap plastic, with sharp edges) but it is also poorly conceived, preventing the use of the integrated keyboard, requiring too much strength to plug and unplug the Zaurus, and so on. The cradle is a disgrace, period. I tried to use it, but finally buried it back into its box. Fortunately, you can hook the charger directly into the Zaurus and synchronize via Wi-Fi.

The screen protection is worth mentioning. It has improved over the 5xxx series, in that it looks better and is much easier to operate. You can try to remove it: it makes the Zaurus look a little better, but you will quickly miss it as soon as you spill liquid on the screen or when you fear screen damage from putting the Zaurus back into your pocket. No doubt, this baby is big. It fits into a shirt pocket, but it's slightly bigger than a clamshell Zaurus and much bigger than a Palm or a Pocket PC.

If size matters to you, do not even think about the extension adaptor. While it provides a second battery, a second compact flash slot, and a second serial port, it makes the Zaurus as big as a brick. Personally, I like it a lot because I had my 6000L fall twice from my labcoat pocket. Now it fits better and I do not care about power—I only have to charge every three days, for what I consider sustained use (reading ebooks several hours per day, using the PIM, listening to music, and so on).

Using Wi-Fi will quickly drain your battery—expect around two and a half hours of battery life with the standard battery and full backlight or five hours of battery time with the additional battery. The battery design has also improved over previous models. You can replace it in a couple of seconds without rebooting. That made me consider purchasing a second battery, which I, fortunately, found included with the extension adaptor. If you have too much time on your hands or some special need, such as constant Wi-Fi instant messenging or a GSM cellphone compact flash card, consider purchasing additional batteries and the ultra small charger presented below. Changing batteries is incredibly easy and very addictive and the small charger weighs little.

As previously mentioned, I twice dropped my Zaurus on concrete from my lab coat pocket. It did not sustain any kind of damage—only the stylus and the memory cards ejected. Having previously lost a couple of Clies with similar fates, I thought this was only marketing speak from Sharp and I that would soon find myself with a worthless $699 brick. I was happily disappointed. This was the main reason why I decided to leave my Tungsten W; it died after only 11 months due to the very common broken SIM-card plastic door. Palm refused to apply any kind of warranty and wanted to charge me $200 for a one-inch square piece of plastic. Since the hands-free kit had also died three months ago and the mike/speaker cover needed changing every two months, this was not the tool for the job. Heavy PDA users require industrial grade equipment and the 6000L seems like a good pick. Now I only hope I will not be wrong 12 months from now!

Overall, with the exception of the cradle, the hardware is excellent—much better than on the previous Zaurus. An integrated microphone plus a "record" key let you use the Zaurus as a dictaphone. It would be very handy if it didn't take four seconds for the Zaurus to wake up when inserting one memory card (it's nine seconds if you have an SD and a CF), thus missing the first few seconds of your memo. It is only a minor annoyance compared to the bugs experienced with former Zauruses such as SD card corruption, long wake up delay, or forced reboots on battery changes.

The extension adaptor feels cheap, because it is very light and somehow much bigger than necessary. If only it featured a standard PCMCIA slot, a standard USB port, or at least a standard serial port! There's room for that, with all the required hardware already inside the Zaurus. Because there is little external room on the Zaurus the ports are not standard, and you must purchase cables. Since the extension adaptor is mostly empty, it's hard to believe that the designers excused the omission by citing size requirements. In any case, I am just ranting for the sake of finding imperfections—I am extremely happy with the hardware! I just hope the next Zaurus 6000L will fix the power-up delay issues.

Software

Sharp also made tremendous efforts on the software side. The Qtopia environment is much more user-friendly, especially on the setup side. It only took me a couple of minutes to set up wifi connection and POP3 email. Thanks to the network setup assistant, it was surprisingly easy to go online at a free hotspot. Sending and receiving emails also worked well, handling attachments perfectly.

The Zaurus includes Opera 7 by default now. It renders standard websites excellently, considering the 640x480 screen resolution, and the zoom function is impressive. Opera also supports multiple window browsing, direct Google searches, full screen browsing, and popup blocking. I only wish it would support Macromedia's .swf Flash files, since may websites now depend on Flash support. I would also like Opera's rendering to apply to HTML e-mails: while the email application is otherwise excellent, it renders HTML mail poorly. While I preferred Netfront to Opera v.6, this new version changed my mind. I hope it will soon ship with the voice extension support which IBM's R&D website provides for the Zaurus 5600 as well as a way to see Flash files — it does include a useless PDF plugin, so I guess it's possible.

There's also little to say about the Hancom Office suite since it does it job quite efficiently. I miss an integrated spell checker (or at least the ability to call an external spell checker such as zbedic) from the word processor, the ability to create graphs in the spreadsheet, and likewise better integration with the email application.

The PIM suite has also improved and matured. While I still find it inferior to a old Palm III, it is now usable in the real world. My only advice is to install a fork of the default datebook called qualendar and to complete the memo application with an outliner like iqnotes if you are used to similar Palm shareware tools. I did try to play with KOPI, a very promising PIM suite for the Zaurus, but I found it too complicated and too slow — just like The Kompany's tkc Calendar the last time I tested it. Since they're still adding many features, I fear it will not improve on these two points. Qualendar on the other hand was easy to set up and operates quickly. I did not expect a program as easy to use as the Palm datebook, especially since I tried each one of them during my first migration attempts. Qualendar feels very promising software. With some usability improvements (such as allowing to users to type in events directly instead of having to enter a detailed new event menu) it has the potential to become a Palm killer.

Other programms include the calculator, the image viewer/slideshow application, the unicode text viewer and editor, the MP3 and MPEG-1 capable mediaplayer, the backup/sync application and a bunch of setup tools.

The setup applications are very convenient — now you do not have to install third party software if you want to change an icon's name or create new groups. You can quickly change appearance and application key mapping. The security app can provide excellent and permanent protection for your device, since there's an option to ask a password everytime at powerup.

Here's one weird detail: Java's implementation changed, breaking most of the Java applications made for previous Zaurus models. I was never a big fan of Java, and there goes my last dreams of "compile-once, run everywhere" dreams — along with applications I'll miss like formulae1 or jsolun. For those who still have an old Zaurus, it should be possible to back up and reinstall the previous Java implementation called Jeode.

My conclusion on the software side is there is still a lot of work to do, but the situation is improving, especially for the integrated software. The 5500 software, especially the awful PIM, should never have seen the light of day, but the current versions feel like the 1.0 version. I still really miss an HP48 emulator or an X11 PIM client though. You can run old Zaurus software perfectly — you will only notice with some software that the resolution goes back to 320x240. In most cases, a long press on the icon and unchecking "execute with magnified screen" will be enough. In other cases, the developers need to change their code. The vast majority of applications are fine however.

While the mediaplayer is quite handy (add drzvideo to gain divx/mpeg4 plackback capability), the backup/sync applications are not. These are Windows-only applications.

Non-free parts galore

Opera, the J2ME environment and the Hancom Suite are acceptable non-free softwares because they do their jobs and free software replacements exist for people who want a 100% free software PDA.

What else may a geek want for a PDA?

You might consider several good accessories, including:

  • a micro power adapter
  • a Palm-m100 compatible metal stylus (from any PDA shop)
  • an extension adapter (from Amazon.com)
  • a Pocketop mini IR foldable keyboard (from any Radio Shack)
  • a Quickconnect USB cable (available at Staples)

Unfortunately, Windows-only software is a serious drawback for any self-respecting GNU/Linux user. I wish at least Sharp would provide downloadable desktop software for X11. There are at the moment various coding efforts by the free software community, yet nothing is ready or stable enough for a daily use. As good as the PIM may become, being unable to sync them with the desktop is a serious drawback.

Likewise, it may be a bad idea to include an SD slot to which there are no free-software drivers available, as it prevents users from installing new kernels on the device. At least the proprietary drivers seems to work much better than on the other Zauruses. I did not experience hardware lookups or massive corruption of SD cards — a frequently-reported problem for previous Zauruses and Sandisk-brand SD cards. If the source were available, someone may have fixed this bug earlier and ported it to earlier models.

These issues were already present in the former Zauruses, but for some reason Sharp decided to do nothing. I question the logic behind this, since many Zaurus users use GNU/Linux distributions on their desktops.

Something new and even worse is libsl, a non-free library upon which Sharp applications and a growing number of GPL applications depend. This dependency prevents those applications from working on other ARM/Qtopia devices. I think it is intentional, but it lights the "fragmentation" warning in my head. If no GPL equivalent of libsl ever appears, I may just move my SL6000L to Opie.

Conclusion

The SL6000L is a great machine. It may not look as sexy as the clamshell Zauruses, but it's very functional. I quickly discovered it was the tool for the job after carrying it with me along my Palm. It is rough, it has lot of battery life, a nice keyboard, and all sort of ports one may need. Best of all, there's wifi included and it runs Linux.

Guylhem Aznar was the coordinator of The Linux Documentation Project from 1999 to 2006. He has a special interest in Linux embedded devices and health informatics, being a physician with a clinical experience but also a full traditional computer-science education.


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