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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.

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