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Sharp's Zaurus SL-6000L: A Free Software PDA
Pages: 1, 2

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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