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Sharp Zaurus SL5500 PDA Review

April 27, 2002



The first prototypes of the Zaurus were shown at the beginning of 2001 but only in May this device will appear on the European shelves. The Sharp Zaurus SL5500 has a key-pad and uses Linux OS instead of the wide-spread Pocket PC 2002. The tested PDA should be considered as a competitor against PPC2002 devices.

Design, ergonomics

The developers followed the experience of other PDA experts to make a device free of drawbacks. The case is made of metallic alloy of silvery color; the PDA fits the hand as it measures 138x74x18 mm. The lower part of the case slides out revealing the QWERTY keyboard. The case is reliable; you can keep the PDA in one hand, but it's more convenient to type using two hands. The keys are small and close to each other; when you press one key you might touch the neighboring ones, though they will unlikely be pressed occasionally.



In my opinion, it's not convenient to type in large texts though the experts state that the keypads are very convenient and you will get used to them very soon. Letters cover the whole key-caps that is why it's not easy to draw symbols of other alphabets next to the Latin ones.

When closed, the keypad is covered with an upper panel which contains hot keys and a 4-position navigation button. They buttons are slightly recessed in the case which protects from occasional pressing. A user can assign functions of the buttons himself, except the power and OK ones.

The display is 3.5" in diameter and has 240x320 resolution. This is a touch screen, and it supports up to 65,536 colors. The backlight lamp is located on the right; on the one hand, it gives uniform light, and on the other hand, it isn't very bright. Without backlight the PDA can be used only as an mp3-player because it's not easy to read data both outdoors and indoors without backlight. The light can be turned up or down; the most comfortable work is when the light is maximum. And it is typical of most of PDAs; I wonder what this adjustment is for if it's not used at all?

The screen has a plastic semi-transparent cover which can be taken off when you are working. Data on the screen are not seen when it's covered though you can turn on the computer.

The Zaurus screen doesn't differ much from displays used in modern computers on the PPC2002. And on the whole, such systems use a lot of similar solutions. For example, the heart of the Zaurus is StrongArm SA1110 processor from Intel clocked at 206 MHz. The OS, applications and drivers take 16 MBytes of the flash memory, plus 64 MBytes is available as RAM; in addition, there are extension slots for the cards. The PDA allows a user to decide where an application should be installed - in the main memory or on an additional card. By the way, on the upper panel is a slot for CompactFlash II cards, and on the left panel is a SD/MMC slot. Note that it's very easy to add new cards - you just insert it into the slot. Moreover, you can immediately start up applications or open documents. However, the current version of the software (2.4.6) refuses to work simultaneously with CompactFlash and MMC cards - only the latter ones can be mounted. At the site they say that there is a solution of this problem, but I failed to cure it. Hope it will be eliminated in the commercial versions.

Additional slots for memory cards provide for data backup. Now you can choose your favorite storage device and record data with the standard utility.

The CompactFlash slot takes so much space that an IR port (1.2) had to be moved to the side panel. The remaining space above was used for a headphones' stereo jack and a stylus connector. The stylus is very simple and of a different style as compared with the other components of this computer. If you remember the Sony Clie T415, its case was also made of an alloy and the standard stylus was well matched with it, i.e. of the same color, weighted and with a fluoroplastic tip. In this case the stylus is light and plastic. I think the developers just wanted to make the device which is quite heavy (194 g) lighter; in this respect the Zaurus is comparable to the PPC2002 computers.

Power comes from a Li-Ion battery of 950 mAh which is not very good. The battery gets used up in 2 - 3 hours. Playback of mp3-files discharged the battery at 3 h, simple operations such as reading of texts and games take 2-2.5 h. The results show that the operating system and the programs are not optimized, which makes the processor load greater, and it takes more energy than it should be when working with different applications. For Pocket PC2002 PDAs it is usually different: the device works shorter time when mp3 files are played. Unfortunately, I failed to find a battery of the larger capacity. I just hope they will soon release a lithium-polymeric battery of the same size and which will run for a longer time.

Casio PDAs use similar batteries. Besides, there is a switch on the back panel for "Normal battery operation" and "Replacement" which is also typical of Casio devices. A spare power unit is hidden inside the case and is not reachable. After the night the PDA turned on without any problems and data were safe.

The main battery takes 1.5-2 hrs to charge, and this operation can be implemented both in a cradle and by inserting the adapter to the connector on the lower panel. The cradle is ordinary; there is a standard USB connection to a PC.

OS and programs

As I have already said, the Zaurus SL5500 comes with Linux OS (Embedded Linux, 2.4.x). The user interface is based on the Windows. The Qtopia shell from Trolltech is also similar to the Windows: beautiful icons, a pop-up menu, an identical Start button. There are 5 tabs with programs. In particular, the Applications tab contains icons of standard programs. Below is a status line which informs about inserted memory cards, a battery status, time and working applications.

The interface is user-friendly, unlike the structure of directories. The root one contains about 15 directories, and user documents are kept in the third-level folder! It's quite a tough problem for a beginner who, besides, has never used Linux before.

The file-manager opens access to operation with files (copying, removal, deletion) and supports a minimal number of necessary functions. Applications are installed with the help of the Package Manager, not manually. One list contains applications which are already installed and which can be installed. The only limitation is memory of the device or of any of the installed cards; I think the second alternative is preferable.

The Zaurus supports several input types: traditional virtual keypad, handwritten text recognition, integrated key-pad, Unicode table and Pickboard. When the Unicode table works all symbols are displayed; you should just click on a symbol you want to type in. At present only Latin letters are supported. Pickboard is an analog of a screen keyboard, only here all letters are divided into groups. The typing method is similar to the predictive texting T9 in mobile phones.

Now let's speak about the software.

Address Book. This is a simple contact book; all data are input in one window. You can change the order of the standard fields, but you can't add your own ones. Name search is simple. On the whole, the software is still raw.

Calculator.

Calendar. This is an organizer which allows creating any types of events (single and periodic), make reminders, look through a day, a week or the whole month. This program is similar to the organizer of the PPC2002 and will suit for most users.

City Time. There is a list of large cities which can be extended. After you add your own city you can add the zone time to the calendar events.

Clock. Also has a stop-watch function.

Image Viewer. This is a simple graphics browser which supports most popular formats, slide-shaw and zoom function. Unfortunately, you can't set a list of files (folder) from which data are to be read. The program looks for known formats on all storage devices and makes a general list itself.

Media Player. Supports video clips (mpeg1) and mp3 files. You can't create your own list of files. The mp3 player sounds quite well in the headphones, though it also quickly discharges the battery.

E-mail. This post client has a lot of functions: create additional folders, look though attachments of known formats etc. It supports several accounts, though there are no filters for inbox. On the whole, the program has no flaws.

Opera. This browser is used for WWW. It's interesting that it becomes difficult to read the text when its size changes - the best are the standard large font.

Geode. The separate Geode tab (Java) right away gives no advantages to an end-user because there are few vital applications for it. With time the situation will change but now you can't call this function useful.

Games. There are several games, some very entertaining.

The PDA has a voice function, or a dictaphone. The records are not followed by background noise. They are played through the headphones because the built-in speaker doesn't handle it.

The memory arrangement is shown clearly.

Impressions

The hardware realization of the Zaurus is superb: the design is reliable, there are just several flaws which are accounted by the fact that the device was developed a long time ago (I mean the small battery and inconvenient texting of large texts). The operating system and programs are really beautiful though it's not of the vital importance. Besides, while there are a lot of programs which can replace standard ones for the PPC2002, there are no such for the Zaurus, and they will hardly appear the next year.

Priced at 800-900 euros, the Sharp Zaurus SL5500 looks very expensive. The cheaper HP Jornada 568 doesn't yield to the Zaurus in performance and other parameters and has better capabilities of the standard software and a larger number of software from third companies. Taking into account that the XScale will come very soon and will be available at 600-700 euros (Siemens Pocket Loox 600), this PDA will hardly find its user. It could have been in demand half a year ago but not now. What is good is that it awakened developers of alternative PPC devices.

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