The Zaurus SL-5600 cures the PDA blues with its many features

The Zaurus SL-5600 is hefty and bulky, but it gives almost desktop-level performance with two expansion slots.

Henrik G. DeGyor

It's no secret that Sharp Electronics Corp. makes the Zaurus Linux-based handheld computer.

What's not so obvious is how well the Zaurus SL-5600 competes against the Palm OS and Pocket PC industry giants.

The SL-5600 comes with a robust, 400-MHz Intel XScale processor, a hidden QWERTY keyboard and a high-capacity, removable lithium-ion battery.

If those specifications don't impress, perhaps the nearly 100M of onboard memory will. That's more memory than in any personal digital assistant the GCN Lab has ever reviewed. The Zaurus has 32M of synchronous dynamic RAM plus 64M of protected flash-drive storage, which keeps data safe even if the battery drains fully.

My first impressions of the Zaurus were its bulk, plastic visor and stylus. It was only 0.8 inch thick but 5.4 inches long and almost 3 inches wide.

The boxy design departed from the sleek, fashionable looks of Sharp's notebook PCs. The awkward size was mostly due to SmartDigital and CompactFlash expansion slots'unusual for a PDA marketed in the United States.

I liked the CompactFlash slot, especially since Lexar Media Inc. makes a 4G CompactFlash card big enough to store photos or archive documents.

Earlier Zaurus models' main drawback has been incompatibility with Microsoft Windows environments. But the SL-5600's applications were compatible with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can only view, not edit, PowerPoint presentations on the Zaurus, however.

By adding a 1G, 2G or 4G CompactFlash card, I could store all my important documents, edit from the built-in keyboard and not have to lug around a notebook PC.

Works well with others

Another common complaint about the Zaurus has been a lack of personal information management software for calendars, address book, to-do lists and e-mail. Most people don't want to have to learn a new system. So Sharp made the SL-5600 synchronize with Palm Desktop and Microsoft Outlook software as well as Qtopia freeware.

I found the Linux environment intuitive and easier to navigate than other handheld OSes because it felt more like a PC operating system. At the top of the screen, the Applications tab held programs such as calendar, to-do list, Word and so on.

The Jeode tab accessed graphics programs. The Settings tab configured the device, and the Files tab accessed data. Navigating through Files felt much like browsing a PC hard drive.

The 320- by 240-pixel screen wasn't as nice as the 320-by-320 display of the Palm Zire or Sony Clie' even though it could show up to 65,536 colors. And at 3.5 diagonal inches it was quite small, especially when the Graffiti tablet was in use.

Another minus was the Zaurus' lack of embedded wireless features. A personal digital assistant that acts like a PC should come with IEEE 802.11b WiFi to hot-sync wirelessly.

An 802.11b CompactFlash modem would add to the PDA's 7.1 ounces. Then add the trouble of finding and installing a compatible wireless modem.

The $499 retail price is reasonable, however, in view of the Zaurus' memory and processor. It's a bargain if you're a techie, don't like Palm OS or Pocket PC, and don't mind appearances.

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