Power User: Who needs a Linux PDA? Sharp users, that's who

John McCormick

The fight for market share among makers of personal digital assistants mostly involves Handspring Inc., Hewlett-Packard Corp. and Palm Inc., but Sharp Electronics Corp. has a good claim to creating the first PDA. It's Zaurus even predates the Apple Newton.

The current Zaurus SL-5500 doesn't run Palm OS, the Pocket PC operating system or Microsoft Windows CE. It's a Linux- and Java-based computer, which makes it easy for developers to create new applications or tweak existing ones.

For $500, you get a 240- by 320-pixel, 56,000-color screen, MP3 and MPEG-1 multimedia support, and a built-in stereo headphone jack. The SL-5500 has the usual one-button access to built-in applications as well as the most customizable handwriting recognition I've ever seen in a PDA.

If, like me, you can draw most letters correctly but have trouble entering certain characters without using the pop-up software keyboard, you'll like the way you can customize those troublesome characters. Slide down the bottom cover to use a full QWERTY keyboard. In addition, a word-guessing utility speeds input after you've entered your favorite technical terms.

Not enough input options? The Unicode unified character set for software development is built right into the SL-5500. With two expansion slots and a powerful, 206-MHz Intel StrongArm processor, this PDA serves even network managers who need to add wireless and other capabilities. It incorporates an Opera Web browser in addition to the usual array of PDA software.

The half-pound package with clamshell cover is only a bit larger than my far-less-powerful Handspring Visor.

You've probably already guessed the Zaurus SL-5500's big shortcoming: battery life. It's not difficult to add more memory, a fast processor or headphone output to a PDA, but how do you keep them powered?

You can't. The weaker Handspring Visor needs only two new AAA batteries every month, but the Zaurus keeps me constantly looking for a place to recharge, especially if I use the wireless capability or play music.

With care, it's possible to run the SL-5500 for about two hours on a fully charged lithium-ion battery, or perhaps three hours on a fresh battery. In my opinion, PDA vendors should be going all out to achieve full-day operation.

Short battery life notwithstanding, the SL-5500 has something lacking in many PDAs: an easily replaceable battery pack. You can carry spares to last through a typical workday.

This PDA is a serious developer's tool, not a fancy organizer. If you need it at all, you'll use it more than the average PDA'for example, skip the graphical interface and run it as a command-line Linux computer.

I've even heard of people using the SL-5500 as a Web server, although I can't confirm this.

Viewing JPEG images generally crashes the Zaurus, however. It does better at playing music and MPEG movies, but most users will find the multimedia controls inadequate.

Why would a serious developer need so much multimedia capability? Why would a user of simple organizer programs need Linux?

As a matter of fact, software developers do need strong information management tools. Although the ones supplied with the SL-5500 are adequate, there are better ones on the market, even in other Sharp PDAs.

Sharp downplays the SL-5500's Linux core because, I suppose, it scares buyers who are just looking for a super contact manager.

But as a Linux platform that fits in a pocket yet stands up to enterprise data management tasks, the SL-5500 has a lot of potential.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].

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