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Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000, SL-C3100 and SL-C1000 Linux Handhelds

Posted Dec.19, 2004 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

(Read our review of the Sharp Zaurus SL-C3200 which replaces the C3100)

The Sharp Zaurus SL-C7xx series and C860 PDAs have a strong cult following outside Japan, even though they're available only through importers. The reasons are clear: the device has a very usable keyboard, a clamshell design reminiscent of a highly miniaturized notebook computer, a touch screen, excellent expandability and it runs Linux. While you're greeted by a friendly interface that's optimized for PDA use, you can run Linux shell commands and even re-compile Linux apps for the Zaurus.

The Zaurus C series models are only sold in Japan, but reputable importers such as Dynamism, who supplied our review unit, sell them in the US and to folks in other countries. The Zaurus ships in Japanese, but Dynamism converts the units to English for you and offers warranty services, support and repair. The SL-6000 was the last Zaurus sold in the US, but it's much larger and has a traditional slate form factor with an integrated thumb keyboard.

Zaurus SL-C3000

 

Zaurus SL-C3000

The C3000 is one of the most recent C series line, and it's very similar to the C860 it replaces. What's different? The C3000 has a 4 gig microdrive which functions as the C3000's hard drive. The C860 used 128 megs of flash ROM memory for OS and data storage, so clearly you're getting much more storage on the C3000. The new model is a little bit thicker to accommodate the internal drive, and it sports a lovely gloss white casing. Sharp replaced the C860's four arrow keys with a round directional pad that's a pleasure to use. The power button has wisely been moved to the front and the SD card slot is on the front as well, rather than the back. The OS has undergone only a minor increment, and the included apps are virtually the same (though the C3000 is missing a Java VM). If you own a C860, these improvements may not warrant an upgrade, but if you're new to the Zaurus world or have an SL-5600, the C3000 could be for you. The C3100 is the same as the C3000, but has a gray-black casing and 128 megs of memory to run and cache applications while the C3000 had only 16 megs. The C1000 is essentially the same as the C3100 (and mostly the same as the C860) but has flash memory for storage and not a microdrive.

 

 

 

 

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Who Should Consider the Zaurus?

The C3000 is perfect for power users, Linux lovers and those who want the ergonomics of a (very small) notebook rather than a slate PDA. The Zaurus can handle your PDA needs such as PIM management and syncing, but its very capable web browser and apps for working with MS Office documents are superior to most PDAs. Of course, there's that excellent keyboard which is too small for touch typing but large enough to allow multi-finger typing and faster input compared to most PDAs with thumb keyboards.

While not as turnkey as Pocket PCs and Palm OS PDAs in some cases, if you have a little Linux savvy, you can get most anything working on the Z and won't be limited to using devices that come with drivers for your device in the box. Most WiFi and wired CF Ethernet cards are supported by the OS, so you won't needs drivers— just pop in the card and set up your internet connection. There are free Bluetooth drivers that support several CF Bluetooth cards. You'll have to edit a few text files and follow installation instructions to get these working, but once you do, you can work with most any Bluetooth peripheral or mobile phone. Just edit the scripts (if necessary) to add support for your new phone or device.

Design and Ergonomics

The Zaurus' clamshell design lends itself to use as a mini-notebook. Want a traditional slate PDA experience? Swivel the display and you can use the device in slate mode with the keyboard tucked under the display panel. The screen automatically rotates to portrait mode when you swivel the display, and you can manually switch it to landscape should you prefer that orientation in slate mode. The sturdy hinge is stiff so the display panel won't flop around. It locks open almost completely flat which is a perfect angle for use when holding the unit in both hands for thumb-typing. The unit has a small latch that holds the clamshell closed, unlike prior Cxxx series models. The two LEDs located on the hinge area indicate charging status, reminders and hard drive activity.

bottom of Sharp Zaurus

Above: bottom of the Zaurus. Below: front edge.

keyboard
side view

 

The Zaurus has a very elegant and classy gloss white finish with chrome on the hinge. The keyboard panel sports white keys on a silver background that extends around the sides creating a two-tone look. The C3000 looks a bit more substantial and notebook-like compared to the C860 thanks to the finish and the slightly thicker body. Looks-wise, this device is a winner!

As mentioned, the power button and SD slot are on the front, and the stylus is located on the right side near the front. Though ample in girth, this is one of the lightest styli I've ever used, so do consider an aftermarket replacement that adds a bit of heft. The OK and Cancel buttons (handy when you're using the device in slate mode) are located on the rear edge, as are the volume wheel, USB sync port and power jack. Unlike previous C series Zaurii, the C3000 has a mini USB connector rather than the Sharp I/O port, so your old sync cables won't work. Of course, a USB sync cable and charger are included in the box. The C3000 uses the same charger as the older models, and that plugs directly into the Zaurus. The CF card slot is on the right side and the IR port is on the left. The bottom panel is white plastic, and the battery door is located on the bottom. Unlike the C860, you need not remove the entire bottom panel to replace the battery. The mono speaker is located on the bottom and the device has a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack located on the right side.

The keyboard on the C860 is my absolute favorite and the C3000 takes it one step farther. While the C860 had a membrane keyboard, the C3000 has discreet keys that are white rather than gray so they contrast well which improves typing accuracy. My only complaint is that the C3000's keys have less tactile feedback compared to the C860's keys. It's quite easy to thumb-type at 40 WPM with a few hours of practice and you'll likely get faster in a few days. It's the roomiest of any current PDA with the exception of the much larger NEC Mobile Pro 900, which isn't really in the PDA category. The keys don't light up, so you'll want to use the device in a well lit area. The Zaurus has a full English keyboard, a dedicated number row, two shift keys , and a d-pad for navigation. The center of the d-pad functions as the OK key, and Cancel button sits directly to the lower left of the d-pad. The d-pad is responsive and easy to use if you're a right-handed user since it's located on the right hand bottom corner of the keyboard. The Z has quick launch keys for the calendar, address book and mail application, as well as buttons for Home and menu activation. To enter punctuation and common symbols, you'll use the single function key in conjunction with one of the keyboard keys. You can also use the function key for cut, paste and copy functions, and there's a caps lock key. Thumb typing is a breeze on this keyboard. If you like, you can turn on key click sounds to aid you in typing.

Linux OS and Qtopia

The Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 runs Linux, comprised of a Lineo uLinux embedded Linux kernel 2.4.20 complied by Lineo Solutions and Qtopia v. 1.5.4 for the graphical user interface. This makes for a powerful machine that's quite versatile and expandable, especially if you're a Linux guru. In fact, some users like to customize their Z with alternate distros such as the popular Cacko ROM, Debian and pdaXrom. The terminal application allows you to issue Linux commands, edit config files and all that great stuff. If you're not a Linux guru and prefer to never see a command line, have no fear: the Zaurus line comes with both a launcher similar in concept to the one used in Palm OS and a Start Menu to launch programs. It offers a complete set of user-friendly PIM apps (contacts, calendar, tasks, email) and much more, making it an easy unit to use. But be aware that if you want to do some advanced things with your PDA, such as set up Bluetooth networking, you may have to make a few visits to the terminal and use the command line.

A few things to keep in mind: the manual is in Japanese, and the Japanese help files on the unit have been removed. Dynamism does offers a 28 page getting started guide which they can email to you when you purchase a Zaurus. The manual explains the various controls, buttons and keyboard settings, along with resetting the unit, replacing the battery and navigating the file system. The C3000 comes with PC syncing software (Intellisync) that also hasn't been translated, and most of the on-screen text on the PC also appears as gibberish rather than Japanese or English. Installing Japanese language support in Windows won't remedy this. However, just as with the C860, you can use the English version of Intellisync for the Zaurus SL-5500 to sync to Outlook and transfer files.

Horsepower and Performance

The C3000 has a 416 MHz PXA270 XScale processor, which is currently the top-of-the-line for PDAs. It's got 64 megs of system SDRAM (used like RAM in your PC) and a 4 gig Hitachi microdrive for storage with ~ 2.9 gigs free with the Japanese dictionaries installed. Since a microdrive is a tiny hard drive with access times slower than RAM you'll notice a slight delay when launching a program as it loads into RAM. The delay isn't annoying or significant, and it takes about 2 to 3 seconds to launch an application which is similar to prior Cxxx series models which stored programs and data in NAND flash ROM. The Hitachi drive has impressive specs, offering 7MB/sec transfer rates, which is competitive with higher-end CF cards.

In general, the unit is very responsive and runs all applications quickly. Given the overall efficiency of Linux and the lightweight nature of Qtopia, you won't find yourself wanting more horsepower.

While the C860 has an ATI Imageon 100 graphics processor, the C3000 uses the Intel PXA270's on-board GPU. This isn't the Intel 2700G but an on-chip solution. There is a tradeoff with dedicated GPUs like the Imageon offering the power of a stand-alone graphics processor vs. the fast memory bus of an on-chip solution. That said, graphics performance on the two models seems similar. Using Dr. Z video player for MPEGs, we get the same performance on both units. TheKompany's video player, TkcVideo didn't run on the C3000, likely because they'll need to add support for the PXA270's graphics processor.

Display

The C860's CG display seemed unbeatable, but the C3000 is even better. The display is even brighter and whiter than the C860's! Sharp's CG Silicon technology is wonderful: it's incredibly sharp, vivid, color saturated and bright. It's a true pleasure to look at this screen. Though the unit squeezes 640 x 480 pixels into a small 3.7" panel, the screen is sharp enough to maintain easy readability. That said, text is still small on this device so if your eyes aren't very good, keep that in mind. The Zaurus does offer 5 levels of zoom so you can enlarge text as needed and the included Office apps and web browser support zooming too.

Software

The Zaurus comes with the same apps we've come to know and love on the old C series models. As always, Dynamism has done a great job converting the unit to English, and pretty much everything but the help files have been translated. The C3000 uses the same launcher as the SL-5xxx and Cxxx models, and has most of the same applications, including an email client that supports SMTP authentication and multiple accounts and both IMAP4 and POP3 protocols, a backup app, a text editor, an MP3 player, movie player (only plays .ASF MP4 file format which is used by the Sharp video recorder sold in Japan), Terminal (have a blast with the command line and the Z's bash shell), a file search application, image viewer and editor, E/J English - Japanese translator, Zdict (a large full-featured Japanese dictionary), voice recorder (though there is no built-in mic on the Z, so you'll have to use an external mic), City Time, a calculator, handwriting recognition (supports English and Japanese) and more. Of course, the unit comes with standard PIM apps: calendar, To Do list, and an address book. Surprisingly, the C3000 doesn't include a Java VM, which was standard on other Cxxx models.

Want do check out some of the many free software titles available for the Zaurus? Visit killefiz.de/zaurus/. While there aren't as many titles available for the Zaurus as there are for Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs, most Zaurus titles are free!

 

screen shot

Above: the NetFront 3.1 web browser, using the "Just Fit" viewing option. You can also use the standard view which makes for larger text and images or the Smart Fit view which is sometimes smart and sometimes not so smart at improving layout for the small screen.

Note that the address book doesn't sort on the English alphabet. When you first sync your contacts from Outlook to the Z, they'll be alphabetical. However newly added contacts will be appended to the bottom of the list, regardless of their place in the English alphabet. The address book's quick-navigation tabs are labeled "ai", "ka", "sa" and so on, which works great if all your acquaintances are Japanese . You also get the capable Hancom Mobile Office Suite which allows you to view and edit MS Word and Excel files and view PowerPoint documents. For Internet browsing, Sharp has included the excellent NetFront v.3.1 web browser. NetFront supports most all current web standards and allows you to open multiple windows. It can handle web pages encoded in Japanese as well as English, and it's very cool to visit a Japanese web site, copy the text of the page then paste it into the included E/J Translator. E/J is a very good translator, and beats Bablefish (Alta Vista's web-based translation service). It's also quite useful if you're trying to learn Japanese or travel to Japan frequently for business. NetFront on the Zaurus offers a near-desktop browsing experience which can't be said for Pocket PC or Palm OS PDA browsers.

How about syncing to Windows desktops? Don't use the software on the included CD ROM in most cases. The best method for syncing to Outlook in Windows is to download the SL-5500 3.1 ROM update which includes an English version of Intellisync. That version plays nicely with the C860 and C3000 series, but be sure to use the drivers that came on your CD rather than those in the ROM update when Windows prompts you for drivers.

Battery Life

The C3000 comes with a user replaceable 1,800 mA Lithium Ion battery, model BLC11. That's 100 mA more than the C860's battery and this device needs it to power the microdrive and bright display. Surprisingly, the C3000 has very good battery life despite the large display and microdrive. It doesn't rival the superb battery life on the C860, but it's better than many Pocket PCs. I surfed the web for 2 hours using a CF WiFi card with brightness set to ~60% and still had 55% battery remaining! You should be able to watch a 2 hour movie with brightness set one notch from the top, or listen to MP3s for at least four hours with the screen dimmed.

Compatibility and Expandability

The Zaurus has both an SD slot and a CF type II slot that can accommodate type I and type II expansion cards. Note that you can use the SD slot for memory cards, but it doesn't support SDIO. I tested several brands of SD and CF memory cards and they worked fine. I tried several CF WiFi cards that worked without additional drivers: Ambicom, D-Link, SMC and Socket . The network configuration utility is very friendly and easy to use, and you should be able to get online with the Z in no time. While the networking utility doesn't offer site survey, it does allow you to use an SSID of "any", so you can pick up any available open wireless network. In addition, the Socket 10/100 Ethernet and Low Powered 10 baseT wired Ethernet cards worked perfectly with the Zaurus, as do standard 56k dial up modem cards — no extra drivers needed. Be warned that while WiFi, wired Ethernet and dial up PPP modem networking support is built into the OS and requires no hacking, you will have to install free open source 3rd party software (BlueZ) and edit a few files in the terminal to get Bluetooth up and running. A new version of BlueZ that supports the C3000 should be out shortly.

USB host is hot these days: few PDAs have it but every power user wants it. The Zaurus SL-6000 has USB host capability that's fairly turnkey as long as you can find the obscure cable it requires. The SL-C3000 supports USB host and it has a standard mini A USB port which means finding a cable won't be quite so hard. Once you do get the cable, you'll need to enable the USB mass storage driver using the command line. We weren't able to obtain a cable in time for our review but some merchants who carry the C3000 say they've gotten a standard USB keyboard working and some users have reported using flash drives with the C3000.

Many Zaurus apps written for the SL-5500 and SL-5600 models worked fine. Since these models have 240 x 320 displays, the Zaurus will run its display at 240 x 320 for these apps. All of the included applications run in VGA on the C3000, and there are quite a few 3rd party apps that also support full screen display. And of course Cxxx series software works fine. Applications written for the Cxxx series Zauri are the perfect match for the C3000 since these are VGA apps intended for the clamshell models, and little has changed with the C3000. You can read our Must Have Applications for the Cxxx Series here.

Conclusion

Call the C3000 a super-PDA. It can handle your PIM needs and do much more. The large display, keyboard and clamshell form factor lend themselves to serious computing; be it web browsing, working with MS Office documents or watching videos. If you're good with Linux, the possibilities are almost endless.

Pro: Robust Linux OS, fast performance, awesome VGA display, great keyboard, 4 gig microdrive for lots of storage. Dual expansion slots, very good battery life. There's really nothing like the C3000!

Con: No integrated WiFi. While Bluetooth isn't very popular in Japan, WiFi is, so why leave it out? The keyboard could use more tactile feedback though it still beats most PDA thumb boards by a mile. Initial syncing setup isn't for novices. While there's a large selection of free and open source software, there are many more Palm OS and Pocket PC titles (though you generally have to pay for those).

Price: $899 from Dynamism, translated into English, 1 year warranty from Dynamism.

Web sites: www.dynamism.com, ezaurus.com (Japanese)

 

Specs:

Display: 3.7" TFT CG Silicon display color LCD, 64,000 colors. Semi-transmissive, backlit. VGA resolution: 640 x 480 pixels.

Battery 1800mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. Uses battery EA-BL11.

Performance: Intel PXA270 416 MHz XScale processor. 64 megs of RAM, 4 gig Hitachi microdrive and 16 megs NAND ROM.

Size: 4.9 x 3.4 x 1.0 inches (124 x 87 x 25mm). Weight: 10.5 ounces (298 grams).

Software: Lineo uLinux embedded Linux operating system. Qtopia for the GUI. Calendar, Address Book, To-Do, and Memo apps, Hancom Office suite: Word processor compatible with Word docs, spreadsheet app compatible with Excel files, NetFront v.3 web browser, E-mail program supporting POP3, SMTP, IMAP4 protocols, ImagePad image viewer and editor, Video Player (plays one flavor of MPEG4), Music Player for MP3s, Voice Recorder, Text Editor, Calculator, Clock, City Time, backup app and more.

Audio: Built in speaker, and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack that can also accommodate a microphone.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) slot (not SDIO). 1 CF type II slot supporting type I and II cards. IR port.

 

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