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Sharp Zaurus SL-C860 Linux PDA

Posted by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief, posted Feb. 5, 2004

Note the Zaurus C3000 and C1000 have replaced the C860

The Zaurus C860 is an elegant and highly portable Linux-based PDA that sports a clamshell design. You can use the machine in laptop mode, or swivel the display and use it in portrait orientation like a traditional slate-design PDA. It has a 400 MHz XScale processor, CF and SD slots, plenty of RAM and won't lose your data, even if the battery runs out. It has the same amazing CG Silicon display used in the C760 (only available in Sharp products) which is incredibly color saturated, bright and sharp. It also has the best keyboard I've used on a PDA.

Why doesn't Sharp sell this wonderful machine in the US?! While the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 and 5600 models, which have a traditional PDA shape and are sold in the US have enjoyed limited success here, the C series would likely sell quite well. Perhaps now that Sony has shown us with their UX50 that clamshell mini-notebook designed PDAs can do well in the US market, Sharp will reconsider .

The C860 replaces the C760, and if you're a C760 owner, there's little reason to upgrade to the C860 since the hardware remains unchanged other than changes to the casing color and some keyboard keys. Despite the big jump in model numbers, the C860 has only two significant software additions: the ability to mount the Zaurus as a drive on your desktop and a very good Japanese<->English translator. The C860 is available from importers such as Dynamism, who was kind enough to send us this review unit. In fact, I fell in love with the unit and bought it! While a few other vendors sell the Zaurus in the US, Dynamism has the units ready to go when you order, and they are translated into English. They also warranty the Zaurus for one year and will FedEx the unit back to Japan for repair, since Sharp doesn't offer direct warranty on C series Zaurii sold outside Japan.

Zaurus C760

The Zaurus closed.

Sharp SL-C760

The bottom. At the top you'll see the CF slot with thumb cutout. The switch near the bottom releases the black plastic cover so you can swap batteries.

 

Design and Ergonomics

The Zaurus C860 looks like a highly miniaturized notebook PC. It's got a classy silver finish and the casing is made of plastic. It's surprisingly portable, and is in the same general ballpark as other mid to large sized PDAs . The unit can be used in clamshell (notebook style) mode or you can swivel and rotate the display to use the Zaurus in tablet mode in portrait orientation. The screen orientation automatically changes when you swivel the unit between clamshell and portrait mode, though you can override this and change the orientation to suit yourself using the included rotation app on the start menu.

 

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The large and sturdy screen hinge is stiff, so the display won't flop around when using it in clamshell mode. It locks open with the unit nearly flat, and I would have preferred an additional lock with the screen in a 90 degree position.

When using the Z in portrait mode, you can use the five quick launch icons located on the bottom edge of the screen to launch the E/J translator, calendar, address book, email and home apps. Nice touch! The jog dial and OK/Cancel buttons are easily in reach on the left side of the unit (see photo).

Zaurus C760 battery compartment

The side of the Zaurus. From left to right: power button, OK/Cancel toggle with jog dial below, IR port, SD slot and charger connector.

 

When in clamshell mode, the SD slot is located on the back, as is the IR port. The CF type slot is on the right edge and the sync connector is on the left edge, as is the stylus which is located near the front edge.

 

Below, the Sharp Zaurus C860 top and the Sony Clié UX50 below it.

Linux, OpenPDA OS

The Sharp Zaurus SL-C860 runs Linux, comprised of Metrowerks OpenPDA version 1.0 and Qtopia for OpenPDA v. 1.5.4 and a linux embedix kernel (version 2.4.18-rm7-pxa3-embedix) compiled by Sharp. It also comes with a Java virtual machine ( Personal Java and J2ME from Sun). This makes for a powerful machine that's quite versatile and expandable, especially if you're a Linux guru. 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.

However, just as with the C760, this unit isn't for novice users who are unfamiliar with PDAs. This has nothing to do with the unit itself, but rather the fact that 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 C860 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, you can use the English version of Intellisync for the Zaurus SL-5500 with the C860 to sync to Outlook and transfer files.

If you're already familiar with standard PDA applications, know a CF slot from an SD slot, and can find the power jack (not too hard!) on the Zaurus, then go for it. If you've previously owned a Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 or SL-5600, then you're on your way to knowing the in's and out's of the C860.

If you're comfortable with the command line under Linux, you can do your own English language conversion following instructions found on the Net. For most folks, the additional money Dynamism adds to the price of a Japanese unit plus the support and warranty they offer will be worth the charge.

Horsepower

The C860 has a 400 MHz PXA255 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 128 megs of NAND flash RAM where the OS lives and where you can store your own programs and data. Approximately 64 megs of the NAND area are available for you to store programs and files. NAND flash RAM is the same kind of memory used on the iPAQ File Store and in CF and SD memory cards. It's non-volatile memory, which means that even if the battery runs out or you reset the unit, your data will remain intact! This is a very appealing feature for those of us who've lost our data because our PDA's battery drained completely. You can leave the Zaurus in a drawer uncharged for months, then plug it in and still have your data . The same is also true of the Zaurus SL-5600, C760 and the upcoming SL-6000. What are the drawbacks of using NAND for program storage? NAND is slower than the SDRAM used in most other PDAs. The Zaurus gets around this problem by copying OS and program files currently in use to the 64 meg SDRAM area. Think of this as loading a program from your hard drive into memory when you launch it. So you'll notice a slight delay when launching a program as it loads into SDRAM. The delay isn't annoying or significant, and it takes about 2 to 3 seconds to launch an application.

Display

The screen is absolutely fabulous, and is one of the best I've seen on a PDA or any other device. It uses CG Silicon technology (Continuous Grain Silicon ) which is smaller, thinner, brighter yet more energy efficient. The screen is extremely bright, contrasty, sharp and very color saturated. When viewing images on a CF card taken with my 5 megapixel digicam, they actually look better on the Zaurus than on a traditional monitor or my high end Sony LCD! It's hard to imagine what this display looks like— you really must see it in person. The closest competitor is the XBRITE technology used on the Sony Vaio TR2A notebook. Despite the large number of pixels crammed into the 3.7" LCD, text remains sharp and very readable. It's a rare pleasure to find a PDA with VGA (640 x 480) resolution and my beloved Toshiba e805 Pocket PC is the only other VGA resolution PDA commonly available in the US. However, you must install 3rd party software to have all apps run in VGA on the e805, and landscape mode is only supported via that 3rd party software hack. The C860's native landscape VGA display in conjunction with the excellent keyboard really make for a wonderful web browsing experience using the included NetFront, and is perfect for working with spreadsheets and Word documents.

However, if your eyes are older or not very good, you may suffer eyestrain, despite the sharpness of the display. Text is quite small, but you can enlarge it by changing the font in the current app or by using the built-in zoom feature of the Zaurus. The C860 has two Fn keys that offers 5 levels of zoom. The zoom feature affects text size in most all applications, but doesn't change the size of graphics (which is a good thing!). The zoom feature will resize icons in the Zaurus home launcher, and those are the only graphical items that are zoomable.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the C860 is my absolute favorite! I was thumb-typing at 40 WPM as soon as I took it out of the box, and am even faster after a week using the device. It's the roomiest of any current PDA with the exception of the much larger NEC MobilePro 900, which isn't really in the PDA category. Compared to the Sony Clié UX50 & UX40, this keyboard's keys are easier to press, have greater spacing (since the Zaurus is larger than the UX) and offer a bit more travel and tactile feedback. Of course, they don't light up as do the UX and recent NX Clié keyboards. The Sharp C860 keys are made of a vinyl-like material rather than hard plastic. The Zaurus has a full English keyboard, a dedicated number row, two shift keys (yay!), arrow keys for navigation, OK and Cancel buttons, and quick launch keys for the calendar, address book, 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.

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 (though the Socket didn't get a strong signal in the C760, the newer drivers pre-installed on the C860 worked well and the Socket card had normal range). My favorite card has been the Ambicom since it's reasonably priced, uses little power, has a small antenna cap and works well with 3rd party networking apps like Kismet. 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. Kismet is a great site survey and sniffer app for the Zaurus, and we've included it in our review of must have apps for the Zaurus. We've also published a review of the Ambicom CF Bluetooth card which works with the Z (the earlier rev Ambicom card with the black antenna cap works, while the newer rev with the purple cap and LED doesn't). 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. The Socket CF Bluetooth card also works with the C860. 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.

Comparing the C860 and Sony Clié UX40 / UX50:

The Zaurus is larger as you can see from the photos below, but is really an average sized PDA, while the UX is amazingly small.

The display on the Z is much better in terms of saturation, brightness and resolution (640 x 480 vs. 480 x 320).

The keyboard on the Zaurus is better, though the keys on the UX light up which is handy for those who type in dark environments.

The Zaurus has an SD and CF type II expansion slot, while the UX has a Memory Stick slot.

The Zaurus operates in both landscape and portrait modes, while the UX operates only in landscape mode.

The Zaurus has no built-in wireless networking, while the UX40 has Bluetooth and the UX50 has both Bluetooth and WiFi. You'll have to purchase networking cards separately for your Zaurus.

The UX models have an integrated VGA digicam, while you must purchase Sharp's CF VGA digicam if you want to take photos.

In terms of display, keyboard and computing power the Zaurus wins. However, the selection of Zaurus software is meager compared to the huge number of Palm applications available.

The UX comes with very reliable syncing software that's in English. The SL-C860 comes with Japanese syncing software that displays with a lot of garbage characters when run on English Windows. However, you can download an English version of the syncing software for Windows that works very well.

Much of the Zaurus software is free and open source. You can easily get into developing your own apps or porting desktop Linux apps if you're a programmer. It's also a great way to get into Linux if you don't have a desktop or notebook to devote to that project!

Palm OS apps require no technical knowledge to install, and most are clearly described on the download site. Some free Zaurus apps require more technical knowledge: you sometimes have to figure out dependancies (which other packages are required for your app to run) and visit the command line to configure or in some cases run the app. Documentation can be slim when it comes to installation and configuration. But don't get too scared! There are plenty of turnkey Z apps, and commercial developers like theKompany offer apps that are as easy to install as are Palm apps.

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 C860, and there are quite a few 3rd party apps that also support full screen display. And of course C7xx series software works fine.

For power users, one of the great appeals of the Zaurus is loading custom ROMs. In simple terms, these are alternative Linux operating systems compiled for and tailored to the Zaurus and it's ARM family processor. Think of it as switching Linux distributions, if you're a Linux-saavy person. Some of the more popular ROMs for the C860 include Cacko's ROM, tkcROM and X11. You can find links to these ROMs on the Zaurus User's Group downloads page.

Battery Life

The Sharp C860 comes with a 1700 mA Lithium Ion battery. This is a larger battery than the C700 and C750 models had. Since the battery pack is thicker and sticks out a bit on the bottom, Sharp has added a black plastic cover that covers the entire bottom of the PDA making for an even surface, rather than having a bulge in the battery section. You could also run the lower capacity thinner standard battery, in which case you wouldn't use the black bottom plate, but instead use the silver plastic battery door which is included. This will reduce the thickness of the unit by 5mm.

With brightness set one notch from the top (that's very bright!) the battery easily lasted me through the day when I used the PIM apps, Hancom Word and Sheet, played some games and surfed for two hours. If you use WiFi continuously, you should get at least 3 hours run time and likely more (this will vary depending on the power efficiency of the card you use and the signal strength of your access point). The C860 beats most other recent Palm OS and Pocket PC devices on battery run times, thanks to the power-frugal CG display, large battery and good power management. That said, the unit takes a while to charge since it has a large battery and a conservative 1 amp charger (most PDA chargers are 2 amp). It will take 4 hours to charge a battery that's been drained to 15% charge.

Software Bundle

If you've used other Sharp Zaurus models running Linux in the past, then the OS and included applications will no doubt be familiar. Dynamism has done a great job converting the unit to English, and pretty much everything but the help files have been translated. The C860 uses the same launcher as the SL-5xxx and prior C7xx 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, an MP3 player, video 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 text editor (won't work with system and conf files, so use vi or get a copy of the free nano port to edit your system config files), image viewer and editor, voice recorder (though there is no built-in mic on the Z, so you'll have to use an external mic or talk into the left earpiece of you stereo headphones— really! ), a camera app (should you buy the accessory Sharp CF digicam), and more. Of course, the unit comes with standard PIM apps: calendar, To Do list, and an address book. 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, Excel and powerPoint documents. For Internet browsing, Sharp has included the excellent NetFront v.3 web browser, rather than Opera, which is found on the SL-5500 and 5600 models sold in the US. 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.

The C860 comes with desktop syncing software that's in Japanese, and as mentioned earlier, is not readable even for Japanese speakers. It looks to be a combination of the usual Qtopia desktop by Trolltech, Intellisync, and Sharp's Zaurus Shot for capturing your PC's screen on the Zaurus. I was able to mount the Z as a drive under Windows via USB using this software, but I couldn't sync my PIM info. 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 series, but be sure to use the C7xx drivers that came on your CD rather than those in the ROM update when Windows prompts you for drivers. I use this method myself, and am able to reliably sync my Outlook data, as well as transfer files and back up the Z .

If you're interested in additional software for the Zaurus line, killefiz.de/zaurus and zaurus.spy.org are good places to start. The former gives you descriptions of the software and is categorized, while the later has a great deal of links to informative sites. zaurus.spy.org/feeds/docs-zaurus-com/ and www.zaurususergroup.com/feed/ also have a true "feed", which means you can use it as an "Install packages via networks" location. Among commercial software makers supporting the C860, theKompany.com is probably the biggest and one of the best offering turn key apps.

Conclusion

Pro: An absolutely gorgeous VGA display that is head and shoulders above others. Best keyboard on a PDA makes typing surprisingly painless. The large display, speed and keyboard make this feel like a viable laptop replacement. Your data remains intact even if the battery runs dry. Excellent battery life. Linux OS is robust, fast and has great support for networking. Many apps are open source and free. Has good expansion with the SD slot, and the CF slot which works with WiFi, Ethernet, dial up modems, Sharp digicam and GPS. You can customize the Z to suit yourself by hacking the system and/or loading custom ROMs. While not tiny, it fits in your pocket and doesn't cry for a case given the clamshell design that protects the display. Con: Manual and CD are in Japanese, as is the syncing software. You'll need to download and install a version of the syncing software that works in English from www.myzaurus.com. On a high end device, I'd really like to see built in WiFi and maybe Bluetooth on this perfect mini-Net surfer. The Sony Clié UX50 clearly beats it in this respect and even adds an integrated digicam. Not a great selection of Zaurus Linux software available, though much of what is available is free or inexpensive.

Dynamism list price $849. Includes English conversion, unit, USB sync cable, charger, extended battery, battery door for smaller battery (smaller battery not included), Japanese printed manual and CD ROM.

 

Specs:

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

Battery 1700mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. This battery is the extended battery, Sharp also makes a smaller capacity battery.

Performance: Intel PXA255 400 MHz XScale processor. 128 megs of RAM for storage, ~ 64 of which is available to the user and 64 MB program memory.

Size: 4.25" x 3.25" x 1.0" at thickest point of hinge, .8" for the rest of the unit. Weight Approximately 9.5 ounces (120 x 83 x 23.6mm. Weight: 250 grams).

Software: Linux-based operating system (OpenPDA). 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. Java runtime included.

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. IR port.

 

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