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Sharp Zaurus SL-6000L Linux PDA
Posted May 21, 2004 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

The Sharp Zaurus line, starting with the SL-5500 a few years back, has gained a small but dedicated following in the US and is extremely popular in Japan, with the clamshell SL-C750, SL-C760 and SL-C860 taking a large share of the Japanese PDA market. The Zaurus SL-5500 and SL-5600, the only models officially released in the US, have never achieved that kind of popularity, and perhaps that's why Sharp is not marketing its new flagship model, the SL-6000 to consumers. Instead, the 6000 targets enterprise buyers, and is sold in few consumer retail venues. The SL-6000 shows its corporate bent in other ways: listing at $699 US, the price is a bit high given the feature set and may not tempt consumers who find the more mainstream Windows Mobile (Pocket PC) and Palm OS more desirable. Also, it's a rather large and heavy device, and is ruggedized. Still, it's a shame that consumers won't see this unit in stores since the unit offers some very popular and hot features such as a transflective VGA display, persistent memory that won't lose its contents when the battery runs down, WiFi and an integrated thumb keyboard. Not only does the SL-6000 have a VGA display, but it supports rotation on the fly, has dual CF and SD expansion slots, USB host capability, a large battery and a ruggedized design.

There are three SL-6000 models. The 6000L is the one most readily available in the US, and that model has WiFi 802.11b wireless networking. The 6000N has no integrated networking. The 6000W, which still hasn't made a US appearance, has both WiFi and Bluetooth.

If you're familiar with other Zaurus Linux models, you'll feel at home with the SL-6000, which makes few OS and software changes from past models.

Sharp Zaurus SL-6000L

Sharp Zaurus SL-6000

 

 

 

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Design and Ergonomics

Did I mention that it's a large PDA? Honestly, when I pulled it out of the box, I was shocked at its size and weight, reminiscent of the burly Newton from the mid 90's. The Sony Clié NZ90 was the butt of jokes because of its size, yet looks small compared to the SL-6000. Our unit weighed in at 10.5 ounces with the plastic screen cover, and with slider closed measures 6.2" x 3.2" x .9". Yes, it's over 1/2 foot long and just shy of an inch thick. The cradle is also enormous, and so it must be in order to adequately support the Zaurus. While it's certainly not a traditional pocketable PDA, it sure beats carrying a laptop, and Sharp intends this unit to be a laptop replacement for enterprise users on the go. While not designed for field work in the Amazon, the unit is ruggedized and Sharp states that it can withstand a 3 foot drop onto concrete (they also state that it's not designed to withstand repeated drops).

The SL-6000 is predominantly black, with a silver band running around the edges. It has a squared-off rectangular design that's all business with no concessions to style. Like the SL-5500 and SL-5600, it has a thumb keyboard hidden beneath a slider that's located below the display and above the directional pad and application buttons. With the slider open, the unit measures 7.5" tall.

screen cover

Plastic screen cover

Zaurus cradle

Included cradle

Above the 4" display, there are LEDs for WiFi, email notification and charging status. The display is protected by a clear plastic removable flip cover that's not attractive but is effective. Below the display and keyboard, you'll find the circular d-pad and nine buttons. The top row of five black buttons launch calendar, contacts, home and email, while the 5th button opens menus. Below these, there's an enter key (a round chrome finish button with a black dot in the center) and a backlight button (press and hold this button to rotate the display). The bottom two chrome finished buttons are Cancel and OK.

The power button, IR window, voice recorder button and 2.5mm stereo headset jack are located on the left side and there are no controls or ports on the right side. The Zaurus sync connector (covered by a rubber plug that you'll likely lose), power jack and mini-USB port are on the bottom edge. The CF type II and SD card slots are located on the top, and the sizeable and comfy black plastic stylus lives in a silo to the right of the expansion slots.

The Lithium Ion battery is located on the back of the unit and has an integrated black plastic cover that matches the Zaurus' finish. There are two sliders above the battery that lock it in and release it. When you install the main battery for the first time, you must slide the backup battery switch to the on position or the backup battery will not charge. The reset hole is also located on the back, as is the expansion connector for the Sharp CF expansion sled.

Linux, OpenPDA OS

The Sharp Zaurus SL-6000, like all Zaurus SL models, runs Linux. The SL-6000's OS is comprised of Metrowerks OpenPDA version 1.0, Qtopia for OpenPDA v. 1.5.4 (compiled by Trolltech), 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 is identical to the Zaurus C860. The SL-6000 adds the excellent Opera 7.25 to the mix, while prior US models had an older and less impressive version of Opera, and the C7xx/C860 have the NetFront browser.

The OS makes for a powerful machine that's quite versatile and expandable, especially if you're a Linux guru. The terminal application (it comes on the CD), 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.

Horsepower

Like the C860, the machine is fast and responsive, putting Pocket PCs to shame. The only exception is program launch time, which is slower on the Zaurii since apps and data are stored on non-volatile NAND which is slower than the volatile SDRAM used on Pocket PCs. Again, like the C860, the SL-6000 has a 400 MHz PXA255 XScale processor. It's got 64 megs of system SDRAM (used like RAM in your PC), 8 megs of ROM and 64 megs of NAND flash memory where the OS lives and where you can store your own programs and data. Approximately 25 megs of the NAND area is available for you to store programs and files. NAND 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 C860. 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 the best I've seen on a PDA. Like the Zaurus C750, C760 and C860, it uses CG Silicon technology (Continuous Grain Silicon ) which is smaller, thinner, brighter yet more energy efficient. However, it's the first transflective CG display and is a tad brighter than those C7xx models— and it's hard to imagine an improvement to the stunning C860 display! The screen is extremely bright, contrasty, sharp and very color saturated. At 4", it's a bit larger than the C7xx models' 3.7" displays, which makes it easier to read text in VGA applications. It's hard to do justice to this display in words, but if you've ever seen a Sony XBrite notebook display or one of the better OLED (organic LED) displays, you'll have some idea just how good it looks. While it may not be enough of an improvement to make C7xx series owners upgrade, Zaurus SL-5500 and 5600 will see a remarkable improvement not only in display quality but in resolution. Since it's transflective, the display is readable outdoors (a bit more so than C7xx models) but really excels indoors.

Though the display is exceptionally sharp and bright, if your vision isn't what it used to be, you may have some trouble reading text for extended periods of time. 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. There are zoom in and zoom out icons on the Start Menu 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.

You can use the display in either portrait or landscape mode, and switch on the fly. All apps work in both modes. To switch, you can either press and hold the backlight button which also functions as the display switcher, or choose rotate from the Start Menu. Certainly, web browsing using Opera in landscape mode is a joy, though it is a bit inconvenient to have to turn the unit around to use the keyboard. The d-pad changes context when the display is rotated so up, down, left and right are always relative to the current screen orientation.

Keyboard and Handwriting Recognition

The QWERTY keyboard is easy to use, though not nearly as good as the C7xx and C860 models, which have the best thumb keyboards I've ever used (and I've used them all!). All letters and basic punctuation are where you'd expect them to be, and the keyboard has shift keys on both the right and left sides. To enter numbers, you'll hit the Fn key plus the appropriate key on the top row. Fn keys are masked in orange above the key, and that color is a bit faint on the silver background.

To turn on caps lock, you'll need to press both the Fn and Caps key. Likewise, to turn on num lock, you'll press both the Fn and Num key. To enter punctuation, you'll press the Fn key and the appropriate key, and the same goes for cut, copy and paste. The most common punctuation marks have dedicated keys and don't require the Fn key (period, comma, semicolon, colon, single quotes, double quotes, question mark and /).

You can of course use handwriting recognition. Tap on the ABC icon on the task bar to open the entry window at the bottom of the display. You can write in a relatively natural way, and train the recognizer to the way you write letters. Handwriting recognition works acceptably, but I do find that I must write neater and more carefully than I do with Pocket PC and Palm OS PDAs.

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 (Kingston, Sandisk, Simpletech). Just as with the other Zaurii models, the Ambicom CF Bluetooth card works (the earlier rev 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 such as the Pretec and Ambicom models — 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 on the SL-6000N and L (the W model has integrated Bluetooth, no CF card needed).

In addition, Sharp makes a CF Expansion adapter that's designed like a sled. It connects to the expansion connector that lives under a door on the back of the Zaurus and adds a second CF slot and a secondary battery.

Most apps for the C7xx series models worked fine on our SL-6000 in VGA. In fact, all of the apps in our Great Applications for the Zaurus review works with the exception of tkcVideo. Many Zaurus apps written for the SL-5500 and SL-5600 models worked fine— I tried quite a few that I also run on my C860 and they worked fine. Since these models have 240 x 320 displays, the Zaurus will run its display at 240 x 320 for these apps.

USB Host and Cradle

The Zaurus comes with a very large cradle that you can use to charge and sync the Zaurus. You plug the charger into the cradle or directly into the Zaurus. However you can only plug the included USB mini-B to USB cable into the cradle and not the Zaurus. Both the Zaurus and cradle have an I/O port which accepts the same cable used by other Zaurus models such as the C7xxx series. The unit does not come with an I/O cable however, so you'll use the included USB cable to sync. The cradle has a removable plastic panel that will allow you to place the Zaurus wearing the Sharp CF expansion sleeve (part # CE-JC2) in the cradle.

The SL-6000 has USB host capabilities which is still rare among PDAs. This means you can plug USB peripherals such as keyboards, mice, externally powered USB hard drives and card readers into the Zaurus. Of course, you may need Zaurus drivers to use some USB peripherals. The SL-6000 has only a mini-A USB port, so you'll need to find that fairly rare cable, or get the USB Quick Connect cable kit made by GoldX Products. Mini-B cables are commonly used with digicams, some card readers and PDAs and though the connector looks similar to the port on the Zaurus, it will not fit-- don't try! The Z's port is USB 2.0. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get a hold of the Quick Connect kit or a USB mini-A cable in time for this review.

WiFi

The Zaurus SL-6000L has integrated WiFi 802.11b wireless networking. The unit uses a Prism 2 chipset which is the most common 802.11b chipset used in PDAs and also used in many WiFi cards. While the SL-6000L does not have Bluetooth, the elusive SL-6000W which may become available in the US, has both Bluetooth and WiFi. Note that the hard to find SL-6000N has no built-in wireless networking. 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. If you've used other Zaurii, it will look quite familiar. 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 it works on the SL-6000 (there are several dependencies).

Battery Life

The Sharp Zaurus SL-6000 comes with a 1500 mA Lithium Ion battery. That's a good capacity battery, and the Zaurus needs it to power the large, bright display, fast processor and WiFi. The 6000 uses a new battery design with the cover permanently integrated into the battery, so batteries from other Zaurii won't work. I found that the 6000 didn't last as long on a charge compared to the C760 and C860 which have 1,700 mA batteries. When not using my C860 for a few days, the battery level doesn't change, while the SL-6000 drops a few percentage points per day on standby. Still this is better than high end Pocket PCs, which can drop 5% per day even when not being used.

With brightness set at about 2/3 and WiFi turned off, I got about 4 hours of serious use on a charge. I played games, viewed videos, editing photos and composed documents in Hancom Word. Surfing with WiFi, I got about 3 hours on a charge. These numbers aren't as good as the C7xx models, but beat out Pocket PCs. The SL-6000 comes with a world charger that supports 100 to 240V, 50 - 60 Hz and charges at 5v, 2 amps.

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. The SL-6000 uses the same launcher as the SL-5xxx and 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, Media Player (plays MP3s and MPEG1 videos), Terminal (have a blast with the command line and the Z's bash shell: install it from the CD), 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), Imaging (an image viewer), Voice Recorder (yes, this Zaurus has a built-in microphone), a camera app on the CD (should you buy the accessory Sharp CF digicam), and more. Of course, the unit comes with standard PIM apps: Calendar, To Do list, and Address Book. Hancom Mobile Office Suite 1.6 is bundled (a Zaurus tradition), and this suite allows you to view and edit MS Word and Excel files and view PowerPoint documents. For Internet browsing, Sharp has included the excellent Opera 7.25 web browser and it truly approximates the desktop surfing experience with excellent rendering, layout and support for SSL, Javascript, cookies and multiple windows.

The SL-6000 comes with the usual Qtopia desktop by Trolltech, and Pumatech's Intellisync for syncing to MS Outlook. These apps will allow you to sync PIM info, backup and install programs onto the Z. Linux desktop software is still not included.

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.

Conclusion

A powerhouse PDA with a great many features and a capable processor. Will I be trading in my beloved Zaurus C860? No way! The C860 has a better keyboard, better battery life and is smaller and lighter. If you're an SL-5xxxx series owner, you'll love the vast improvements in the SL-6000 if you can tolerate the unit's size and weight. Pro: A fantastic VGA display that beats anything else on the market, though the C860 is very close. Robust and extensible Linux OS that runs efficiently and doesn't bog down the processor. Dual expansion slots and a 400 MHz PXA255 processor. USB host capability. Ruggedized design takes the edge off daily bumps and grinds. Good thumb keyboard cleverly concealed under the slider. Your data remains intact even if the battery runs dry. Many apps are open source and free. Con: By far the largest and heaviest PDA on the market. Ugly! Not a great selection of Zaurus Linux software available compared to Palm OS and Pocket PC, though much of what is available is free or inexpensive. The SL-6000 runs many but not all Z titles and developers may not choose to support it since it's not a readily available consumer model. The SL-6000 models are expensive and will face tough competition from $500 Pocket PCs which offer dual wireless, SD and sometimes CF slots, a wealth of 3rd party software available and smaller more attractive designs.

Sharp List price $699 for the SL-6000L. Includes manual, USB sync cradle, USB to mini USB cable, charger, battery, and CD ROM.

 

Specs:

Display: 4" TFT CG Silicon display color LCD, 64,000 colors. Transflective backlit. VGA Resolution: 480 x 640 pixels. Supports portrait and landscape orientations.

Battery 1500mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.

Performance: Intel PXA255 400 MHz XScale processor. 64 megs of NAND flash for storage, ~ 25 of which is available to the user and 64 MB SDRAM program memory. 8 megs ROM.

Size: Dimensions: 6.2" x 3.2" x .9". Weight: 10 ounces.

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, Opera 7.25 web browser, E-mail program supporting POP3, SMTP, IMAP4 protocols, Imaging image viewer, Media Player, Voice Recorder, Text Editor, Calculator, Clock, City Time, backup app and more. Java runtime included.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 2.5mm stereo headphone jack.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) slot (not SDIO). 1 CF type II slot. IR port. 1 USB 2.0 host port (mini-A connector).

 

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