Zaurus Does More Than Look Sharp

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2002-04-22

Zaurus Does More Than Look Sharp


Zaurus Does More Than

Look Sharp">

Sharp Electronics Corp.s Zaurus SL-5500 marries a flexible, Linux-based operating system with a slick, ingenious hardware design to provide a compelling alternative to Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC-based handheld devices.

Although Sharps new Zaurus isnt the first such device that runs Linux—that distinction belongs to the Agenda VR3 from Agenda Computing Inc., which eWeek Labs reviewed last summer (see June 4, 2001, review)—the SL-5500 is the first Linux-powered handheld weve seen that matches industry-leading Palm Inc. and Pocket PC devices in terms of quality and mainstream enterprise suitability.

Boasting all the bells and whistles of the full-size Linux desktop—including a well-implemented terminal application—the $499 SL-5500 will be overkill for users in search of a device for working with simple personal information management data such as contact lists and appointment items. These users would do better with simpler, cheaper and longer-battery-lived Palm OS devices.

The SL-5500, which began shipping this month, is built around the same Intel Corp. 206MHz StrongARM processor that powers all Microsoft Pocket PC 2002-based devices and sports the same 64MB of RAM that those devices carry. However, the Zaurus costs about $100 less than most Pocket PC 2002 units, such as the $599 Compaq Computer Corp. iPaq H3850, which costs $599, and the $579 HP Jornada 567.

We found the SL-5500 as speedy a performer as those Pocket PC models in our tests, but we did experience memory-management snags with the Zaurus. In certain cases, such as when we were concurrently running the units Opera Web browser with the media player and the text editor, the SL-5500 informed us that wed run out of memory and that one or more of our running applications had been terminated.

The Zaurus SL-5500 runs Lineo Inc.s Embedix Linux, with a GUI built from Trolltech AS Qt/Embedded-based Qtopia application environment. For running Java applications, the SL-5500 comes loaded with Jeode Inc.s PersonalJava. This arrangement provides companies with a variety of application development options, and a free tool for developing Zaurus programs ships with KDE 3.0 in the form of Kdevelop 2.1.

These development options are especially important for the Zaurus, since the Linux-based device has a lot of ground to make up in application availability. The SL-5500 must compete with Pocket PC and Palm OS devices for which hundreds of enterprise applications have already been written.

Particularly vital for the survival of the Zaurus will be the extent to which makers of enterprise handheld software, such as that for wireless data synchronization and device management, choose to support Linux-based devices.

Sharp Design

Sharp Design

Sharp has done a great job with the hardware design of the SL-5500. At 2.9 inches wide by 5.4 inches long by 0.7 inches thick, and weighing 6.8 ounces, the Zaurus possesses roughly the same footprint as Pocket PC devices. However, the Zaurus is one of the few devices to pack both Secure Digital and Type 2 CompactFlash expansion slots into its chassis, and the Zaurus is the only so-equipped palmtop also to boast a QWERTY thumb keyboard.

We found the keyboard, which resembles those found in Research In Motion Ltd. BlackBerry and Handspring Inc. Treo handhelds, to be very usable, particularly when entering longish messages or when working with the SL-5500s terminal application. Whats more, we could retract the keyboard when not in use, and we could also opt for any of four other pen-based mechanisms for entering data as well.

The SL-5500 is built with a 240-by-320-pixel, 65,536-color reflective LCD display, similar to those in the latest color Palm OS and Pocket PC devices. As with the displays in those devices, the Zaurus screen is viewable in bright sunlight.

The SL-5500 is powered by a removable lithium-ion battery, from which Sharp promises 10 hours of battery life, depending on use. When we tested the Zaurus by playing MP3s on the device with its backlight turned off, the SL-5500s batteries lasted for 4 hours—this is similar to what weve experienced with multimedia playback on Pocket PC devices.

The Zaurus features a stereo headphone jack but no external speaker beyond a simple buzzer for alarms and such.

We were able to synchronize the Zaurus SL-5500 with Microsoft Outlook using the Universal Serial Bus cradle and Zaurus-tailored version of Pumatech Inc.s Intellisync software that ships with the device. The Zaurus depends on TCP/IP for synchronization, so users may need to re- configure or disable desktop firewall applications, such as the one that ships with Windows XP, to synchronize.

In addition to its Opera Web browsers, the Sharp device ships with software from HancomLinux Inc. for viewing and editing Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents in their native formats.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

Zaurus SL


Zaurus SL-5500


Sharps new handheld device, the Zaurus SL-5500, is the first Linux-based palmtop weve seen that competes effectively with the entrenched Palm and Pocket PC operating system-powered units. While the units desktop-computer-style interface may prove daunting for new users, the SL-5500s power and flexibility will make it a smart choice for many enterprise users.

SHORT-TERM BUSINESS IMPACT // The Zaurus retractable thumb keyboard and CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion options can make handheld users chafing under traditional device input options more productive right away.

LONG-TERM BUSINESS IMPACT // Based on the open, Linux operating system and boasting Qt/Embedded and Java development paths, the SL-5500 can allow companies to make the most of their hardware investments by customizing the Zaurus software and producing new, home-grown applications for the device.

PROS // Competitive price; Secure Digital and CompactFlash expansion slots; retractable keyboard; open, Linux operating system.

CONS // Less available software than Palm OS devices; infrequent memory shortages during multitasking.

Sharp Electronics Corp., Mahwah, N.J.; (201) 529-8200;

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