Taking Linux in Hand

Although rough, VR3 shows OS' promise for PDAs

In recent months, Linux has gained strength as a server operating system and has made slow but steady progress on the client desktop. However, a less apparent but perhaps more lucrative stage on which Linux may shine is that of the handheld device.

Devices running handheld operating systems from Palm Inc. and Microsoft Corp. incur a licensing fee with each unit sold. These fees have a large impact on the profit margins possible with the sales of such devices. Royalty-free Linux can save handheld makers money, as well as deliver for them a ready-made community of enthusiastic developers.

With last months launch of the $249 Agenda VR3, Agenda Computing Inc. became the first company to ship a Linux-powered handheld device, which eWeek Labs promptly put through its paces.

The units interface elements are too rough and its performance is too slow for consideration as an everyday PDA (personal digital assistant) by any but the most ardent Linux lover. However, we believe this inexpensive device serves well as a handheld Linux development target and gives companies interested in using Linux for handheld projects a valuable first look at things to come.

Developers queuing up

The agenda VR3 has scarcely hit the streets, yet Agenda Computings developer resource page lists 20 Web sites of independent developers working to generate applications and documentation for it.

The VR3 runs Linux-VR, a branch of the Linux 2.4 test kernel from Silicon Graphics Inc. The VR3s GUI is driven by a slimmed-down X server and the Fast Light Window Manager.

Powered by an NEC Corp. VR4181 processor running at 66MHz, the Agenda VR3 packs 8MB of RAM and 16MB of flash memory, in which the units operating system and core applications are stored. (See photo, Page 59.)

The VR3 sports a 2.13-by-3-inch, 16- gray-scale LCD with a resolution of 160 by 240 pixels—about the same size and resolution as the display on a Palm III. However, the VR3 has more screen real estate available due to a software-based input area like those of HandEra Inc.s HandEra 330 and most Pocket PC devices.

In low light conditions, the display features the same anemic reverse backlight as the Palm III, which is useless except in total darkness.

Unlike most Pocket PC and some Palm OS-based units, the VR3 contains no slots for memory or peripheral expansion via Compact Flash or Secure Digital cards.

A standard slate of PDA applications accompanies the VR3: Contacts, Schedule, Notes and To-Do programs handle personal information management needs adequately, but the interface of each application is much rougher than those on the VR3s Palm and Pocket PC rivals, and the applications are slower to launch as well.

For data input, the VR3 provides an on-screen keyboard and a Graffiti-like stroke recognition area. In tests, the VR3 recognized strokes about as well as Graffiti but responded more sluggishly.

Incoming infrared

The agenda VR3 measures 3 inches wide by 0.8 inch high by 4.5 inches long, with a weight of 5.3 ounces when two AAA batteries are on board. The VR3 includes a serial port for synchronization, as well as an infrared port.

Interestingly, the VR3 also features a consumer IR port with a range similar to that of a standard TV or VCR remote control. However, the model we tested did not ship with software that used this port.

When it shipped, the VR3 did not include software for synchronizing data between the device and Windows-based computers. Agenda Computing has announced that this software will be available for free download in a couple of weeks. Until then, Telnet must be used to transfer files between the device and Linux or Windows desktop computers.