Product Review: Siemens' SIMpad SL4
Product: SIMpad SL4Manufacturer: SiemensURL: www.my-siemens.com/simpadPrice: less than $400
Siemens is known to the public mostly for the cellular phones it builds. But Siemens has other interesting hardware that one should discover--like the SIMpad SL4.
The SIMpad SL4 is a beautiful machine. A sleek and polished look is an important feature for such machines, which may be used on the go. It also feels solid and is easy to use with only one hand. The big buttons are placed conveniently on only one side of the screen.
Measuring 10.35 x 7.08 x 1.10 inches, this piece of hardware is incredibly light--only 2.2 lbs.. Forget your heavy laptop; only my Sony C1V Picturebook is as light. All of this makes the SIMpad an excellent companion for long work days, where every ounce matters.
Another interesting feature is the LiIon battery life, up to seven hours according to Siemens. But my tests with a PCMCIA 802.11b Wi-Fi card lasted nearly seven hours, which means the SIMpad without any PCMCIA card may last longer. Now you can really leave the AC adapter at home.
Powered by a 206MHz StrongARM processor, featuring 64MB of RAM and 32MB of Flash memory, a microphone, a speaker, a serial port, an infrared port, a smart card port, a PCMCIA port and a USB slave port, the SIMpad SL4 looks like a grown up Zaurus 5500. Only two details are different--the SL4 has a beautiful 800x600 TFT touch screen, with 65,000 colors supported. While not as bright and crisp as the Sharp Zaurus C700 screen, the SL4 can be used perfectly outdoors.
The other difference between the Zaurus and the SIMpad is the missing keyboard. The SIMpad is not a PDA or a laptop but a tablet PC, and tablet PCs do not have keyboards. Too bad; even a small 5500 keyboard would have been welcome, say, below the screen. You can, however, purchase a serial keyboard, such as the iBiz serial keyboard, which is reported to work with the SIMpad. It connects to the sync cable, but iBiz was not able to provide me such a keyboard for tests.
Perhaps the tablet PC label should be discussed here. Some say only i386 hardware capable of running Windows XP and featuring a touchscreen which cannot be activated by fingers or other objects truly can be called tablet PCs. I think this is far too restrictive; i386/XP requirements are due to the heavy usage of not free operating systems coming from Redmond. In fact, the SIMpad can and does run Linux. As with an iPAQ, you can remove Windows CE to use a handheld distribution, including OPIE or GPE. You also can run standard Linux applications if you have a PCMCIA hard disk on which to store them all and if you can find ARM binaries. But many distributions now release ARM packages, and you can cross-compile from your PC any missing application you may need.
Personally, being unable to use my fingers on the touchscreen is not a feature but a bug. I want to be able to click on the screen with anything I have nearby, like a closed pen. Restricting the use of the touchscreen to fingertips sounds like a bad idea to me.
Initially announced in January 2001 at CES, the SIMpad SL4 was not immediately on the market. An initial $1,500 price tag, when the first Windows XP tablet PC were announced, meant the SL4 was not a big seller in the mainstream market. Now it can be found in Germany and Switzerland for much less, as little as Eur. 199 for the Windows CE version (called Sinus Pad) and Eur. 385 for the Linux flashable version (SIMpad SL4). The SIMpad SLC, an SL4 with DECT cordless phone support, is sparingly available. If you have a DECT compatible cordless phone, go for it because you will not need Wi-Fi. Otherwise, forget the SLC because of possible collisions on the unlicensed 2.4GHz band.
An SL4 itself still can be hard to track down. Be prepared to read and write German (or use Babelfish) if you want to get one. I was able to purchase one from NRG Systems, an Augsburg-based company operating mostly on eBay.de. The service was excellent, and I received my SIMpad by COD in only a few days.
The first thing I did was flash a Linux image from simpad.sf.net; I recommend image-opie_0.9.1 to get a Zaurus-like OPIE environment. OPIE support is being actively developed by Chris Martin, who also helped me with OPIE support.