Review of the Sharp SL-C760
Prior to the SL-C760, the standard Zaurus embedded Linux version was Embeddix. With the release of the 760, Sharp has moved its OS platform to Metrowerks' OpenPDA. Unveiled at Linux World 2003, OpenPDA carries less code overhead than Embeddix and handles I/O even more quickly and smoothly. In fact, after working with OpenPDA during the two-week review period, I went searching for a downloadable version with which to upgrade my SL-5600 workhorse. To my chagrin, OpenPDA is unavailable as a standalone download. This fundamental system change clearly represents a significant leap forward for the Zaurus line.
The SL-C760 is fully equipped for life on the road, at work, at home and anywhere else you might have a need for mobile computing. With its quick processor and ample memory, the 760 performs more like a miniature laptop or desktop than a PDA. The installed applications include Hancom's Word, Presenter and Sheet. Qtopia also includes the terminal application in the default installation, a problematic oversight in previous Zaurus models. Although the contact manager and calendar are a bit less than attractive, they're both full featured and easy to use.
Significant improvements also have been made to the multimedia applications. These include an interface that's much easier to read when on the go and the ability to view the music playlist with the player active. Both the sound and video quality produced by these applications are top notch.
The SL-C760 features both Compact Flash and Secure Digital/Multi-Media Card slots, creating more external storage capabilities than most users are likely to need. Now that the screen occupies the full height of the 760 in portrait mode, the OK and Cancel buttons have been moved to the side. There's also a smooth-action jog wheel similar in functionality to the touch ring on earlier Zaurus models. The power button has been moved to the side, as well. The 760 also has removed one of my personal annoyances from the SL-5x00 models, the requirement to hold the power button to move into standby mode.
For all the advances these features represent over earlier Zaurus models, they don't describe the biggest and most visible enhancement. With the SL-C7xx series, Sharp has incorporated the CG Silicon display. Developed by Sharp and manufactured by CG Silicon, this hands-down is the cleanest, brightest display in the PDA space. Regardless of the brightness level, this display shows virtually zero pixillation. Fonts are rendered with the clean smooth lines of a CRT. During my review period, I was able to run the display at half brightness quite easily. At full bright, the display could serve as the headlamp for a coal miner. In short, this is the display that all PDAs should aspire to have.
The SL-C760 does have a few drawbacks. As it officially is available only in Japan, the device has been localized from Japanese to English. Some menus remain in the Japanese character set, resulting in unreadable blocks in several of the configuration screens. Further, the reticence of Sharp in releasing the SL-C760 to the US market means the included user manual is in Japanese.
From a design perspective, I found only small flaws. The first is the placement of the CF card when the PDA is used in landscape mode. Although a small card may remain unnoticed so long as the 760 is sitting on a firm surface, it feels awkward when holding the PDA and using the keyboard. I had some fear of damaging the card with my right hand. As a result, I refrained from landscape mode when the network card was in place.
The second flaw is the full travel of the screen when moving from landscape to portrait mode. It is possible, when in a hurry, to rake the corner of the display across the keyboard when twisting from one mode to the other. A quick close of the PDA in the airport, for example, easily could damage the keyboard.
Unfortunately, the SL-C760 has yet to resolve two other issues from both the SL-C700 and the SL-5x00 models. Although the sound quality of the audio player is superb, the software still does not support saving playlists. With the available storage on these devices, this seems like a trivial problem to solve. In addition, like the 700, the 760 lacks an internal microphone for voice memos. This was a prominent addition to the SL-5600 and would clearly close the loop on necessary features for the 760.
The Sharp SL-C760 represents a significant upgrade from both the SL-5x00 series and the SL-C700. Rather than throwing the upgrade book at this new model, Sharp has devoted clear-headed resources to closing the loop on the minimal deficiencies of previous models. Out of the box, the 760 represents a logical evolution in both the Personal Mobile Tool and larger PDA spaces. At $799, it's not for everyone. If your needs include the full range of current PDA capabilities, however, the SL-C760 stands farther along the development curve than any other mobile device on the market. If those changes are the result of spot-marketing in tech-savvy Japan, then an official US release is well worth the wait.
Tony Steidler-Dennison is a PHP programmer, Linux system administrator, project manager, paralegal, spin doctor and rabid mobile Linux user. He maintains the poli-tech blog Frankly, I'd Rather Not and is the founder and co-author of the Linux site uptime. Tony currently is working on his first book, Practical Linux Administration and breathlessly awaits your comments on all things Linux-related at firstname.lastname@example.org.