The Agenda VR3 PDA
Buttons abound! There are the normal three buttons on the bottom of the face, plus two double buttons on the lower sides, and up arrow, down arrow and power buttons on the upper left side. The stylus is neatly tucked in the upper-right corner and has a stylish metal barrel with a good feel. An IrDA (Infrared Data Association) port is on the top left with a sleek, sloping red lens. At the bottom is a microphone/earphone jack and the docking connector.
Also included with the kit is a stylish clear plastic docking connector with an RS-232 DB-9 connection cable, an earphone/microphone adapter, a CD and a fancy case complete with its own stylus.
After installing the batteries, I turned on the VR3 by pressing the power button on the left side. Next, I saw (in text too small for my eyes) the familiar scroll of a Linux boot sequence, followed by the familiar X Windows screen. It was immediately obvious that the display quality is poor, matching the poor quality of many other handhelds. The boot sequence took several minutes, but then a display of application icons appeared. Once the VR3 has been booted, it doesn't have to be rebooted unless you change the batteries or experience a lockup in an application.
The VR3 comes with more applications than a standard Palm-based PDA, including the things that you would expect such as Contacts for an address book, Schedule for appointments, Notes for scribbling, Calculator and Expenses. Plus there are lots of games. Playing with several of the applications revealed the response to be quite sluggish. I was concerned whether the overhead of running Linux on a 66MHz processor with 8MB of RAM would be a problem. It is.
The first thing I tried to do was set the date and time on the status bar. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the status bar time correct. At a later point I even tried using hwclock --systohc, thinking it may be reading directly from the hardware, but this didn't work either.
Next, I looked at connecting the VR3 to a computer with the docking cradle. Without getting into specifics, the CD-ROM and instructions that come with the Agenda are useless for accomplishing this task. However, some references on http://developer.agendacomputing.com/resources.html led me to what I needed. (Diehard Linux users might rejoice in the fact that I couldn't see any decent way to connect a Windows machine to the cradle, but I suspect Agenda Computing would rather this not be the case.)
First I connected the docking terminal to the com1 serial port on my Linux PC. Then I ran the Network application on the VR3, selected the Direct to Serial connection and set the IP address to an unused local address on our network. I then ran pppd with the following options:
/usr/sbin/pppd /dev/ttyS0 <<I>My PC's IP address>: <<I>The Agenda's IP address> novj debug 115200 local
Next, I pressed Start on the VR3 Network screen. Then I ran a Telnet session on my Linux PC and logged on as default with no password required. It took a little while to find out there are two users predefined when you get the VR3. These are the default with no password and root with password "agenda".
Now I finally had a login shell prompt, which was a pretty cool experience to see such a teeny thing run Linux. I looked around in /bin and /usr/bin and saw a sparse set of recognizable executables, so sparse that it doesn't even have vi. Then again, you don't actually need it. Next, I tried copying a couple of files back and forth using rsync. That seemed to work fine. At 115K baud, it was reasonably quick.
My next task was to see if I could import my address book data into the VR3 Contacts application. I downloaded a utility to do this called csv2contacts. It required that I install the Berkeley Data Base, which I downloaded from www.sleepycat.com. Unfortunately I learned that the Contacts program used version 1.85 of the Berkeley Data Base, and the current version, 3.29, is incompatible, even though it has a compatibility-mode option. According to the author of csv2contacts, Jeff Carneal, the 1.85 compatibility mode "is a farce". At that point I gave up on importing my addresses.
The Agenda Computing web site is not the place to go for help. Broken links abound, and support for their product and its applications is virtually nonexistent. The most useful page is a set of links to other sites where people have posted information and some applications that can be downloaded. Pity the poor fool who tries to use the Agenda with a MS Windows computer. The support is very weak, mostly consisting of a Windows port of rsync.
The VR3 has a back-lighting feature that, with it's clear case, provides an interesting spooky blue aura. It's similar to the new, low cost Palm m105. Unfortunately, both the Palm and the Agenda's back-lighted displays are really hard for me to read. The Agenda is a little worse than the Palm on this matter.
Power consumption on the Agenda is also a problem. Sitting around, the batteries last only about three weeks. Turned on, the VR3 will last about ten hours. Turned on and running an application, batteries last about four hours. Nor can you leave it in the docking cradle because the batteries will drain powering the RS-232 converter circuitry, reducing battery life to about one and a half days.
The leather case that comes with the Agenda looks really cool. Unfortunately it's not very well designed. You can attach it in one of two ways. One is to tie it in with a strap that goes under the front cover hinge. This is very awkward, especially considering you don't want the case attached when you are using the VR3. The second way is via a small adhesive velcro strip placed on the back of the case, which is flimsy and offers very little protection if you drop the Agenda.
I'm torn about how to summarize this review. On one hand the VR3 is a poorly supported product, with slow performance, poor applications, a marginal display and short battery life. On the other hand it's the most portable computer you can find that runs Linux. The source and tools are there to modify and reload the entire OS. No other handheld allows anywhere near this level of control over the platform.
I hope that Agenda Computing survives to see the rewards of open-source development. If it could last a few years and come out with a model with improved performance, then I can imagine a whole host of applications for such a flexible tool. Unfortunately it will take some time for the open-source development to coalesce, and that might make it difficult for the company to survive long enough to turn a profit.
Larry Bateman (Larry@L3sys.com) works for L3 Systems, Inc., playing with wearable keyboards and RF remotes. Otherwise he's hiking in the Cascades or plunking on his Les Paul.