Sharp Zaurus SL-5600 Personal Mobile Tool

by Margot Ross

The Sharp Zaurus SL-5600 Personal Mobile Tool is the most recent release in the 5000 series. As the owner of a Zaurus SL-5500, I was pleased to see the many hardware and software improvements Sharp has made in the 5600. The Zaurus SL-5600 retails for $499.00.

Hardware

The screen on the 5600 is bright and clear, somewhat brighter than the 5500 screen. Colors are vibrant and true. The screen is readable both indoors and outdoors, in darkness and bright sunlight. The front light can be turned off and on by a hardware button to save power.

The keyboard slides out and is comfortable for thumb-typing. An FN key serves the same purpose as the Ctrl key in most situations. Other special characters are available on the on-screen keyboard, which is accessible by tapping on the bottom taskbar.

The internal speaker and microphone are adequate but not spectacular. They are nice to have but produce only fair quality sound. The audio quality of the speaker is about the same quality as most internal PC speakers. The microphone works satisfactorily if you are speaking into it at close range.

Hardware Specs

Processor: 400MHz Intel Xscale (PXA-250)

Memory: 64MB protected Flash, 32MB SDRAM

Display: 3.5" reflective TFT with front light; 320 x 240 resolution; 65,536 colors; touch sensitive input

Keyboard: 37-key QWERTY keyboard

Expansion: 1 Type II CF card slot; 1 SD/MMC card slot

Battery: Rechargeable, replaceable; 1700 mAH x 3.7 V Li-ion

Weight: 7.1 oz/203 g

Setup

Setting up the Zaurus 5600 is simple and straight-forward. A series of wizards guides you through the system setup.

In addition to the slide-out keyboard, an on-screen pickboard, Unicode support and handwriting support are included. An icon on the bottom taskbar lets you switch between the input options. Another input option is an external keyboard, such as the Pocketop IR keyboard.

Network setup is easy with the network applet. You can set it up manually or use the wizard to guide you. A borrowed Socket Low-Power Wireless CF card worked right out of the box.

The IR port makes it easy to beam your contacts to another handheld and to your Zaurus from your cell phone. It also allows communication with an IR keyboard and other IR peripherals.

Differences between the 5500 and 5600

Battery: The 5600 comes with a 1700mAH battery, as opposed to the 950mAH battery standard on the 5500. This greatly improves the battery life. The battery on the 5600 sticks out a little on the back of the unit, but this doesn't feel uncomfortable when holding the Zaurus.

Table 1. Battery Life Comparison Chart

Task55005600 
Play OGG with backlight off4.75 hrs8.5 hrs 
Play OGG with light on2 hrs.4.6 hrs. 
With Socket wireless card1 hr.3 hrs. 

Documents Tab: On the 5500, the documents tab shows icons for all documents, graphic files, music files and so on. The display is unorganized, and it is extremely difficult to navigate through all of the icons to find specific files. The 5600 has icons for each media type--RAM, CF and SD cards. Tapping on the icons shows the files sorted into their respective directories or folders. This is a huge improvement.

Figure 2. Documents Tab

Appearance: In terms of appearance, the 5500 has only three styles and eight color schemes. Background/wallpaper addition requires a third-party commercial application such as Zstyle, which allows additional theme and background installation. The 5600, on the other hand, has seven styles, eleven color schemes and adds the ability to display a custom wallpaper, all without the need for a third-party application.

Figure 3. View of Desktop Using ZBlue Theme and Aurora Wallpaper

Tab Settings: The 5500 has no applet for changing tab settings. A third-party application, Tab Manager, is available that allows the user to change tab settings. The 5600 has a built-in applet, Tab Settings, that allows a user to add/remove tabs, except the default tabs. It also allows the user to change the order of tabs and easily move applications between tabs.

Opera Web Browser: The 5500 comes with Opera 5.0. The 5600 comes with Opera 6.0, which offers many improvements over version 5.0.

Opera 6 is a full-featured web browser. It offers several scaling options for viewing Web pages on the small Zaurus screen. It also allows multiple open windows. One nice feature is the Toggle small screen layout option. This attempts to format the Web page to a small screen size, which helps by eliminating horizontal scrolling . This sometimes produces strange-looking results, but I really like the feature. Surfing the Internet on a small screen can be painful, especially with all the sites that use frames. This version of Opera also allows saving Web pages for local browsing.

Figure 4. Opera Web Browser in Small Screen Layout View

Data Safety: On the 5500, a hard reset or total battery depletion causes total data loss, returning the Zaurus to its factory state. The 5600 stores user data on protective flash storage, so a hard reset or total battery depletion doesn't cause data loss.

User accounts: The 5500 used the root account as the default user account, which presented security issues. The 5600 uses Zaurus as the default user account. Applications may be executed as root by tapping and holding on their desktop icon and checking the execute as root option. Root access is available in terminal.

Screen Cover: The 5500 has a frosted, hard plastic flip-up screen cover. The 5600 has a clear, hard plastic flip-up screen cover. This allows usage of the Zaurus (except for the touch screen) with the cover down, which proves to be handy in some situations.

Connecting to Linux Desktop: Currently no Linux sync software is available for the 5600. Qtopia desktop 1.6.1 (the most current version) does not work with the 5600.

USB: I was unable to get USB connectivity working for the 5500 or the 5600 on Red Hat 8.0 in time for this article.

To connect wirelessly to the Zaurus from a PC, use an OpenSSH package for the Zaurus. Once installed, users can connect through SSH in a terminal or graphically with GFTP (using SSH2). This is the method I use for the bulk of my file transfers.

To connect the Zaurus to a Windows desktop over USB, I installed a driver from the included CD. I also installed Qtopia Desktop and something new to the 5600 called the Zaurus File Installer.

Software

The 5600 comes with the usual PDA-type applications. There's an address book, calendar, to-do list, media player, e-mail application, Web browser, text editor, word processor and spreadsheet. They are nice, basic easy-to-use applications. For those who require more features, third-party replacements are available.

The included software is as follows:

  • Address Book

  • Calendar

  • To-Do List

  • Email

  • Text Editor

  • Opera Browser

  • System Info

  • Media Player

  • Calculator

  • City Time

  • Clock

  • Help

  • Voice Recorder

  • Hancom MobileWord

  • Hancom MobileSheet

  • ImagePad

Games that come with the 5600 include:

  • Asteroids

  • Go

  • MindBreaker

  • Mine Hunt

  • Patience

  • Snake

  • Word Game

Software on CD includes:

  • File Manager

  • Terminal

  • Camera application (optional peripheral)

  • Hancom Mobile Presenter

Installing Software

Installing software with the Install/Remove Software application is a simple and straightforward process. Applications can be installed to the internal RAM, SD or CF cards. When installing to cards, however, a warning message pops up saying, "Some applications may run only on Internal Flash. Are you sure you want to install?". I chose yes in each case, and the applications installed to the SD card with no problems.

I own several commercial applications, and I installed and tested all of them on the 5600, as described below. The few that didn't initially work properly were fixed quickly by the developers.

tkc Applications: theKompany currently offers 26 fine applications for the Zaurus. tkcPlayer supports both OGG and MP3 audio formats; the company also offer a free ripper, tkcOggRipper. TkcVideo supports MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, MSMPEG4 V3, H263(+) (RealVideo 1.0), Raw video, AVI and MJPEG.

The Kompany applications I tested were: tkcAddress, tkcCalendar, tkcCard, tkcEditor, tkcExpense, tkcExplorer, tkcFTP, tkcGallery, tkcMahjongg, tkcMail, tkcMemo, tkcPainter, tkcPlayer, tkcRadio, tkcRace, tkcRekall, tkcRotator, tkcShopper, tkcSky, tkcToDo, tkcVideo and tkcWhiteboard.

Outliner: an application that makes creating and editing outlines a breeze. Outlines are saved as standard text files.

Stage One: Stage One is hierarchal list manager that supports checkboxes for each list item. I find it simple to use and handy when I have tasks with sub-categories.

Interstellar Flames: Spaceship shooting game with beautiful graphics and nice sound, which I actually can hear on the 5600 due to its internal speaker.

Jack the Uni-Psychle: a fun scrolling game.

But what makes the Zaurus really special?

The Zaurus is not like any other PDA on the market. What really differentiates it from other PDAs is what's inside: Linux. This OS choice allows development on many different platforms. Libraries are available for Python, PyQt and Java. There also is version of Xfree86 for the Zaurus. There's even a small Debian distribution that runs on a CF card; I haven't tried it yet, but I hope to soon. And just try listening to your MP3 files over wireless on a Palm! With the Zaurus and Samba or NFS, this is a breeze. The Zaurus also has an Apache Web server with PHP support, a tiny Boa Web server and even a Java Web server.

MySQL is a popular package, and tkcRekall is a full-featured database front-end that can connect to MySQL and PostgreSQL databases over a network. It also supports the creation of local dbx databases.

A VNC server and client are available as well. The VNC server is one of the must-have applications. With VNC, you can control the Zaurus remotely, which is handy for typing documents, adding contacts and so on, using the keyboard on the PC.

There's also a nice file-synchronizing application called Unison that allows multi-platform file synching. I use Unison to back up data and also to keep my tkcRekall databases synchronized to my desktop. The Zaurus package of Unison is available from the Zaurus Software Index.

Third-Party Hardware

The Pocketop keyboardis a compact IR keyboard that folds in half and isn't much bigger than the Zaurus when closed. An excellent driver for the 5500 was written by Craig Graham. It was updated to reflect some changes to the 5600. The 5600 version is available at www.currybrothers.com/zaurus.

Figure 5.

The keyboard is nice looking and comfortable to type on, even though its on the small side. Once I got used to the smaller size and keyboard layout, I was able to type at a rapid pace. The Pocketop is great for making notes at meetings, in a hotel room, on an airplane or even commuting on the train.

Zthin Cables by SerialIO

I tested two cables from SerialIO. One was an RS-232 serial cable and the other was a USB cable. The serial cable comes either as either a db9 male or a db9 female. I chose the male so I could use it to console into Cisco routers. It is converted to female with a gender changer.

This cable is perfect for use with the 5500/5600, because it allows users to slide open the keyboard, something the Sharp serial cable does not allow. With this cable, I was able to use Minicom on the Zaurus to console in to Cisco equipment. The 5600 is a perfect tool to use for quick configurations and troubleshooting.

After attaching the appropriate connecters, I was able to connect serially to my PC. On the 5500, I was able to establish a connection and sync with Qtopia Desktop on both Windows and Linux. On the 5600, I could sync serially with Windows.

If a Linux version of Qtopia Desktop for the 5600 was available, this cable would be a perfect alternative for those who have Linux USB issues. Hopefully, a version of Qtopia desktop for the 5600 will be available for Linux in the near future.

The Zthin USB cable provides USB connectivity between the Zaurus and a PC, as well as charging power, without having to use the Zaurus cradle. This makes it an excellent choice for travelers with limited space.

Conclusion

The 5600 takes all the wonderful aspects of the 5500 a step further. The software enhancements answer many of the requests made by 5500 users over the course of the last year. The extended battery makes a huge difference in day-to-day use. The built-in keyboard is indispensable, and I'll never purchase another handheld unless it has one.

The Zaurus offers so much more flexibility than any Palm or PPC handheld. The possibilities for custom applications for business are endless. Currently, there are over 800 applications listed in the Zaurus Software Index, both commercial and open source. To top it all off, the Zaurus community is phenomenal. The Zaurus DevNet Forums are active and offer help and advice on almost every Zaurus topic.

For those who want to install and go, there are easy-to-install packages for a wide range of applications. For those who want to push the limits, it is possible to create a customized ROM image, develop new applications, port existing Linux applications, use the many available tools to remotely administer a network and connect to a company database wirelessly. The Zaurus 5600 is more than a PDA, it's a tiny Linux computer.

Margot Ross is a Cisco-certified network professional who has been using Linux for about a year, finally making the switch after her Windows PC contracted two deadly viruses in three days. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two sons.

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