Product Review: Hitachi VisionPlate
Hitachi lent me a pre-production copy of its new VisionPlate. "Tablet PC" is the hot meme right now, but that isn't what Hitachi has built. Rather, this machine is the first tablet PDA I've encountered. First, I'll discuss what this box is, then I'll discuss what it isn't.
The device has the signature tablet feature: a touch screen. In my experience, its response was accurate and rugged. It's powered by a Crusoe chip running at 600MHz. Don't let the megahertz number fool you: the system is quite snappy doing what it was designed to do. The model I was sent had 128MB of RAM, 4.5MB of Flash storage in the root filesystem and 72.5MB of Flash storage in /home. All this in a package that weighs less than two pounds.
My review box came with built-in wireless. The tool bar had a handy little icon that gave a good indication of signal strength.
The box runs Midori Linux, an embedded Linux distribution sponsored by Transmeta, the builders of the Crusoe chip and the employer of Linus Torvalds.
The VisionPlate device boots quickly. Whereas my fully loaded 1.7GHz Red Hat 8.0 laptop takes 75 seconds to present a GUI login prompt, the VisionPlate takes only 45 seconds. This boot time includes starting up the entire GNOME environment, because there is no login step.
The device comes with a stylus for the touchscreen, but I found that my fingernails worked equally as well, and I couldn't perceive that the screen suffered from the mild abuse, regardless of the cautions in the manual.
The only keyboard provided was an application that emulated a keyboard on the touch screen. My hands are medium-large, and for me this keyboard came in two sizes: small and miniscule. It was usable for brief sessions, but after only fifteen minutes of attempted touch-typing, my hands were in serious pain. Part of this may be that I've never learned the two-thumbs typing method. There was also a problem with focus reverting to the keyboard window instead of staying with the application (usually xterm) you wanted to type in. The good news here is the VisionPlate has two USB ports. So, I grabbed the USB keyboard from a Sun Blade 150, and it worked flawlessly as soon as I plugged it in.
The box comes with the Opera 6.11 and Phoenix 0.5 web browsers, Acrobat Reader 5.0, the Citrix ICA 6.30 window terminal server client, the Sylpheed 0.7.6 e-mail client, the GNOME Soundrecorder 1.2.3 and xterm. There's a simple Bourne-style shell, but no csh. All the clients worked as one would hope, with the minimum necessary user configuration--no struggling with marginally supported devices, as you're likely to encounter with most desktops and especially with laptops. The hardware as well as its device drivers simply worked. The only bug I found was /usr/X11R6/bin/xset q crashed the X server. Most of the system utilities are provided by BusyBox v0.047. This being an embedded Linux device, it uses the CRAM filesystem, customized for the Flash memory storage this box uses.
If you're familiar with Linux-powered PDAs, you'll be more than comfortable with the VisionPlate. Its rugged construction, less than two pound weight and generous 512 x 768 pixel, 6 1/2" by 8 1/2" screen feel rich and roomy. What this device definitely is not, however, is a PC.
First, security is a sometime thing with the VisionPlate. Opera, Sylpheed and ICA all support SSL connections to their servers, and the wireless encryption WEP is easy to configure. But don't let this box fall into the wrong hands: no password is needed to start it up. You're dropped immediately into the account "user", and the box is your oyster to enjoy. Most of the system files are root-owned and read-only. The root account is locked, but those aren't the files you care about. Your private notes, your business secrets, the medical records you were jotting down here--none of them have any protection. And as this audience should be well aware, WEP is a bad joke for serious security. Make sure you use those SSL protocols.
This pre-production model came with a simple manual explaining a little of what was available on the box, with special attention to hardware features. But it was by no means any kind of introduction to Linux or to the specific collection of tools bundled with this machine. If you want detailed documentation, download the Midori Linux distribution from Transmeta.
I have no idea what Hitachi intends to charge for this device. One could argue that its unique combination of features would bring a stiff premium in the medical market, where one project has already adopted it. You definitely should expect to pay more than you might pay for a Zaurus PDA, given the copious touchscreen real estate.
Wired Ethernet, which would be much more secure, was not present on this model, although it is available as an option. A PCMCIA slot also is available, which would allow you to use a third-party card. You'll need to be careful, however, and make sure any PCMCIA card you use has device drivers available for this particular kernel. The drivers need to be installed already, or alternatively, you need to create the development environment necessary to modify the box.
What's the biggest difference between a PC and a PDA? The self-sufficient environment. My Linux laptop contains a multitude of programming languages, database servers, network servers and libraries. I can use a vast amount of prebuilt software and an even vaster amount of software available for compilation. In contrast, the VisionPlate environment is locked down. The Midori OS certainly is available as source, but there are a number of unfamiliar hoops to jump through before you can install or upgrade the software.
If you have a large project where you need to distribute a number of rugged, tamper-proof boxes to unsophisticated users, you need to talk to Hitachi: this is an excellent platform to deliver that. But with no on-board development environment (specifically, no C compiler), if you don't know what your tool set is going to be in six months, and you're not up for making a large investment in learning and maintaining a cross-environment development toolset, you should consider something closer to a traditional laptop.
Stephen Schaefer's first encounter with UNIX was in 1981, when his college senior project was working with a team to get Dennis Ritchie's Portable C Compiler to generate pipelined microcode. The success was intoxicating. Currently, Mr. Schaefer automates UNIX system deployments for RF Micro Devices in Greensboro, NC. He can be contacted as SSchaefer@ACM.org.