Sharp – Zaurus SL-5500 review

Powerful, Linux-running PDA
Photo of Sharp – Zaurus SL-5500
£385 + VAT

The Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 is a sleek-looking PDA – or “Personal Mobile Tool” as Sharp would have it – with a decent 240×320 pixel 3.5-inch reflective TFT display, a 206MHz StrongARM processor and 64MB of memory, as well as both Compact Flash Type II and SD/Multimedia Card slots for expansion with such devices as wireless Ethernet adapters, modems, digital camera cards, GPS, and flash memory.

It has PIM software, an e-mail client and a Web browser, as well as some games, as you might expect. It synchronises with Microsoft Outlook, reads Office documents, and plays MP3 files. It’s also mostly well made apart from the plastic cover that folds over the screen, which is a bit flimsy. So what makes it stand out from the rest of the PDA market?

First, there’s the innovative QWERTY keyboard, which is accessed by sliding down a cover, making for quick text entry. This is usable even if you have quite big hands, although you probably wouldn’t want to spend too long using it. As an alternative, you can use the pen keyboard or write with Palm-style text recognition, which works tolerably well.

The killer feature, though, has to be the Linux operating system. Sharp’s marketing makes a lot of the fact that this PDA uses Linux, but there’s actually little evidence of it after it’s booted. All users see is the Qtopia graphical interface, which is quite user-friendly and bears no real resemblance to any normal Linux desktop.

The only extra software packages supplied on the accompanying CD are a terminal program and a graphical file manager, so we took a quick look on the Web, which revealed a massive amount of software development in progress.

If you want games, there’s Quake, FreeCiv (a Civilisation clone), Breakout clones, Tetris clones, chess, Pac-man, and more. You can even get a ZX Spectrum emulator, although you probably wouldn’t want to tell all this to the boss; much better to discuss the many work-related applications available.

Many of the killer Unix/Linux apps will run very happily on the Zaurus SL-5500, helped along by the meaty processor and RAM. In no time at all we had Apache, PHP, Perl, MySQL and Samba running, as well as a few more games and a better text editor to replace the featureless editor supplied. This opens up many possibilities for information management and Web development on the move, and improved file sharing capabilities.

Many graphical network-monitoring applications are available, and complement the conventional Linux command-line tools. Bluetooth applications and drivers are also evolving, as is a GPS navigation system. Java support means that rapid in-house development is also possible for bespoke solutions. This is definitely where the Zaurus SL-5500 scores high marks, and makes up for the lacklustre personal information management software.

The Zaurus SL-5500 is supplied with a USB synchronisation cradle and a power supply. Installation is painless, but oddly, Sharp only supplies synchronisation software for Windows. Linux users have to dig around on the Web to find an open source solution, along with drivers for the USB docking cradle, which effectively give the device an IP address. But if you have an Apple Mac, you’re out of luck for the moment.

Company: Sharp

Contact: 0800 138 8879

Good connectivity prospects and a thriving developer community should guarantee the success of this machine. Although it is supplied with a fairly conventional suite of applications, it represents good value, and even better value when the wealth of inexpensive or free software on the Web is taken into account.