Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Zaurus in Perspective

Although I assume that because you are here, you know what a Zaurus is and what is can do, for the benefit of those that don't I will explain a little of the capabilities of these truly 'pocketable' computers and why I think they are the best thing since sliced bread.

I have long had a fascination with truly portable computers which started with Psion's Organiser II range in the late 80's. However, for me, the Zaurus is and was the only truly 'pocketable' computer. To call it a PDA is like calling a Swiss Army knife a pen-knife - the description is totally unflattering and inappropriate.

I'm particularly interested in the last generation of Sharp's now discontinued Zaurus range and more specifically, the SL-C1000 model. This is a clamshell linux device, with 640x480 VGA brilliant clear screen, qwerty keyboard, USB port, CF and SD slots, standard headphone port and ships with a customized version of Qtopia linux. However for me, the true power of this machine has only become apparent after the shipped version of linux was replaced with another distribution.

I run a heavily csutomised verion of hermocom's weeXpc, which is itself a customised version of pdaXrom 1.1 beta 3. The SD card capacity in this cofiguration is 4GB (non HC). I have not yet found the upper limit for the CF card; I am currently using a 16GB CF card and see no reason I cannot replace that with a 32GB card when my current card is full. The SD card is basically formatted as an ext2 filesystem, whilst the CF card has been left as FAT32. The SD card has to be left in place, and is therefore not available as secondary storage. Although by modern standards these storage capacities are small, do not make the mistake of thinking they are inadequate. A lot of modern operating systems contain hugely bloated software whoose size is totally dispraportionate to the functionality on offer. This is laregly NOT the case with Linux.

My entire system, in terms of the linux OS, applications and associated data files fits on less that 1.8GB of the SD card; all of the remaining storage space is available for extra gooddies - like music, books etc! All of this in a machine not a lot bigger that a packet of cigarettes. The battery life is very good: 6 or 7 hours or continuous use is entirely possible, although obviously this time depends upon CPU, SD and CF usage and screen brightness. The system has a very good suspend / resume facility which enables 'instant on' functionality. The CF slot can also accomodate bluetooth, wireless Ethernet, wired Ethernet, and modem CF cards.

The distribution I have ended up with is a complete X11 environment, perfectly capable of running full versions of Apache, PHP, MYSQL, Open Office, Gimp, Xephem, R, Maxima, EMACS etc etc. This, despite having less than 60Mb of RAM. Multi-tasking is perfectly workable, although I wouldn't try this with multiple heavy-weight applications running. I have a GCC cmpiler environment on-board, and compile most software natively with it. To get the best out of this machine you do need to be prepared to get your hands a little dirty. However, the rewards for those that do far outstrip the effort involved.

There is no other device currently available that can do all of this. The Pandora is coming along nicely, and is a worthy successor to the Zaurus - assuming it makes it out of the starting blocks. Nokia, in the form of the N810 are moving quickly in the right direction, and if they continue to move this device forward, it will also be considered a worthy succesoor (all it needs is one extra storage slot and it will be there). Until then...this is it: the best 'pocketable' cmoputer bar none.

So why did Sharp pull the plug on this range of machines? Yes, the Sharp machines where grossly over-priced (and technically only sold in Japan), but doubtless something could have been done there. Nokia have since demonstrated there is a good market for small linux powered devices that do not have a 'phone capability. So, did Sharp mis-read the market, or were they leant upon by other vendors (now, who could I mean)? Sadly we will never know. All we do know is that the Zaurus line is no more, and that if you want one, you better get hunting on ebay, or perhaps consider PULSTER, Conics, or hermocom as possible suppliers.

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