- Impressive hardware design and specifications
- slick and intuitive interface.
- This device is still in development, and third-party applications are currently thin on the ground.
Sharp has been readying a Linux based handheld for some time, but the device itself, called the SL-5000D, has only just seen the light of day. Although it's not the only handheld maker interested in Linux, Sharp is likely to be the first to bring hardware to market in the UK: the company plans to launch the device officially early in the second quarter of 2002, but a limited number are available now via Sharp's Web site (www.sharp.co.uk/pda/) at £297.86 (ex. VAT; 349.99 inc. VAT).
We have been lucky enough to get a developers' unit to play with. Our comments here are not a review in the usual sense: final versions of the SL-5000D may differ in some respects -- although the look and feel and many of the specifications are now finalised.
Sharp has been innovative in more than its choice of operating system for the SL5000D. Like Handspring's new Treo, the SL-5000D has a full QWERTY keyboard built in. A panel at the bottom of the device containing the application shortcut and directional movement buttons slides downwards to reveal it. The SL-5000D is no wider than your average handheld -- slightly narrower, in fact, than some -- so the keyboard is squeezed into a 68mm wide and 28mm deep space. It won't be any use for tapping out your magnum opus, but it's fine for the odd email, new contact or text note. Alternative input mechanisms, including a character recogniser and soft on-screen keyboard are also present. With the slider down to allow keyboard access the SL-5000D is all of 165mm long, but you won't use it in this mode all the time.
Linux is joined by Jeode PersonalJava, while the user interface is supplied courtesy of Qt Embedded. On our unit we had trouble getting the desktop link installed, so couldn't try synchronising the with the desktop software or with Outlook, but there were plenty of applications on the device itself. They include a calendar, address book, to do list, text editor, the Opera Web browser, email tools, a file manager, media player (MP3 and MPEG-1), image viewer, calculator, city time and clock.
The user interface is pretty slick and intuitive. Familiar conventions include icon-drive application selection and a 'launch bar' along the bottom of the screen that provides, among other things, an application picker rather like the Windows Start Button and icon based switching between open applications. There is even an applet among the system utilities for changing the device's colour scheme.
The hardware specifications are impressive. The processor is the same 206MHz StrongARM chip that drives all the latest Pocket PC 2002 hardware, while the device we saw had 32MB of SDRAM installed. The screen is excellent -- 240 by 320 pixels and 65,536 colours put it up with the best. Again like the best of the Pocket PC 2002 devices, the SL-5000D has both a Type II Compact Flash card slot and a MultiMedia Card (MMC) slot.
Sharp's SL-5000D shows what can be done when you push at the envelope of a concept and aren't afraid to buck the trends. In the end, though, it, and any other Linux-based handhelds that see the light of day during 2002, will stand or fall on the quality of third-party software support. One of the reasons Palm and Pocket PC do so well is the range of software available for both business and entertainment. Linux-based devices will have to at least match that range. There may also be issues around hardware drivers: the SL-5000D's CompactFlash and MMC slots could simply become data storage options if drivers aren't forthcoming alongside new hardware.