- Clamshell design
- dual landscape/portrait orientation
- good keyboard
- excellent VGA-resolution display
- Linux can be a challenge for the less technical
- third-party software is relatively scarce
- grey import (no official support from Sharp)
If you thought Palm and Pocket PC were your only options as far as handheld devices are concerned, think again. Sharp has a range of handhelds called Zaurus which run the Linux operating system. These are very popular in Japan, but few models have made it to the UK -- officially, at least. However, it's possible to get hold of the latest Zaurus models through a company called ShirtPocket, which offers the £565 SL-C860 (reviewed here) and a slightly less expensive alternative, the £469 SL-C750 (prices include import service and VAT).
The Zaurus SL-C860 has a clamshell design, similar to that of Sony's CLIE PEG-UX50. The SL-C860 is slightly larger than Sony's device, measuring 12cm wide by 8.3cm deep and 2.32cm high. It weighs a little more too, at 250g. With the lid closed the Zaurus SL-C860 is similar in footprint to an ‘average’ Pocket PC handheld, although somewhat deeper and a little heavier. The Zaurus SL-C860 is designed to be used in three modes. Raise the lid notebook-style, and you can use a two- or four-fingered 'hunt-and-peck' method of typing if your hands are relatively small. Alternatively, if you push the screen back until it locks into an almost flat position, you can hold the device in both hands, prodding at the keys with your thumbs. The third option is to swivel the screen around its central hinge, and lay it flat on the keyboard. In this position the display automatically changes from landscape to portrait orientation, ready for use in standard tablet mode. The 640-by-480-pixel screen measures 3.7in. across the diagonal, and is touch sensitive. Unfortunately you can’t swivel the screen round when the power cable is plugged in, as it protrudes from the back of the casing, cutting across the lid's plane of swivel. There's an array of connectors and switches around the edges of the device. With the SL-C860 in landscape mode, the left-hand side houses the synchronisation cable connector. On the back is the power connector, an SD card slot (the device does not support SDIO) and an infrared port. A couple of buttons are primarily designed for use when the SL-C860 is in portrait mode, namely a scroll wheel and a rocker with ‘OK’ and ‘Cancel’ functions. The power switch is here too. The right-hand side is home to a headphone jack, a Type II CompactFlash card slot and the stylus bay. The stylus itself is somewhat disappointing, being short and lightweight. There is no built-in wireless connectivity apart from infrared, but you can add both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (802.11b) via expansion cards. The replaceable Li-ion battery lies under a plate on the underside of the hardware. Desktop connectivity is supplied by a USB cable which has a proprietary connector at the SL-C860 end. Software for desktop synchronisation and for installation of applications to the device is provided. Note, though, that this software is Japanese. You are advised to download the English synchronisation software for another Zaurus model, the 5500, which was sold in the UK by Sharp. That software also works with this Zaurus. ShirtPocket does not provide this out of the box, being very keen for you to read Sharp’s Licensing Agreement -- which you do as part of the download process. The full Japanese manual is provided in the product box. This is supplemented by a thinner guide produced by ShirtPocket, which provides basic ‘get you started’ information -- but not, we judge, the complete detail of the full manual.
The Zaurus SL-C860 runs the Linux-based (OpenPDA) Qtopia Application Environment developed by Trolltech. It's powered by a 400MHz Intel XScale PXA255 processor and comes with 128MB of memory, of which approximately 65MB is available to the user. This is Flash storage, so it should survive battery failure. A separate 65MB is available for running applications. The use of Linux in the Zaurus SL-C860 is clearly a crucial factor. Qtopia is a superb implementation, and it comes complete with the kind of software that handheld users will expect -- Calendar, Address Book, ToDo, EMail, Text Editor, Web Browser, (Word compatible) Word Processor, (Excel compatible) Spreadsheet and Music Player. There is handwriting recognition, as well as a soft keyboard. The Zaurus SL-C860 also supports Java. The user interface should be easily grasped by anyone familiar with icon-based systems. A 'Q' button at the bottom left of the main screen acts rather like the Windows Start Button, popping up a list of applications organised into a familiar-looking folder structure.
The keyboard is comprised of QWERTY keys measuring around 8mm wide and 6mm tall; there's a row of slightly smaller number keys, plus an array of function and application shortcut keys. Sharp even finds room for a set of directional cursor keys in an inverted T shape. The keys are tactile, and we found them comfortable and responsive. The surround to the keys is another matter: it is made of a soft material rather than a rigid one, and does not feel overly robust. In its natural state, the Zaurus SL-C860 is only available in Japanese. ShirtPocket has tweaked the software to allow it to run in English, and in most cases the applications are absolutely fine. One or two bits of Japanese remain here and there, but we found nothing critical during our tests. More of a concern in this respect is the keyboard. ShirtPocket’s anglicising activity here is obviously restricted, and there are a fair number of Japanese characters to be found. These are mostly function key options and don’t interfere with your ability to type text, but they do irritate. Your only options are to use stickers or live with the visual annoyance. In everyday use we were more than satisfied with the SL-C860's general performance. The screen is very clear and bright, and we found battery life to be superb. We set the screen to stay on constantly and fixed it at half brightness, set the speaker to its highest volume, and looped MP3s. In this mode, we got 6 hours 23 minutes of life from the 1,700mAh Li-ion battery, which compares well to other handhelds we've tested.
We are disappointed that Sharp hasn't seen fit to launch the Zaurus SL-C860 (and its slightly less well specified sibling the C750) officially in the UK. As they stand, these are highly functional devices, if somewhat expensive due to the need to pay import fees. The price probably puts these handhelds out of reach of all but Linux PDA enthusiasts. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as Linux is not as easy to manage as either Palm OS or Windows Mobile 2003, and newcomers to handheld devices should probably steer clear. To the company’s credit, ShirtPocket is totally up-front about this, and about the service it provides. Prospective purchasers should read the company's site thoroughly. We should also stress once more that this product is not officially supported by Sharp in the UK, and if you're attracted by it, then be aware that your only contact and source of support is ShirtPocket.