theKompany Review Series: tkcAddressBook

theKompany is a well known Linux software house and they have published many titles not only for desktop Linux, but for the embedded space as well. During the next few weeks we will be reviewing some of their Zaurus software, and we start today with their AddressBook PIM app.

tkcAddressBooktkcAddressBook has a straight forward interface. It has a toolbar with self-explained icons: new, edit, trash, view item, multiple view lists (e.g. view by tel, web, company card, email etc), an alternative sorted view of the name (e.g. surname, name instead of name, surname), syncing to anniversary or birthday tkcCalendar database and an application menu that tongles the drop-down boxes' visibility and the alphabetical filters.

Entering a new contact involves in filling up its name, job title, company, phones, addresses, profession, gender, birthday and a few more fields. There is also a big "info" textarea where you can enter a long text about this contact. One flaw we found in this procedure is that the app would insert a contact if you click "ok" even if no data whatsoever where inserted in the first place.

The Options dialog allows you assign keyboard letters to view contacts starting with this character (e.g. "a" button for all "Axxx" contacts), pick colors for each filing category (so all your personal contacts are easily distinguished visually from your business ones) and you can enter your own info too to be sent to others when beaming via IrDA (too bad that Zaurus' infrared distance only goes up to 20 cm).

The main menu also allows you to change the font size of your contacts on the fly, allowing for more information to be shown in a single screen. The main menu also allows you turning on/off the extra widgets, freeing up real screen estate in the Zaurus QVGA screen.

We found the application very easy to use, and much more flexible than the default Addressbook of the Zaurus. However, a few things could be done better in the interface, e.g. change the "mouse" icon to the word "Menu" and place it on the left of the toolbar, and make it "listen" to the "menu" hardware button of the Zaurus. Another one would be to not load the card info of the selected entry if you don't explicity tap on the name. And the "File as Selector" entry should not be duplicated either, taking away space in the default view of the app.

Having said all that, it still does a better job than the default Addressbook and so we do recommend this app! For just $11, it's a no brainer!

Overall: 8/10

Review of Sharp Zaurus SL-5500

In late 2001 Sharp released its first Linux-based PDA, the Zaurus SL-5500. When it first released its price was between $500 and $700 US dollars. Today, you can get a refurbished SL-5500 (like new) for just $140 from Geeks.com (use promo code "LINUXPDA" to get free shipping in US). And so being the Linux lovers we are, we got one and here is our review.

Intro

screen brightness test The SL-5500 has been reviewed over and over in the last few years, so our review's conclusion will be on how well the PDA stacks up against today's PDA competition at the same price range (considering Zaurus' low price at $140).

The 5500 features a 206 Mhz ARM CPU, 16 MB of ROM (hosts the OS) and 64 MB of RAM (divided in 32+32 MB of 'program memory' and 'data memory'). It also has an SD and CF slot, IrDA and a monoraul headphone jack (can be used as a microphone jack too when using special hardware). The best feature of the 5500 is its hidden keyboard, a really nice add-on that is (surprisingly) very usable to type with.

Zaurus keyboard The PDA came with ROM 2.38 pre-installed. The first thing I did after playing a bit with it, is upgrading its ROM to the latest official SHARP ROM for this model, the ROM v3.10 (by using a 32 MB CF card). Flashing went perfectly and here we had an updated Qtopia soon enough, running atop kernel 2.4.18. Zaurus v3.10 boots in about 65 seconds, which is a bit slower than the OpenZaurus/Opie ROM variant which loads in about 50-55 seconds.

The goods

Zaurus comes with all the needed applications one would need from a basic PDA: email support (no SSL gmail support though, buy TheKompany's email app for that), calendar, address book, todo list, image viewer, text editor, calculator. It also comes with a voice recorder (extra hardware required), an mpeg1 and mp3 media player and a WorldTime application. The coolest apps in the default ROM are Hancom's office suite that include a spreedsheet, word processor and a presentation app. The Word app has a pretty good basic support for .doc files. Opera 6.0 is also included and it works very well. If the user wishes, he/she can also install a Terminal app, a file manager and a few games, found on the .zip file that the newer ROM comes with.

zaurus The Settings tab includes many preference panels, e.g. LCD light prefs, security code for your PDA, backup/restore functionality, IrDA functionality, .ipkg package manager, date/time, hardware key remappings, visual appearance, networking, system info and a restart/shutdown app. The fourth tab auto-scans for documents on your PDA and external storage cards and displays them for you. You can easily then select one of your documents and load them with their preffered application.

The networking panels worked like a charm for me, I simply put in my Linksys WFC12 WiFi card and it worked out of the box! A few clicks to enter the WEP key, and here I was surfing the net with Opera without a hitch! However, my Bluetooth card (also from Geeks.com, I got it for just $15) did not work, not even after installing the BlueZ stack myself. This Belkin Bluetooth card is not supported by the BlueZ or Affix stacks (but it does work with my PocketPC). UPDATE: The newer Belkin model seems to work with the Zaurus. Its price is between $19 and $29, so it's a good buy.

I found the Qtopia interface very quick, even if the machine is only 206 Mhz. Applications do not load as fast as on PPC or PalmOS, but the apps themselves and the interface is super-responsive.

zaurus The Qtopia interface itself is not exactly very "PDA friendly", compared to let's say, PalmOS' interface, it feels a lot like a hybrid of a desktop PC and a PDA interface. However, Sharp was wise to include a lot of hardware buttons next to the joy pad to make things more comfortable. For example, the "ok" button "applies" a dialog, the "cancel" button cancels it or closes the active application (and it's also the on/off zaurus button). The "menu" button pulls down the file menu for the active app (and it can also turn on/off the backlight), and the joy pad let's you navigate in all four directions and apply an action with its center button. The Home button cycles though the "tabs" (applications, games, settings, documents), however there is no easy way to cyble between open applications (you can set a key to "tab" in order to cycle through widgets of an open app, but not through open apps). Yes, adding more hardware buttons made the device more expensive, but it offered a great way to use the PDA with just one hand! Which is something that no Windows PocketPC can claim that it can do, not even today!

Of course, the best feature of this PDA is it's hidden keyboard. In the beginning I thought I wouldn't be able to type in it, but after using it for 20 minutes, I found that I was faster using the keyboard rather than the stylus and a virtual keyboard (the writing recognition is pretty bad on the Zaurus, I wouldn't recommend it). The only "major" characters missing from the keyboard are the \ and the | characters, which I needed them on the terminal at some point and the { and } that I needed for a script I was editing. And speaking of input methods, there is a also a pickboard (you can pick words and symbols) and a full Unicode collection to pick non-english characters. I liked how the virtual keyboard suggests more than one word when you are typing, while you only get one on PocketPCs.

zaurus The second best thing on the Zaurus is its stylus. It is "meaty" enough that makes it comfortable in your fingers after a long time of using it. Coming from the Dell Axim X5 or the TH-55, this was a pleasant change. However, tapping on the screen required a bit of getting used to, because the actual screen is behind a thick(er) glass and I usually kept tapping a few pixels away from the actual hotspot (yes, the screen was well-calibrated). My other PDAs don't have this behavior because they use a thinner glass, it just took me a while to get used to it, that's all.

A few more notes: The soft-reset button is close to the battery on the back side, and if you open the battery compartment there is another button that if you click it performs hard reset (clears up all RAM). The Zaurus came with a plastic screen protector (later it became transparent for future models so you could view the PDA without moving the protector). The cradle is extremely light and does the job fine. The overall aesthetics of the PDA are really good, it feels good in your hand. It is bigger than other PDAs of its time or even today, but it doesn't look bad. My Axim X5 for example, while it's smaller if you actually measure it, it feels bulkier because of its "fat" sides. The SD and CF cards I tried the Zaurus with worked perfectly, both in FAT16, FAT32 and ext2fs. The screen could be easily read on direct sunlight with the backlight OFF (not on shade though). Regarding the sync software, well, it's not all that good or modern, but it works.

The problems

The Zaurus is not without its share of problems. Many of these shortcomings were addressed in the subsequent model of the SL-5600, some didn't. The single biggest problem with this Zaurus is the battery life. With the backlight ON on its highest setting it does barely 1 hour and 15 minutes. Turning off the backlight it can go on for a few hours. However, I personally found the screen less bright than any of my other PDAs, and so having the backlight on a low setting strains my eyes. Wait, you didn't hear the worst yet. Adding a WiFi card and browsing the net, it brings the battery life down to 30 minutes (and I have verified these numbers with other users, my battery is healthy).

zaurus I spoke to a Linux kernel/pda-gfx engineer about power management and he was pretty harsh on his comments about Linux's abilities as a PDA/phone OS saying pretty much that Linux's power management is very primitive and that it's possible that some badly-written drivers (sound, bluetooth, even wifi) are draining battery even when not in use (and btw, Motorola's new Linux-based phone has a 'normal' battery life despite some claims to have 'outstanding' battery life).

Another disadvantage is the lack of an external speaker. There is a buzzer that makes a "zzz-zzz" sound when you tap the screen or when you have set an alarm. But there is no way to listen to a video or the sounds of a game without using headphones!

Some of the software-based problems include again -- you guessed it --, the battery. The battery driver is really not precise, and so the battery panel applet only has two modes: "good" and "low". There is no percentage and no additional info. I was using the PDA, then battery went to "low" all of a sudden, and after only a few minutes the Zaurus shut off all by itself and it wouldn't come up if I didn't put it back to its cradle. That was just about after an hour of usage and it surprised me going from "good" to off so fast.

zaurus A few more problems: Qtopia doesn't remember what input method you prefer, it keeps defaulting back to handwriting when you reboot, Qtopia has to restart every time you install a new package, and no, Zaurus is not all that stable. I had 2-3 full crashes in the last few days. Some of them could possibly be solved if you SSH to your Zaurus and kill/restart QPE, but I don't see the average businessman do anything of the like.

Additionally, the USB controller is unstable (confirmed hardware bug). The Windows application that is responsible for file exchange between your Zaurus and the PC crashes all the time. The Mac developer of the Zaurus USB driver for OSX has also confirmed the problem. Only robust solution is to use a media reader to read your CF/SD cards to exchange files with your PC/Mac.

Lastly, QVGA DivX is not really fast (using third party players). I don't know why, but the Tungsten E2 using TCPMP (runs also at 200 Mhz) can display QVGA video full frame, while the Zaurus drops a lot of frames (almost unwatchable). Mp3 plays well though and in fact the stereo quality is very good, better than the Axim X5's.

Conclusion

So, the real question now is how is this PDA, at $140, compares to other similarly priced solutions in this day? I personally found the Zaurus capable of doing the basics as well as PalmOS Zire 31 can, and even better if you consider that the Zaurus has a bigger/better screen (Zire's is a 160x160 Dual Scan), a CF slot for expandability/wifi, a capable browser and office suite, and yes, a keyboard. The advantages the Palm has over the Zaurus is its better handwriting support, a speaker and ~30,000 apps to choose from. But hey, it's cool to have a fully working Linux on a PDA. For us geeks, that's just so cool.

So, for the kind of money Zaurus SL-5500 is offered these days, I would still get the Zaurus over the Zire 31 any time. Coupling the Zaurus with some of TheKompany's software makes it a worthwhile purchase, even in 2005.

Overall: 7/10

 

Series 60 Version of Opera Browser Released

Just a week after releasing a version of its web browser for Windows Mobile smartphones, Opera has updated the Series 60 version of this application.

Apple Releases iSync v2.1

Apple has released an update version of iSync. iSync v2.1 is Apple's Mac OS X synchronization program that keeps info from select bluetooth mobile phones, Palm OS handhelds, the iPod and the .mac service in sync.

New-age keyboard: Trace, don't write

It may not be long before you can input data into your smart phone using a space-age Etch-a-Sketch. IBM has come up with an experimental keyboard system that lets users write by connecting the dots.

Pocket PC Vs Palm: What to Choose

I am a known PDA/gadget junkie and having used devices with WinCE PPC2002/2003/SE and PalmOS 3.5/4/5 for years, I thought I should write a comparison article between PocketPCs and Palm/Clies (there's no comparison between PalmOS 6 & Windows Mobile 5 as these are not available on real commercial devices yet).

Let's start first with Windows Mobile and PocketPCs.

Advantages:

1. It has some form of protected memory and so when applications crash the OS stays alive (well, most of the time).

2. OS looks better, more modern, than PalmOS. Support for Clear Type.

3. It has good support for the Exchange server that most businesses care about.

4. Internet Explorer and Outlook are more robust than WebPro, Mail and Blazer.

5. More input options than PalmOS (e.g. transcriber, speech addon from MS).

6. "Today" default screen more relevant than "Applications" (because of the very nature of PDAs in the business world).

7. WMA/WMV and ASF built-in support.

8. Automatic support for USB host connector, when available.

9. Runs on faster XScale hardware than PalmOS usually.

10. DirectX/3D support, more multimedia capable.

11. Apps use the full 320x240 resolution (instead of the 160x160 that most PalmOS apps use and double-pixel at 320x320).

12. Able to run more complex games, some 3D games too.

11. Better office format compliancy, MS Office is usually bundled with the PDA.

12. ActiveSync rocks, it allows for direct internet connection and can mount the PDA to your desktop (PalmOS' drive mode is a hack, and only available to recent models)

13. Programming APIs similar to Win32, porting is easy, development too.

14. Basic and .NET available if C/C++ is not desired.

15. Able to install/run apps from flash addon cards and built-in storage.

16. Better localization than PalmOS (e.g. support for Greek, and support by MS' office there)

17. More PocketPC devices include a microphone for voice notes.
18. Supports resolutions up to VGA and there are already at least 5 devices shipped with it.

Disadvantages:

1. Usually more expensive than basic PalmOS devices, however prices go down

2. You need to find .cab installation files if you want to use it with a Mac or Linux. No ActiveSync for other OSes.

3. Cab files by default install in the memory, which is not desireble most of the time (freeware cabinst helps the situation a bit)

4. Drivers are not always compatible between major versions of the OS.

5. Internal file manager and image viewer are crap (Total Commander and XnView save the day).

6. Some optimizations to the UI could be done to save an extra 10-15 pixels vertically (without making it look squashing).

8. Not as efficient as PalmOS in battery life.

9. No easy way to close applications without navigating to "memory" utility (freeware vBar to the rescue).

10. No way to view the memory & battery status on any given screen (again, vBar).

11. Not possible to use more than one keyboard layout (commercial Resco Keyboard to the rescue).

12. Not compatible with Smartphone apps or older Pocket/WinCE devices.

13. Requires 7.5 MBs of RAM to start up with, PalmOS 5 can run on 2 MBs (admitedly, that's nothing in front of the 16+ MBs Linux requires with Qtopia).

And now, PalmOS' turn:

Advantages:

1. Designed from the ground up to be used with one hand.

2. More apps than PPC (~30,000 over ~20,000)

3. Better Mac & Linux compatibility and support.

4. Battery, bluetooth and other information easily viewable through the status bar.

5. More versalite when it comes to network connections

6. Smaller, lighter devices than PPCs.

7. Compatible with very old PalmOS apps, as far as back to 1998.

8. Much faster than PocketPC, it runs well on slower hardware.

9. Doesn't need much memory.

10. When Palm uses the standard resolutions your input is outside the window area, so you can enter data easier, without taking over the active window.

11. Palm devices are usually more stylish than PocketPCs.

12. Great battery life.

13. Real Player support on some models.

14. 4 GB of storage for the Lifedrive model.

Disadvantages:

1. OS crashes too easily, too often, when apps are crashing.

2. Most apps run at 160x160, even if the screen is capable of 320x320 or more (they double-pixel).

3. Palm's sync software sucks, doesn't share internet and can't mount the PDA automatically (requires "drive mode"). And it's unessarily complex and confusing.

4. If you have more than 1 Palm, especially a mix between Clies and Palm devices, it can be a nightmare because of the drivers needed for each device (PocketPCs use the same driver, regardless the manufacturer).

5. PalmOS doesn't let you install applications on built-in storage or flash cards, at least not without third party, nasty, hacks. Only data can be installed on flash cards.

6. The Clie & Palm modifications to the OS has left many third party apps not working with all devices.

7. No OpenGL or other accelerated 3D support built-in in the OS (Zodiac's is a home-brewed solution).

8. No compact flash to be found on most Palm devices. This means, considerably less accessory support (e.g. cameras, radios, ethernet, modem, wifi, gps etc).

9. Hey PalmOS, the mid-90s called, they want their UI and fonts back.

10. Doesn't use memory as efficiently as PPC does.

11. No VoIP support from third parties. Usually Skype or Stanaphone require 300 Mhz and a microphone and only few PalmOS devices feature these.

12. Driver API is problematic. Even PalmOne's WiFi card doesn't support all of their own PalmOS 5 devices.

13. Its C API is archaic.

Conclusion:

If you are after gaming, multimedia, good WiFi+Bluetooth support, a lot of accessories and versatility, go with Pocket PC.

If you are after small and stylish devices with good battery life, simple interface and simple PIM apps, go with PalmOS.

There is room for both, however most modern or tech-oriented new PDA users are more likely to opt for PocketPC instead. In fact, PocketPC's market share *growth* is bigger than Palm's the last few years, but Palm is still ahead in overall market share. This is changing rapidly though, especially with the many PocketPC phones that are scheduled to be shipped later this year.

Related reading: Pocket PC freeware software suggestions.

PalmOS & PocketPC Get High Quality, Versalite, Free Video Player

Gabor Kovacs has just released TCPMP 0.66 (ex-BetaPlayer), the next generation media player for both PalmOS 5 and PocketPCs. BetaPlayer has been one of the most downloaded applications in the PPC world and now PalmOS 5 users will be also able to enjoy DivX, mpeg1-4, ogg and more.

We gave TCPMP a whirl and we found that it's much faster than before when playing WMV on PocketPC (where it used to framedrop on our Axim X5, now it doesn't), however WMV playback is buggy on the Axim x50v if the 2700G driver is used (had to soft-reset the PDA). DivX plays great though, on all of our devices, including PalmOS (very usable 320x240 DivX playback on our 126 Mhz Sony Clie TH-55). Screenshots here, here and here.

Why PalmOS is and is not Dead

Two contradicting editorials about PalmOS, here and here.

palmOne Must Not Lose Its Focus Again

When Palm, Inc. split into palmOne and PalmSource in 2003, the two companies agreed to share the rights to the "Palm" trademark. In late May, palmOne announced that it was buying the full rights to this trademark from PalmSource, and was going to change its name to Palm, Inc. More here.

PalmSource Signs Agreement With LG

LG Electronics, Inc., and PalmSource Inc., announced that LG Electronics has signed an agreement to license Palm OS worldwide. Under terms of the agreement, LG Electronics can develop and market smartphones based on Palm OS.

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