My Zaurus C3200 Linux PDA

I thought that I really wanted something significantly smaller than my four-year old laptop but with a hard drive and more functionality than a standard PDA. After a few weeks of research and reading articles about different devices, I decided to buy a Sharp Zaurus SL-C3200. Strangely, these are not sold in North America so it required ordering it through the web, site unseen. Why choose the C3200? First, it comes preinstalled with Linux, which was one of my requirements. Second, it has a hard drive. I don’t understand why I can purchase miniscule MP3 player devices with 30GB hard drives, yet hardly any PDAs come with this type of storage. I also wasn’t keen on installing one of the Linux distros on a device that wasn’t necessarily designed by the manufacturer to support it. Even though I’ve got plenty of experience doing that on regular PCs, the specific requirements for a special, small PDA-like device felt like something I didn’t want to spend time trying to understand.

These requirements limited my search quite a bit. In fact, so many Linux-based PDA manufacturers seem to have disappeared over the years that I think there were really only three or four true contenders. I considered the following

Sharp’s Zaurus SL-C3200 (obviously) because it has a nice screen (though it wastes some space at the edges), decent hard drive, and space for memory cards and wireless/wired networking or other things. It runs Linux, (QT-based desktop interface), and seems to have a decent amount of community supporting its software.

Nokia’s 770, nice but it couldn’t fulfill my storage requirements and I read mixed reviews on its interface. Besides I’m used to KDE, so I assumed that a QT-based environment would be more my style.

The Pepper Pad, this seems like an exciting product but I think it should only cost about $600. I was suspicious about how much I’d like its style of keyboard and finally, as a relatively newer company, I had a hard time feeling comfortable about its future. Some of the non-conventional things they’re doing could have great results but if they disappear in a year or two I’d be left with something that I might be able to get much support for. In other words, maybe I didn’t look hard enough but I didn’t see much of a community around this product. Again, I might have been more willing to take a chance on this one had the price been more favourable to that kind of experimentation.

Archos PMA430–interesting, a media device plus. This seems like something designed as a media player but with a lot of the features of the Nokia product and the Sharp product. Unfortunately most of the reviews I read of this, made me leary about its functionality as the ultra-small computer/PDA I was seeking.

OQO 01+, this product just barely qualifies for my list (it’s more of a dream really). It’s the sort of device to elicit gross quantities of drool. Granted it’s the only one in this list that doesn’t come with Linux preinstalled (rather Windows) but it appears like it might welcome a reformat to Linux. I couldn’t realistically keep it on my list because it blasted through the high-end of my budget range. My impression is that the Zaurus is essentially a less powerful attempt at what the OQO provides at about a third the price.
So I was very happy with the little guy at first. Sharp did a mostly good job packing the functionality of a laptop computer into an ultra-small PDA style device. Its laptop form-to-PDA conversion form is a neat trick too (the screen swivels and auto-adjusts itself). The few gripes I had were that the wireless network card juts out into the space where you need to keep your hand in order to “thumb-type” and there was plenty of space to make the keys larger. The screen is quite crisp though it has unused edges that could have enlarged it. The battery seems able to last forever.

Installing software was not at all difficult (once you find some web sites that offer packages to install). Anyone familiar with Debian installation methods could easily handle the Zaurus. I don’t know why its office suite, Hancom Office, only supports Microsoft formats, it should also support OpenDocument Formats (ODF). Its built-in audio player was quite nice and useable but should have inherently support ogg formats in addition to MP3 too. Well this is my general complaint to all the software it comes with, lack of automatically supported formats. And all of this could have been easily solved, had the device been pre-setup with on-line package repositories, similar to Ubuntu or Linspire’s offerings. In fact, it seems like its installation app has all the fixings needed to do just that, but I couldn’t locate any such repository on-line.

I was able to work around the above criticisms, I don’t think they should be seen as condeming in any way, most are easily solved or are not really huge shortcomings so much as nice-to-have things. However, I found that perhaps this sort of device simply wasn’t the right choice for my needs. I essentially wanted a laptop computer that was easy to carry around anywhere. Even though laptops are supposed to be portable, the one I have is big and heavy and I hate carrying lots of baggage.

On the other hand, I don’t like carrying small devices for specific functions. I don’t really want a separate little PDA for contact and calendar information. I don’t want a separate audio player. Though the screen is sharp, I don’t like trying to read on such a small viewable area. I type fast, so the keyboard, although better than trying to fiddle with handwriting recognition, felt too slow for me. Thus the C3200, although it accommodates so much, ultimately wasn’t the right choice for me. I suppose a better choice for my needs would just be a cheap but very (perhaps screen size around 13″) laptop. And this leaves me to wonder how the market will treat the ultra-portable origami-style devices that have been making the rounds in the recent past.

This will be my last post here for a week. I’m heading off on a road trip from Montreal, to Fredericton, to Shediac, to Halifax, to Cape Breton, and beyond…

2 Replies to “My Zaurus C3200 Linux PDA”

  1. I can highly recommend the Zaurus. I currently have a C860 (no hdd) but I’m planning on upgrading to the c3200 soon. The major reason for this is the usb support. If you want a better keyboard for this device (I do web development on mine so it’s a major point for me) you can just plug one in via usb. There are some good portable usb keyboards out there that are small enough to carry around, and when you’re not typing much, just use the built in board.

    Although the screen is alittle small for reading, there is a very useful zoom function built in. There are two keys on the keybord that increase or decrease the size of text on the screen which makes it a lot easier to view. When you’re done, just shrink it back to it’s normal size again.

    Did you buy anything in the end? I have the same sentiments regarding the OQO as you; I’d love to have one, but the price is just too prohibitive.

    1. Jorj, the USB keyboard idea sounds like a good one, so long as you don’t mind carrying that around with you. I suppose as soon as one starts dealing with ultra portable small devices the keyboard situation will automatically be an unavoidable problem. Maybe we need some manufacturers to consider some new alternate to the standard keyboard format, but one that can still be fast. I find handwriting recognition to be consistently difficult and even when it works ok, it’s still slows me down too much. The benefit of typing is speed.

      In the end I sold my Zaurus (a bit sadly but I couldn’t justify it for my needs). I haven’t seen the ideal device built at an appropriate cost-point yet.

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