A year and a half ago, Sharp introduced its Linux-based Zaurus SL-5500, which boasted a 206MHz StrongARM processor, 64MB of memory, and a unique minikeyboard. But lacking the speed, the polished interface, and the software of a Pocket PC or Palm handheld, it merely registered a loud yawn. Enter the SL-5600: an evolutionary development with a 400MHz processor, 96MB of storage, and a slew of software. It is now one of the fastest and best-equipped handhelds available, though it's a bit big, needs a brighter screen, and can't touch the established order's third-party software.
|Big and bulky: The Zaurus is not quite as big as a breadbox.|
|Slumbering giant: However, it is large, heavy, and thick.|
At 5.4 by 2.9 by 0.9 inches and 7.8 ounces, the sleek, silver Zaurus SL-5600 is not only thicker and heavier than its predecessor, it makes handhelds such as Toshiba's e750 and Palm's Tungsten C look compact. It's also nearly twice the weight of Handspring's Treo 90. Add in the 7-ounce AC adapter and cord, and the SL-5600 hits the ground stumbling at close to a pound.
The SL-5600's accurate 3.5-inch touch screen is the center of attention, though it's an older, reflective TFT rather than a new, transflective display. While we liked the clear-plastic screen cover, it comes off all too easily and doesn't form a stand when you flip it over. Pull down the bottom of the unit, and you'll find a minimalist, 37-key QWERTY keyboard. At 4.7mm across and spaced 2.4mm apart, the oval, Chiclet-style keys are sufficient for tapping out one-line e-mails and short lists but too cramped for marathon typing. The SL-5600 has reasonably accurate handwriting recognition, and there's a handy place to stash the stubby plastic stylus. While the onscreen keyboard is not much help, the PickBoard predictive spelling application helps find common words.
|The clear-plastic cover protects the screen, but it comes off too easily.|
|A cradle and cables accompany the Zaurus, but you may recharge it via the AC adapter.|
In addition to dedicated Calendar, Contacts, Home Screen, and Email keys, as well as a program launcher, the SL-5600 has a five-way navigation button. But its most notable absence is a side jog dial for quickly running through lists or Web pages. A standard headphone jack is conveniently placed at the top of the unit, and the rear speaker is surprisingly loud. On the other hand, the SL-5600's microphone is pointed to the side and back, so it's likely to pick up stray noise.
The SL-5600 comes with a USB 1.1 synchronization cradle to connect to a host PC. For older computers, Sharp sells a $40 serial port adapter. The good news is that you can plug the AC adapter directly into the SL-5600 when you want to leave the cradle behind. Sharp says the 1,700mAh lithium-ion battery takes up to four hours to charge, but it can rejuice in as little as an hour and can be changed in a few seconds.
|Double barrel: The SL-5600 has both CompactFlash and Secure Digital slots.|
|Lots to do: Here's a view of the device's well-stocked Applications screen.|
With a 400MHz Intel XScale processor and 96MB of combined memory (32MB of active SDRAM and 64MB of flash memory), the SL-5600 is one of the best-equipped handhelds around. With the Linux OS and the included applications taking up 34MB, there's still room for additional programs, addresses, appointments, and a backup. If that proves constricting, you can augment your storage with Secure Digital and CompactFlash cards, including IBM's 1GB Microdrive hard disk.
This mighty mite comes with a generous batch of software, including the Opera Web Browser, an e-mail client, a calendar, an address book, and a to-do list. If time hangs heavy, there's a clock and a world-time map. You also get ImagePad, which displays and edits pictures, as well as runs slide shows. It's also excellent for doodling with the stylus. Hancom's Mobile Word, Sheet, and Presenter are competent applications and compatible with their Microsoft counterparts (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively), but none have spelling checkers.
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Slider hider: You can slide the Zaurus open to hammer out a quick note.
The SL-5600 works with only PCs, although it can sync with Microsoft Outlook or Palm Desktop software. If you run neither, you may use Sharp's Qtopia desktop, which mirrors the handheld's functions. The SL-5600's software bundle roughly matches that of Palms and Pocket PCs, but third-party programs are very scarce. Though the unit's seven games, including an updated version of Asteroids, can make hours pass quickly, the Media Player is a mixed bag, with choppy MPEG video and poor sound synchronization. It shines as an MP3 player with superb fidelity and volume, and though you can switch between applications while listening to music, doing so sometimes causes clicks and interruptions in the sound.
Although the SL-5600 has infrared, it lacks Wi-Fi. Once we downloaded the right drivers from MyZaurus.com, we were able to get a Socket low-power WLAN card working. A variety of approved cellular, networking, and dial-up modem CompactFlash cards are also available. The SL-5600 uses a 400MHz Intel PXA250 XScale processor, not the low-voltage PXA255, which has a faster CPU bus and uses less power. With 32MB of SDRAM and 64MB of flash memory, the Zaurus gives you plenty of room to work in. Taking about 3 seconds to start or close programs, we were able to back up the system in 2 minutes and restore it in 3 minutes, 15 seconds, including restarting the system.
As an indication of its speed, the SL-5600 took 27 seconds to synchronize 760 contacts and two months' worth of appointments with a Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100 host notebook. That's about 10 seconds slower than with a Toshiba e740, although both systems use the same CPU. Each moved data back and forth at 115K per second over their USB connections.
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Dim view: Unfortunately, the Zaurus hasn't graduated to the bright, transflective displays used by its competitors.
The SL-5600's 3.5-inch screen shows 320x240 pixels with a 65,536-color palette, but it's somewhat of a letdown. Everything looks sharp and detailed, but the front-lit display was dim, even with the power turned up to full in a darkened room. With the screen brightness at the default setting of full power, the SL-5600 played MP3 music for 4 hours, 10 minutes on its 1,700mAh battery--an hour more than Toshiba's e740, which has a much smaller battery. With the screen light off, the system pumped out music for more than 10 hours.