Overall, the Zaurus proves to be a well designed device. With its miniature keyboard, SD and CF slot it's more than a match for Pocket PC devices.
With the Zaurus, Sharp has managed to come up with a device that will appeal to the Linux development community, and yet attract the more tech-savvy consumer as well.
The Linux platform, combined with the bundled Jeode Java Virtual Machine from Insignia, should ensure that ample applications for both parties become available.
In terms of power the Zaurus matches many current Pocket PC devices, combining a StrongARM 206MHz processor with 64Mb of Ram. The device has both a Compact Flash expansion slot and an SD/MMC slot. Its 3.5in, well lit, reflective TFT LCD screen (240 x 320 pixels) provides an impressively sharp display.
Additionally the PDA has two features that provide welcome differentiation in a market where rival offerings are steadily becoming more and more similar. It boasts a removable Lithium-Ion battery and a miniature Qwerty keyboard, accessed by sliding the front panel downwards.
The removable battery, which is good for around three hours, makes it more convenient for long trips. There's no need to carry a charger or fret about finding a power source, as you can simply pack a spare battery.
The Qwerty keyboard is impressively designed and surprisingly useful for typing text, with the use of both thumbs being the most effective method, as with a mobile phone. It only takes a short while before typing becomes fluid and fast.
The device is similar in size to the Toshiba e570, (74w x 138d x 21h mm), but feels more robust. Being a little smaller than most Pocket PC devices it feels comfortable in one hand.
Function buttons are situated on the sliding front panel, while the ubiquitous infrared port and the SD slot are on the left-hand side. This leaves the CompactFlash slot located on top next to the headphone socket.
The front panel contains a four-directional touch pad for navigation, four application buttons, Home and OK buttons, and a dual power/cancel button, as familiar as any Pocket PC.
Using the device is simple, with the QTopia GUI mimicking the Windows environment, albeit with tabbed windows to access applications, games, Jeode, settings and documents.
Those that don't intend to use the retractable keyboard will find other text entry methods. Responsive handwriting recognition is provided alongside on-screen keyboard, pick board and Unicode methods.
A good range of applications are supplied including the obligatory calendar, address book, notepad and to-do list.
Of more interest is the Hancom office suite (fully compatible with Microsoft Office), comprising HancomWord, Hancom Sheet and Hancom Presenter, along with the Opera 5.0 web browser, Media Player, a capable mail client, image viewer and CityTime. Applications take a little longer than preferable to load, but they run smoothly enough.
Linux fans and the more technical will appreciate the Terminal, which provides access to the underlying operating system for individual tweaking or reconfiguration.
Two methods of synchronising with a PC are provided. Either install the QTopia Desktop (a Palm Desktop equivalent) or Intellisync for synching with Microsoft Outlook. Bizarrely there is no Linux connectivity included, only Windows.
This is understandable due to Windows' market share, but alienating the very community that made the Zaurus possible seems odd.
A lot of thought has evidently gone into this device, but there are a couple of minor areas where it could improve. Most irritating of all is the stylus, which feels more like a pencil stub and becomes a little uncomfortable after prolonged use. Thankfully, with the keyboard this won't be necessary.
The only other real criticism is the rather small size of some on-screen buttons, particularly the Quit, OK and Help buttons within applications. There's no chance of pressing these on a moving train.