As regular readers will be aware, I go through portable computing gizmos rapidly. In part, it's a nervous tic: I've been trying for years to find an adequate replacement for the Psion 5MX — the One True PDA — with no success ever since Psion left the field. I might as well make an intermittent feature of it on my blog, so from now on posts prefixed Gadget Patrol: will be about, well, Gadgets.
Here's my verdict on the Sharp PC-Z1 Netwalker, which is currently only available in Japan (and my office) but which is about the nearest thing to the Second Coming of the Psion Series 5 yet ...
Japan has numerous classes of electronic gizmo that never make it to the west. A popular niche (shared with Korea and China) is the electronic dictionary: machines like the Canon Wordtank are immensely popular, possibly because the complexity of ideographic writing systems makes carrying a huge dictionary or six around in your pocket more useful than it would be to those of us with a relatively simple writing system.
Another niche that never quite broke out on a large scale was the Linux-based PDA; Sharp's Zaurus line was the most popular PDA in Japan in the 90s, until the decline and demise of the stand-alone PDA (at the hands of the smartphone) killed it in 2007.
Which brings me to the Netwalker. The Netwalker seems to be the bastard offspring of a Sharp Zaurus and a Canon Wordtank. I suspect that after Sharp killed the Zaurus line, they switched a bunch of developers over to building a replacement for the Sharp Papyrus electronic dictionary (which, you will note, has a colour screen and QWERTY keyboard, and in the high-end models around 100Mb of RAM and a memory card slot: these dictionaries are actually fairly powerful pocket computers).
The odd form-factor of the PC-Z1 is a very good match to a high end Japanese dictionary; even the price point is similar. I suspect some bright spark spotted the availability of Ubuntu/ARM and stuck it on a prototype; then a former Zaurus product manager took a look at it and said, "this could be commercial." At which point Sharp took the opportunity to re-take a borderline-popular niche they'd abandoned at very low (near-zero) development cost. It'll be interesting to see if dedicated dictionaries sharing most of the hardware of the Netwalker show up in due course ...
And now to the machine itself. Does it do what it says on the tin?
I'm not going to cover territory mapped by reviewers elsewhere. I am, in any case, a bit of an outlier: I tend to want a pocket computer for ebook reading and word processing, not managing my calendar and contacts (which, these days, the iPhone does adequately well).
The keyboard is indisputably bad. That's to be expected in a gizmo of this size — it's nevertheless far better than that of a Nokia N810 or any smartphone I've seen. It's closer to that of a Geofox One than a Psion Series 5 — smallish keys, slightly wobbly/squishy feel. Nevertheless, the machine itself is very rigid, which makes typing easier. The optical mouse is surprisingly usable (I'm left-handed, so my right thumb work is poor; nevertheless, I can use it) and the touch screen is also workable.
The software is Ubuntu 9.04 recompiled for ARM. Follow the video instructions for switching it to English and, with the exception of a couple of widgets that Sharp wrote (and didn't provide localization files for), everything flips over and works cleanly. The usual caveats about Ubuntu 9.04 apply, of course — if it's not your favourite linux on the desktop, it won't be your favourite on the palm. I think they'd have done better to use the Ubuntu Netbook Remix user interface on the handheld rather than the regular desktop Ubuntu; but UNR wasn't terribly stable on Ubuntu 9.04. (UNR on 9.10, which comes out this month — I'm running a beta elsewhere — is a thing of beauty and would be perfect for the Netwalker, but obviously wasn't available when Sharp were provisioning their software.)
One big drawback is that the PC-Z1 doesn't ship with an easy software restore — at least, for non-Japanese readers. (I expect this will be fixed if they ever start selling it over here.) There are instructions for taking a 2Gb microSDHC card and building a bootable restore image, but you need to do it on the Netwalker, and a lot of the prompts are in Japanese.
I stuck a 16Gb micro SDHC card in, set Ubuntu up to mount it as /mnt, migrated my home directory there, and rsync'd my netbook home directory over from the HP mini. This took a while; the Netwalker supports wifi at 802.11b/g speeds, but not 802.11n (high-speed wifi). Nevertheless, the end result was a 4Gb boot SSD and a 14Gb user filesystem. (I reserved 2Gb of the microSDHC card for swap. Sure, that's going to screw the card in 6-12 months. But 16Gb SDHC cards are getting cheap; when it dies, I'll simply replace it with a 32Gb card. In the meantime, I can overflow the 512Mb of RAM the Netwalker comes with without damaging the internal FLASH.) The effect is much like an Eee PC 901 that's been shrunk to half its original size and configured with Ubuntu. It just works. My only real worry is that it remains to be seen how committed Canonical are to Ubuntu on ARM. Also, whether Sharp keep updates to the PC-Z1 firmware flowing.
I haven't torture-tested the battery life yet, but it should be okay. Sharp claim 12 hours, using a test suite that overestimates by about 30% — 7-8 hours should be realistic. One quirk of the Netwalker is that the hardware uses the ancient APM power management system rather than the more modern ACPI to handle suspend/hibernate; this means it won't be possible to use powertop to optimize battery life. In fact, there's no suspend-to-disk — just suspend-to-RAM. On the other hand, standby time isn't bad; after 6 hours the battery was still 90% full.
The PC-Z1 doesn't have bluetooth, but it has a mini-USB port and a regular USB port. I've got a tiny USB bluetooth transciever on order — one that sticks 2.5mm proud of the USB port it's docked in, and that works with Ubuntu. When it arrives, I can if necessary add a bluetooth keyboard, and wireless tethering to my phone. At which point I've got an out-of-the-house work environment that I can type on: it fits in a pocket, weighs 410 grams, and gives me a bare-bones netbook experience anywhere I go.
Now, what do I want with it?
For a year or so now I've not gone out of the house without a backup of (a) my life's work and (b) my email archives for 10 years on my person. (They fit in an 8Gb USB stick on my keyring that gets updated daily by rsync.)
The Netwalker fits in a jacket pocket. It lets me go out of the house with a backup of my essentials and the ability to read, edit, or modify them. It's a minimal editing environment — it'll run OpenOffice, or Thunderbird, or Firefox, albeit sluggishly, and I wouldn't want to try and do serious work on it — but it's infinitely more useful than an unvarnished USB stick.
It's a bit like owning a compact camera. If you're remotely serious about photography, you'd ideally carry a high-end DSLR and lens kit everywhere you go — but DSLRs and lens kits are expensive, fragile, and heavy. You can't stick them in a pocket and forget about it until you need it.
Which is why, even if you own a DSLR, you probably also have a compact camera (or a cameraphone). The PC-Z1 is to the full-bore laptop what the compact camera is to the DSLR: it's not powerful, but it's there when you need it.
(And my weekend travel kit just shrank by 1-2Kg.)