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Gadget Patrol: Netwalker

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.)

35 Comments

1:

Nice to know you found a gadget that approximates what you really want. Just out of idle curiosity:
Dou you intend to use your phone as a UMTS/HSDPA modem to go online with your netwalker via the USB-added bluetooth connection?
As I see it what the netwalker is missing most hardwarewise (maybe next to internal bluetooth) is a SIM-card slot, but that's probably just my bad experience in using my phone as a bluetooth connected modem speaking...

2:

TBR: you're quite right. (And yes, I may use my phone as a UMTS modem -- or not, depends how badly I want to get online from the Netwalker in locations with no Wifi.)

I suspect the Netwalker won't get a SIM-card slot unless they (a) decide to sell it outside Japan and (b) it's successful enough to spawn a series of machines. Japan is, as they say, Different (especially in the world of telephony).

3:

Heh, I used to be a photographer and you're absolutely right about the DSLR (and lenses+flashes+bags+batteries that are vital for anything serious). (D)SLRs are a working tool, not a point and shoot solution.

Just wanted to say thanks for doing the occasional look into gadgets, I think I have a similar need to you but not the werewithal or dedication to try a bunch of different gadgets. I'm just going to play follow the leader.

Cheers! I owe you a pint/beverage of choice/cup of tea.

4:

Gadget Patrol is a great idea.

I hope you will consider making it a separate section linked to from your main page. Otherwise, each GP article will just be buried in the archives very quickly. It would only need to list each Gadget Patrol article, a date stamp (usefull and very desireable), and the link to it. Anything more would just add more work for you than necessary, which I know you do *not* need.

Eventually it could be a sort of timeline about gadgets for anyone wanting to note how things increased in capacity and functionality over time.

By the way, if the Netwalker is only available in Japan, how did you get one? My point here is: where feasible, could you state how we can get things you review and we may want, but are not generally available?

5:

Neat stuff! The thought of being able to reliably prune a couple kilos off of travel kit is...pretty nifty.

6:

Ed: I'm using tagging so hopefully these articles will be searchable. (Yes, I'll look into a tag-specific index page as well.)

Bruce: usability is ... well, it's got a slow SSD and an 800MHz processor and not enough RAM. This really isn't a substitute for a laptop if you want to get real work done -- as I said, it's like a cheap pocket compact camera compared to a DSLR. If planning a multi-day trip with working time, I'd take a laptop. That said, it runs the same apps that I'd be running on the laptop: it's not just a PDA with cut-down substitutes.

We've had stabs at pocket PCs before, going back to the late 80s -- anyone else remember the Atari Portfolio? -- but we now seem to be getting machines that are powerful enough to be useful and still have a decent battery life, while being affordable. For example, the Netwalker is about 20-30% cheaper (once you account for inflation) than the Psion 5 was when it first appeared.

7:

Incidentally, here's what I want in my (current) ideal travel kit:

* Volume: 1 litre (10 x 10 x 10 centimetres or equivalent when packed) -- I'm looking for something that's jacket-pockets portable, or that I can stuff in an airline seatback pouch

* Weight: 1Kg (2.2 lbs) (including chargers/batteries) -- I'm looking for something that is light enough to carry everywhere

* Value: (replacement) under US $1000 (will stretch to £1000) -- cheaper is better, if it's too valuable to carry it's no damn use!

What it needs to do:

* Keep Charlie entertained on a 24-hour journey, e.g. flying UK to Australia (if it can do that, it can tackle shorter journeys as well)

* Allow Charlie to do some light-duty work, such as might be needed while travelling (use airline/hotel booking websites, reply briefly to email, work on a short story)

Breaking that down into sub-tasks:

- Listen to music

- Read ebooks

- Make phone calls

- Watch movies (max: 4 hours)

- Play games (max: 6 hours)

- Basic office functionality (web/email/word processing)

- Basic internet functionality (where there's bandwidth)

I don't believe it's currently possible to get this to work within the weight/space/cost constraints. It is possible to come close -- a combination of the Sharp Netwalker (or UMID M1), a Sony PRS-300 ebook reader, a Think Outside Sierra bluetooth keyboard, decent ear canal headphones, iGo charger kit, and an iPhone is nearly on the nail. (But the replacement cost of the iPhone drives it way over $1000, unless we cheat and allow for phone handset insurance.)

Note that the instant you start talking about laptops, or even a small netbook, you've added 1.5-2Kg (or 3-4Kg if we're talking about a real laptop, including charger and case). For comparison, the clothing and toiletries I need for 3 nights away from home weigh about 1.5-2Kg (plus the weight of a bag).

8:

Could you link the bluetooth dongle you mentioned? The smallest I've found sticks out by about a centimetre.

9:

OK, we're getting closer to the portable Doctor's Office Entertainment and Light Work Gadget. Since I don't do much text entry on the go I've been looking for the single gadget on my belt solution. So last week, with my motorola phone headed for oblivion (needed a battery, front lcd cracked), I rolled versus shiny and lost: replaced the phone and my iPod Touch with a new iPhone 3Gs. So far it looks like a good solution for all your points but the basic office functionality, and bluetooth keyboard maybe could fix that¹. The basic limitations are: low internet bandwidth when not in a wifi hotspot, too small a screen for best viewing of movies, battery life not as long as needed for a really long plane flight (and under heavy internet use, maybe not long enough for a 12 hour con day).

Still, the gadgets coming out these days lead me to believe that we're on track for a reasonable palmtop primary computing environment in time for Halting State.

1. Assuming, of course, that Apple starts to allow that; the alternative is to use a jailbroken phone, but that's a real pain every time the OS gets upgraded and you have to decide between upgrading and having the new functionality (and support for the apps shortly after), and keeping the keyboard working.

10:

Hee. If you're really serious about street photography you carry a Leica M9 with a 35mm lens. Feh on SLRs.

11:

If you're really really serious about street photography, you use a pinhole camera fashioned out of Henri Cartier-Bresson's skull and corneas. At the risk of going on topic, note that Starbucks now gives free wifi to holders of their prepaid purchase carders. Note that I din't say users of those cards. A useful thing for the road.

12:

For serious travelling photographers Lowepro do a rolling case that can carry an SLR, some lenses, a laptop, and still count as carry on luggage. Never been able to afford at £150.

I've like to see a similar rolling gadget bag for laptop users and gadget fans though.

13:

Unanswered question, Ed @4:

I got my Netwalker via a friend who was in Japan recently and who bought one in Yodabashi Camera on my behalf.

I gather Conics.net export grey-market units; Dynamism.com are likely to do so as well. (These are two of the usual exporters of weird-ass Japanese electronics.)

14:

And ideally the kit should all charge from one plug in under an hour (preferably less than 30 mins). True: USB helps, but it is still not universal, sometimes not powerful enough, and requires a hub for a bunch of devices. [Or has someone found an easy solution to this one?]

(Why is it an issue for me? A number of hotels I've been in cut the room power when you pull the keycard out of the silly room light slot. And often they only have one or two sockets available, anyway.)

15:

Do those slots actually authenticate the card in any way? There's quite a lot of hackology about cloning, reading, and tinkering with hotel keycards, but that's too heavyweight for the problem. Remind me to experiment next time.

16:

a quick check suggests a lot use microswitches, and recent ones are self-powered (pressing the card into the device generates the juice needed to signal the master switch)

17:

Kevin: the hotels with the keycard power switch can be cheated: just stick a business card (if necessary, a plastic card like a phonecard) in the slot. They don't check for a valid room key.

18:

"A number of hotels I've been in cut the room power when you pull the keycard out of the silly room light slot. And often they only have one or two sockets available, anyway."

I obviously need to get out more. Room light slot? I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing.

19:

ben, if you're unfamiliar with this annoying misfeature, you're obviously not staying in the wrong hotels.

(It's fairly clearly an attempt to address inconsiderate and Environmentally Incorrect guests who go out leaving the TV on and all the lights burning, thus adding to the hotel's electricity bill; I'd have some sympathy if they did it by per-room electricity billing, but as it is the card-switches succeed only in annoying those of us with low-power gadgets that need charging.)

20:

Charlie.I'm interested in your, almost throwaway comment about Ubuntu 9.10. I'm a newcomer with Linux, I bought an Acer Aspire One (end of line at Comet so reasonable spec for sub £180) with the cut down, and locked down. 'Linpus' distribution. Took me less than two weeks before I wiped and installed Ubuntu 9.04 UNR I have one or two minor quibbles but on the whole a major improvement and it allows me to get familiar by poking things without screwing my main/business/work systems.

Anyway when 9.10 releases would you upgrade or wipe and do a clean install? I use it as my light use con/holiday system (and yes you *can* use GIMP on it!)

21:

John: if you're already running Ubuntu 9.04 UNR, I'd just do an upgrade when 9.10 officially comes out. (I'm running a late beta/release candidate, but the final release is due later this month).

Between 8.x and 9.x it might be better to do a wipe-and-reinstall, but between point releases the upgrade seems to work okay.

22:

Charlie @19:
It's a captcha for meat-space, gotcha. Never run into anything like that, and I've stayed in some dives (think about the more desolate corners of North Carolina, now picture the one motel along the road that has no cars or signs of life besides yours. yeah, THAT one) and they'll skimp on everything from cleaning to toilet paper, but they've all allowed me to run the Air Conditioning from hell to breakfast. Then again, I haven't been on a vacation in quite a while, so that could all be changing.

23:

ben: you said "air conditioning". This tends to be a feature of British, Irish, or other European hotels, where (a) electricity costs a lot more and (b) air conditioning is a rarity (and rarely necessary).

24:

re: room light slot

Also a feature of some hotels in latin america.

I annoyed the hell out of the front desk at a small 'out of the way' hotel in Brazil... confusion arising out of my imperfect spanish (zero portuguese), their better but still imperfect english, and a device that requires you to insert your card to get lights & power - situated around a corner in the room not visible from the door!

me: I don't seem to have power in my room. I'll be waiting in the bar.
FD: We just checked and the power is on, sir.
me: I just checked. Power is not on - I'll wait in the bar...
FD: but sir - we checked again. Power is definitely on.
...
we endured at least a couple of iterations of this -- there was never a porter when I went back to the front desk, and I hate 'waiting' (except, as it happens, in bars!)

An example of a 'good idea' implemented stupidly.

25:

And often they only have one or two sockets available, anyway.

We did throw in a power board on a recent holiday in Aus (from NZ). With 3 DSLRs, a P&S, and 2 iPhones (and experience with only a couple of sockets being available in places in the US) it was worth it to avoid possible hassles. Not really required as it turned out, even though the free wi-fi in the motel meant that we did somewhat more web-browsing than expected.

The Air NZ planes we were on had USB ports in the cattle-class seat-backs (and mentioned they would provide a cord for iPhones) so you can put your own content thru the plane system. I assume this will become more wide-spread. Just remember to keep something from the plane system to watch during descent (when you aren't meant to be using a gizmo).

26:

Just out of interest

a) how much (I'll be in Japan later this month)

b) you mentioned ebook reader. Does it run calibre? I suspect the answer is no - or at least not without a good deal of effort

On my Toshiba netbook I put xubuntu 9.04 on instead of the ubuntu they shipped with it. If 9.10 is that good I'll try replacing the old ubuntu partition with it.

27:

FrancisT: the Sharp PC-Z1 runs FBReader. There's an obsolescent version of Calibre in the Ubuntu 9.04 tree -- version 0.4.x (for some value of x). My attempts to build 0.6.15 have failed so far due to dependencies -- a bunch of libraries 0.6.x needs aren't available in Ubuntu 9.04, but are definitely present in 9.10.

28:

Charlie @27:

I prefer Calibre's library management stuff to FBreader, and Calibre seems to do a better job of displaying ebooks as well. But yes I've failed to get it to build in Xubuntu 9.04. There are a couple of weird sub-sub-dependencies that make it a damn pain... but I may well be building it in a few weeks on the PC-Z1 if I see one on sale at reasonable price in Japan

29:

>

* The knitting machine (PC-Z1) with please be sure to download.

(from the instructions for making a restore image, with a little help from Yahoo! Babel! Fish!)

30:

The knitting machine (PC-Z1) with please be sure to download.

Well, it's not that far from Jacquard y'know...

I can see it now - the lesbian Maoist commune frantically trying to knit the equations to work out a return to Earth via the interplanetary transfer network lowest energy route.

31:

NEW GADGETS?

Try THIS as deveoped in a few years time .....

32:

I'd quite happily kill for an updated Psion, coming in around £200. As long as it could play basic .avi video (HD on a screen under 13" just feels a bit pointless) and had about 6/7 hours of battery life, ran fairly smoothly and let me do dev work in the pub it'd be a dream machine.

More of a dream machine if it did my work *for* me in the pub, but beggars can't be choosers.

33:

I have found Jolicloud even better than Ubuntu, as it takes away the SW dependency problem for most app's.

34:

Dear Charlie.

I failed my roll against SHINY in Japan and am now another Netwalker owner

35:

Beautiful computer and excellant review. Glad to see the major manufacturers revolving back into what works--the keyboarded clamshell--and moving away from those silly keyboardless designs that never sold and will never sell. Even the cell phones that sell are clamshell. Why would computer users be any differant? Now if the price would come down to a reasonable level of about 100 dollars US we'd actually see the handheld market boom!!

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