Pen Computing Issue #10

May/June 1996

Pen Lab Review

Sharp Zaurus ZR-5800

Teeming with new features

At first glance, the new Zaurus 5800 differs little from its predecessor: same compact design, same ports and pointing device. The ZR-5800 ROM, however, is teaming with new bits of software that turn a useful scheduling and information tool into a powerful communication device. And on top of that, it now contains the PenCell spreadsheet to woe financial wizards away from rival character-based spreadsheets on other platforms.

Z basics
Let's start off with some basics first. The ZR-5800 comes with 2 megabytes of RAM which translates into about 1.6 megabytes of user space. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the new unit is its 320x240 LCD display with backlighting. Pushing the 2nd key, then CAPS brings forth a pale blue glow familiar to owners of Timex Indiglo watches. The new display solves the problem of how to use a Zaurus in poor lighting conditions, but it also creates a few issues that we'll discuss later.

PenCell: a great spreadsheet
The next big improvement comes from the PenCell spreadsheet that will even turn the heads of hardened bean counters. PenCell implements over 60 built-in functions and a wide variety of formatting options, such as borders and column width. PenCell implements most expected functions for financial analysis, statistics, advanced math and tables look-ups. PenCell even comes with templates for applications ranging from the mundane check splitter to complete financial statements.
The user interface proves PenCell's most innovative feature, given that it is implemented on a PDA. Pull down menus, icon driven dialog boxes and drag and drop editing make PenCell very easy to learn. Within a few minutes Excel aficionados will master PenCell, finding it comfortable, but a bit limiting compared to Microsoft's mammoth offerings of late. PenCell stores its files in native Excel 4.0 format, making integration with Excel even more transparent. Several features like Show or Hide grid lines, full screen editing and, a virtual 10-key pad compensate for both the small screen on the Zaurus and its lack of a 10-key pad.
In addition to spreadsheets, PenCell also generates pie, line, column and stacked column charts directly from the data. Charts can include grid lines, legends and titles. When a chart looks good, it can be copied into a document or stored in the scrap book for later retrieval.
PenCell should meet the needs of all but the most ardent Excel and Lotus power users. When I look at the majority of spreadsheets I've developed over my career, PenCell would have handled a good 95% of them.

Much better communications
The spreadsheet and backlight may be the most obvious and sought after editions to the Zaurus, but it is in communications that the Zaurus truly shines. Unlike the ZR-5000, which could fax or connect to character-based services via VT-100 emulation, the ZR-5800 comes ready to connect with CompuServe, AT&T mail, Motorola Newscard pagers and the Zaurus Mail application. Remote file access remains the only communication option built-in to the Zaurus whose PC counterpart was not shipping at press time. When it becomes available, the Remote application will give the Zaurus direct access to a remote PC's file system, for easy data file exchange and backup over a modem.
Other applications, like AT&T mail and Pager software were available for the 5000 as add-ins, but the engineers at Sharp moved these applications to ROM, freeing up the PC Card slot for better uses like the Motorola Newscard or PC Card modem. New communication options, like CompuServe, are also implemented in ROM.
It is in the CompuServe module that the future of PDA connectivity reveals itself. A fully graphic interface connects CompuServe users to e-mail, forums and the executive news service. Points and taps connect and retrieve information or download Zaurus folders from the Palmtop B Zaurus forum.
The only drawback to the CompuServe software is its lack of on-line response mechanisms. All forum messages and e-mail must be composed off-line. Saving on-line charges and facilitating off-line work in airplanes and jury assembly areas (where I am writing this) and other non-wired locals. After a few connections you learn not to retrieve your e-mail and resist the temptation to tap the disabled Reply menu item while still on-line.
The hardware engineers added a minor, but important tweak to the power profile of the Zaurus, enabling PC Card modems to run of the internal batteries. Regular Alkaline batteries run for less than half an hour under the strain of telecommunications. Lithium batteries fair a bit better under heavy PC Card use, but perform no better than Alkalines in day-to-day use. If you're going to do a lot of faxing without power, I would suggest Sharp's CE-BP1 rechargeable battery pack which will take a continuous fax beating for about 2 hours before running down.

Other nice improvements
A few of the new features are welcome additions, but not obvious on first glance. Direct record access (based on the first field) has been added to the index view of Contacts and Data Files. Type the first couple of letters of a record, and you are instantly transported their. Creating a new linked record from Contacts or Data Files is available now as 2nd NEW, eliminating the need for a menu pick. 2nd W now toggles the view of linked records. For fans of handwritten notes, the Sharp software guys turned up the heat, making Notes redraw a couple of times faster than on the 5000. Since I test a lot of things and am constantly backing up my Zaurus to protect data, I especially like the fact that my preferences, like sorts and font settings remain intact after a backup.

Although the ZR-5800 is an impressive, business oriented device, it is not without growing pains. The introduction of backlighting has introduced an annoying whine when powered by external devices like the CE-BP1 battery or the 23E AC Adaptor. In addition to the whine, the ZR-5800 display appears darker in comparison to standard LCD displays in the ZR-5000 and ZR-5700.
If contrast and noise weren't enough, Sharp recently confirmed that the backlighting has a limited life. After about 1000 hours, the backlight will start to fade. Using backlight for an hour a day gives the unit a 2.5 year lifespan. Most owners will not subject their Zaurus to anywhere near an hour a day with backlighting. Besides, two and a half years from now we will be talking about a comparably priced machine with more memory, a faster processor and a color screen with handwriting recognition.
Although the backlighting is cool, it's too bad the ZR-5700 wasn't just a ZR-5800 without backlighting. I think some people would be happy with more RAM and no backlighting, especially given some of backlighting's less desirable side effects. I would recommend you have your local retailer apply power to a ZR-5800, in a quiet place, before you buy one to make sure the noise doesn't give you a headache. If the buzzing on the screen doesn't bother you, just enjoy the backlighting and don't worry about it burning out.

Still missing...
So what is the Zaurus still missing after these massive improvements. To me, the first items on the wish list is an Internet tool kit. As corporations move more of their internal and external applications to Internet standards, it would be great if the Zaurus including such features as a TCP/IP stack, a POP/IMAP mail client and a web browser.
After nosing around Sharp's web site in Japan, I know they have considered Zaurus Internet access, even if the hosed Kanji didn't reveal if it is already working on Japanese Zaurus models.
As a long-time patron of America On-Line, I'd like to see an AOL client, even if only for e-mail. As for the built-in applications, a Thesaurus would both come in handy and rhyme. I would also like to see more memory reserved for the spell checker.
As a lover of creativity enhancement tools, the Outliner promises much, but remains the most primitive application of the Zaurus. I hope the next version of the unit revamps this feature with drag and drop editing. If they can do it in the spreadsheet, the can do it in the Outliner. When their done with the Z software, they can move to the Zaurus Data Exchange Utility and add RTF-based outline formats to retain the levels from the Z. In fact, they may want to add that before improving the Z Outliner interface, because with a true RTF-based outline format you could write web pages on the Zaurus, ready to be run through an RTF-to-HTML converter.
Well that's my wish list for now. For those of you now experiencing the new Zaurus, I'd love to hear your suggestions. We'll gather up a bunch of them a make writing my column real easy in a future issue.

Z conclusions
The Zaurus hardware continues to feel solid and the processor performs well, even on modestly sized spreadsheets. Cosmetic touches like a few color keyboard indicators, a splash of color on a couple of menu icons and a new italic font on the keys make the ZR-5800 more visually appealing. It is in the spreadsheet and communications that the Zaurus catches my attention. I can now literally stay connected to work almost anywhere in the world. The new spreadsheet is a boon for financial workers and managers, not to mention it eliminates a missing checkmark on industry comparison charts.
Even with the minor complaints on buzzing and a minor bug in the software, I cannot recommend the Zaurus enough. I think Sharp has leveraged their 15 years of organizer experience to the maximum in this size of unit with current technology. If you want to carry both your data and your office equipment together in one neat package, nothing is better at making that a reality today than the Zaurus.