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-- by Cheryl Dominianni and Jim Forbes
You've got to hand it to Sharp. The company realizes pocket computers are a growing niche, and it is throwing everything into its latest effort, the Sharp Zaurus ZR-3500X. With this hand-held unit, you can send and receive Internet e-mail (including attachments), synchronize with contact managers, work with Microsoft Word and Excel files, beam data to your PC or printer using a self-contained IrDA infrared transceiver and send faxes with a built-in 14.4/9.6Kbps data/fax modem.
The unit measures 1 by 6.3 by 3.5 inches, weighs 11.5 ounces with two AA batteries and fits easily into your pocket. The viewing area is 2.5 inches high by 3.5 inches wide with a 320x240-pixel touch-screen LCD.
We found it easy to use the computer's stylus, but its QWERTY keyboard was too small to be effective-a common complaint for nearly all pocket computers except the HP 320LX Palmtop PC. Another Zaurus product, the 5800X, also has a larger screen and keyboard. Some users may prefer this model, but they'll be sacrificing the built-in modem provided by the ZR-3500X.
The ZR-3500X offers backlighting to improve visibility and battery-conserving features to save power. A 5-second timer shuts off the backlighting if no activity is detected in that time. Despite the backlighting, we found the screen difficult to read due to glare, especially under fluorescent lights.
We were, however, extremely impressed with the ZR-3500X's battery life. Sharp claims that batteries will last 100 hours (but only 4 when using the modem continuously), and they probably aren't far off. We kept the unit powered up throughout a week of testing, at which point its batteries were still going strong.
As with most hand-helds, the ZR-3500X is designed to be a PC companion. It comes with 1MB of RAM, plus an additional 1MB flash memory to store add-on applications or data-file backups. Sharp doesn't use Windows CE, but it provides Application Partner software for Windows 95, which allows you to drag and drop Word or Excel files into the Zaurus when it's linked via a serial cable or IrDA port. We had no problem importing and exporting Word and Excel files, although it took a full minute to transfer a large 120KB Word document.
The Zaurus has an easy-to-use interface, although it initially took us some time to become familiar with its manner of creating, opening, manipulating and saving files. Once we started using the ZR-3500X, we liked the stylus-based gestures that allowed us to jump quickly between primary applications. We were impressed with the unit's ability to link information in one application-such as a contact manager-to that in another. Regrettably, the ZR-3500X does not have a software development kit, so users won't benefit from third-party applications.
In addition to spreadsheet and word-processing applications, the ZR-3500X is compatible with PIMs such as ACT 2.x, Microsoft Schedule+ 7.0, Lotus Organizer and GoldMine 95. It has three contact databases and three data-file databases with 16 customizable fields per record. (Sharp states there is room to store 1,000 contacts of about 78 characters each.) We synchronized the ZR-3500X with our Schedule+ files without a hitch.
Desk Accessories, providing productivity tools, is also part of the ZR-3500X interface. Scrapbook includes free-form drawing tools, the Secret feature offers machine lock-out or protection of individual records, and Home and World Clock gives the time in 212 cities and allows programming of up to seven daily alarms. A Help feature is also available to provide on-screen instructions.
The ZR-3500X is bundled with CompuServe software and Z-Em@il Internet e-mail, which supports full send and reply functions. The e-mail program requires a POP3 mail account accessible through the Internet, so many corporate users won't be able to utilize this feature. However, Sharp offers Zaurus Access to Microsoft Mail and Zaurus Access to cc: Mail as optional software programs. The unit also allows you to send e-mail attachments in text, rich-text or Excel 4.0 formats.
The Zaurus ZR-3500X is a capable machine, but its keyboard and screen are smaller than that of our current WinList product, the HP 320LX Palmtop PC. While the Zaurus is a versatile device with impressive battery life, it faces stiff competition from two classes of machines-those using the more capable Windows CE platform and other pocket computers like the U.S. Robotics PalmPilot.