The penguinista's PDA
Compaq has taken the penultimate step to releasing a Linux handheld computing device. The company announced its support for the Linux operating system on its iPaq H3600 device, known as the Open Handheld. After four years of development on the Itsy project -- initially begun in Digital's research labs that later became part of Compaq -- Linux lovers everywhere will soon have their own PDA. And what's more, the Linux handheld can show up the rest of the market's competitors.
The device not only has a standard Linux distribution on it but also features advanced features such as X Windows, networking tools, an MP3 audio recorder and player, and even an MPEG video player. It even beats the parts off competitors such as Palm's new IIIc color PDA; the H3600 is lighter, more colorful, and sports audio and expansion slots.
The device weighs 6.3 ounces, which makes it lighter than the Palm IIIc by half an ounce, but it is less than a tenth of a centimeter longer, wider, and thicker. The active matrix screen has 12-bit color, giving it 4,096 colors, which is better than some other handhelds, although it is has the same 240x320 screen real estate as most competitors.
The H3600 has one big button on the front that rocks in four directions and presses down as well. Surprisingly enough, it also doubles as the speaker for the unit. There is an ambient light sensor that can auto-adjust the brightness and contrast of the device to save on power in brightly lit areas. There are four other buttons on the sides of the device.
Inside is a 32-bit, 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor with 32 MB of RAM and 16 MB of ROM (FlashRAM really). Although the Linux version hasn't been tested for battery life, the Windows CE version is rated to run 12 hours on its rechargeable lithium-polymer battery.
What's really cool is that the device runs a low-footprint version of X. The frame buffer for the device was created by Jim Gettys, one of the original creators of X Window System, with the help of Keith Packard, another member of the original X Window team. The H3600's X version fits in about 600 KB and consumes little memory because of the relatively small size of the screen. The same frame buffer is already in the standard X Window distribution, so there are no new surprises for developers here.
Gettys suggested a possible development environment for the device in the future. Instead of a system emulator or a cross-compiler that you run on a developer workstation, you may be able to directly develop and test software on the device itself. That can be done using a PC Card network connection (either Ethernet or Wireless). You can telnet into the H3600, run Emacs or X-clients directly off the handheld, display it on your workstation, and compile with gcc or other tools. It is a Linux platform, after all. That process not only saves time on development but can also save on cost since the developer does not have to purchase a separate kit or emulator for the system. Gettys also said that his team is currently working on a NetBSD port for the device, which should increase the popularity of the Open Handheld even more.
Compaq has not made this an official product. Instead, it wants to test the market demand for a Linux version of the H3600. To have an H3600 with Linux, you have to buy the standard Windows CE version and then download and install the Linux boot-loader, kernel and operating system. The installation process is a little tricky right now, but Compaq is working on smoothing it out. Compaq is even working to save the existing Windows CE image in the FlashRAM so those who care to can save the Windows CE image elsewhere and later reinstall it or sell it off to someone else.
The Linux device might soon have a better standing than Microsoft's Windows CE devices, which have not been able to break Palm's greater than 70 percent market share. The advantage of the Linux version is that Linux is a fast-growing market with lots of available software. Additionally, almost every Linux user has a ready environment in which to develop for the Open Handheld. It can even run the same code as that for regular Linux computers by simply compiling for the StrongARM platform. The Open Handheld has most of the same features of a standard Linux desktop, thus users may already be familiar with the user environment. The H3600 is not likely to run KDE or GNOME because of the complexity of such user interfaces, but it will run X and simpler window managers such as TWM.
Compaq's wait-and-see attitude for the Linux version may be understandable, considering that the company doesn't really support Linux on most of its products, doesn't have the necessary technical support infrastructure, and has to try the new product in a very competitive market. However, should the H3600 take a strong hold in the market, it is likely that Compaq will offer it as a full product.
The $499 price tag is sweet. It is about $50 higher than the Palm IIIc but lower than larger handhelds from Psion and others. The H3650 Windows CE version should start appearing in major retail stores such as Radio Shack and Best Buy around the US by mid-July. The PCMCIA expansion port costs $149 extra, while the CompactFlash expansion costs $49.95. If you want to be one of the first on the block with this bad-ass PDA, you can register with Compaq (see Resources for a link) to be notified as soon as they come out.