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Agenda VR3 Linux PDA

The Agenda VR3: A Linux Orbit first look
by John Facey

Linux sure has landed in a lot of interesting places. Televisions, media players, and now personal digital assistants (PDAs) all have models being shipped with Linux embedded in them. Linux is pushing itself into the embedded market with good reason. Without the licensing cost of the OS, a PDA for instance, can be inexpensive and still deliver a lot for your hard earned dollar (yen, Euro, etc).

Those of you who keep up with the Linux community probably have seen reviews of the new Linux-based PDA from Agenda Computing, the VR3. We received an early review model of VR3 to have a look at what it could bring to the PDA table. After several software upgrades and lots of tinkering, we were ready to review it.

So how does Linux stack up on this inexpensive PDA from Agenda Computing? Let’s find out.

The Specs

On the hardware side the Agenda VR3 contains the following:

  • Processor: 66MHz 32 Bit MIPS (NEC VR4181)
  • RAM: 8MB + 16 Flash
  • Screen: 160×240 4 bit (16 grayscale)
  • Sync Cradle: Serial Port attachment
  • IR Port: Commercial IR(CIR) & Serial IR(SIR)
  • HeadSet: Speaker/Mic Combo
  • Misc: Agenda Peripheral Port / Headset Port

The VR3 runs VR Linux, which was specially designed to run on the NEC VR series of processors. After several delays for releasing the final version of their OS for the VR3, Agenda has released version 1.0.1. This review is based on this final and official OS release.

Start me up

The VR3 boots up like a normal desktop machine. A few daemons are loaded to control the IR, syslog and handwriting recognition. Once the daemons load, X pops up. That’s right, this little PDA runs a real frame buffer X server. A few seconds later the Launchpad program is displayed. The Launchpad has a very similar interface to the Palm Pilot, with little icons representing programs, 3 on each row. The status bar application, when run, is placed at the top of the screen. It allows easy access to switching applications, a visual status of the power left in the batteries, as well as options to change the current time settings. (Curiously, the status bar app doesn’t load by default. You can manually add the status bar application to your X startup file, but we could find no other way to have this useful utility load automatically. Edit the file /etc/X11/xdm/Xsession to load the status bar by default.)

There are several PIM applications included with the VR3. The standard apps include a Calculator, Contacts Manager, Expense Manager, Notes, Scheduler, To-Do List, and a World Clock. Aside from the Launchpad, applications can be run from the VR System Menu located on the bottom left of the VR3 screen. The option of the Menu/Launchpad gives the user a choice between 2 ways of accessing and interacting with programs.

System Menu

The System menu contains a Network application that is used to establish a link between the VR3 and another device using the serial port (directly to another machine or modem) or IrDA port. This Network app is what a VR3 user will use to start a serial, IR, or modem connection. This is a very easy application to use and you’ll need to become familiar with it to transfer data to the VR3. There are other applications on the system menu for changing the contrast, date/time, and even bringing up a terminal (ash shell by default, but bash is also included).

Games

The VR3 comes with many card games to get you through the most boring of business meetings. A Space Invaders clone and a Tetris-like game were also released into the current distributions. These are the first of many games that I’m sure will end up being ported or created specifically for the VR3.

My VR3 experiences

I found the VR3 to be quite a useable product. Originally, (with the first OS release) I experienced a slight delay when loading multiple applications. Thanks to the eXecute In Place (XIP) features, the PDA is much more responsive, especially when loading many applications at once (how many PDAs can do that?). The buzzer sound is very audible for the Scheduling application and the Contacts program is extremely quick. The FLTK apps for the Agenda have a similar style to their interface. Most of them contain a button labeled “Done” in the bottom left for exiting the application when finished using it. This makes the VR3 have a consistent feel. You don’t have to re-learn an interface to use another application. The network application is a GUI based interface configuration program. Configuring it was a snap.

My first week with the Agenda VR3 went very well, from the moment I opened the box. I did have a bit of difficulty trying to get the VR3 into the leather case. (The pushpins on the bracket weren’t cooperative). By activating the unit with the power button on the left side, I noticed the kernel messages as the device booted up. After trying out many of the PIM applications I mentioned earlier, I decided to really see what I could do with the hardware on the VR3.

Infrared attempts

I was able to get the VR3 to establish a connection to a laptop over infrared running Win98 (direct serial connection and Infrared will need to be installed and enabled). Once the IP addresses were established, I was able to ping and run TCP/IP apps between them. I was able to use telnet and ftp from the laptop to the VR3. Establishing a connection from Linux to the Windows laptop was a bit more complex. Using the serial port required following specific pppd instructions. The best way to get any data on the VR3 from another machine is to use a ppp link and rsync the files over. This process is much easier for the PIM data with the QuickSync software recently released. (Yes, the QuickSync software came later, more on this later in the review).

Next came the CIR test. CIR is the form of IR that TVs/VCRs communicate on. All the necessary info for this type of communication can be found at the Linux Infrared Remote Control Project (www.lirc.org). Lirc is already installed on the Agenda, but there is no GUI for easy access just yet. Using a few help documents I did manage to send a few commands to a TV. This process without a GUI application is a little tricky, but the software that will be underneath it is very sound.

Sound test

The VR3 has a 10 bit sound chip and comes with a headset speaker/mic combo that plugs into the peripheral port. There is only one official application known as “Recorder” that is scheduled for release at a later time. Yet many other sound applications can be moved to the device immediately. I acquired madplay (a console mp3 player) and mikmod (mod player) to the VR3 earlier last week and uploaded a few mp3s/mods to check and see how well they sounded. If you plan to use the VR3 as a media player, you will quickly learn PDA devices don’t have a lot of space, though stripping the mp3s down to a lower quality allowed more of them to be used on the device.

Synchronization / Moving Data

The Synchronization software on the VR3 currently should work with Korganizer and Gnome PIM. The QuickSync Software on the VR3 was just released out of CVS, so I have yet to test it thoroughly. The kind folks at Agenda Computing told me that the VR3 will sync with Outlook, Outlook Express, Goldmine, Act, Palm OS, and Lotus Notes, but this functionality will be released at a later date.

Developer Info

The VR3 comes with an assortment of Personal Information Management(PIM) applications that anyone familiar with a Palm would find easy to use. Many of the GUI based applications are native X (frame buffer) applications or FLTK. FLTK is the primary tool kit for building graphical applications for the Agenda. Many have questioned why a frame buffer GTK or QT was not used. Agenda felt that FLTK was a smaller and therefore more efficient toolkit to use on a PDA.

At the core of the VR3 is BusyBox. For those who may have heard the term before when dealing with embedded Linux systems, BusyBox is a single binary that contains stripped down versions of many console applications. These applications are externally linked so that they appear to actually be individual files similar to a normal Linux file system set up. One of the main advantages to using BusyBox is that the entire set of console utilities can be upgraded by only upgrading a single file. The VR3 uses updates in the form of Kernel Disks and ROM Disks. The Kernel Disk is essentially an upgrade to the kernel itself (which has its own partition). The ROM Disk is the distribution/application upgrade. When needing to update the OS on the device, applications and all, a user should download the latest ROM disk and upgrade the VR3 from it. The concept is similar to how a user would upgrade from one Linux version to the next version or to upgrade a Flash Image on a Palm Pilot. The bios or pmon, as it’s called, will handle the upgrading with a few commands sent to it.

Impressions/Conclusions

My personal opinion is “wow”, I love this device. Its sleek, ergonomic and fits right in your front shirt pocket without the case. The speed has doubled since the original release of the operating system and once all the synchronization software is ready for all platforms (serial or IR) this device will be more useful than other PDAs in its price range. My only complaint is that there is no external form of file storage for the VR3. Obviously with such a thin hardware design adding a Compact Flash would not be possible. Perhaps this will be added later, with some form of the Memory stick, such as those used in digital cameras.Though this is pure speculation on my part.

Available now on the new Agenda Computing site is flash animation of the VR3. This demonstration shows off the VR3 better than any screen shots. A new PDF manual (I assume being printed and shipped with the unit currently) is also available on the site.

The Future

The 1.0.1 romdisk has just been released and the scheduled Web Browser, Fax, and Email Client will be completed before the end of year. On the hardware/add-on side, a keyboard and modem (http://www.buyagenda.com) probably won’t be available until the previously mentioned software is ready.

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