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12 January 2010 Blog Home : January 2010 : Permalink

Sharp PC-Z1 Netwalker

Sharp PC-Z1(B) NetwalkerWhen Charlie Stross mentioned this product I thought it sounded ideal for me. When I went to Japan I failed in my roll against SHINY! and bought one. I've now been using it for about two months. It is, IMO, almost my ideal pocket-sized computing device and allows me to do all sorts of things, particularly once I did some fairly major downloading and installing.

First things first. What is the Netwalker? Basically it is an original Asus eee on a diet. The original eee 701s had 4gb of disk, 512 Mb of memory and 1024x600 pixel display. The Netwalker has almost the same specs. There are of course differences: the keyboard is smaller (as is the screen), the processor is an ARM core instead of an Intel x86 one, the built-in flash card is MicroSD not SD/MMC and it runs ubuntu 9.04 out of the box instead of Xandros whatever that the eee came with.

The critical difference is the processor. The ARM core means that the Netwalker gets a lot better battery life than an eee on far less battery. It is also slower (not unusably so but "lightning fast" is not an adjective you can use to describe it) and because it is an ARM not everything has been ported across to work. But enough of what I want to do does work so this is not a huge problem. Battery life with wifi disabled seems to be around 8 hours - I'd say it's 5 with wifi on - though that depends a bit on what you are doing. Reading ebooks is definitely a low power consumption task - writing stuff with open office medium and browsing websites with wifi on is a fairly high consumption task. One niggle that I have is that the power management doesn't give you a time estimate for how much longer you can work. Indeed in my setup I've found that when I get the "Battery is critically low" message that means I've got no more than a couple of minutes or so to find a power supply.
Sharp PC-Z1(B) Netwalker Sharp PC-Z1(B) Netwalker Sharp PC-Z1(B) Netwalker Sharp PC-Z1(B) Netwalker
There is another power issue: the power input, which is a rather non-standard 11v with a tiny little cell phone sized input jack, and hence I'm nervous about losing the power supply. I'm sure I will find an alternative sometime but so far I haven't.

The good bits

Sharp PC-Z1(B) NetwalkerMoving on to the good points. This is a real computer, running a real OS and with real connection ports and networking. I can do almost everything on it that I can on my other Ubuntu machines. It is (unsurprisingly) slower than my main machine, and somewhat slower than my netbook, but it is more than adequately fast for what I want to use it for. Since it has a real USB port I can (and have - see right) connected a 1 TByte external drive to it to copy stuff to it and back things up. This is not something you can do with a smartphone, which is I think the device it probably ought to be compared with. Likewise it is easy to run basic networking stuff like SSH and web servers (and Samba servers). It also has perl, python and (untested by me) PHP support as well as MySQL client and server programs. All these are installed using the same Ubuntu package management utility as is found on x86 based computers and thus one can run quite complex web sites and so on. The wifi is only 802.11b/g rather than 802.11n but that doesn't bother me as none of my other computers are capable of anything faster either. The one catch I have found is that the SAMBA client support seems a little iffy. More specifically the mount.cifs command seems to be either AWOL or broken. I'll get onto this a bit later because there is a workaround but it is annoying.

However copying data on and off a device is not terribly interesting on its own more relevantly what can I use it for? Well since, as noted above, it has almost everything in the Ubuntu package library I can surf the web, read NNTP news, download and read ebooks. I can also run open office, various image editing packages (including GIMP in theory), play music and videos and so on. In other words it does almost everything I need and also fits in my pocket. In practice I use it mostly to read ebooks (using FBReader) and listen to music (VLC player) but I have done everything from perl and javascriptPC-Z1 Netwalker vs HTC Hero as ebook reader program development to story writing and expense calculating. As the image on the left shows when it comes to reading the difference in screensize and thus in amount of text seen per page between a smartphone (in this case a HTC Hero running Google Android and Aldiko) and my Shart PC-Z1 Netwalker is notable. The netwalker gives at least twice the screen size making things much more convenient. The advantage is even more pronounced if you have to read a PDF format book/document. The Netwalker displays these entirely legibly whereas phones typically either show you only a portion of the page or make you squint or both.


Apart from the battery low problem mentioned above the gripes all boil down to stuff that is missing and not available/readily findable. On the hardware side this boils down to a lack of ports - I'd like to be able to plug in an external monitor and have a wired ethernet jack and now and then I think a built-in webcam would be nice. I'm not going to gripe about the keyboard since for a computer that is about the same size a paperback book the keyboard is about as good as it gets. It isn't something you can effortlessly touchtype on at 50-100wpm but it is entirely possible to do fast two finger typing which is about all that can be expected. It is possibly to plug in an external USB keyboard if you have one lying around which is nice. Likewise the mouse can be replaced by an external USB one if the internal one (which I find entirely usable) is found to be inconvenient.

On the software side things are trickier. Because the Netwalker has an ARM Core you can't simply download stuff and have it work. In particular Adobe has only given us a fairly primitive version of flash, and as mentioned above there seems to be a problem in the Samba client code. I don't miss the full flash - although it causes firefox to tell me that sites I'm visiting require additional plugins all the time pages seem to load/display faster.

I found that the default Ubuntu install with its gnome desktop irritated me but fortunately it wasn't difficult to fire up synaptic and install Xubuntu instead. This took a while to download but was (IMO) worth it. What is missing completely is a port of the current *buntu - 9.10. This means, unfortunately, that it is next to impossible to run recent versions of calibre as I can't build the dependencies and there seems to be no back port of 0.6.x versons of the program. I'm not wonderfully impressed with the library part of FBreader which I why I wanted calibre but FBreader Similarly there seems to be no Skype, no Google Chrome (or Chromium) and no Seamonkey 2.0.x - I'd say that only the lack of Skype is much concern to me.

Finally - and a gripe which is less serious to me than to most people - the official Netwalker support forums and so on are basically only in Japanese. This makes it a bit tricky to get support although this pocketables forum has some non-Japanese enthusiasts on it. In particular it is difficult to figure out how to safely hack the device to run different OSes and the like and what 3G USB modems it will support.

Tips and Tricks

The first trick was convincing Ubuntu to speak English - this is documented in various places and really didn't take long - though since I can read Japanese I did it without recourse to the manual.
The second trick was installing Java and flash. Java didn't appear to be available before but in researching this article I went back to check and now it is available - install the "default-jre" package in synaptic and you have a perfectly fine OpenJDK (IcedTea) run time.
Flash was installed by downloading the flash-lite plug in from here. But note that if you do

sudo install.sh

you will probably end up with a permissions problem and will need to do some "chmod a+rx "ing of the destination files.
SAMBA networking. For some reason despite installing (and in fact reinstalling to check), I cannot mount samba shares. Some applications can view things using smb:// urls and for those applications this is not a problem, unfortunately mamy applications don't like that and for them a standard path is required. Fortunately there is a work around - install fuse and fusesmb and create a suitable base point following the instuctions that are listed in various places to deal with the problem that used to apply to Xubuntu and its inability to browse Samba networks.


This is probably about as good a pocket device as you can get currently for those people who want to do things without an always on internet. For people who have already switched to or are familiar with (Ubuntu) Linux it is simple to use and Ubuntu these days is easy enough to use that even diehard windows fanatics will be able to use it if they want to.