First impressions of the Sharp NetWalker PC-Z1

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Now that a few days have passed since I unboxed the Sharp NetWalker PC-Z1, it’s time to share my first impressions and some other thoughts I’ve jotted down while using the clamshell Ubuntu MID. If you’re on the fence about whether the 800MHz Cortex A8-based unit is worth its sub-$600 asking price, read on for some details that could push you in either direction.

Build quality. The NetWalker is definitely a top-quality device: well built, excellent materials, solid, and strong.

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The plain top (why no branding here?) is insanely glossy and an absolute magnet for fingerprints. A quick polish cleans things up, of course, but smudges and finger oils appear so quickly that it almost makes a previously sleek unit look a bit gross (I don’t know about you, but I hate to hold something that’s visibly covered in other people’s grime).

Screen quality. Even at its mid-level setting, the 5-inch 1024 x 600 touchscreen is incredibly bright and crisp. The refresh rate seems fine except for when viewing the desktop using a blue background, where a faint screen flicker is visible.

Screen angle. Because the screen can open to nearly a 180-degree angle and the hinge is so strong and sturdy, viewing angles are absolutely perfect for just about any situation you can think of.

Sharp_netwalker_angle

The display can be adjusted for comfortable and natural viewing whether you’re holding the NetWalker in both hands or using it on a flat surface.

Touchscreen. The touchscreen is fairly accurate, but the UI and targets are generally too small for fingertips/nails.

Sharp_netwalker_stylus

It’s much better suited for the ridiculously small stylus but since there’s no place to store it when not in use, I find that I almost never touch the screen, preferring instead to use the optical mouse.

Optical mouse. This works really well for me. Movement is accurate, quick, and easy to control. I’m partial to and comfortable with optical mice, though, so I know it’s not for everyone. It doesn’t recognize taps (you need the mouse buttons for single- and double-clicking), but it can be switched into a mode that allows it to be used for scrolling, which is handy in Firefox. The mouse behavior is customizable, but the default settings work great for me so I haven’t explored the settings.

Sharp_netwalker_optms

An optical mouse is designed for use with a thumb, so it’s better when using the NetWalker in two-handed mode. It’s rather awkward in laptop mode.

Quick launch buttons. These touch buttons provide quick access to the desktop, internet, mail, and the optical mouse mode and are user-customizable.

Sharp_netwalker_quicklaunch

Light-up feedback would’ve been a nice feature here, but I wouldn’t call it an oversight since the system responds almost immediately when an icon is tapped. Fingerprints are an issue because of the glossy surface.

Keyboard. The keyboard (14mm pitch, 0.8mm stroke) so far is a mixed bag for me. It’s not backlit, the keys rock back and forth and side-to-side (rather than straight down) unless pressed directly in the center, and feedback is “clicky” in an unusual way that requires time to get used to. Typing feels a bit awkward at first, but the keys are nicely sized and easy to press, most keys are where you’d expect them to be (punctuation layout is the exception), Sticky Keys can be enabled, and the left and right shift keys are the same size (I don’t ever use the right shift key on any keyboard, personally, but I know there a lot of people who do).

My first thumb typing speed test yielded rather poor results—just 33 wpm—but I think it’ll improve over time and with practice. Thumb typing itself, despite the quirks, is actually fairly comfortable, with no unnecessary thumb strain or unusual hand positions. I don’t expect to become a speed demon on the NetWalker’s keyboard, but I feel confident that I should be able to increase my thumb typing speed to at least the mid- to high-40s wpm range.

Mono speaker. It’s unfortunate that a second speaker wasn’t added to the other side of the screen bezel because the volume of the single speaker on the left side is very low. In a room with background noise from a TV, I had to hold the speaker up to my ear and max out the volume to really hear anything. The speaker is adequate for a quiet room, but louder stereo speakers still would’ve been better.

Ubuntu. This is my first experience with Ubuntu, so I’m still looking through the comprehensive Help Center (preinstalled) and figuring things out.

Sharp_netwalker_desktop

Even though the OS is pretty straightforward and self-explanatory, I still don’t feel as comfortable as I do in Windows and I occasionally come across stumbling blocks that a more experienced Ubuntu user would probably laugh at. For example, when I tried to rearrange a few desktop icons, they ended up disappearing instead. I found and restored some of them, but a few others seem to be gone for good.

Preinstalled applications. Here’s a list of everything that comes preinstalled on the NetWalker:

Sharp_netwalker_menu

Archive Manager, Authorizations, Calibrate Touchscreen, Character Map, Configuration Editor, Dictionary, Disk Usage Analyzer, Document Viewer, Firefox, Floppy Formatter, GDebi Package Installer, Hardware Drivers, Image Viewer, Language Support, Log File Viewer, Menu Editor, Movie Player, Movie Player (Gstreamer), Network Manager, Network Tools, OpenOffice Drawing, OpenOffice Formula, OpenOffice Presentation, OpenOffice Spreadsheet, OpenOffice Word Processor, Orca Screen Reader and Magnifier, Passwords and Encryption Keys, Python v2.6, Services, Shared Folders, Software Sources, Sound Recorder, Sunbird, Synaptic Package Manager, System Monitor, System Testing, Terminal, Text Editor, Thunderbird Mail/News, Time and Date, Ubuntu extension for Firefox, Update Manager, Users and Groups.

Third-party applications. There are already several repositories loaded in the Add/Remove Apps area of the system. More can be added manually, but what’s listed looks pretty good.

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Sharp_netwalker_apps2

The catalog seems extensive and there are brief descriptions and ratings accompanying each title. Installation is simple: just check the boxes next to the desired app titles and click the “Apply changes” button. Installation isn’t speedy (depends on app, of course) but it’s very easy.

Running applications. I don’t know if the bottleneck is the 512MB of RAM, 800MHz Freescale i.MX515 processor, or the 4GB SSD (2GB accessible to user), but the system definitely lags when launching applications and other utilities. For example, it takes 37 seconds for Open Office, 9 seconds for the Help Center, and about 7.5 seconds for Firefox to open. Since there isn’t a disk access LED on the NetWalker either, you’re never quite sure whether your desired action wasn’t registered or if the system is just really slow. I’ve encountered a few issues with certain apps/utilities (namely the Trash of all things) never opening, getting stuck with “Loading…” in the title bar instead. Maybe my system needs to be optimized.

Web browsing. Contrary to the slow performance in launching applications, web browsing in Firefox is good and somewhat speedy, with Engadget loading in about 15 seconds, Pocketables in 12 seconds, the Pocketables Forum in 9 seconds, and Google News in 6 seconds. These load times are consistent with those of the iPhone 3GS, which also has a Cortex A8 processor (though running at a lower clock speed).

Sharp_netwalker_web

The NetWalker is said to support Flash Lite 3.1, but it isn’t preloaded and I haven’t been able to get it to work. Java doesn’t seem to work either, even though it’s supposedly enabled, and whenever Firefox encounters a webpage that requires additional plug-ins to display correctly, it isn’t able to identify or find them. So depending on what kind of internet user you are, the NetWalker may not be able to provide the complete web browsing experience you require. It’s working out pretty well for me, as I’m not an online video junkie, but I’d at least like to get Flash Lite up and running since it’s supposed to capable of it. [Update 09.30: Sharp has just released an update that enables Flash. A Java update is said to be coming soon as well.]

In related commentary, the WiFi signal is strong and picks up all the wireless networks that my “regular” computers see. When resuming from suspend mode, the NetWalker connects to my home network automatically and within seconds.

Video performance. I need to do more testing on this, but a 480p H.264 trailer stored on a microSD card played well in full-screen mode using the preinstalled Movie Player. Dropped frames, if there were any, weren’t discernible to me, the audio was in sync with the video, and playback in general was smooth. 480p isn’t taxing, I know, so I’ll try more intensive and varied files for my full review. Any requests?

Suspend. I always prefer standby/sleep over a complete shutdown because of the quick resume 9.30aken time. The NetWalker is marketed as being able to resume from standby in 3 seconds, which I’ve only found to be true sometimes. There are certainly times when the system does wake up almost instantly, but there are other times that I’m asked to input my password (which it doesn’t always accept right away) and once it took more than 20 seconds to even get that far.

Sharp_netwalker_suspend

It seems that this password prompting is only triggered when closing the lid is used to put the system into suspend mode, so lately I’ve just been doing it through the on-screen menu shown above.

Battery. I mentioned this in my initial write-up of the device, but it bears repeating that Sharp’s quoted 10-hour battery life is a JEITA estimate. Real world usage is generally about 30% less than JEITA’s claims, so don’t freak out when you hear that the NetWalker’s non-removable battery is more likely to give you 7 hours of runtime (depending on usage and settings).

I haven’t done any drain tests yet partly because I haven’t had enough time and also because the default battery meter is useless. Rather than displaying the remaining runtime, all it can be customized to do is show when a battery is present, being discharged/charged, or at an unspecified critically low level.

Sharp_netwalker_batt

I’m using a third-party battery monitor called kpowersave now, but it’s been showing “25% charged (0:07 hours remaining)” since I installed it, so it’s not helpful either.

What I do know so far is that I haven’t plugged the NetWalker into a wall outlet since its initial out-of-b
ox charge the other day and have been using the device without being mindful of power consumption. I have no idea how much runtime is actually left right now, of course, but the fact that I’m not worrying about battery life is a good sign.

* * * * * * * * * *

And that’s where I’m at with the Sharp NetWalker after a few days of use. There’s still a lot more for me to do/learn/test, but I’m enjoying most of what I’ve experienced so far.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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