by Egbert Verbrugge
As of January 1998, I started experimenting with a Sharp SE-500 Mobile Organizer. This article gives my first impressions from using it and describes the main features that it has.
As some of you regular readers may remember, my first organizer was a Sharp Zaurus ZR-5000. For over 2 years I have lived happily in the Zaurus camp. I am now excited by the chance to work with the SE-500, one of a growing number of touch pen based, palm / shirt pocket sized, email ready organizers.
I picked up my SE-500 from the local post office and as soon as I arrived home, I put all my other activities on temporary hold. I installed the 2 AA batteries, the SE-500 powered up nicely and I start playing. This was the first time that I worked on an organizer that had no actual keyboard. For me, the pen / screen only interface took some getting used to. I had to break the habit of expecting to make a keyboard entry as the next logical step to make things happen. For those users totally new to pen based organizers, they will probably find the user interface more intuitive than I did in the beginning.
After a few hours of racing through various things, my overall first impression in using the SE- 500 was a positive one. It comes with everything in the package that you need to do Internet Email and communicate with the desktop environment. I like the physical design. It is a nice size, shape and weight. The sliding plastic cover is a clever innovation and is easy to open and close. The touch pen stores away neatly in an internal slot on the right side. The SE-500 has a good set of applications built-in for personal information management (PIM). The display is sharp (no pun intended) and crisp. The characters on a few of the busier SE-500 screens are small enough that I do need my reading glasses to see them properly. On the majority of them, the characters are large enough for me to get by without my glasses. The SE-500's display is the best in its class with 1.5 times as many screen pixels as its competitor, the USR Palm Pilot.
From 1965 to now, I have used computers ranging from room sized mainframes, punch card operated, to today's palm sized, touch pen operated organizers. I continue to be absolutely amazed at the progress made in electronics technology over the last 33 years, resulting in powerful, small and reliable devices, costing only a few hundred dollars.
Basic Parameters of SE-500 System
The SE-500 has 1 megabyte of FLASH memory (retains data even without battery), with 640K available for data. Record capacity is reported to be 4,300 contacts with up to 28 characters per record, or 4,300 schedule entries with up to 32 characters per record. A 14.4 Kbps modem is built in with a standard RJ-11 telephone jack and cord. It includes an IrDA Port for wireless communication. The backlit LCD touch screen has a resolution of 159 (horizontal) x 240 (vertical) pixels. A flip-around protective sliding cover is integrated and always remains attached to the unit. The total size is 3 15/32" x 5 7/8" x 21/32". The touch screen size is 2 1/4" x 3 3/4". The body is 1/2" thick when the cover is in the closed position. It weighs 7 ounces which is much lighter than my Zaurus. A docking station and PC synchronization software completes the package.
The operating system is Sharp proprietary which means the add-on application software will likely be limited in scope and number. In some ways this is not so bad, since the memory in this class of organizer is adequate for data, but not really big enough for a lot of add on applications. Also, standard & open operating systems such as Windows CE for multiple hardware platforms, tend to introduce hefty inefficiencies to overall operations. For regular personal information management (PIM) products, a good set of applications makes a proprietary operating environment a non-issue, as far as I am concerned.
This is mainly a listing of the available applications. My experience in using the E-mail is described later in this article.
Notes - Jot down notes during a meeting. Keep records of ideas, directions or expenses - use it just like an electronic "sticky" note! Choose between 2 sizes . . . standard or reduced view, and even link the Notes to any record.
Home/World Clock - Check the time of day in over 200 cities.
Calculator - Solves addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square root, percent math problems with the 12-digit, full-size, on-screen calculator. I like the calculator since it occupies the full screen making it convenient to use.
E-mail - POP3 / SMPTE e-mail software sends and receives messages via the Internet or a corporate network and permits handwritten Ink Notes as bitmap attachments.
Activities - Display a day, a week or a 1 or 3 month Calendar view, Schedule your appointments, record birthdays & anniversaries, and prioritize your To Do list.
Contacts - Maintain up to 13 different categories of contacts, e.g., friends, colleagues, family . . etc. Customize the fields to suit your needs.
Memo - Write a memo with the virtual keyboard or take some handwritten notes with the stylus pen.
Expense - Track business and personal expenses by recording your submissions and reimbursements or make an expense report.
User Files - Maintain up to 13 different categories in a user-defined database.
Bundled software: IntelliSync PC software for synchronization and data transfer, data migration software, including Zaurus files.
Sharp has taken a little different approach than some of the other keyboardless organizers. There is no handprinting / handwriting recognition engine built in. Instead there are pop-up onscreen simulated boards: alpha numeric keyboard, number board, special character board and date board. Also grouped with the drop down board box, in alphabetical order are canned messages / words / text strings in a menu box. The SE-500 has a mode where I can add as many of these text strings / words as I wish. Once they are entered, they are sorted automatically by the leading word. With two screen touches, I can pick the string I want and insert it, instead of tap typing it in, letter by letter. This feature has the potential to speed up routine text entry by quite a lot. At this point, I haven't taken the time to get this technique organized.
A number of product reviewers complain about the inefficiency of small and /or no keyboards on organizers, PDA's etc. It is an easy thing to pick on, so I suppose that is why they do it. To put this in its proper perspective, I decided to perform the following data entry speed test. The time that it took me to enter this paragraph (80 words with an average of 4 letters per word), is as follows:
a) my desktop PC, touch typing on the full size keyboard 115 seconds (42 words / min)
b) my Zaurus, multi finger typing on its keyboard 260 seconds (18 words / min)
c) the SE-500 screen keyboard (no canned words / text) 431 seconds (11 words / min)
I didn't do a Grafiti type test on my 20 month old HP Omnigo 100, mainly because I am not proficient at it. If anyone does it on their writing recognition type organizer, I would be interested to hear from you how long it took.
My view is that there are tradeoffs and depending on what a user needs to do, there is a whole range of organizers and PDA's and handheld computers from which to choose. For organizers without a keyboard, like the SE-500, a user would be well advised to do data intensive entry tasks on a PC and then transfer / synchronize with the organizer.
The docking station connects to the serial port on a PC. The SE-500 has a set of contacts on its back side that completes the "Zero-Touch" synchronization facility. My package also included the IntelliSync Software from Puma Technology Inc. It is listed as being able to synchronize to Day-Timer Organizer 2.0/2.1, GoldMine 3.2 for Windows 95, Starfish Sidekick 1.0/2.0/95, Starfish Internet Sidekick, Lotus Organizer 2.1/97, Microsoft Outlook 97, Microsoft Schedule+ 7.0/7.0a, SYMANTEC ACT! 3.0, NetManage ECCO 3.03/4.0.
The first application that I used for my regular work was the built-in email. Shortly after the SE- 500 arrived, I went on a one week trip away from home, where I didn't have a laptop and I wanted to have Internet email at my disposal. The shiny new SE-500 was just what I needed for this trip. Following the instructions in the manual, I configured it for my Internet service provider's (ISP) system. The setup procedure is almost identical to Z-Em@il (for Zaurus) that I described in my last Mobilis article. A few tests of sending and receiving email messages flawlessly convinced me that I was ready to travel. Armed with suitcase, smile on my face, SE- 500 in my shirt pocket and the distant phone numbers of my Internet service provider, I drove off on my trip. Internet email has almost become a necessity for me to keep in touch with suppliers, customers, one adult son in Singapore and one adult son in University. My wife is not into the email scene yet, so she gets the occasional phone call when I am away. At my destination, I was receiving and answering / sending several emails per day. The SE-500 worked flawlessly picking up emails and storing them for my offline viewing and answering. I did all of this with just the SE-500, no external power adapters, no PCMCIA cards, no external modems or anything else (just my reading glasses)... amazing! The email application has a nice register feature when retrieving emails. It first interrogates the mail server and makes up a register on the SE-500, showing which emails are waiting. I can select the ones that I want to retrieve, leaving the others on the central mail server. Also, the application allowed me to put a limit on the maximum size (in characters) of emails to retrieve. The backlight came in handy because I sneaked in a few emails late at night from the phone jack in my oldest brother's dimly lit kitchen.
The SE-500 is quick to power up and get ready to work. The Internet email application wastes little time either. I benchmarked the SE-500 against my desktop PC to receive a simple text message from my ISP. The starting condition for each was the powered off state. I measured the time taken by each one until they had retrieved the message and then logged out. The SE-500 was almost twice as fast as my desktop. The SE-500 took 64 seconds while my PC took 122 seconds. How's that for a little speed demon?
Miscellaneous: The operating system can be upgraded by the user. Sharp's web site has the latest version of the operating system available for download into a PC and from there into the SE-500 via the docking station.
I was puzzled by some of the reviews of the early SE-500's remarking about the generally slow response of the SE-500. My unit runs with maximum delays of 1 second between major events such as switching applications. The slowest operation I noticed was 4 seconds to save a new record and be ready for another record in the contacts application. This is the same as my Zaurus 5700, which I find perfectly usable. I read on the Sharp USA website that the downloadable version of the operating system dated December 1997, had received some speed improvements. This might explain why some of the reviewers of the SE-500 units, earlier in 1997 found the response to be sluggish and why I found my unit zips along quite nicely.
It is time to go and experiment with my Sharp SE-500 Mobile Organizer. I hope you enjoyed this article and that it gave you some insight into the SE-500 and this class of organizers.
Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments, Zaurus questions or your PDA story.