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A new agenda for Linux

Agenda Computing’s VR3 PDA puts Linux in the palm of your hand. Mobile Office hed: dek:

VR3, from Agenda Computing, is the first Linux-based personal digital assistant (PDA), and it poses a credible alternative to Palm- and Windows CE-based devices. Emerging into an already overcrowded handheld market, however, Agenda has its work cut out for it. This first incarnation, priced at $249, will appeal primarily to Linux fans and other computer-savvy folks; other users would find it far too slow and geeky for their needs.

Encased in a black, blue, or clear case, the VR3 is slightly smaller than a Palm V, but has more screen real estate. Along with the standard PDA organizer features, the VR3 adds a lot more software. This is why the VR3 is slower than other handhelds, despite a much faster and more powerful processor: VR3 applications perform more work, especially on startup, than comparable Palm OS apps.

Like some versions of Palm-powered devices, the VR3 stores its operating system in flash memory for easy upgrading, thereby protecting your investment (PDAs become obsolete within a year of release). Even if Agenda stops releasing its free upgrades, you can build upgraded flash images of the system software from the open-source Linux source code. One caveat: Agenda needs to fix the tricky process of upgrading the VR3’s flash memory, which currently endangers the VR3 if something goes wrong.

For text entry, the VR3 recognizes Graffiti and also has an on-screen keyboard application similar to that found on the Palm OS. The VR3’s keyboard, however, is larger and always on, allowing you to enter data in multiple fields. Its main downfall is overlooking some crucial symbols (such as /, &, |, and ~) needed for the built-in Linux command shell.

The VR3’s Linux shell gives you the freedom to do almost anything you want developer.agendacomputing.com/. Agenda makes it very easy for developers to port applications to the VR3. You’d be surprised at what has already been ported-the Apache Web server and the NFS Network File System server, for example. The VR3 also takes advantage of Linux’s ability to support multiple users, giving you two accounts right off the bat. While this may seem odd on a handheld, Microsoft is touting essentially the same feature for a future version of its Windows CE handheld operating system. Also included is the FLTK (Fast Light Toolkit) for GUI applications. More tools and languages are listed online at supergamulti.com, and www.coconut-palm-software.com/~djo/agenda/.

When connecting the VR3 to your desktop computer, you can network and then Telnet www.cs.umbc.edu/~acedil1/agenda/network.shtml; or you can use the open-source rsync protocol rsync.samba.org/ or the VR3’s QuickSync software. QuickSync is easiest, even though it feels more primitive than the Palm OS sync software. (Windows sync software was not yet available at this writing.) I really liked Telneting to the VR3. Since the VR3 uses the X Windows System for graphics, you can run graphical applications on the VR3, but display them on a Linux or Windows box. Likewise, you can run desktop applications that display on the VR3.

Find new applications and upgrades at Agenda www.agendacomputing.com/software.html, including a Web browser, an e-mail client, and fax software. Also check supermegamulti.com/agenda/ and www.enteract.com/~mghall/vr3/vr3.html.

Overall, I really liked the VR3. When Agenda solves the speed problem and provides better synchronization capabilities to mainstream applications, the VR3 will be among the best PDAs. Look for wider audience appeal soon.

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