Review: Sharp NetWalker PC-T1

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Eight months after the launch of the NetWalker PC-Z1, Sharp unveiled the NetWalker PC-T1, a 5-inch tablet version of the Z1 clamshell.

Released last month in Japan, the T1 features the same 800MHz Freescale i.MX515 CPU (ARM Cortex A8), WVGA touchscreen, 512MB RAM, 802.11b/g WiFi, Bluetooth, microSD card slot, optical mouse, and Ubuntu 9.04 operating system as the Z1, making it a questionable addition to the NetWalker family. Is the tablet form factor so compelling that last year's specs, which already weren't that good in the first place, can be repackaged and successfully sold today?

You can read my full review below or grab one for yourself at Conics.net, who is currently selling the new NetWalker PC-T1 for about $540, to find out.

System Specifications

CPU:
800MHz Freescale i.MX515 (ARM Cortex A8)
RAM: 512MB
OS: Ubuntu 9.04
Storage: 8GB
Expansion: microSD card slot (up to 16GB)
Display: 5" resistive touchscreen (800 x 480)
Wireless: 802.11b/g, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Size: 5.9" x 3.5" x 0.7"-0.83"
Weight: 9.87 oz
Battery: 2300mAh lithium ion (removable)
Up to 6 hours runtime

Check out my NetWalker PC-T1 unboxing for a look at the device's packaging and bundled accessories, including a nice pouch with an elastic stylus holder.

Hardware

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One of the first things you'll notice about the NetWalker T1 is its thickness (size comparisons with devices like the HTC EVO and original NetWalker Z1 are included in my unboxing). Compared to all the other slates participating in Tablet Mania 2010 and living by the "thin is in" mantra, this device is very chunky and not exactly what anyone would consider sleek or sexy. It's glossy—I'll give you that—but the ability to accumulate greasy fingerprints and smudges certainly isn't something to brag about.

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So maybe it won't win any design awards, but looks aren't everything. And once you get over the thickness, which isn't hard to do when it's sitting very comfortably in your hands, you might start to appreciate the rounded edges/corners, the symmetry of the bezel, subtle detail, and how the curved sides blend seamlessly into the back.

Build Quality

Build quality is excellent. The casing is made of a thick hard plastic that feels very strong. The thinner plastic used on the top and bottom flexes a little when pressed, but the rest of the unit is durable and doesn't creak when squeezed.

The smooth plastic and curved sides feel great when holding the unit with both hands. Chunkiness is actually an advantage here, as it feels more natural and comfortable to hold something "meatier" for longer periods of times. With thinner devices, my hands/fingers tend to cramp up after a while because of the unnatural closed position.

Controls

Flanking the display are two buttons that look like mirror images of each other but are in fact two different controls. On the left is the left mouse button, which does nothing but perform a standard left-mouse click. The button on the right, however, is a multi-purpose right mouse button (for right-click functions) and optical mouse that can be used for cursor control or scrolling.

What Sharp did was put four hardware controls (left and right mouse buttons, optical mouse, and scroll wheel) into two, giving the NetWalker a clean and balanced look. The layout is very natural, too, and takes no time at all to get used to.

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What I don't like about the optical mouse is the way it sits in a partial groove. The right side is completely open, allowing the thumb to move freely; the left side is blocked so that the thumb bumps into the "wall," which makes cursor control less fluid.

I/O Ports

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At the top of the NetWalker T1 are a USB 2.0 port and microSD card slot protected by a rubber door and a sliding power/lock switch. USB flash drives should connect with no problem, but external hard drives and other peripherals may be hit-or-miss. The NetWalker can power my Western Digital Passport drive and LG DVD burner, for example, but it isn't able to see them (presumably just driver issues that could possibly be sorted out quite easily).

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On the bottom are microphone and headphone jacks, as well as a mini USB port.

Display

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The NetWalker's 5-inch display is bright with accurate colors, clear text, and decent side viewing angles. When viewed from the bottom, colors darken but whites stay white and text is still readable (no "negative" effect). There is a very slight fuzziness from the touchscreen visible against light-colored backgrounds, but I only noticed it because I was specifically looking for it.

The screen is glossy and hard (it's not one of those mushy touchscreens), so you'll be able to see and hear yourself tapping on it. And as you'll find out below, you'll be tapping a lot.

Touchscreen

It's actually the system's fault that the touchscreen can seem unresponsive, as it will occasionally lag just enough for you to think your tap (whether made with your finger or the included stylus) wasn't registered. I believe the touchscreen itself is good because the lag between tapping an item and having it respond is the same as when using the mouse pointer, so it has nothing to do with an inaccurate touchscreen or poor calibration.

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Knowing this doesn't make anything better, of course, so the screen will likely take the brunt of your frustration as you tap harder and harder, faster and faster to try to make things move along more quickly.

On-Screen Input Methods

For a slate to be successful, it needs to have excellent input methods that don't make users wish they had a hardware keyboard for even simple tasks like typing a password or URL.

Handwriting Recognition

One of the advertised features of the NetWalker is handwriting recognition, so don't freak out when you see the word "stylus" in this section of the review.

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I personally don't think a screen of this size is well suited for inking, but it's possible if you really want to do it with the stylus and Motorola's preloaded SoftStylus, a resizable pop-up input panel similar to TIP on Windows Tablet PCs. SoftStylus isn't intelligent enough to automatically launch when you're in an active text field (or minimize when you're out of it) and you can only write one letter in the drawing area at a time, so it's rather tedious to use. Even at the fastest recognition speed, it's still too slow to write at a normal pace, especially when you need to stop and correct errors. It's also unstable, often crashing the entire system while you're in the middle of writing a simple letter, and sometimes requires about 8 taps on the minimized icon to finally open up.

Having said that, writing on the screen with the stylus actually feels really smooth. So if you can find another piece of handwriting recognition software, you may be able to have a decent experience.

Keyboard

In addition to the drawing area discussed above, SoftStylus also has a Japanese/English keyboard. The two input methods can be easily toggled by tapping on the button in the left corner of the panel.

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The keyboard can be resized to comical proportions (smallest and largest sizes shown above) and is pretty standard fare for an OSK designed for a stylus. Thumb typing is possible when the keys are big enough, but it's a painfully slow experience (especially compared to what you might be used to on your smartphone) and the keyboard takes up so much of the screen that it really isn't worthwhile.

In other words, the NetWalker's default data input methods simply aren't good enough. It's unfortunate that the device doesn't have an integrated kickstand, which would've made it so quick and easy to use with a Bluetooth keyboard.

Software

The NetWalker T1 runs a customized version of Ubuntu 9.04. Everything is in Japanese by default, but the language can be switched over to English very easily thanks to this photo tutorial created by Conics.net. There will be still be some leftover Japanese here and there, but the main elements of the UI will be in English. It isn't clear whether the OS can be upgraded to a newer version of Ubuntu without losing any of Sharp's customizations.

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Preloaded on the T1 are a slew of applications including Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Totem Movie Player, Xournal, and Sunbird. You can also download and install oodles of apps from the built-in app manager, allowing you to do just about anything you need/want.

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Perhaps to make the NetWalker a bit more consumer-friendly, Sharp offers three launcher options that can be selected on the fly (selection is applied after a quick log-out): Wbar, Ubuntu Netbook launcher, and a standard desktop.

Performance

I already touched on this in the Touchscreen section above, but it definitely bears repeating that the NetWalker T1, despite its 800MHz Cortex A8-based processor, is much slower than you'd expect it to be. The bottleneck is likely the SSD (as it was with last year's NetWalker Z1), as the CPU should have no problem with simple actions like launching an application or opening a menu.

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For example, it takes 29 seconds for OpenOffice's word processor to open, 13 seconds for Firefox just to launch (not including website load time), 5 seconds for 16 icons in the Settings menu to appear, and 6 seconds to get Terminal up and running.

Additionally, scrolling in Firefox can be a little jerky, with or without the use of the grab-and-drag add-on. On the other hand, website load times average about 10 to 12 seconds, which isn't bad.

Other timed stats:

  • Cold boot: 1 minute, 17 seconds
  • Shut down: 17 seconds
  • Suspend: 6 seconds
  • Resume: 4 seconds

Battery Life

The NetWalker T1 is powered by a removable lithium-ion battery (3.7V, 2300mAh, 8.6Wh) that Sharp says is good for up to 6 hours of runtime per charge.

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I'd say 4.5 to 5 hours is more realistic, depending on what you're doing, and while those kinds of numbers aren't impressive anymore, I think they're still acceptable for a handheld Linux computer.

Conclusion

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For the Ubuntu user looking for a small tablet, the Sharp NetWalker T1 offers all those flavorful Linux bits just begging to be hacked and tweaked in a popular form factor that feels great in the hand, can easily pair with a Bluetooth keyboard for extended text entry (bring your own stand), has decent battery life, and of course comes with built-in access to countless repositories and applications.

For the average consumer or the gadget fan with little to no Linux experience, however, the T1 is a hard sell. Compared to the other handheld slates that are specifically designed to appeal to a more mainstream audience, the T1 is slow, chunky, and unpolished. The hardware controls are certainly intuitive, with the optical mouse pulling double-duty as the right-mouse button and being able to be used for cursor control or scrolling, but the resistive touchscreen, stylus-driven UI, and subpar input options are no match for the capacitive multitouch displays and finger-friendly interfaces that are all the rage today.

The Sharp NetWalker PC-T1 is available now for about $540 from Conics.net.

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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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