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Sharp Netwalker PC-T1

Sharp launches a Japanese-market Linux-based tablet with a 5-inch touch display
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Those who follow the Japanese domestic electronics market know that it is full of fascinating products and gadgets that we never get to see stateside. That's primarily because of the fundamental differences between the two markets and what those markets seek and are willing to pay for. Add to that the Japanese market's uneasy relationship with Windows and other Western software technology (it's used and needed, but also resented) and you have a situation where some of the best Japanese technology never has a chance outside of Japan due to cost and, more importantly, due to totally different needs and expectations.

Those who remember the Sharp Zaurus know that the platform started out in the early and mid-1990s as a very popular Japanese market-only PDA that was clearly superior to anything available in the US. Yet, the software did not translate, and so when the Zaurus finally became available in the US, it was a "K-PDA," a little keyboard clamshell that bore no resemblance to the Japanese Zaurus at all (read The Sharp Zaurus Story)

In a way, the Sharp Netwalker PC-T1, introduced in April of 2010, again represents an alternate approach to technology. While stateside and in most of the rest of the world, everyone salivates over the Apple iPad and tech companies are falling all over themselves trying to launch their own iPad competitors, Sharp introduced the little Netwalker PC-T1.

The handsome device measures 5.9 x 3.54 x 0.8 inches and weighs about ten ounces, placing it squarely between a typical smartphone and an emerging class of iPad-style devices. Its 5-inch LED_backlit display is razor-shapr with 1024 x 600 pixel resolution, the same as tens of millions of netbooks. There's a touchscreen that can be operated with either fingers or a stylus. The design is neat and elegant in the same somewhat playful Japanese kind of way we've seen in numerous Japanese games and gizmos before, which means eminently capable and well-made, but lacking the block-of-glass-and-metal coolness factor of Apple products.

Unlike the about-to-emerge flood of iPad copies, the little Netwalker does not run Windows 7, but a version of Ubuntu 9.04 Linux customized by Sharp. And it doesn't use the ubiquitous Intel Atom, but a Freescale i.MX515, an ARM8-based chip known much more for its frugal operation than for impressive benchmark performance (see The coming war: ARM vs x86). There's 512MB of RAM, no more and no less, and 8GB of Flash. Additional memory can be added via a microSDHC slot. The device has both a standard USB 2.0 connector as well as a mini USB jack. In addition there are standard 3.5mm audio in and out jacks. On the wireless side you get onboard WiFi, but only 802.11b/g, not the faster N-spec, and Bluetooth version 2.1 with enhanced data rate. Bluetooth can be used to communicate with the optional wireless folding keyboard and mouse. There's no mention of WWAN availability and there is no camera.

According to Sharp, the PC-T1 can start up in just three seconds. The included software allows browsing (Firefox), email (Thunderbird), calendaring (Sunbird), inking, doodling, handwriting recognition, and annotating PDF documents with electronic ink. For office productivity, there's the OpenOffice.org suite that's largely compatible with Microsoft Office. There's also OpenOffice.org Drawing, the Totem video player (with H.264 support), a text editor, document viewer and Adobe Flash Lite. You also get an eBook reader that can work in portrait or landscape mode and in Japan Sharp has its own "Netwalker Library," that as of April 2010 contains about 25,000 titles.

For operating, you hold the little Netwalker in both hands and use your thumbs with the buttons in the upper left and upper right of the display. One of the controls, I believe, also has pointer functionality.

As for cost, the Netwalker runs about US$500 in Japan. Given Japanese manufacturers' historic challenge in gaining non-domestic market traction with handheld computers other than gaming consoles, it's hard to see this little Sharp taking on upcoming tablets by HP and Dell, let alone the iPad, and so Sharp is unlikely to make it available in the US.

Added/changed Added 04/2010
Form-factor Tablet
OS Sharp customized version of Ubuntu 9.04 Linux
Processor Freescale i.MX515 (ARM Cortex-A8) multimedia application processor
CPU Speed Probably 800MHz
Chipset NA
Standard/Max RAM 512MB RAM, fixed
Disk/drive 8GB Flash
Card slots 1 microSDHC
Display type TFT LCD touch screen with LED backlight
Display size/res 5" wide-format, 1024 x 600 pixels
Digitizer/pens Touchscreen/1
Keyboard/scale Onscreen
Ruggedness Standard
Operating temperature 50 - 95F
Operating humidity 20 - 80% non-condensing
Housing Plastic/metal
Size (WxHxD) 5.9 x 3.54 x 0.8
Weight 10 ounces
Power EA-BL14 Li-Ion ("About 6 hrs")
Interface 1 USB 2.0, 1 miniUSB 2.0, 3.5mm audio in-out
Wireless 802.11 b/g, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
List price 47,000 Yen (US$500) in Japan
Contact Netwalker webpage
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