Hardware

Marrying Linux and the PDA with the help of Agenda

If you're a fan of PDAs and Linux, you'll want to check out the new VR3 from Agenda. In this Daily Drill Down, Jack Wallen, Jr. gives you a sound preview.

It's been a long time in the making, but at long last, it's here! Well... sort of.

When my demo of the Agenda VR3 arrived, I have to admit that I was ecstatic! I attended the unveiling of the VR3 at the San Jose Linux Expo in 2000 and was instantly amazed at what this handheld was capable of. Little did I know how far Agenda had to go before a finished product would find its way into my hands. And little did I realize how much work the little marvel would actually need before it was ready for the consumer market.

Before continuing, I will pause to mention that the unit shipped to me was, for all intents and purposes, an alpha release. What I mean is simple... nothing worked. Well I shouldn't say "nothing." A few applications functioned but not enough to call the unit useful. But like I am with most open source applications and hardware, I was privileged to watch and help the product grow.

First impressions
My initial impression of the VR3 was pretty remarkable. Agenda shipped the Matrix (black) color model to me (quite appropriate seeing as how the movie namesake is tantamount to geek culture). Other colors available are Shark (blue) and H2O (clear). I quickly discovered that the VR3 is smaller than most other PDAs, and a great deal sexier! The actual view screen is deceptively larger than that of the Pilot due to the VR3's ability to hide the keyboard for any application requiring only button action. And the screen is just as easy to read as any other palm device, as you can see in Figure A.

Figure A
One color the Agenda is offered in is Matrix (black). Is it named after the movie, or the explicit n-dimensional expression?


Along with the actual unit, I received the standard PDA fare: cradle, sync cable, Star Trek-ish cover, and an extra stylus. Shying away from the average PDA (and holding true to open source form), Agenda includes the entire source for both kernel and applications.

Did I say kernel? Why yes I did, thank you! Where most palm devices pretty much stop at your handheld personal information manager (PIM), the VR3 takes a vast leap toward what I will call microcomputer-dom. The VR3 successfully disguises itself as a full-fledged micronauted version of a complete Linux-based PC. You're probably saying to yourself, “He's gotta be joking!”

Let me recount my relationship with the VR3 to illustrate just how impressive these handhelds really are.

When they first met…
This relationship began, as many do, on not-so-solid ground. As soon as I had the unit out of the box and the batteries inserted, I fired it up to take it for a test drive. The first moment was as close to awe inspiring as it could be (in the tech world). Right in front of my eyes, a full-blown Linux kernel revealed itself... mounting file systems, running various processes, and even starting xinetd. And this wasn't just any kernel. This was kernel 2.4! Kernel 2.4 on a PDA!

Once the device finished booting (and my eyes settled back into their sockets), I settled down to see what Agenda managed to pull off.

Unlike most other PDAs, the VR3 has the equivalent to a main menu (or for you Windows users out there, a Start menu), which is one of three ways to call up an application. From this "main" menu, you can call an application. A second way to call an application is to launch the LaunchPad, which places nifty icons on the desktop. The third way to call an application is from a console window. You read that correctly—a console window. Although it's not quite bash, this console functions similarly, and any Linux user will feel right at home. We'll discuss more about how to make this console more user-friendly later in this Daily Drill Down.

I could see and open those applications, but were they worth using? When I first received the unit, I would have answered with a resounding “no.” But like I said, being tied so closely to the open source community, I had become part of the evolution of the VR3.

As delivered, the applications were, for the most part, useless. The alarms failed, the handwriting recognition was useless, there was no sync software, and the network connection didn't connect. Quite disappointing for Agenda. But like I said, Agenda is closely tied to the open source community, so development is rapid. So rapid, in fact, that within four days, my Agenda VR3 had undergone three cramfs (ROM) upgrades, six application installations, and two kernel upgrades. After completing these upgrades, I can happily report that the VR3 is a fully functional, amazingly flexible PDA!

Product specifications
  • Processor: 66 MHz 32 bit NEC VR4181 MIPS
  • Memory: 8 MB of RAM plus 16 MB of Flash Memory
  • Display: 160x240 resolution monochrome LCD screen, 16 gray scale 2 1/8" x 3" viewable area
  • User Interface: Stylus-activated power on/off feature, touch sensitive for stylus or fingertip operation; seven push buttons for different actions; seven touch-sensitive, quick-launch hard icons; on-screen keyboard and external keyboard; on-screen handwriting recognition input; audio input/output (external headset with microphone); dual-color LED; buzzer
  • Connectivity: IrDA port, RS-232 port, Consumer IR port, Agenda peripheral port
  • Built-in software: Linux-based Linux VR operating system, Contacts, To-Do, Schedule, Notes, Calculator, QuickSync, E-mail, Games, and Utilities
  • CD-ROM Software: QuickSync for Linux and Windows PC
  • Power: 2 AAA batteries
  • Physical Specifications: 4.5" x 3.0" x 0.8", weight 4 oz. (without batteries)
  • Optional Accessories: 56K external modem, RS-232 serial cable, USB cable, external keyboard
  • Standard Accessories: Stylus, QuickSync cradle, QuickSync cable, batteries, headset with microphone, full-body style case
  • Warranty: One year limited

The nitty-gritty
Of course, I could go on and on about the basic functionality of the device, but I won't. Instead, I want to highlight some really cool tricks and tips that will better illustrate just how amazing this little PDA really is.

Making the console useful
Because this is Linux, you can customize more than just the time, date, and user. For example, as shipped, the console window (rxvt) is difficult to use. Due to the small screen size, the default settings work against you. The scrollbar is visible and takes up nearly a quarter-inch of the precious screen real estate. The default font size, although easy to read, causes text to completely mal-align when running simple commands like ls. In order to configure your prompt, you will need to create an .Xdefaults file that contains friendlier configurations.

Here's your first small hurdle. As shipped, the VR3 has no text editor. I was shocked, since the text editor is a staple for almost all Linux users. To surmount this hurdle, you have two choices: use the supplied Notes application or use a pair of tried and true commands (touch and echo). I recommend the latter, and that's exactly what I'm going to show you.

Text editors
Later on, I will show you how to install a very useful text editor. For the moment, however, we’ll work with the unit as it's shipped.

First, open the terminal (from the main Start | System menu, select Terminal) and run the following commands:
touch .Xdefaults
echo Rxvt*font:5x7 >> .Xdefaults
echo Rxvt*scrollBar:off >> .Xdefaults
echo Rxvt*geometry:31x17 >> .Xdefaults


Now open a new terminal, and the new configurations should be in play. Your new terminal should be minus the scroll bar, and the fonts should be smaller, allowing more text to be displayed per line.

Making a network connection
Now that you have your terminal a bit more usable, we can continue with VR3 coolness. Since some of the really great tricks involve installing applications that are available online, we'll first need to make a network connection.

Please take into account that by the time the official units have shipped, some of the following processes will be greatly simplified. However as it stands, there are certain hoops to leap through.

The first (and worst) of these hoops is creating the actual connection. On the VR3's cradle, there is a small round button marked QuickSync. This button is currently useless, so ignore it. Instead, you have to open the Network application. (From the main menu, navigate through the System submenu and select Network.) When the Network application appears, select Direct Serial. (Hopefully, you've already connected your cradle to an open serial port—we'll assume ttyS0.)

Before you proceed, move to your PC and start the ppp daemon with the following command (as root):
/usr/sbin/pppd /dev/ttyS0 10.1.1.2:10.1.1.3 noauth \nodetach novj debug 115200 local

Press [Enter], return to the VR3, and click the Start button on the network connection. The two processes will communicate, and the connection will be made.

Leaps ahead
With a working connection, you are now ready to begin discovering where this little beauty truly shines. What I am going to do is show you how to install the Apache Web server on your PDA. Yes you read correctly—Web server. This is where the Agenda VR3 leaps far ahead of its competition. (Try running a Web server on your Pilot.)

Before we actually get the Apache server installed on the VR3, we're going to first install a very basic text editor so that we can edit the httpd.conf file for our server.

In order to install Micro Emacs (our tiny text editor) on our unit, we first need to download a copy from Sourceforge, open a console window (on your PC), and run the command (from the directory you saved meinto):
rsync --progress me 10.1.1.3::vr3/home/default/

Once this transfer is finished, telnet to the unit with:
telnet 10.1.1.3

log in as default (you shouldn't need a password), and run the commands:
su
<enter root's password when prompted>
chmod a+x /home/default me
exit


To start me, you must open a terminal and type the command:
./me

and Micro Emacs will start. To find all the commands necessary to work with this application, run man emacs on your PC or check out Michael Jennings' article, "Why I Love Emacs."

With a decent text editor available, we can now install the Apache server. Point your PC's browser to the Orasoft ftp site and download apache-1.3.14_agenda.tar.

Once this file is on your machine, transfer it in the same way you transferred the Micro Emacs file. With the apache-1.3.14_agenda.tar file transferred, telnet to the unit, su to root, and run the following commands:
tar xvf apache-1.3.14_agenda.tar
cd apache/conf
/home/default/me httpd.conf


and you will find yourself with Apache's httpd.conf file open in Micro Emacs.

What you need to do with this file is comment out the following entry:
Group nogroup

by placing a # symbol at the beginning of the line like so:
#Group nogroup

Once you've commented that entry out, press [Ctrl]X followed by [Ctrl]W and you'll be prompted to provide a file name (httpd.conf). After you've edited the file, move the entire apache directory to the /flash directory with the following commands:
Cd
su
enter root's password>
mv apache /flash


and Apache is now ready to start. To start the Apache server, you must be root and run the command:
/flash/apache/bin/mipsel-linux-httpd

and with success, you'll have your prompt returned without error. Is your VR3 still with its network connection? If so, get ready to be impressed. Open a browser on your PC and type http://10.1.1.3/index.html, and the tried-and-true Apache splash screen will appear, as shown in Figure B. Understand that it's somewhat slower than a typical Web server.

Figure B
The Apache welcome screen is the default screen used immediately after installation.


Now let your imagination take over! Using the soon-to-be-released wireless modems, BLAM! Instant server-in-a-pocket! Think MIT. Think bonus geek points aplenty.

Syncing
What PDA would be worth anything without the ability to sync with your desktop? As I've stated a number of times, since this is in raw beta form, the sync software isn't much to chat about. It does work, but it isn't nearly what GNOME and KDE currently offer. In fact, the software (qsync) is in such raw form, I'm going to skip over it entirely and show you how to back up your VR3 via the command line.

The first thing you will want to do is get your network connection back up. Once that connection is up, you will be using the rsync command to do your backing up. What I do is create a new directory in my home directory called vr3-backup. With this new directory in place (and the unit connected to the PC), run the command:
rsync --progress -v -r 10.1.1.3::vr3/home/default/* ./vr3-backup

which will back up the contents of your PDA's /home/default/ directory into the newly created vr3-backup directory on the PC.

Although the syncing software is pretty rough around the edges, it works (it's just currently incredibly painful to install and can only be had via CVS) and it's obvious that it's going to be a very easy-to-use and flexible system. I managed to get it to work and it sync'd perfectly with both the GNOME Pim tools (gnomecal, gnomecard) and KDE's version (Korganizer). Fortunately, when the units are actually shipped, the sync software will be complete.

A few warnings
Because of the nature of the VR3, it does not respond as quickly as the Pilot (or many other PDAs). You have to remember that this is more a micro-PC than simply a PDA. With what little extra patience you have to offer the VR3, you will be rewarded fully by its versatility and flexibility.

Also, the VR3 isn't quite as battery-friendly as its competition. Agenda is working to lessen the battery drain and will have a rechargeable battery pack available soon.

Finally, running the Apache server on this baby is cool... infinitely so. Just understand that your PDA will come to a crawl while the server is running, and battery life will be whittled away.

Some last words
To prove the superiority of this PDA, this review was almost completely written on the unit's Notes application. Sure, it took quite a while, but it worked beautifully. Need I say more?

I've been using the Agenda for about three weeks now, and I'll never go back to my Pilot (which is now collecting dust). The Agenda VR3 is vastly superior to its competition from a pure computing standpoint. It feels like a PDA, but it computes like a real PC. If you're serious about your handhelds, you'll want one of these babies. Point your browser over to the Agenda online store and buy one now. You won't regret the purchase.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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