Buying a device because it runs Linux, or any OS, is like buying a car because of the engine manufacturer: It may have a good reputation, but it is only one part of the device.

In the case of PDAs, Linux is so flexible that two Linux-based PDAs can feel completely different. This isn’t Windows, where Microsoft gets to dictate the “end-user experience” to manufacturers. Linux developers get to do pretty much whatever they want with the operating system and the included software. You have to look at how all the components work together to get the total package.

In the case of Empower Technologies’ Linux DA PowerPlay III, the package is based on an 8-MB Palm III reference platform. It features a 160×160 pixel screen, a 16-MHz Dragonball processor, and nonupgradeable memory, closely resembling the internal electronics of a Palm IIIx. Only the button shapes and the sync connector would clue you in that this isn’t a Palm.

Right price but no development SDK
The PowerPlay is available for $99.99 from the Empower Technologies Web site and is comparable to Palm III equivalents like the Palm m100 or the Handspring Visor Deluxe, which each run about $30 more. An entry-level Pocket PC, on the other hand, is more than $300.

The manual (provided in print and PDF formats) is fairly well written with plenty of screenshots to help out those new to PDAs. I was disappointed to find that Empower did not include the development Software Development Kit (SDK) or the source to their Linux kernel on the installation disk. Like a recipe, Linux allows each “cook” to modify and change the OS at will. By not including the SDK, Empower Technologies hampers programmers who might write programs for the PowerPlay.

Ease of use
While I had feared that the PowerPlay would be prohibitively technical, users accustomed to the handheld “Palm” design will have no trouble operating it. The screen accuracy is acceptable and it seems to be viewable in most reasonable lighting conditions. The back light works well, and I didn’t notice any extreme battery drain.

Basic operation of the PowerPlay is quite similar to other PDAs. In fact, I often found myself using Palm commands with varying degrees of success.

While applications launched with no noticeable lag and were generally self-explanatory, I did find some exceptions: A few games could not be exited by tapping the Home icon. Instead, I had to use the Menu icon to access the Exit option. The first time that happened, I thought the PowerPlay had locked up.

The handwriting recognition was better than I’ve seen with Windows CE/Pocket PC, but it’s not as good as Palm’s. The “language,” which users draw with the stylus to help the PDA recognize letters, is rather simple. Most people who write cursive lowercase letters will likely get it right.

Also, a pop-up box appears as you write to show you what you’re writing. While it’s helpful in the beginning, it can’t be disabled. The PowerPlay’s handwriting recognition was about half what I get on my Handspring, even without the typos that came from learning a new script. (Empower says that the next release of Linux DA, 1.1, will address this issue.)

The other problem I had with text entry was with the cursor placement in the Memo application. I originally planned to write this article’s first draft on the PowerPlay, as I often do on my Visor, but I couldn’t. You can’t select blocks of text to edit sections of your memos, and the cursor location seems to always want to jump to the end of the document.

Word wrap, a feature I didn’t realize was so handy until it went away, was also nonexistent. Again, Empower Technologies has been made aware of this issue, and the 1.1 release of Linux DA will include improved text selection.

The application suite is more than adequate. The calendaring application is comparable to the ones you’d find on older Palm OS 3.0 devices like the Palm IIIx, but it is more limited than the one you’ll find on newer devices or Handsprings. An eBook reader is also included, which boosts the PowerPlay’s out-of-box utility.

Oddly, Empower included an overclock utility with the PowerPlay, allowing users to increase the CPU beyond its base of 16 MHz to improve speed. I found that it tended to make the PowerPlay less responsive; the processor appears to miss some commands.

The only sign that you might be running Linux is the file manager. FileMan has the normal complement of Linux directories, allowing you to see the core of the OS. I think it would have been better to include a few extra safety features to prevent people from getting crazy with the Delete button, but I guess I can actually delete just about anything from my PalmOS or Windows CE devices, too.

The desktop software is functional, if a little on the bland side. It hits all the main applications and has a fairly detailed transfer log. It can link e-mail to a MAPI-enabled client, so Outlook users should be fine. (Note: I did not test this feature.)

Address books, expense reports, and to-do lists from other programs are also transferable, but the import/export ability is limited to CSV format and may require a trip through Excel to get there. The one quirk was in the To Do section, where the line breaks I put in a task came across as control characters.

The eBook reader can access HTML, plain text, or Palm OS PDB files, once the desktop software converts them to the Linux DA electronic book format. I had hoped that one of the free, open source Gnu Public License (GPL) eBook readers would be used so that other eBook formats could simply be loaded onto the PowerPlay as-is.

Despite having Palm OS-compatible hardware, PowerPlay users can’t beam back and forth to Palm OS devices, only other Linux DAs. I know some programs will let the Palm OS and Windows CE/Pocket PCs beam address book entries and the like to each other, and I would have liked to have seen at least a limited Palm-compatible beam utility. Besides being unable to beam to and from other PDAs, the PowerPlay actually locked up when I tried to receive an address book entry from my Visor.

This is the most serious design flaw on the PowerPlay: The device does not have a “soft” reset. Most PDAs can be reset when they freeze or lock up so that the offending application stops running and you return to the main menu. A “hard” reset formats the machine back to factory original. If your PowerPlay locks up, don’t hit that reset button unless you are near your home computer; it will wipe out everything. The next release of Linux DA will include a soft reset.

Report card
Here’s a breakdown of my review.

Usability: C+
The intuitive interface is hampered by character-writing pop-up windows and text-editing issues. Linux DA 1.1 will correct this.

Stability: C
While it was rock-stable in normal use, the “amnesia” induced by the mandatory hard reset makes accidents more serious than they should be. (Another thing to be fixed soon.)

Compatibility: C
It works fine with most desktop applications, assuming you’re willing to go through the hoops to get to CSV.

Cost: C
When the PowerPlay was announced in September 2001, the $100 price tag was spectacular. The six- to eight-week shipping cycle, combined with price cuts from Palm OS manufacturers, put the PowerPlay at a minor cost advantage offset by its lack of third-party accessories.

Overall, I have to give the PowerPlay a “C” rating. It is on par with a Palm OS 3.0 device but falls a bit behind the 3.5 and 4.0 devices out now. The flaws don’t distinguish it from other PDAs but neither do its strengths. I’ll raise that grade to a B- once the OS upgrade ships.

While it’s quite good for a first release, the PowerPlay’s market success will depend on how readily the Linux DA operating system is promoted and accepted.