Turbolinux ships first Wizpy handhelds

Flash-based multimedia player lets users access files in their own working environment on almost any PC

On Friday Japan's Turbolinux begins dispatching the first batch of its Wizpy handhelds to people who ordered them from its Web site. The flash-based multimedia player contains a version of Linux, so it can be used to boot a PC into the operating system, allowing users to access their files in their own working environment on almost any PC.

The devices have proved hot items on the TurboLinux Web shop since preorders began in late January, but what's it like to use one? We tested a pre-production version of the Wizpy for a week and found it delivers on its promise with some annoyances.

As a device from which to boot Linux, the Wizpy was easy to use, it just required connecting.

No set-up was required because all the PCs we tried were already configured to look first for a bootable CD before defaulting to the operating system on the hard-disk drive. The Wizpy masquerades as a bootable CD, so the PC jumped into the Linux OS and the copy of Windows on the hard-disk didn't stand a chance. The Wizpy requires a PC with USB 2.0 -- older versions of USB are just too slow for the large amount of data that needs to be exchanged with the host computer -- so problems could occur, particularly on older computers.

In use, the PC didn't appear excessively sluggish despite the OS running off the Wizpy. The device managed to handle tasks like Web browsing, word processing and e-mail with ease. It comes with these applications installed and it's just such use that TurboLinux envisages.

The backlight did annoy, however. With the Wizpy placed to the side of a laptop PC, the backlight kept switching off then a few seconds later switching on again -- something that became so annoying I had to cover it with a magazine.

There are two versions of the Wizpy: 2GB and 4GB. The Linux OS and applications take up about 1GB, leaving either 1GB or 3GB available for data storage. That could be a bit on the low side for video but should be fine for many music files and documents.

Personal files can be stored within the 1GB Linux sector and only accessed once logged into the OS. The remaining storage area can be accessed both from within Linux and also from other systems when the Wizpy is connected to a PC as a flash memory device.

It's in this use we had a problem. Connected to a Windows XP machine the Wizpy was recognized and drivers loaded but the same thing didn't happen on two Apple Mac computers running OSX. It appeared to Windows as USB Mass Storage, so it should have worked with Macs but it didn't. TurboLinux said they would work on compatibility with Macs for future versions of the product.

There were few other problems but a few things that could have been improved. For example the up and down buttons on the front of the Wizpy operate the volume, but the on-screen volume bar is horizontal. Not perfect but also not a huge problem ... until you turn the Wizpy on its side to watch a video. Then you're pressing the left-hand button to increase the volume but the volume bar is moving to the right.

There was also a problem with the FM radio, which would only tune to the Japanese FM band (76MHz to 90MHz) when the user interface was being used in Japanese. There is no way of setting an English user interface, but listening to Japanese radio. That wasn't the only disappointment with the radio. The sensitivity was very poor, so bad that in central Tokyo several of the local FM stations couldn't be heard without static.

All in all, the Wizpy delivered its promise of a multimedia player that can be used to boot Linux on a PC. But it disappointed because of these few small annoyances that should have been fixed or identified earlier. TurboLinux says it will use the feedback to help improve future versions of the Wizpy.

The 2GB version costs ¥29,800 ($246) and a 4GB version costs ¥33,800. It is on sale now in Japan and will appear in international markets soon.