The Recon 400X Review

Have you ever dropped a PDA or cellphone and had the screen crack? Have you had it up to here with Windows Mobile’s quirks? Well maybe, just maybe, this PDA is for you. What PDA can withstand drops and use in the rain? What PDA doesn’t run Windows Mobile or Palm OS anymore?? The Recon 400X. Now you might say hey I thought this PDA ran Windows Mobile. Well, it does. However, now, via SDG Systems, you can get a Recon 400X that runs Linux!

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Tripod Data Systems is the original manufacturer of the Recon and as you can see in the many pictures of it, it’s a very large PDA.

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This is not a svelte device. Measuring in at 17 oz. (490g) including rechargeable PowerBoot and measuring in at 6.5? x 3.75? x 1.75?, the Recon 400X will not fit in your pocket.

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It will also not crack if you drop it or sit on it. It’s the PDA that our military uses in the field. It has specs very similar to some of the Windows Mobile PDA’s and also includes Bluetooth and 802.11b/g. The hardware platform is very similar to the Sharp Zaurus line of PDA’s as well.

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The Recon 400X originally runs Windows Mobile. SDG Systems who has provided the device to me for the review has ported the Linux kernel and the Familiar Linux distribution to run on the Recon. You can view all of the Recon 400X’s specifications here.

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The port was originally sponsored by 10 East. SDG also let’s you run one of two different Linux palmtop environments. Qtopia and GPE(Gnome Palmtop Environment) both are available at the time of ordering. The unit I received had the Qtopia palmtop environment. Qtopia was originally written by Trolltech who originally wrote and maintained the Qt widget set that KDE uses. Right away you will notice how much like KDE that Qtopia uses. SDG also has for download the Qtopia Desktop application which is akin to the Palm Desktop program you may use to synchronize your calendar, tasks, and contacts on. Qtopia Desktop will run on Windows XP as well as Linux and I have tested it on each platform. The synchronization is setup as Ethernet over USB. You must configure a network device on both Linux and Windows and you assign a private IP address in the 192 IP space for the synchronization. Through the same connection, you can SSH into the device.

The PDA applications, the calendar, task list, and contacts all run extremely well and perform their functions adequately. You can even synchronize the Recon to Outlook through the Qtopia desktop when running Windows. I was unable to figure out how to synchronize the PDA with any software on Linux other than the Qtopia Desktop.

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As the Recon is running Linux, you may use all of the standard Linux development tools to write applications for it and there are many packages already available for installing on the device. You may run Perl, Apache and many other software packages that commonly run on Linux on the Recon. OpenSSL is already installed on it as is the dropbear ssh server allowing you to SSH into the device. Root originally is not assigned a password. You must set the root from the on-screen Terminal application to be able to ssh to the Recon.

The only problem that you may run into developing for the device is you must use cross compiling tools to compile a appropriate binary for the device. As the Recon runs a Intel PXA555, it’s compatible with ARM and you must compile the program for the ARM instruction set. SDG provides a SDK for writing programs for the Recon, so this should be very helpful if you would like to start writing programs for the device.

Wifi works well on this device, with one caveat. You must know the network you want to get on ahead of time. There’s no application for browsing for wifi networks. This makes it difficult to use when you’re not sure of the name of the network. If you know the name it’s a non issue and it works well with WPA as well as WEP. The Recon will automatically choose an available open network if you set the ESSID to “ANY”. It would be real nice to have a browser so you can pick specific networks. I would like to see a port of Network Manager or Wicd so that you could browse and configure specific networks. This isn’t there now, but it could be added in the future by SDG or by the Familiar project itself

Once connected, the browser, a variant of Konqueror, works rather well. There’s no flash, so viewing YouTube is out. Javascript also seems to be problematic as well. The browser won’t work with the typical Web 2.0 websites, but then this device isn’t really made for that. However, I was able to use it to authenticate on a wifi portal at work, so it serves it’s function well enough for me.

For fun stuff, there’s a MP3 player, and a video player. The MP3 player played a podcast I downloaded to my CF card, and I am not sure what video codecs that are supported by the video player. Todd Blumer says that they have tested the MPEG1 codec with the video player. I tried a MP4 file from Cali Lewis’s Geek Breif TV and it would not play. It’s probably because it was using h.264, but this device isn’t really great for playing MP3’s or video because it’s not equipped with a headphone jack. The TDS Nomad does have an audio jack, but the Recon does not. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the target users of the Recon. I don’t want the soldiers using their portable computer to jam to music. That’s what their iPod’s are for.

The only bug that concerns me is that the clock would not stick through reboots. Todd Blumer, CEO of SDG Systems tells me this is because of the PXA255 does not keep the time across reboots. I am chalking this one up to the hardware being initially built for Windows Mobile.

With that one caveat, the Recon 400X is a not a device I would buy for a daily driver type of PDA. What this device is designed for is developing applications for data collection and other vertical industries that demand an open solution that is rugged. The Recon 400X is not really meant to be used standalone although it could be. The Recon is a platform for developing and deploying your application in the field. It’s a platform that is open and can be developed on for much less money then developing on Windows Mobile. When your business wants something rock solid that will not fail even if the clerk or construction worker drops it or otherwise doesn’t treat it like you would treat your typical smartphone, the Recon is the way to go.

The Recon 400X is available from SDG Systems.

MSRP: $1399

What I Like: Runs Linux, and it’s nearly impossible to break. If you have a friend that breaks their PDA/Smartphone all of the time, this is the PDA for them!
What Needs Improvement: Get the clock to stick through a reset and I am a happy camper; also, would like a port of Firefox as well.

About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.

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