Personal Notes for learning Japanese.

02 March 2008

Using the Sharp Zaurus for Learning Japanese

What is a Sharp Zaurus?

Basically, it is a line of personal digital assistants (PDA) made by Sharp Corporation, only for the Japanese market. Thus, the user interface is entirely in Japanese (Earlier models with an English interface were available in the USA and possibly other countries but Sharp has since discontinued international sales of the Zaurus). For more information, refer to the following web sites:

Currently, there are only two Zaurus models in production: the SL-C1000 and SL-C3200. Both models have the same form factor and share many common features:

  • CPU: Intel® XScale™ (PXA270 416MHz)
  • Display: 640x480 VGA touchscreen with 16-bit colour on a 3.7" screen
  • Memory: 64MB (RAM), 128MB (Flash ROM - 52MB available for user storage)
  • Keyboard: mini QWERTY keyboard
  • Expansion: Secure Digital (SD) and Compact Flash (CF) slots
  • I/O: Infrared (IrDA), USB 2.0 host and client, stereo headphone audio out (3.5mm socket)
  • Operating System: Linux® (Lineo uLinux)
  • Software: PIM (address, diary, to-do), Email, Web browser (NetFront 3.1), word processing/spreadsheet (Hancom Mobile Office), multimedia (photos, MP3 and WMA audio, MPEG-4 and MPEG-1 video), database, PDF viewer, e-book viewer, world clock, ...

In addition, the top of the line model SL-C3200 has the following additional features:

  • Hard disk: Internal Hitachi 6GB MicroDrive (CF form factor and interface)
  • Case: Black keyboard instead of silver
  • Additional software: Electronic dictionary, English lessons (from NOVA), TOEIC, Text to Speech, English-Japanese text translation, Koujien and Genius dictionaries, Japanese map and atlas (including GPS support if you have a compatible GPS CF card), Japanese rail timetable, ...

What is so special about the Zaurus?

For students learning Japanese (such as myself), the key attraction of the Zaurus (particularly the SL-C3200 model) is that it has Japanese handwriting recognition (through the stylus and touchscreen), and built-in Japanese dictionaries (広辞苑 is widely regarded as the authoritative 国語 dictionary, and Genius is a decent Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionary). The additional language aids such as e-book reader, English-Japanese text translation (offering comparable quality to Altavista or Google web translation services) and English lessons are also useful to students learning Japanese (even though they are intended for students learning English). Additional software such as the Japanese atlas and rail/plane timetables are useful for those intending to visit Japan. And all this in a tiny little package that can be taken anywhere (it easily fits into a medium size handbag).

The Zaurus models also have somewhat of a cult status on the Internet (which has diminished somewhat given that Sharp has not released a new model since 2006, and the Asus Eee PC is the current "darling" for geeks) due to the fact that they run Linux. Essentially the Zaurus represents the computing power and capacity of a desktop PC circa early 1990s but miniaturized into a tiny laptop no bigger than a wallet. There are lots of third-party software written for the Zaurus, and even alternative Linux distributions for the brave. For a good introduction in terms of what the Zaurus is truly capable of, start with Hd Luc's excellent overview and then join the Zaurus community at Open Embedded Software Foundation (OESF). Note that although Hd Luc's web site refers to the earlier models SL-C3000 and SL-C3100, 99% of the information is also applicable to the latest model the SL-C3200. Basically, the only non-cosmetic differences between the SL-C3200 and the SL-C3100 are the size of the hard disk (6GB instead of 4GB on the SL-C3100) and more bundled software (on the SL-C3200).

Why choose a Zaurus over an Eee? The Eee is around the same price, has more computing power and a bigger screen. However, it is not a touchscreen (although it is possible to mod the device), does not come with Japanese handwriting recognition, and does not come with all the software that a Zaurus has. For a student learning Japanese, the Zaurus wins hands down (in my opinion). Sure, you could load Windows XP on the Eee, and load dictionaries, translation software, etc. but you still don't get the handwriting recognition, and by the time you have loaded all the software you have spent a lot more money than buying a Zaurus. Plus, I like the small form factor of the Zaurus. I can carry it anywhere, unlike the Eee which is big enough that I need to think twice about taking it with me.

OK, OK, I want one, Where do I buy one?

Well, because the models are only sold in Japan, you need to buy them from Japan. If you are living in Japan or intending to visit Japan, presumably you should be able to find one for sale somewhere in Akihabara. Otherwise, I recommend ordering one through PriceJapan. Last time I checked, they are still selling it here for under 50,000円 (which is a relative bargain considering the amount of hardware and computing power packed into the Zaurus).

Warning: you may find other online retailers selling the Zaurus (at a significant markup to PriceJapan). Be careful, apart from the fact that they are more expensive, some of these retailers convert the unit to an English interface. This is no use to you if you are learning Japanese.

Preparing your Zaurus - doing a NAND Flash Backup

If you have just bought a Zaurus, you may find the following advice useful. First of all, if you haven't done so, DO NOT TURN ON THE DEVICE JUST YET. Do a NAND backup first. When you initially turn the Zaurus on for the first time, it intialises and personalises the device. What you really want to do is to do a full backup of the flash memory in diagnostic mode. This will allow you to recover the device back to the pristine state as it was shipped out of the factory should you ever mess it up badly.

Here's the instructions (Be very careful as you can destroy the device in the diagnostic menu!!! Do not select any menu option unless you understand what it does and are prepared to live with the consequences!!!):

  1. Fully charge the device first (you can do this without turning the device on just by connecting the AC adapter into the unit with the battery inside the unit. Just be patient and wait a few hours. After that, disconnect the AC adapter from the unit.
  2. Insert a Compact Flash card into the Compact Flash slot (Must be at least 256MB in size).
  3. Unlock and remove the battery cover, then remove the battery and wait 5 seconds.
  4. Then, while in this stripped down state, open up the display fully and support it with your left hand, then with your right hand place your first 2 fingers on D and M respectively while using your thumb underneath to help keep these buttons down and support the Z, then with your left hand insert the battery.
  5. Wait 2 seconds and the DIAG menu will come up, no need to lock the battery or press the power button!
  6. Use arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate. Go to page 3 (press the up arrow key twice), and select "BACKUP RESTORE MENU" (use the left/right arrow keys to move up/down the menu, then click OK). Now select "NAND Flash Back Up."
  7. Answer "Execute Backup?" with OK button.
  8. Wait for the backup to finish.
  9. You may also want to do a "HDD Backup." Make sure you have a Compact Flash larger than 6GB.
  10. Press Cancel to go back to Diagnostics Menu.
  11. Exit Diagnostic mode by pulling the battery out, wait 5 seconds, then put the battery back in, and then lock the battery cover in.
  12. Now, you can finally press the power button, and watch your Zaurus happily initialise itself.

If you ever mess up your device, just follow the instructions above and do a "NAND Flash Restore". This will reset the firmware back to factory default state. You will need to reinstall your applications (apart from the pre-installed applications), but the data on the hard drive will still be there (unless you corrupted it). DO NOT FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS IN THE MANUAL FOR A FULL RESET. This will wipe out the contents of the hard drive, including deleting all the preinstalled applications. Trust me - doing a NAND Flash Restore is better, and preserves the pre-installed applications as well as the data on the hard disk. Besides, you can make multiple NAND Flash Backups, which will allow restore to a known (preconfigured) state.

Optional - Upgrade your kernel

The standard Linux kernel distributed with the Zaurus is pretty good and stable (my experience is that the Zaurus is far more stable than Windows Mobile devices). However, there are a few minor issues:

  • Battery life status is not very accurate. The Zaurus will show full battery for a few hours of continuous usage, and then suddenly the battery meter will dip down very quickly.
  • Video playback is not as efficient as it can be.
  • There are a number of minor bugs (rarely encountered).

A Japanese Sharp Zaurus owner (tetsu) has created a special version of the Zaurus kernel with the above issues resolved. It is essentially a plug-in replacement for the standard Sharp kernel, and to all intents and purposes behaves just like the Sharp kernel.

Tetsu's home page is here, and the updated kernel is here. The web site is in Japanese, but tetsu provides links to both Excite and AltaVista to translate the web page to English (if you need it). You need to download three files:

  • (from Sharp Zaurus web site)
  • zImage-vXXX-C3200.bin (from tetsu's web site - note the XXX should be replaced by whatever the current version is - at time of writing this is 18j)
  • kernel modules (also from tetsu's web site)
  1. Rename zImage-vXXX-C3200.bin to just zImage and to and copy the 3 files you downloaded to SD or CF card.
  2. Remove Battery from Zaurus. (5 seconds minimum)
  3. Reinstall Battery and cover. (including locking it)
  4. Plug in AC adapter.
  5. Press and hold 'OK' button and press 'ON/OFF' button.
  6. Select 'Option 4' (Rom Update), but its in Japanese.
  7. Select CF or SD card, where you put the files.
  8. Select 'Y' for yes. (Perform the Update)
  9. Wait, it only takes a few seconds.
  10. Reboot
  11. Now install the kernel modules package (kernel-modules_vXXX_arm.ipk). You should be able to just double click this from the Zaurus file explorer.

Essential Software - What to Install

First of all, install addtional applications found on the 3 CD-ROMs distributed with the Zaurus. Some of the content on the 3 CD-ROMs (particularly the dictionaries, the translation software, TOEIC, NOVA CITY, Norikae etc.) are already pre-installed on the unit, but some aren't. In particular, the PDF viewer, the Terminal and other useful software are not preinstalled.

Installing software is pretty simple. Almost all Zaurus software comes in packages (filenames ending with a .pkg extension). To install a package, store it somewhere on an SD or CF card, then using the Zaurus file manager, browse to the directory containing the package, and double click on it.

If you copy packages to Documents/Install_Files on the internal hard disk (or create the directory structure on an SD/CF card), then the Install utility will automatically find it, and you can browse and click on it in the Install utility.

You can also install packages directly from the network if you have a Wi-Fi card.

Here is a list of additional third party software (not specifically related to learning Japanese) I consider useful:

  • MPlayer. If you have installed tetsu's special kernel, you should install a multimedia player that takes advantage of it's enhanced video playback features. Download bvdd and mplayer-bvdd from the link and install them on your Zaurus.
  • ZPlayer. MPlayer doesn't have a user interface. ZPlayer puts a friendly user interface on top of MPlayer.
  • Quasar. This is a relatively new frontend to MPlayer based on ZPlayer. It is more user friendly and prettier than ZPlayer, but the user interface is in English rather than Japanese.
  • FBReader. This is an e-book reader for non-Japanese texts (Bunko Viewer which comes with the Zaurus is useful for Japanese e-books purchaseable from Sharp Space Town).
  • Plasterer and LUSScreenSaver. These programs help customise your screen saver and also allow different background images in portrait and landscape mode.
  • Portabase. The database program that comes with the Zaurus isn't very good. Portabase is a better replacement, and also runs on multiple platforms.
  • TreeExplorerQT. This is a powerful file manager program for the Zaurus. The free version is good enough for my needs, there is also a commercial "Plus" version with additional features, such as file launching.
  • Zeditor. This is a plain text editor, which comes in useful in various situations.

Japanese learning tools for the Zaurus

This is a selection of many Japanese learning tools available on the Zaurus:

  • Kanji Nirvana. This is a Kanji learning and reference tool. It allows you to look up Kanji by various methods, and the underlying dictionary is based on Kanjidict. It even has a Quiz mode, and rates your handwriting for stroke accuracy. Unfortunately, it is very buggy, and was created for earlier Zaurus models with a 240x320 screen, so the font size tends to be a bit small on the VGA screen.
  • Mio Japanese Suite. This provides a set of learning tools, including a flashcard program, some lessons, and a Japanese e-book reader that can look up words in a dictionary (based on Edict).
  • toMOTko. This is a spaced repetition learning system for learning vocabulary. Looks useful, and comes with pre-defined vocabularies that you can import.

Installing additional dictionaries (and dictionary programs) into the Zaurus

First of all, the dictionary program on Zaurus is called zdict, and it can read not just the in-built dictionaries but any EPWING compatible dictionary or ebook. Isn't that great?

There are lots of freeware EPWING dictionaries available on the Internet. Here are some useful links:

  • Maximilk. Contains the Bible, various English dictionaries, various encyclopaedias, the CIA World Factbook (2004), cocktail recipes, and more!
  • Hannes Hloeffler's EPWING Dictionaries. Hannes has converted Jim Breen's set of public domain dictionaries (EDICT, ENAMDICT, KANJIDICT, Example Sentences) into EPWING format. These are excellent conversions.
  • FPWBOOK. Scripts for converting some commercial dictionaries, plus some freeware ones (including the Jargon file).
  • satomi@openlab.edict. Some dictionaries made with the FreePWING tool.
  • Life Science Dictionary Project. Specialised Japanese-English dictionary for scientific terms.
  • Wadoku. German-Japanese dictionary.

You can also get commercial EPWING dictionaries that you can buy and install. Last I checked, Koujien, Daijirin, Kenkyusha, (Wa)Eijiro are all available in EPWING versions, or can be converted into EPWING with some tools. I have installed the Kenkyusha Japanese-English dictionary into my Zaurus, and it is by far the best Japanese-English dictionary I have come across.

As you can see, you can go crazy filling up your hard disk with additional dictionaries. Just extract the archive file directory structure for each dictionary into either /hdd3/dic1 or /hdd3/dic2, and you can then browse and add them in zdict.

If you don't like the zdict user interface, you can try other dictionary programs:

  • Zten. This is the original EPWING dictionary program, written for earlier versions of Zaurus (zdict appears to be an enhanced version of zten).
  • Ztenv. This is a highly customised version of zten, called Zten variant or ztenv for short.

And if you want even more languages, try zbedic, which comes with an amazing collection of languages (including archived versions of Wikipedia!)

Finally, you can even install the dictionary program (sljisho) that came on earlier Zaurus models onto the SL-C3200. Since I am not sure whether this is entirely legal, I won't post instructions for how to do so (hint: you should be able to extract the files you need from the Cacko distribution). sljisho is based on the Gakken dictionary, and features a Kanji dictionary, a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, and a Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary all integrated into one program. Unfortunately, the dictionaries are not in EPWING format, so sljisho is the only program that can view them.

Fonts, fonts, fonts

You can install additional fonts on the Zaurus, but be aware that they can be quite large and can eat up a lot of space on your Flash ROM. One trick is to move user installed fonts onto the hard disk, and then symbolically link them back to the font directory. The following script will do it for you (you need to run it as root):

cd /home/QtPalmtop/lib/fonts
for i in `ls`
do if test -L %i
 then echo Skipping $i
 else echo Moving $i
   mv $i /hdd3/QtPalmtop/lib/fonts
   ln -s  /hdd3/QtPalmtop/lib/fonts/$i $i

Cut and paste the above into a file (I've called it mvfont) and put it in /usr/local/bin. Remember to chmod +x mvfont and run it everytime you install a font.

These are the additional font families I have installed on my Zaurus:

  • FreeMonoFont
  • FreeSansFont
  • FreeSerifFont
  • LiberationMonoFont
  • LiberationSansFont
  • LiberationSerifFont
  • ebsup
  • efont16
  • efont24
  • shnm16
  • shnm16m
  • Verdana
  • unifont

That's probably more fonts that you will ever need. Warning: Installing lots of fonts will cause the Terminal program to take a long time to start.

Optional - Accesories for the Zaurus

Here are some accessories you may want to consider for the Zaurus. None are absolutely required but they are useful.

  • Spare AC charger. The Zaurus AC adapter plug is compatible with a Sony Playstation PSP and also the Toshiba Gigabeat F/X players (and probably lots of other Japanese electronic devices), so any charger built for those devices will work on the Zaurus.
  • Car charger. You can often buy a PSP accessories pack that includes a car charger. This will work on the Zaurus.
  • USB charge cable. Again, you can often find a cable included in some PSP accessories packs that allows you to charge the Zaurus from a USB port. Very useful. With this cable, you can use any USB charger as a Zaurus charger.
  • USB host cable. Or, more specifically, a USB Mini A to Mini B cable. This will allow you to plug a USB hard disk to your Zaurus. Note, it doesn't mount the USB hard disk automatically - you need to either mount it manually or write an auto-mount script.
  • Case. You need to be imaginative. Look around for cases that are roughly the same shape as a Zaurus. Some digital camera cases may fit quite well. Otherwise, some Nintendo DS lite cases may also fit. I ended up finding a cloth case that was almost exactly the size of my Zaurus.
  • Screen protector. I couldn't find any that are specifically made for the Zaurus. I recommend buying one for the HP 4700 iPaq PDA (4" screen) and cutting it to size.
  • CF Wi-Fi card. This allows you to surf the Internet from a Wi-Fi hotspot. I bought an AmbiCom WL1100C-CF, and it works great without any special drivers or installation other than just plugging it into my Zaurus.
  • CF GPS receiver. This allows you to use your Zaurus in Japan and it will show you your current location on the atlas. I bought an el-cheapo CF GPS card from ebay and it worked, but took a long time to fix the position.
  • CF Bluetooth card. Allows your Zaurus to work as a Bluetooth device. Requires additional software to be loaded, so I don't recommend this.

Optional - Upgrade your 6GB hard disk to a high capacity Compact Flash card

If you are planning to store lots of audio and video on your Zaurus, you will find that the inbuilt 6GB hard disk will not be nearly enough. Fortunately, since the 6GB hard disk is a standard Compact Flash MicroDrive, you can replace it with a higher capacity MicroDrive or even flash memory. At the time of writing, 32GB CF cards are becoming available, at very reasonable prices. 64GB CF cards are coming soon, which will allow you to throw away your iPod (!).

But before you do the physical replacement, make sure you have formatted the replacement CF drive correctly first. Zaurus expects three partitions on the CF drive, so the default formatting that came with your CF card will not be suitable. The following instructions assume you are familiar with using Unix/Linux from the command line.

  1. Insert the CF card into the Zaurus. The CF card will be automatically mounted as /mnt/cf.
  2. Run Terminal (タミーナル).
  3. su
  4. umount /mnt/cf (Unmount the default partition)
  5. fsck /dev/hdc
  6. Delete the default partition (d1). Then create three new partitions (the first two should be around 10MB in size and have a partition type of 83 in hex) - larger is okay but serves no purpose, the third should consume the remaining capacity of the card and have a partition type of C in hex).
  7. Run the following script:
    mke2fs -j /dev/hdc1
    e2fsck -p /dev/hdc1
    mke2fs -j /dev/hdc2
    e2fsck -p /dev/hdc2
    mkfs.vfat -F 32 /dev/hdc3
    mkdir /mnt/tmp
    mount -o noatime /dev/hdc1 /mnt/tmp
    cp -a /hdd1/* /mnt/tmp
    umount /mnt/tmp
    mount -o noatime /dev/hdc2 /mnt/tmp
    cp -a /hdd2/* /mnt/tmp
    umount /mnt/tmp
    mount -t vfat -o noatime,umask=000,iocharset=utf8 /dev/hdc3 /mnt/tmp
    cp -a /hdd3/* /mnt/tmp
    umount /mnt/tmp
    rmdir /mnt/tmp

Now your CF card should contain an exact copy of everything in the 6GB hard drive, and you should be able to swap it with no problems. The instructions for replacing the hard drive are quite complicated, but doable (I successfully followed the instructions here).

Everything is all installed and set up - how do I really use the Zaurus for learning Japanese?

Well, the sky is the limit, since the Zaurus is in fact a computer. Here are some suggestions:

  • Download or create vocabulary lists, dialogues, sentence patterns, ... and convert them to Word, Excel, Portabase, PDF, HTML ... and read them on the Zaurus.
  • Download audio files of podcasts, dialogues (from CDs, or Internet) and play them back on the Zaurus.
  • Download video files and play them back on the Zaurus.
  • Use the dictionary to look up words.
  • Practice your Japanese handwriting by using the pen to create text. Use an editor like Hancom Word or Zeditor.
  • Find Japanese place names and train stations on the built in atlas and timetable tools.

Here are examples of Japanese learning materials you can download to the Zaurus:

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