If you're in the market for a new Palm and you have a bit of gamer in you, Tapwave is hoping you'll consider its Zodiac entertainment console, a groundbreaking PDA that doubles as a portable gaming device. The Tapwave Zodiac1, which has less built-in memory (32MB) than its more expensive twin brother, the 128MB Zodiac2, costs $300.That's a lot of scratch for the Game Boy Advance audience but not an outrageous sum to pay for a Palm featuring an impressively sharp, high-resolution screen with Landscape and Portrait orientation; dual expansion slots; ATI's new handheld graphics accelerator; and a built-in analog game controller. However, with any gaming platform, what really counts is the software, and as of this writing, the list of compelling Zodiac-enhanced Palm titles is pretty short. Ideally, that will change with time and eventually give deep-pocketed gamers a reason to make the Zodiac1 their next handheld--assuming they're not holding out for the early-2005 release of Sony's PSP. While slim, the 5.6-by-3.1-by-0.55-inch Tapwave Zodiac1 is a bit oversize compared with most Palms. But it's definitely one of the slickest-looking PDAs out there, and it makes Nintendo's Game Boy Advance SP seem like a toy. The slate-gray exterior (colored slightly lighter than the Zodiac2) and the gaming-oriented buttons will compete for your attention, but the sharp transflective display, which offers a high resolution of 480x320 pixels and 65,536 colors, will catch your eye first.
We didn't have any serious complaints about the device's gaming ergonomics; the analog joystick, the trigger buttons, and the gaming pad all felt very tactile. Significantly, the Zodiac1 has the ability to view images horizontally or vertically. But at 6.3 ounces, the Zodiac is heavier than a Game Boy Advance SP, so you'll have to give your hands a break every so often.
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The Zodiac ships with an AC adapter, a USB cable, headphones, a wrist strap, and a flip cover.
The dedicated Home button calls up the Zodiac-customized main Palm screen, which lets you easily navigate among the usual Palm organizer features; launch various apps, including multimedia programs for playing games, listening to music, viewing photos and video, and reading e-books; and access other data. The Zodiac may have the best-modified Palm interface we've seen; it's superior to that of Sony's CLIEs. This excellent functionality is especially handy, as there are no standard quick-launch keys for the address book, the calendar, and the to-do list.
We liked having a back-panel clip for the stylus, but it pops out a little too easily, and you'll very likely lose it. We're unconvinced you could make do with just the included detachable flip cover; a $300 device merits a full protective sleeve. Rest assured that Tapwave sells a separate case, along with a wireless keyboard and several other Zodiac accessories. The box also comes with a USB syncing/power cable, earbuds, and a wrist strap. You can add a Wi-Fi card, a plug-in digital camera, or another SDIO peripheral (a number are currently under development) via one of the SD/MMC expansion slots.
The Zodiac1 has a sealed-case design. As always, we would have preferred the ability to replace the rechargeable battery--just in case. Also, the recessed audio jack may be a tight squeeze for headphones with a wider than average plug. Running on a zippy 200MHz ARM processor and a modified version of Palm OS 5.2, the Tapwave Zodiac1 ships with a whopping 32MB of onboard memory, 12MB of which are reserved for system use. As you'd expect with a device called an entertainment console, the Zodiac comes loaded with multimedia applications. Along with the classic Address Book, Date Book, and To Do List Palm OS features, you get Graffiti 2.0 for handwriting recognition, Palm Reader for text, and Kinoma Video Player and Producer for video with sound. The Zodiac also accepts most existing Palm programs.
In place of RealOne Mobile Player is Tapwave's own nicely designed MP3 player, and the company created equally pleasing image-viewing applications that take over for Palm Photo. You'll also find the WordSmith Word-document viewer and Inkstorm, a Bluetooth wireless chat/whiteboard program. In addition, Tapwave throws in the Power One graphing calculator and a nifty clock/alarm. The MP3 file of your choice serves as your wake-up call, blaring from the built-in Yamaha stereo speakers.
Among the Zodiac's gaming features are the X-Forge 3D Game Engine, which is powered by ATI's Imageon graphics accelerator, and vibration. The device shows off both in Stuntcar Extreme, which Tapwave preinstalled along with AcidSolitaire. We also checked out a handful of demos. Spy Hunter was probably the best of the bunch, though Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 and Doom II will be the early must-have titles. We came away generally impressed with the games, though some took better advantage of the hardware than others. We didn't have a second Zodiac with which to test head-to-head wireless gaming via Bluetooth, but many Zodiac-enhanced titles will support this feature. You'll find a full list of available and upcoming games at Tapwave's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Etapwave%2Ecom%2Ftitles%2Findex%2Easp" target="new">Web site.
We're sad to report that two items are missing from the Zodiac's feature list. Windows users don't get a conduit for synchronizing with Microsoft Outlook; they have to buy an Intellisync conduit from Tapwave's online store. And there's no Mac support at all--that's a bummer. The 200MHz processor and the ATI Imageon graphics accelerator kept games and movies running smoothly in our tests. The video is highly compressed, so you shouldn't expect broadcast quality, but the Matrix Reloaded trailer looked pretty good and sounded excellent. Audio, in fact, is one of the Tapwave Zodiac's strong points. It's louder than other handhelds, through both the internal stereo speakers and our reference headphones. Again, the full-color, half-VGA display impressed us, offering a bright, sharp image down to the smallest icons. That said, glare was sometimes a bit of a problem during our gameplay; to get a better view, we had to adjust the angle at which we held the device.
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Spy Hunter showcases the Zodiac's superior 3D graphics.
For our graphics tests, we played premium games such as Spy Hunter, which retails for around $30. The Zodiac's large, high-resolution horizontal screen is ideal for handheld gaming, and the device turned in a performance clearly superior to that of the lower-resolution Game Boy Advance and Nokia N-Gage. But how many quality games will be created for the Zodiac platform? Tapwave has lined up a bevy of developers to adapt such familiar titles as Duke Nukem, Tomb Raider, and Neverwinter Nights, but few of these are scheduled for release before next year.
The Zodiac1 uses a high-capacity 1,540mAh lithium rechargeable battery. The same cell powers HP's Wi-Fi-oriented iPaq H4350, so we expected good battery life, and we got it. While not a match for the 10 hours of gameplay we got from the Game Boy Advance running on a single charge with the backlight on, the Zodiac's 4.5-hour video playback was almost twice as long as that of most Palm handhelds.