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PenLab: Tapwave Zodiac

Tapwave's mobile entertainment console ROCKS! (Pen Computing issue #51)

(Pen Computing Magazine, January 2004 issue) -- Every few years, a device comes along that defies easy categorization. The people who are paid to market such devices have to work twice as hard, since they must not only sell the machine, but also position it in a previously uninhabited niche of our collective minds.

Tapwave's new Zodiac is such a device. Envisioned as a console-class portable gaming platform as well as a state-of-the-art Palm-powered PDA, its designers have achieved something remarkable: the Zodiac does both things well -- very well.

The game market is huge -- bigger than the movie industry, in fact -- and an increasing share of that lucre is going into mobile devices. Tapwave's Zodiac, along with Nintendo's GameBoy Advance, Nokia's N-Gage, and Sony's forthcoming PlayStation Portable, are all positioned to go after the upscale game device market. In the case of the Zodiac, the audience is clearly not just teenage boys, but the teenage boy in people of all ages who have US$300-$400 to spend on a whim. This demographic consists mostly of people like me and, since you are reading Pen Computing, you too. We have had a number of PDAs and use them every day of our lives. We grew up on computer games and never wholly lost our appetite for playing them -- we just have less time to play them than we used to.

And that is the whole point. Mobile technology allows us to use the "lost" time in our busy lives. What Tapwave wants you to do is play some killer game or watch a movie while you wait in line. If you simply must catch up on your e-mail or update your task list, then you can do that: it's a world-class Palm organizer, too.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? It is. I've been doing this for a week and I'm hooked.

Business in the front, party in the back

The Zodiac is a singularly attractive machine, with sloping, hand-friendly curves and subtle detailing. It looks nothing like any game machine you've ever seen. In muted grey and black anodized aluminum, Zodiac look right at home in a meeting room full of suits; just don't forget to mute the thing before you launch Spy Hunter. It would have been funny if the codename for this device was Mullet, the quaint 70's haircut that is "business in the front, party in the back".

As a workaday PDA, the Zodiac is equaled only by the high-end Sony CLIE models that cost twice as much as the Zodiac. The Zodiac 1 and 2 have a 200MHz Motorola iMX1 ARM9 processor, Palm OS 5.2T, a gorgeous 3.8-inch transflective (indoor/outdoor) display with 480x320 resolution, an SD card slot, an SD/SDIO card slot, Yamaha stereo circuitry and speakers, high quality earphones, Bluetooth wireless, a 1540mAH lithium-ion battery, and an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics chipset with 8MB of video RAM. The slate grey Zodiac 1 (US$299 direct) comes with 32MB or memory, while the charcoal grey Zodiac 2 (US$399 direct) -- the model I reviewed -- has a whopping 128MB. All this in a shirt pocket-size package weighing a mere 6.3 ounces.

On the software side, Tapwave builds in a very well designed MP3 player that sounds nearly as good as my iPod, a digital photo viewer that's as good or better than anything I've tried, Kinoma Player for 30 frame-per-second full-screen movies, a web browser, PalmReader for viewing e-books, an alarm clock application that lets you select your favorite MP3 file to wake you, a graphing calculator, and the excellent WordSmith for creating and reading Microsoft Word-compatible text documents. They also bundle two games on the CD: Stunt Car Extreme and Acid Solitaire, as well as Kinoma Producer for converting virtually any video file into a handheld-friendly format.

Such a wealth of diverse applications deserves a powerful user interface, and Tapwave delivers one. The Zodiac UI improves on Sony's latest jog-wheel interface with greater simplicity, customization, and speed. Using the analog joystick controller, you can select any program or preference pane with one or two thumb movements. Tapwave has created the most attractive and sensible user interface I have seen since Newtons walked the Earth.

Get sideways

The Zodiac is made for either traditional portrait or the more interesting landscape orientation. There is a slim, movable sidebar with buttons to rotate the display, bring up the menus, take you to the app launcher, and to slide out the Graffiti 2 input area as needed. All the standard Palm OS PIM apps run full screen either way, but when older Palm OS 5-compatible applications are run in landscape mode, they appear in a 320x320 center window with black bars on either side. While I'm on the subject, my Zodiac ran every app I threw at it without a hiccup. If your favorite app from the more than 19,000 current titles for Palm OS runs on OS 5, it'll almost certainly run on a Zodiac.

This device is clearly meant to be used horizontally. It fits better in your hand and the controls are easier to operate. There are two, flush-mounted trigger buttons on the device's shoulders that are constantly being clicked when the machine is held vertically. They don't do anything when you aren't playing a game, but I find it a bit annoying so I use the Zodiac almost exclusively in landscape mode.

What about the games?

In a word, they rock. The accelerated ATI graphics and X-Forge 3D game engine deliver dazzling performance unlike anything you've ever seen on a handheld computer. With the earbuds on it is remarkably immersive. Unplugged, the stereo sound is surprisingly full for such small speakers, and when you bump into things the vibrator "rumbles" you. Zodiac's analog, pressure-sensitive controller makes all the difference in the world. The tiniest movements are instantly translated into precise movements on the screen. The fire buttons and color-coded button cluster feel great and are positioned right where they should be. I played with the two bundled games, as well as pre-release versions of Spy Hunter, Warfare Incorporated, MegaBowling, Table Tennis, TakTik, Flames, Billiards, and some assorted card games. Titles coming soon include Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Doom II, Duke Nukem, Neverwinter Nights, Galactic Realms, and Phantom Strike. Tapwave has over 1,000 registered developers working on games for the Zodiac, so there will be no shortage of killer titles for the platform -- and don't forget the more than 1,400 existing games for the Palm that you can play now.

Since I had the pleasure of receiving the first finished Zodiac to be sent to any journalist for review, I had no one to participate in multiplayer games via Bluetooth. Once we get another unit in-house, I'll write a follow up report on this intriguing capability.

What's not to like?

So what's not to like about the Zodiac? Very little. The metal stylus is excellent, but the way it clips to the back of the device is not. They designed it so that it acts as a little tilt riser, like the bar on the back of an Apple keyboard, but the clips on my test unit could be a bit tighter. A traditional silo would be best. Plan on losing a stylus every few months and stock up on some spares. The AC charger cable connection could also be tighter to prevent accidental unplugging.

These are minor annoyances that will likely not plague shipping units, but there is one hugely disappointing problem that will not be addressed as quickly: lack of compatibility with Macintosh. It's merely a software issue, but Tapwave says they will not have Mac support ready for several months.

Though it was not ready at press time, Tapwave says there will be a full-screen web browser included with shipping units. I would also have liked to see an email client in the package, such as the excellent VersaMail. For a powerful handheld that can connect to the internet via your Bluetooth phone to lack an email app is puzzling, but Tapwave says that there are any number of fine programs out there for the choosing.

Is the Zodiac a killer PDA or a portable game console? Both. For serious twentysomething gamers who can never get enough action, a Zodiac 1 is a quantum leap beyond those wimpy, plastic GameBoys -- even if one never uses the organizer functions. And for the graying executive who hasn't completely lost touch with the simple diversions of youth, a Zodiac 2 is guaranteed to please.
-- David MacNeill

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