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PDA Reviews

Tapwave Zodiac

Discontinued

Posted Jan. 27, 2004, by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief (unit review) and JadeDragon, head game reviewer (gaming section).

Some folks complain that Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs respectively offer too little variation in terms of form factor and feature set. True or not, the Tapwave Zodiac certainly is a unique handheld. It's a full-fledged Palm OS PDA in a shape that resembles a console game controller. Why? Because the Zodiac is the first PDA that's designed to also be a handheld gaming device. Think of it as a Gameboy Advance for adults and those who also need the power and organizational features of a PDA. If you're a PDA user who's got a passion for gaming, this unit should be on your short list. The Zodiac was introduced in the Fall of 2003, and several top console and PC games titles were announced with it, though some of these games won't be released until later in 2004. If titles like Stuntcar Extreme, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Neverwinter Nights get you twitching with excitement, read on. Of course the Zodiac also runs regular Palm OS games too.

There are two versions of the unit, the Zodiac1 and the Zodiac2. The 2 has more memory and is finished in "Charcoal Gray" while the 1 is finished in Slate Gray. The specs on these models are otherwise identical. Both offer Bluetooth wireless networking, which will come in handy for connecting to the Net using your Bluetooth enabled mobile phone and when playing multiplayer games too! The Zodiac is the first PDA to have dual SD slots, and joins the Palm Tungsten T3 and Sony Clié UX40/50 in that elite group of Palm OS PDAs that support landscape 480 x 320 display resolution.

Tapwave Zodiac

Above, the Tapwave Zodiac1 with included flip cover.

 

Tapwave Zodiac back

The bottom of the unit. That's the stylus mounted in a slot on the bottom. The flip cover attaches just above the stylus holder.

 

 

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Design and Ergonomics

While the Zodiac's look may not fit in at the average board meeting, it is nonetheless tastefully and subtly designed. We received the Zodiac1 for review, and the metal casing's slate gray finish with black accents looks classy, hip and modern. The unit tapers at the center, while the right and left sides are rounded for easy gripping and game playing. Rubber grips surround the side edges of the unit so you won't drop it in the heat of gaming or note-taking, and the top area of the rubber grip on each side do double-duty as trigger buttons for gaming.

The unit feels very durable and solid in the hand and I'd expect the casing is up to the punishments of long term gaming. It's the most comfortable and ergonomic PDA I've ever held. I do have large hands and this is a large PDA, so if you have quite small hands, you might find the Zodiac a bit less comfy than do I. Whether gaming or using standard PDA functions, the Zodiac was literally a pleasure to hold. It weighs in at 6.3 ounces and measures 5.6” x 3.1” x .55".

The unit comes with a removable black flip cover that attaches on the back and flips over the top. The cover has a rigid insert to further protect the display, and the Tapwave logo is embossed on the cover. The stylus snaps into a slot on the bottom of the unit and is held in place by 4 tiny rubber pieces. I prefer the more conventional silo to this stylus retention system since it's a bit annoying to have to turn the unit over and pull the stylus in or out.

side view of Zodiac

Above: the top edge of the Zodiac. The button is for Bluetooth and you can see the two SD card slots.

size comparison

Above, comparing the size of the Toshiba e805, Zodiac and Sony Clié UX50.

 

The Zodiac has an analog joystick controller on the left which was a rubberized cap to keep you on target. The controller moves very freely but might become too soft if it loosens up with heavy use. When not gaming, the analog controller acts as a d-pad for navigating around the screen, and pressing on the controller functions as the action button (i.e.: launching the highlighted application in the Home screen). The four action buttons sit in a circular cluster on right, and they work in-game for such things as firing, and as launchers for Date Book, Photos, Address and Music when you're using it as a PDA. You can assign the buttons to launch any apps you wish. Because the Zodiac aims to be a serious gaming machine, there are two trigger buttons located on the top left and right edges.

Two SD card slots are located on the top edge of the handheld, the Bluetooth button is located on the top center, while the power button, Home button and Function button are located to the left of the display. The sync/charge ports are located on the bottom edge of the unit in the center. There are speakers on the left and right sides just below the controllers.

Horsepower

Both Zodiacs use the 200 MHz Motorola i.MX1 ARM9 family processor, which is a fast performer. Sony also uses processors from this family in some of their recent Cliés. The unit feels very fast and has yet to falter playing games, videos and music. This strong multimedia performance comes not only from the processor but the impressive graphics chip and engine used in the Zodiac. The Zodiac runs Palm OS version 5.2T (ours actually said 5.2.6). The "T" stands for the Tapwave enhanced version of the OS.

The Zodiac1 has 32 megs of RAM, with 20 megs available to the user. The Zodiac2 has a whopping 128 megs of RAM with 116 megs available to the user. Both models reserve 12 megs for system/application use, and that's why available RAM is less than total RAM.

There are two SD card slots, one of which supports SDIO. You can use SD or MMC cards in either slot, but go with SD cards since they're faster. The SDIO slot should be compatible with SD cameras, networking cards (when available for Palm OS) and more.

Display, Sound and Vibration

The Zodiac's 480 x 320 pixel high res+ display is very sharp and color saturated and doesn't have a discernable color bias. It's a pleasure to view photos and movies on this device! And of course, games look great too. I would've liked a brighter screen. Though it's certainly usable, the Sony Clié NX80V, NZ90 and even their dimmer cousin the UX50 are brighter. The Zodiac is designed to be used primarily in landscape mode, but you can switch most apps to portrait mode if you wish. The PIM apps, WordSmith and the included Web browser can run in landscape or portrait modes, but Tapwave's own apps such as Photos and Music run only in landscape mode. As with other high res+ Palm OS PDAs, if you're running an application that offers only 320 x 320 resolution, the Graffiti area will fill in the unused portion of the display, and you can set the unit in left or right handed mode, so the Graffiti area can be on the left or right of the display area.

Serious gaming machines need serious graphics processors, and the Zodiac has an ATI W4200 graphics accelerator with 8MB of dedicated SDRAM. That's pretty impressive hardware for a PDA or even a Gameboy-class device. The device uses the FatHammer X-Forge™ 3D graphics engine which provides support for features such as 3D graphics rendering, multi-channel audio, multi-player networking, input controls handling and more.

Of course you'll want excellent sound too, and the Yamaha audio chip plus built-in stereo speakers deliver. In fact, this is the only PDA or handheld gaming device I can think of that has built-in stereo speakers. If you want even better sound, attach the included earbuds or your own headphones to the standard 3.5mm stereo headset jack. The Zodiac also offers bass boost. It's one of the loudest PDAs I've heard, and at medium volume settings games, movies, navigation sounds in the home screen (the Zodiac has several pleasing sounds) and alarms are all loud and clear without sounding distorted or harsh.

Force feedback game controllers are standard fare for console gaming these days, and you can enjoy the same hand-shaking fun on the Zodiac. Not only does it support vibrating alarms, but it supports vibration in game. Pretty neat! The vibration isn't terribly strong, but it's certainly enough to add more sensory enjoyment to games such as FiretHammer that support it.

Multimedia: Videos, MP3 and Photo Viewing

The Zodiac comes with several of Tapwave's own apps, including: Music for playing MP3s and Photos for viewing images. Music is a full screen player that runs in landscape mode only. It has buttons for volume control, pause, and navigating tracks. It supports playlists and can play tunes stored internally or on storage cards.

Photos is a nice Tapwave app that also runs full screen in landscape mode. It supports JPG file format and offers thumbnail view, full screen view, slide shows and offers a few handy tools like rotation and scaling. Thanks to the beautifully neutral, sharp and colorful display, photos look gorgeous full screen.

Kinoma Player 2.02 is included for your video watching pleasure. Kinoma is one of the popular standards for viewing videos on Palm OS handhelds. Kinoma Producer for the desktop is included, and this will allow you to convert MPEG1, MPEG4, Quicktime and AVI files to Kinoma format for playback on the Zodiac. While most Kinoma videos available on the web are recorded at low quality settings for compatibility with older and slower Palm OS devices, you should be able to rip your own videos at higher quality settings that will make better use of the Zodiac's multimedia playback capabilities.

Bluetooth

The Zodiacs come with built-in Bluetooth wireless networking. Tapwave included Bluetooth so you can have a blast playing multiplayer games with your buddies over Bluetooth. Of course, you'll need 1) a game that supports multiplayer over BT, 2) a buddy with a Palm OS BT-enabled PDA who had the same game and wants to play it with you . So far Stuntcar Extreme (comes with the Zodiac), TakTik, SpyHunter, Table Tennis 3D support multiplayer over Bluetooth, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 will support up to 4 players when it's released for Zodiac. When it comes to PDA-centric activities, you can connect to your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone, an access point to access the Internet, send and receive SMS messages or chat with other Zodiac owners using the included InkStorm chat/whiteboard app by Trumpetsoft. Range is pretty good at 20 feet when connecting to other PDAs and mobile phones, and even better when connecting to a Bluetooth access point such as the Red-M we used (access points have strong radios, so range will always be better).

Battery Life

The Zodiac has a non-user replaceable 1540 mAh Lithium Ion Polymer battery. Battery life is pretty decent for a PDA driving a large display at high resolution with a well-amplified set of speakers and Bluetooth. With Bluetooth turned off, it compares favorably with the Palm Tungsten T3 (not known for its great battery life) and does about as well as the Sony Clié NX70V, but not quite as good as the NX80V which is a real champ. You should be able to get 3 hours of gaming on a charge with screen brightness set at 50%, and about 4 to 5 hours when reading ebooks with brightness set to 75%.

Software Bundle

Tapwave provides a very good software bundle with the Zodiacs (both models have the same software bundle). Though you'll only get two games, AcidSolitaire and Stuntcar Extreme, you will get a strong suite of Palm OS software. Included in the bundle is the popular word processor WordSmith, Kinoma Player and Producer, powerOne graphing calculator, the previously mentioned InkStorm Bluetooth chatting and whiteboard app, Tapwave's Clock which is both a timer and an MP3 alarm clock, and Web (PalmSource's web browser version 2.02). Web supports JavaScript, history, proxies and cookies.

In addition, the Zodiac has the standard Palm OS apps such as Address, To Do List, Calendar, Memo Pad, Graffiti 2, standard Palm OS Home screen launcher as well as a Tapwave launcher. Palm Reader is included and supports full screen landscape and portrait orientations. The unit comes with a customized version of Palm Desktop for Windows (no Mac version included).

Games, Games and Games (this info provided by our game guru JadeDragon)

Two games are bundled with the Zodiac: Acid Solitaire and Stuntcar Extreme. Stuntcar Extreme is an original title for the Zodiac, developed using the X-Forge 3D Game Engine.

More games for the Zodiac:

There are quite a few existing Palm OS games that have already been ported or modified to run on the Zodiac. These titles include TakTik , Space Combat , Interstellar Flames, RiffleSlugs, Green Myste, Jack, or 100 Ways to Barbecue and more. Of course, there are also a number of titles you will see for the first time on a Palm OS PDA.

Spyhunter
One of the first combat driving games, Spyhunter is a perfect fit for the Zodiac. This port is based on the PlayStation 2 version and uses vibration and the X-Forge 3D Game Engine. Spyhunter plays in landscape mode and utilizes the left joystick for driving controls and the right buttons for combat actions. There are four game modes: Arcade , Missile Crisis, Multiplayer and Tournament. You will enjoy the high speed chases, demolishing enemy cars while looking cool in your futuristic rides! The graphics kept the Spyhunter style and sharp enough to see the cars, choppers and sceneries clearly. The left and right triggers on Zodiac were perfect fit in the game play.

FireHammer
Playing FireHammer on the Zodiac is as close to playing Raiden in the arcade as you'll get on a handheld. Developed by Fathammer, the folks who produced the X-Forge Game Engine, FireHammer is one of the most stylish flight shooter games on a PDA. The thumb joystick on the Zodiac really shines in this game! Sharp and stylish graphics accompanied by music tracks with a fast beat make FireHammer a great arcade title for the Zodiac.

Galactic Realms
Developed by the creator of the Kyle's Quest series, Galactic Realms adds another space combat sim title to the Zodiac game library. Galactic Realms is a very polished package with nicely rendered visual effects and cut scenes, stylish voice-overs and effective and responsive game controls. The game successfully creates a very realistic 3D space flying and shooting experience; sometimes so real that you might think you'll get space sickness. The ability to create your own campaigns and play in multiplayer modes adds more depth and replayability to the game.

Atari 2600 Retro
The Atari 2600 Retro game collection is aimed at veteran gamers who grew up with these famous old titles and wish to indulge their sense of nostalgia. The best thing is that you don't have to run games in a third party emulator! The Retro collection includes some classic titles such as Asteroids, Pong, Missile Command, Yar's Revenge and more.

While these currently available Zodiac titles are very exciting, some future titles that have been announced will generate even more excitement. These titles are: Doom II, Duke Nukem, Phantom Strike, Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and Neverwinter Nights. We hope that even more cool games come out for the Zodiac this year.

Conclusion

A game machine is only as good as the titles which are available. Console and PC game makers work for large markets, and once the Zodiac makes its appearance in retail outlets later this year, we hope the sales numbers encourage these companies to develop and port to the Zodiac. Pro: If you're a gamer, you'll love the ergonomics on this unique handheld. The analog controller works smoothly, and you've got trigger buttons and action buttons too! It feels great in the hand. Lovely and large 480 x 320 display is a pleasure to look at and easy on the eyes. Lots of RAM on the Zodiac2 model. Dual SD slots offer good expandability. Built-in Bluetooth is great for surfing in conjunction with a BT enabled mobile phone, and is great for folks who want to play multiplayer games. Con: The screen is beautiful, but it could be brighter. This is a large handheld. Battery isn't user replaceable. No Mac support in the box.

www.tapwave.com
List price: $269.99 US for Zodiac1 and $349.99 for the Zodiac2
Both models come with a USB sync cable, charger, stylus, wrist strap, earbud headphones, CD, manual and flip cover. An optional cradle along with several other accessories can be found on Tapwave's web site.

 

Specs:

Display: Backlit, high res 480 x 320 pixel color transflective display with 16 bit, 65,000 colors. Operates in landscape mode and supports portrait mode for most apps.

Performance: 200 MHz Motorola i.MX1 ARM9 processor. Zodiac1: 32 megs of RAM with 20 available. Zodiac2: 128 megs of RAM with 116 available. Flash upgradeable ROM for OS.

Size: 5.6” (143mm) x 3.1” (79mm) x .55” (14mm). 6.3 oz.

Audio: Built in speakers, voice recorder, 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. MP3 capable, with Tapwave Music as the included player. Supports alarm sounds, LED alert and vibrating alerts.

Expansion: 2 SD slots, 1 of which supports SDIO.

Battery: 1540 mAh Rechargeable Lithium Ion battery. AC Adapter included (120 volt AC, 60 Hz) . International connectivity kit is sold separately.

Software: Palm OS 5.2.T. Included are the usual suite of Palm applications, including Address Book, Calendar, To Do List, Graffiti 2, Memo Pad, Calculator and Palm Reader. Bluetooth software, SMS app, InkStorm and Palm Web browser 2.02 included. A generous bundle of 3rd party apps including WordSmith, powerOne Personal calculator, AcidSolitaire, Stuntcar Extreme, Kinoma Player and Producer. Tapwave apps: Music, Photos, Clock. Palm Desktop for Windows ONLY. MS Outlook conduits included for Windows.

Modem / Wireless: No modem included. Bluetooth is built-in, so you can use your Bluetooth capable cell phone as a modem.

 

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