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.
Above, the Tapwave Zodiac1 with included flip
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.
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.
Above: the top edge of the Zodiac.
The button is for Bluetooth and you can see the two SD card slots.
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.
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.
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).
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%.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
SD slots, 1 of which supports SDIO.
1540 mAh Rechargeable Lithium Ion battery. AC Adapter
included (120 volt AC, 60 Hz) . International connectivity
kit is sold separately.
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
/ Wireless: No
modem included. Bluetooth is built-in, so you can
use your Bluetooth capable cell phone as a modem.