- Amazing design
- Fantastic Screen
- Great Sound
- 2 SD Card Slots
- A PDA and a Game Console
- Nice Interface
- Decent Battery Life
- Unusual stylus placement
- Bad technical Support
People often crib that Palm OS and Pocket PC PDAs offer little variation in term of form factor or features they offer. When it comes to games, there are few games that keep you busy while out of office. There was little scope for serious gaming on PDAs. However, every couple of years, there comes along a device that cannot be categorised easily. Tapwave’s Zodiac is one such device. It is the first PDA that is also designed to be a handheld gaming console. It is sort of like a GameBoy Advance for adults who also would need the organisational and power of a PDA. Its designers have achieved something extraordinary. The Zodiac excels at doing both things well.
Why is it special?
The gaming market is larger than the movie industry right now and an increasing share of that lucre goes to mobile devices. The Nintendo GameBoy Advance, The Sony PlayStation portable, Nokia’s NGAGE along with the Zodiac is all poised to go after this lucrative market. When it comes to gaming, the average gamer is more sophisticated than previously. While graphics and playability still matter, more and more people want versatility. They want devices that would play videos, surf the internet and store numbers as well. That is what Tapwave has done. Their product, the Zodiac does it all.
The Zodiac is the first PDA designed keeping the gamers in mind. It does all the things a high end PDA does but the layout is gamer friendly. It has a 3.8 inch half VGA (480 x 320 pixels) backlit colour display and is powered by Motorola i.MX1 ARM 9 processor. It features an ATI graphics accelerator augmented by the Forge 3D graphics engine. Navigation can be done either using the touch screen and stylus. The device also has Bluetooth, dual expansion slots, rechargeable batteries and playable control buttons sufficient to make most manufacturers squirm. Available in 2 models, the Zodiac 1 and Zodiac 2 the only differences are the colour of the device and the RAM. The Zodiac 1 comes in slate gray and has 32MB of memory whereas the Zodiac 2 is available in black (or charcoal gray) and has 128MB RAM. The battery is a 1540mAh better than palmONE’s Tungsten C at 1500mAh.
Never before seen Design:
Wow! That was the first reaction when we held it in our hands. While it looks a bit large for a handheld and most certainly out of place in a board meeting, it is nonetheless well designed. With its hand friendly curves and subtle detailing, it looks nothing like any gaming console you would have probably come across. Once you start playing games, you would realise that the size and the form serve well. The body has two anodised aluminium shells sandwiching a multi part plastic frame. The device has tapering sides that make it easy to hold in the hand. There are rubber grips on the side edges of the device to make it resistant to falls. There is a soft vinyl flip cover over the recessed screen and is wrapped over the top to the back where it is pinned. Bend the plastic pin and the flip lid pops open.
There is the Tapwave logo impressed on the centre of the matte black vinyl cover, the first of several subtle details we loved. The stylus is available in the slot on the bottom of the unit and is held in place with the help of 4 pieces. However, it is annoying to turn the unit over to pull the stylus in and out. Left of the screen are four important controls; first in the list is the power button that lights up orange while charging, green when totally charged and flashes orange when the battery is low. While the screen shuts down and music is being played, the light fades in and out, which was another of those subtle detailing we absolutely loved. At the bottom is a hardware version of the Home icon and above it is the function button whose function varies depends on the program one’s using. Left of these 2 buttons is the left speaker that has a right counterpart also.
This is the most important item present on the left side of the screen. It is analogue considering good gaming requires finer control than what digital can provide for. The joystick has 3 functions. It acts a 5 way navigator for Palm programs and OS functions. It goes north, south, west and east and pressing down on the centre is the fifth way. While it is clumsy on most handhelds, it tuned surprisingly well on the Zodiac. It also acts as an 8 way controller with 8 zones around the dial. The joystick is capable of 360 degree rotation with varying degrees of speed. The joystick uses a pair of small potentiometers according to a news report. While there was occasional drift, it was eliminated by recalibrating the joystick.
Four Action Buttons:
On the Right of the screen are the ‘our action buttons’ intended for controls such as shoot, accelerate or whatever the programmer would need to create a complete experience. Once you are on the Palm OS home screen, you can set the buttons to launch any applications of your choice. For most palm programs they function for scrolling.
On the Top:
On the top side of the Tapwave Zodiac 1 Handheld Gaming PDA device you would be surprised to find three more buttons. Two of them are the shoulder buttons or triggers. The centre button is the one that caught our attention. It is the Bluetooth button. Easier to access than the one on palmONE Tungsten T3, all you need to access it is press the button and within three minutes, you are all set to access the Web and email. There is a Web browser and SMS application included on the disc. While there is no application for email included, we installed Palm’s VersaMail and it worked well. Behind the Bluetooth button, you will find two SD slots making the Zodiac the second Palm OS to have two of the same slots on it. So you can make the PDA have wi-fi or camera and still enjoy all the benefits of accessing data and games.
At the Rear:
The back of the device has logos, approval marks, a serial number and most importantly the stylus. The reason the stylus was mounted in a different way is perhaps there was no room for a conventional design without destroying the design of the Zodiac. There are rubber grips present, so that the stylus would not fall while being carried. To remove the stylus, press down on one of the ends and the other end will pop out for easier removal. The stylus itself is pointed at one end and hollow point on the other end. Apart from the reset button, there is a lanyard lashing point available as well.
Things at the Bottom:
At the bottom of the device is the HotSync port, charging port and the headphone jack. The headphone jack is mounted so that when the included headphones are attached to the zodiac, they wrap around and up to mate with the device neatly. Really clever thinking from the design team at Tapwave, we must say. Like the Sony Ericsson phones, the power and HotSync ports are separate. For HotSync one needs to use the included cable or an optional cradle which joins the HotSync and power components into one.
The display of the Zodiac 1 is simply marvellous; With 320 x 480 pixels resolution, it has a great contrast. Easily one of the sharpest displays around, the screen performs better than that of the GameBoy Advance and N-Gage. At its brightest setting, the Zodiac was not as bright as that of the screen of the Tungsten T3. It was surprising as often we had to turn down the brightness of the device indoors. The screen is slightly larger than the T3 and the design makes it look larger. The screen performs well outside and the only distraction was our own reflections. When used indoors, the screen is bright enough to concentrate on the screen.
When we turned the device on, we were greeted by a new launcher interface. It appears as an effort to circumvent the stylus driven nature of the Palm OS. The Zodiac launcher takes advantage of the Analogue Joystick. The icons are arranged in a wheel format and moving the joystick towards an icon takes you to a program or category. Users have the freedom to create wheels that lead to other wheels to leave some of their products on the right side as a list view. While it does take time to get used to, it works well. Pressing the joystick down would take you back one level. For those who do not want novel interfaces, there is also a large list view for those who like to tap with the stylus. One can also use the joystick to navigate around. There are a couple of features that were missing in the Palm OS. While colour themes are not new, here one can set colour themes individually within a program and can even add background photos on the home screen. For the home screen wall paper one can use any of the pictures in the library or any one of your own. On the list view, the text is white and on the wheel view, it is black.
Versatile Status Bar:
On the top right side is the quintessential side bar. Well, you can choose it to be on your right side or left side depending on the handedness you choose. There is a house icon which takes one to the home screen, a menu icon, a find icon and a volume control icon. The volume control icon also lets one control the brightness level of the screen.
An interesting feature we found in the Tapwave Zodiac is the Tiered Mute. When we tapped on mute, there appears a pull down menu that comes with a Mute Until. There are values ranging from an hour, two and an indefinite option that allows one to mute the game silently for a while without the need to permanently disable the alarms if set.
Few other things:
The preference screen of the Zodiac is not a boring space; it has an application wheel of its own with custom icons that are unique to the Zodiac. Press on the icons, you would be taken to a boring white space which is familiar nevertheless they did something to the preference screen. The Clock application is crafted well too. There is an analogue clock as well as a digital one .There is an option for an alarm separate from the date book and a countdown timer as well. To activate the countdown, press the watch icon and comes up a keypad where one can set the time you would like to count down. After the sequence is complete, there is an alarm that goes off. Tap the alarm icon to set up your wakeup time. If you think alarm sounds are boring, you can put a song of your choice to be the alarm. While the original release allows only a part of the song as the alarm, the upcoming 1.1 release would play the whole song.
Pleasant Alarm Sounds:
The Zodiac team added new sounds to replace the tired status beeps and noises that one is so used to at our workplaces. The sounds feel more magical and fun filled. While this is not a big deal, it shows how much Tapwave has tried making the device livelier. The sounds are not silly or corny either.
The Tapwave Zodiac 1 handheld console also excels at Multimedia. It has its own applications for playing music and viewing images. Music is the full screen player that runs in landscape mode. There are buttons for volume control, pause and navigating tracks. The application supports play lists and plays tunes present on storage cards as well. ‘Photo’ is another Tapwave application that supports JPG file format and offers thumbnail view. There are tools such as scaling and rotating as well. Viewing photos on the gorgeous display is a pleasure. For viewing videos, there is the Kinoma Player 2.02 that is popular for viewing videos on Palm OS handhelds. It allows conversion of MPEG1, MPEG4, AVI and QuickTime files to Kinoma format for playback on the Zodiac. However we were unable to convert Windows Media files to this format. It would have been better if the video player could have played the files without any conversion.
The Zodiac features built in Bluetooth wireless networking. It allows one to enjoy multiplayer games with friends over Bluetooth. To start enjoying multi player gaming all you need is a pal with a PDA and the game that supports multiplayer over Bluetooth. Games such as Stuntcar Extreme, that come packed with the Zodiac support Bluetooth. For other activities such as browsing the web, one can connect to a Bluetooth enabled phone. One can send and receive messages using the InkStorm chat application provided.
Strong suite of Software:
When compared to the gaming devices in the market, the Tapwave Zodiac has a pretty decent title selection of software. Though only 2 games, StuntCar Extreme and AcidSolitaire are available, there is a fairly strong suite of Palm OS software. The popular word processor WordSmith, Kinoma Player and Producer, powerOne calculator, InkStorm Bluetooth chatting, Tapwave’s Clock and Web are the applications included. Apart from them, there are standard Palm OS apps such as Address, to do list, Calendar, Memo Pad, Graffiti 2. The Palm Reader included supports portrait and landscape modes. The unit comes with a customised version of Palm Desktop for Windows.
The most important aspect of the Zodiac is how good it is at gaming. We started playing StuntCar Extreme and were left speechless. It showcases the capabilities of the Zodiac brilliantly. The sounds, textures, scenery and the sense of speed make the game even more interesting. The interface is well designed with nice fonts, great graphics and decent music. There is a milkshake bar as well where drivers can have a chat and that adds to the subtle depth of the game. The sound is better and is more impressive when the headphones are attached. The console not only fit naturally in the hand but also was impressive enough to make us engrossed in the game. Extra depth is added by including the vibrate feature. It lets one know if the car has been hit or damaged. It was in this game, that we really discovered the importance of the Analogue Joystick. Moving the joystick a little bit when a curve approached allows the car to be gently steered and maintain a constant speed.
The Spyhunter is a combat driving game that is playable in landscape mode. It has four modes: Arcade, Multiplayer, Missile Crisis and Tournament. The game is real fun considering the cool chases in cars and demolishing cars. The graphics were crisp and clear enough that we could notice the smallest of details on the enemy car.
This game is better off being played using a stylus rather than a controller. It too has great graphics and decent sound effects. However, even if one hits a single pin or all of them, it sounds like you are hitting all of them. Though the game is playable in both portrait and landscape modes, it is better in portrait as the stroke resolution is greater due to the longer screen.
Firehammer is an arcade style flat flying game that draws one in with the fast action, powerful weapons and great techno music. Easily one of the most stylish fight shooter games around, it is released from the guys who made the X Forge Game Engine. There are opponents who keep getting more challenging and start shooting at you from all the angles. The analogue joystick makes one able to move all around the screen and dodge attacks. It is playable vertically which means one needs to control the ship using the joystick with the left hand if you are right handed. A great game to keep one entertained, we say!
Galactic Realms, Shattered Worlds and Tony Hawk Pro Skater:
Galactic Realms is a space game that offers great graphics and equally good music. The space simulation is pretty decent but it is incredulously difficult to defeat the opponents. The ability to create campaigns and play in multiplayer mode adds to the depth of the game. Shattered World looks fun as well. But the joystick controls work opposite from a plane’s. Tony Hawk worked great on the Zodiac and is fun if you would get it.
For a complete gaming experience, one would want great sound too. The Yamaha audio chips that are inbuilt deliver amazing sound. One of the very few to have inbuilt speakers when it was released. Attach the headphones to get even better sound. The Zodiac’s bass boost is one of the loudest around and all alarms sound loud without getting distorted.
The Zodiac uses the 200MHz Motorola i.MX ARM9 family processor which is a pretty fast performer. The raw power of the processor makes it perfect for running emulators. . The unit feels zippy and we had no issues with the processor. The impressive graphics chip combined along with the processor makes the Zodiac an amazing power house. The Zodiac has 32MB of RAM whereas only 20 MB is available to the user. The rest is reserved for system/application use. There are 2 SD card slots one of which supports SDIO as well. The SDIO slot is compatible with SD cameras and more.
The Zodiac runs on a non user replace Lithium Ion Polymer battery. Its Battery life is pretty decent considering that the Zodiac is a large screen PDA with a set of well amplified speakers and Bluetooth. Playing games and MP3 files would drain the battery soon. However, it allows 3 to 4 hours of gaming when fully charged and that is marvelous. If used as a PDA alone the device lasts two whole days assuming you check emails, phone numbers etc.
What is in the Box?
The Zodiac comes along with a lanyard and flip cover attached. There is a power supply cord, a USB cable and headphones included as well. There is a Quick Start Guide, Warranty, The Tips and Tricks guide and a CD.
Service and Support:
The device has a warranty of 12 months and there is support available on the site such as support phone numbers and live chat, a knowledge base, downloads and support email addresses.
The guys at Tapwave have done a great job. They made a product that exceeded what people expected of it. It is not just a game console but a world class PDA as well. It has all the makings of a successful product. However, a game console is as successful as the titles available in it. If the future launched titles attract the attention, Nintendo and Sony would have tough competition from the Zodiac. If you are going to buy a PDA, we recommend you go for the Zodiac.
Tapwave Zodiac 1 Gaming PDA – Technical Specification Table
|Model Name||Zodiac 1|
|Dimensions (H x W x D)||142 x 79 x 14mm|
|Display Type||3.8 inch transreflective screen 480 x 320 resolution|
|Display Colour Support||65536 colours|
|Display Features||Touch Screen|
|Available Enclosure Colours||Slate grey|
|Included Games||AcidSolitaire, SpyHunter, Galatic Realms, Shattered Worlds,
Tony Hawkpro Skater and StuntCar Extreme
|Sound||Yamaha Sound and stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone plug|
|Controls||Analogue joystick, built in triggers and action buttons|
|CPU||Motorola i.MX1 ARM9 processor (200 MHz)|
|Graphic Accelerator||ATI Imageon W4200 2D graphics accelerator (with 8 MB dedicated SDRAM)|
|Connectivity Features||Infrared, Bluetooth and compatible with some Wi-fi SDIO cards|
|External Connectors||2 expansion slots, both are MMC/SD capable and one is SDIO
compatible as well.
|Casing||Synthetic rubber, Anodised aluminum and plastic|
|Battery||Rechargeable – Lithium ion|
|Capacity||1540 mAh – 3-4 hours|
|Package Particulars||Zodiac 1 Console, Stylus, AC Adapter, USB Cable
one lithium ion battery, instruction manuals (Quick Start
Guide and Tips and Tricks booklet)
|Manufacture Warranty||One year limited warranty|