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Could it corner the Game Boy market or the PDA Market? How about BOTH.
Reviewed by James DeRuvo
E-R is fond of saying that if the makers of Game Boy developed a PDA, they would corner the market, as young professionals who have grown up on Playstations and Nintendo, and are in touch with their “inner Pan,” need more than just an PDA organizer to stimulate the creative side of their brains. TAPWAVE’s ZODIAC seeks to do that, with authority. This PDA / GAMESTATION / MP3 PLAYER / VIDEO PLAYER seeks to be the one stop shop for mobile entertainment, while, at the same time fulfilling the needs of the business crowd. After all, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
The first thing you notice when you hold the Zodiac is how thin it is, in comparison to a Palm Pilot. In addition, the Zodiac designed with a cool, nearly recessed “joystick” and function keys which emulate many of the functions on a conventional Playstation keypad. There are also “trigger” buttons for game play as well. And, amazingly, it comes with stereo speakers built right in (though the true stereo quality is really only experienced with the stylish ear-bud headphones that are included) and force feedback vibration. 2 SD card slots for additional storage space with SD cards acting as solid state hard drives. In additional, there is a button enable BLUETOOTH. The stylus is designed to fit on the back of the unit in an enclave clasp. The video screen is huge for its design, measuring 3” high x 4” wide. Right here, E-R has one complaint. The only thing that is designed to protect the unit is the small screen cover which fits flush onto the screen itself. There is no slip cover or case to protect the entire unit. Probably more by design for selling anscillary products, than an oversight.
Turn on the unit, and you see a sideways mounted customized Palm OS 5.2T which can be switched to the vertical mode for traditional PDA functionality. The main screen shows the usual – games, organizer. But there’s also additional options along the right side including buttons representing any SD cards in the 2 SD card slots, a media section, etc. All the usual Palm utilities are here. Using Graffiti 2, the Organizer functions have the touchscreen function of a PDA you would expect, but also three sections for handwriting. Upper case, lower case, and numbers. It is software driven with the organizer and changes position as go from horizontal to the vertical and back. A quick pressing of the “Home” button takes you back to the main screen.
The Zodiac also comes with BLUETOOTH at the push of a button. IR for beaming and synching the PDA with computers or via the traditionally including hotsynch cable. A real annoyance, though, is that in IR mode, E-R tried to beam simple files from our old PDA to this one and could NEVER get the Zodiac to be recognized by our Visor and vice versa. And email tech support on this issue was slow and didn’t help much.
And this is where it gets fun. The MEDIA section comes with an MP3 player – which, plays either off the internal or SD memory card; an eBook reader; a photo viewing utility, and Kinoma Video Player which turns the Zodiac into one of the first personal video players. Using the Kinoma Producer Software ($29.95) which can encode in MPEG1, MPEG4, QuickTime and AVI formats and fit a feature film can fit on two 512MB SD cards. Unfortunately, the demo version of the software only encodes a few seconds, so E-R can’t comment on how good it is - only to say that the movie trailers loaded onto the SD card we reviewed (Shrek2 & King Arthur) were most impressive in both audio and video presentation when viewed on the Zodiac.
As for it’s hallmark function, as a Game platform, the Zodiac has more in common with Playstation than Game Boy. The graphics are true, hi-quality 3D, with the The ATI® Imageon™ graphics accelerator delivers a better than average video experience. And there is no waiting time on playing the games (E-R got DUKE NUKEM, a fun bowling game called MEGABOWL, and STUNTCAR EXTREME, amoung many others to test – though, to be fair, DOOM II and COLONY couldn’t even play because the Zodiac1 model E-R received didn’t have beefy enough memory on board to even open it without crashing the OS). See the list below to see what games we tested. Other games can be purchased online by visiting http://www.tapwave.com – and there are a lot of games and utilities to choose from.
What really separates the men from the boys with this game platform is the force feedback shaking that occurs. For instance, when playing Duke Nukem, YOU FEEL IT IN YOUR HANDS when you or get shot! That unexpected feature experience is a real treat, and keeps the gaming experience fresh. The Analog Joystick is easy to use, but is placed on the conventional LEFT hand side (much like the Playstation platform) a design choice which E-R has never been thrilled with since, selfishly, we’re right handed. And as such, we really can’t fault Tapwave for using industry standard for this. Everything else is designed so closely around the Playstation style design that it doesn’t take long before you forget you’re playing on a handheld and think you’re gaming on the real thing.
But there are some interesting choices which E-R needs to address along with suggestions for the next generation Zodiac to really take it over the top. The first, which we’ve already addressed, is the issue of beaming not working. One of the hallmark functions of a Palm PDA is the ability to IR beam information from one PDA to another. As stated, we couldn’t take advantage of that function and are at a loss as to comment on why – only to conclude until otherwise convinced that it just doesn’t work. E-R can’t comment on the BLUETOOTH function – except to say that it has one and it seems to activate and deactivate with a touch of it’s convenient on button design.
A lack of concrete protection for the unit without having to purchase additional cases or covers is downright annoying considering the $300 pricetag. While the screen guard is a commendable effort (or maybe an afterthought?), it doesn’t do anything to protect the rest of the until and will simply flap away from the screen if the unit is dropped – and as such, doesn’t offer much screen protection unless the unit is simply lying flat.
E-R is also mystified that, in this iPod dominated world where MP3 players have small 60 gig hard drives, why didn’t Tapwave offer this option in the level 2 players? Considering serious use for the unit is for mp3 and video playing – a hard drive to house the media would be a beneficial and natural feature. E-R can only guess that price considerations led to relying on the SD card technology – which does the job but forces investment in several additional SD chips in order to have house the movies or songs which a mobile oriented professional needs for their entertainment needs. And E-R has a hunch that if the target audience is willing to poney up the bling bling for an iPod, they’d pony it up for a hard drive feature on the Zodiac. Perhaps it’s fortuitous to wait on that option, since, with newer storage technologies leading to hard drives of several gigs ending up in cellphone designs within the next few years – it is certainly doable without sacrificing much in the way of form or function of the unit.
Some may cringe at the PocketPC style price tag when comparing conventional Palm based PDAs, but when taking a look at the value behind the it – that users can enjoy video gaming, mp3s in stunningly clear stereo sound, and yes, even a movie with descent framerates - users will see that the Tapwave Zodiac represents an exponential leap in what a PDA can actually do when it’s designers think outside the box.
Whether working OR playing, E-R recommends taking a good hard look. If the target audience is anything like us here at E-R, they’ll end up being hooked more on it’s features than it’s shortcomings.
List Price: $299 for Zodiac1 (32 MB of onboard memory)
$399 for Zodiac2 (128 MB of onboard memory)
System requirements can be found here.