The Tapwave Zodiac Review

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I must confess that I harbored profound skepticism when I first heard about Tapwave's Zodiac. Now that the product has officially launched, and I've had a chance to spend time with the Zodiac handheld, I also have to confess that I was wrong. The Zodiac is an extremely impressive device. If there is one criticism, it is only that the available software has yet to explore the full potential of this remarkable handheld gadget. But it's still young.


Kyle Ackerman

Tapwave was founded in May of 2001 by several senior members of the Palm team, eager to create a device that would encompass all the useful applications available in personal data assistants, without compromising its ability to serve as a mobile entertainment platform, serving up games, music and video with equal aplomb. As such, the device has settled on the apt slogan: "Works hard. Plays harder." Direct sales of the Zodiac began in November of last year, and the device is now ramping up to its retail launch on June 24, when it will be sold in all 225 CompUSA stores around the country. Whether you want to pick up a Zodiac for yourself or just take a peek, a display with demo units will be located in the store's "mobile corral."

Slim and Sexy – With a Great Roar

The design is slick – the Zodiac is sleek, light (just over six ounces) and mostly screen. What is remarkable is that once you pick up the device and use it, you'll discover that it exceeds your expectations in just about every way. The visual quality of the device is the first thing you'll notice. The Zodiac has an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics accelerator with 8 MB of dedicated SDRAM linked up to a 3.8 inch screen. That backlit screen handles a 16 bit 480 x 320 display, all of which can be used for input. That sounds a bit technical – what it means is that the screen can handle remarkably vivid video that is comparable to what you see on a normal television. Depending on the memory you have available, you might need to condense video to a lower quality, but try running a high-quality clip on the Zodiac in a public place and a crowd will quickly gather – trust me.

Equally impressive is the sound quality. The Zodiac includes Yamaha audio hardware, and even has stereo speakers. It works far better with headphones, and even comes with a pair of earbuds with a plug contoured to blend seamlessly with the design. The sound is great – very clear and of remarkable stereo quality, good enough to spur you to upgrade your headphones. Since the online launch last year, the Tapwave team has been listening to user feedback and has launched version 1.1 of the Tapwave software. While the new version introduces a lot of minor tweaks and improvements, its main advantage is that it lets you run the music playback software in the background while using other applications. So you can continue to listen to tunes while checking your address book, playing games or taking notes. Both music and video are easy to download to the device from a PC using the included Palm desktop software.

Made To Game

The operating system is a big selling point for Tapwave's Zodiac. The Zodiac runs on a customized version of the Palm OS, and so can run much of the available Palm OS software. At the same time, the customized Zodiac operating system supports both a pleasant navigation interface and extra features (like the aforementioned ability to play music in the background). The controls are optimized for gaming, so the device has a radial menu system that takes you through a hierarchy of choices with a simple flick of the analog joystick. Depending on how you customize the menus, a flick down, a flick up and a press on the joystick will have music playing. Everything can also be done using the touch screen and accompanying stylus. The interface works off the Graffiti 2 writing system, and most of the productivity software can be operated with the screen in either orientation.

That joystick is a cornerstone of the control system, which is designed to be exceptionally game-friendly. Despite its small size and minimal weight, the Zodiac is comfortable to hold, and features a number of buttons beyond the joystick: two shoulder buttons; four action buttons on the right; a home, power and special button on the left; and a Bluetooth button at the top. The controls, display, sound and graphical processing power all point to the Zodiac's strength as a gaming device. When you play a game such as Warfare Incorporated (a full-fledged, real-time strategy game for the Palm OS and Pocket PC) you begin to see the potential for the device.

While there are some solid games already available for the Zodiac (a full list can be found here), few of them tax the handheld's power or interface. Given that most Palm OS games and games developed on mobile middleware (such as Fathammer's X-Forge) all work on the Zodiac, there is already a huge body of games available. The hope is that there will be a lot more specifically designed for the Zodiac itself. Once you get a chance to play a first-person shooter, running with the joystick, strafing with the shoulder buttons and blasting away, you'll really see the possibilities of games optimized for the Zodiac.

Multifunctionality Everyone Will Crave

Of course, the Zodiac supports Bluetooth connectivity, and is expandable both using wireless devices and hardware: the device has two slots for MultiMediaCards, the second of which can be used for SDIO cards. This slot will support devices such as a camera or a device to support 802.11 wireless communications. While hardly the most important feature, I was pleasantly startled to find that the device also has a vibration function – which is rare in a device so small and power-conscious. The function means the Zodiac, in addition to all its other features, can be used as a silent alarm or to add rumble to games.

Right now the Zodiac comes in two versions. The Zodiac 2 costs just under $400 and includes a case, combined USB and power cable, earbuds and flip cover. The Zodiac 2 sports 128 MB of internal memory. The Zodiac 1 offers the same features, save its 32 MB of internal memory, for just under $300. In either case, you can add plenty of memory using the expansion slots. That pricing puts the Zodiac in the same range as palmOne's Tungsten line. It isn't in competition with the Game Boy Advance, but the device hopes to steal some of the audience eager to hop into the next generation of handheld gaming platforms. The Zodiac is certainly capable of being an impressive gaming device. Right now it already stands out as a handheld even in a field crowded with PDAs and Pocket PCs. It's excellent for anyone who needs a PDA's productivity functions and wants a great gaming device, too. If the Zodiac gets more game titles that are specifically designed for the quality technology and exceptional controls, it will be a must-have for technophiles and gamers alike.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 3, 2004 5:22 PM.

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