However, with any gaming platform, what really counts is the software, and as of this writing, the list of compelling Zodiac-enhanced Palm titles is pretty short. Ideally, that will change with time and give deep-pocketed gamers a reason to make the Zodiac2 their next handheld--assuming they're not holding out for the early-2005 release of Sony's PSP. While slim, the 5.6-by-3.1-by-0.55-inch Zodiac is a bit oversize compared with most Palms. But it's definitely one of the slickest-looking PDAs out there, and it makes Nintendo's Game Boy Advance SP look like a toy. The carbon-colored exterior and the gaming-oriented buttons will compete for your attention, but the first thing that'll catch your eye is the sharp transflective display, which offers a high resolution of 480x320 pixels and 65,536 colors.
We didn't have any serious complaints about the device's gaming ergonomics: the analog joystick, the trigger buttons, and the gaming pad were all very tactile. One significant feature is the ability to view images horizontally or vertically. But at 6.3 ounces, the Zodiac is heavier than a Game Boy Advance SP, so you'll have to give your hands a break every so often.
The Zodiac ships with an AC adapter, a USB cable, headphones, a wrist strap, and a flip cover.
The dedicated Home button calls up the Zodiac-customized main Palm screen, where you can easily navigate among the usual Palm organizer features; launch various software, including multimedia programs for playing games, listening to music, viewing photos and video, and reading e-books; and access other data. All in all, we've probably never seen a better modified Palm interface; it's superior to that of Sony's CLIEs. This excellent functionality is fortunate because there are no standard quick-launch keys for the address book, the calendar, and the to-do list.
We liked having a back-panel clip for the stylus, but it pops out a little too easily, and you'll very likely lose it. We're also unconvinced that you could make do with just the included detachable flip cover; a $400 device merits a full protective sleeve. Rest assured that Tapwave is separately selling a case, along with a wireless keyboard and several other Zodiac accessories. In the box, you'll find a USB syncing/power cable, earbuds, and a wrist strap. Also note that you can add a Wi-Fi card, a plug-in digital camera, or another SDIO peripheral (a number are under development) via one of the SD/MMC expansion slots.
The Zodiac has a sealed-case design. As always, we would have preferred the ability to replace the rechargeable battery--just in case. Also, the recessed audio jack may be a tight squeeze for headphones with a wider than average plug. Running on a zippy 200MHz ARM processor and a modified version of Palm OS 5.2, the Zodiac2 ships with a whopping 128MB of onboard memory, 12MB of which are reserved for system use. As you'd expect with a device called an entertainment console, the Zodiac is loaded with multimedia applications. Along with the classic Address Book, Date Book, and To Do List Palm OS PDA features, you get Kinoma Video Player and Producer for video with sound, Graffiti 2.0, and Palm Reader. The Zodiac also accepts most existing Palm programs.
In place of RealOne Mobile Player is Tapwave's own nicely designed MP3 player. And the company created equally pleasing image-viewing applications that take over for Palm Photo. Also here are the WordSmith Word-document viewer and Inkstorm, a Bluetooth wireless chat/whiteboard program. In addition, Tapwave throws in the Power One graphing calculator and a nifty clock/alarm. The MP3 file of your choice wakes you up, blaring loudly enough from the built-in Yamaha stereo speakers.
Among the Zodiac's gaming features are the X-Forge 3D Game Engine, which is powered by ATI's Imageon graphics accelerator, and vibration. The device shows off both in Stuntcar Extreme, which Tapwave preinstalled along with AcidSolitaire. We also checked out a handful of demos: Spy Hunter was probably the best of the bunch, though Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 and Doom II will be the early must-have titles. We came away generally impressed with the games, though some took better advantage of the hardware than others. We didn't have a second Zodiac with which to test head-to-head wireless gaming via Bluetooth, but many Zodiac-enhanced titles will support this feature. You'll find a full list of available and upcoming games at Tapwave's Web site.
We're sad to report that two items are missing from the Zodiac's feature list. Windows users don't get a conduit for synchronizing with Microsoft Outlook; they have to buy an Intellisync conduit from Tapwave's online store. And there's no Mac support at all. That's a bummer. The 200MHz processor and the ATI Imageon graphics accelerator kept games and movies running smoothly. The video is highly compressed, so you shouldn't expect broadcast quality, but the Matrix Reloaded trailer looked pretty good and sounded excellent. Audio, in fact, is one of the Zodiac's strong points. It's louder than on other handhelds, through both the internal stereo speakers and our reference headphones. Again, the full-color, half-VGA display was impressive, offering a bright, sharp image down to the smallest icons. That said, glare was sometimes a bit of a problem during our gameplay; to get a better view, we had to adjust the angle at which we held the device.
Spy Hunter showcases the Zodiac's superior 3D graphics.
For our graphics tests, we played premium games such as Spy Hunter, which retails for around $30. The Zodiac's large, high-resolution horizontal screen is ideal for handheld gaming, and the device turned in a performance clearly superior to that of the lower-resolution Game Boy Advance and Nokia N-Gage. But how many quality games will be created for the Zodiac platform? Tapwave has lined up a bevy of developers to adapt such familiar titles as Duke Nukem, Tomb Raider, and Neverwinter Nights, but few of these are scheduled for release before next year.
The Zodiac2 uses a high-capacity 1,540mAh lithium rechargeable battery. The same cell powers HP's Wi-Fi-oriented iPaq H4350, so we expected good battery life, and we got it. While not a match for the 10 hours of gameplay we got from the Game Boy Advance running on a single charge with the backlight on, the Zodiac's 4.5-hour video playback was almost twice as long as that of most Palm handhelds.