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Reading the Zodiac: A Look at TapWave's Gamer's PDA

We take a hands-on look at TapWave's game-capable PDA, including images and extensive video footage of the unit in action.

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By Brad Shoemaker

TapWave's Zodiac is the company's first attempt to combine game and PDA functionality.
TapWave's Zodiac is the company's first attempt to combine game and PDA functionality.

It stands to reason that the bigger the games business gets, the more people want to get into the act. Video game functionality is no longer limited to dedicated set-top consoles and personal computers; just weeks ago, we saw the first hybrid game platform and cell phone in the form of Nokia's N-Gage. Now we've also gotten a look at the first PDA to contain serious gameplaying hardware: TapWave's Zodiac. While the Zodiac is still primarily a Palm OS-compatible device that will help you keep track of appointments and take shorthand notes, it also has the most advanced graphics, sound, and control technology of any PDA we've seen yet. These things, naturally, make the Zodiac an interesting device to gamers.

The Zodiac is similar in size to other portables but is capable of functions you won't find in dedicated game systems.
The Zodiac is similar in size to other portables but is capable of functions you won't find in dedicated game systems.

If TapWave intends to capture a significant portion of the portable gaming pie, the company is now entering into the most volatile handheld market we've seen in years. The Zodiac would have its work cut out for it if it were only up against Nintendo's Game Boy line, which has maintained almost absolute handheld dominance for years. Nintendo is obviously the biggest obstacle, but as an upstart, TapWave will also face competition from the N-Gage. As we've seen recently, Nokia has had trouble winning an audience in both the US and UK, so gamers may not be initially accepting of new portables that are vying for their pocket space. And then there's the giant unknown--Sony's PSP, which is due out next year and promises the most advanced graphics and storage capabilities yet in a handheld. If anything, TapWave must be up for a challenge.

Is it a game system? Is it a PDA? It's like they got chocolate in our peanut butter.
Is it a game system? Is it a PDA? It's like they got chocolate in our peanut butter.

Then again, the company may be shooting for a different audience entirely. After using the Zodiac for a bit, you get the impression that it's designed not as a handheld gaming system with some built-in PDA functionality but, rather, as a PDA that also happens to play games pretty well. The Zodiac looks, at first glance, like your typical handheld gaming system. It's got an analog thumbstick and four standard face buttons, plus two shoulder buttons and a "home" button. The stylus that's clipped into the back of the unit, which works with the touch-sensitive screen, belies the Zodiac's Palm OS functions, but otherwise you could mistake this thing for a strange new mutation of the Game Boy.

Under the hood, the Zodiac has some pretty impressive chops. It's powered by a 200 MHz Motorola ARM9 CPU, and its 3D graphics functions are driven by an ATI Imageon W4200 chip with 8 MB of dedicated memory. There are actually two Zodiac packages, based on the available memory: The Zodiac1 contains 32 MB of internal storage while the Zodiac2 has 128 MB. The unit will also accept a variety of removable media, like SD cards, so you can swap data and programs in and out on the fly. The Zodiac boasts some other impressive functions, such as a Bluetooth radio that will enable wireless online play, stereo speakers built into the unit, and even embedded vibration functions. Check out full specs for the system below.

Tech Specs for the TapWave Zodiac

Display: 480 x 320 (half VGA), 16-bit (65,536 colors) color display, portrait and landscape display capabilities
CPU: 200 MHz Motorola i.Mx1 ARM9 Processor
Memory: Zodiac1: 32MB / Zodiac2: 128MB
Graphics: ATI Imageon W4200 graphics accelerator (8MB dedicated memory)
Sound: Yamaha audio component and stereo speakers, standard 3.5mm stereo headphone plug
Battery: High capacity rechargeable lithium batteries -- 1540 mAh
Storage: Dual expansion slots for MMC, SD, and SDIO cards
Networking: Bluetooth networking built in

The Zodiac in Action

GameSpot Live's Ryan Mac Donald sits down with TapWave product line manager Tim Twerdahl to look at the Zodiac and its various functions. Get the full rundown on the features, pricing, and availability of the Zodiac straight from the source. You'll also get to see a hands-on demonstration of the unit's gameplaying and PDA functionality. Look no further for a thorough demonstration of the unit and everything it can do.

Games on the Go

The Zodiac's pack-in software is sparse but serviceable.
The Zodiac's pack-in software is sparse but serviceable.

Out of the box, you'll find the Zodiac stocked with only a modest selection of games. The unit comes with AcidSolitaire (which should be pretty self-explanatory) and Stuntcar Extreme, a 3D racer that has you driving through obstacle-filled courses in the quest for higher stunt scores. Stuntcar Extreme is a pretty basic game, as far as racers go. A patch has recently been released for the game that adds Bluetooth support and tournament options (see the official site).

So far, the lineup of games available or coming soon to the Zodiac isn't comparable in volume to what you'll find on the Game Boy Advance. There are just a few big-name titles in the works that take full advantage of the system's capabilities, many of which carry names you'll be familiar with. SpyHunter, developed by Midway and now available from TapWave, is a top-down 3D version of the classic driving shooter with ties to the recent PlayStation 2 games. A version of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, which looks a bit similar to the Game Boy Advance version, is also slated to be released around the end of November. TapWave has a handful of other titles slated for future release. A couple of original games, Galactic Realms and Phantom Strike, look to be pretty impressive 3D action titles, and there are portable versions of Doom II, Duke Nukem, Neverwinter Nights, and Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness planned, although no hard information or screenshots are currently available.

TapWave has also recently opened a retro games section of its site that has details on a line of classic games that will soon be released for the system. Games for the Commodore 64, Atari 2600, and Sega Genesis will soon be available to suit your nostalgic fancy. Since handheld gaming is often a brief and casual affair, these classic pick-up-and-play action games will likely be a welcome addition to the Zodiac's lineup. And, finally, since the Zodiac runs the Palm OS, it's also compatible with the untold thousands of games and applications that have been released online for that platform.

A Grassroots Effort

Not surprisingly, there's been a respectable community response to the Zodiac since its recent launch. The unit's considerable technical muscle and Palm OS compatibility make it a natural platform for appealing to the amateur development community. Indeed, there's been a lot of interest in not only the big-time commercial games coming soon for the system but also the interesting and quirky small-time projects that the home-brew development effort will invariably yield. The fan-run site Zodiac Gamer keeps track of all things Zodiac, from releases of commercial demos to the latest status of Palm OS shareware, and it's a good resource for shedding light on new projects--gaming and otherwise--that are compatible with the system.

XCade is one of many emulators that will let you play classic games on the Zodiac.
XCade is one of many emulators that will let you play classic games on the Zodiac.

Emulation always plays a huge part in home-brewed software development for any platform, and the Zodiac is no slouch in this area. There are a whole bunch of emulators in development that will run on the Zodiac, with support for everything from mainstream platforms like the Collecovision (ColEm) and various arcade games (XCade) to more eclectic fare such as the Apple //e (PalmApple) and LucasArts' SCUMM adventure game utility (ScummVM). Most of these applications are Palm OS-compatible and are not tailored to the Zodiac yet, but, in any case, a steady stream of quality home-brewed software like this will certainly bolster the Zodiac's currently thin lineup of commercial games.

An Uphill Climb

So far, TapWave has presented a fairly impressive package with the Zodiac, though its current lineup of top-tier games is a little too short to catch the average gamer's attention. The system is also a little pricey for the gamer on a budget; the Zodiac1 currently lists for $299, while the Zodiac2 goes for $399. TapWave has its work cut out for it if it wants to break into the mainstream handheld market. Unlike the Game Boy Advance or N-Gage, however, the Zodiac sports a lot of attractive features that are not related to games, like full-motion video and music players, productivity applications, and the like. Plus, it's a fairly open platform due to its Palm OS support, so the amateur development community will likely keep the Zodiac stocked with amusement potential regardless of what the system's commercial developers turn out. For more information on the Zodiac hardware, games, and availability, you can refer to TapWave's official Web site.

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