Tapwave Zodiac

Tapwave Zodiac

Written by Charlie Sinhaseni on 8/13/2004 for PC  
More On: Tapwave Zodiac
An ambitious company named Tapwave is looking to change the face of gaming on the go as we know it. Instead of tackling the mobile gaming market head-on, they’ve decided to take a more practical route that caters to a wide array of buyers. In doing so they’ve developed an amazing device that serves as a fully functional Personal Digital Assistant, plays music at high fidelities, showcases movies at a respectable resolution and provides fully functional 3D gaming. And while the device seems to be a jack of all trades, it does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls that plagued the Nokia N-Gage, providing gamers, businessmen and casual electronics consumers with a device that does a little bit of everything, and does it quite well.

Gaming on the go has been around for decades, but it’s only until recent times that it’s been a formidable competitor to the home gaming market. Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance is a retail juggernaut, amassing sales figures that surpass even those of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Companies are starting to capitalize on this relatively untapped market and starting this winter, gamers will be able to get their hands on the Nintendo DS and the Sony PlayStation Portable. Tapwave is looking to cater to those same fans, but with a broader goal of accommodating those who are looking for a complete organization solution. That’s where the Zodiac comes in; not quite gaming machine, not quite personal digital assistant, it’s actually a perfect blend of both, making it one of the best inventions to hit the market in quite some time.Construct

If you’ve seen the pictures of the PSP then you might do a double take when you see the Zodiac. However, the truth of the matter is that the Zodiac has been available since late last year, well before Sony finalized its PSP design. This includes an analog stick, two shoulder buttons, four directional buttons, a home button, a power button and a start button. Weighing in at 6.3 ounces, the device is lightweight but sturdy in design. It’s easy to hold while playing games and comfortable enough to allow you to access the analog stick and shoulder buttons with ease. Oddly enough, the device features full vibration effects too, similar to the Force Feedback of the Xbox and the Dual Shock of the PS2. As a PDA it’s easy to hold too as you won’t have any problems holding the device with one hand.

The unit features a nice smooth metallic finish that's easy on the hands and the eyes.
The surface is polished with a metallic compound, giving you that smooth finish that feels really pleasant against your hands. Two speakers are encased on the bottom left and right corner of the unit, giving you external sound for when you don’t have a set of headphones handy. When playing video games you’ll be happy to find that the analog stick is rubberized, giving you that extra bit of grip and leverage. Probably the only parts of the device that I don’t like are the shoulder buttons. Sitting flush in the system, they’re hard to access consistently and effectively.

Since the device is designed to be used on the go, the developers had the foresight to provide gamers with a screen protecting solution that didn’t affect the accessibility of the unit. Most PDAs have full leather cases that require the entire unit to be slid in and out of, making it very inconvenient to access on the fly. Here the guys at Tapwave went for a simple flip screen protector that does a great job of shielding the screen from smudges and scratches. I did have some difficulties with it flipping down and obscuring my view when I had the device tilted up (when I was using it in bed or on a recliner) but that’s of minimal concern.

To the casual fan the lack of buttons might seem limiting, but PDA owners know that the true functionality comes from the stylus-based touchscreen interface. Most games also utilize the touch screen capabilities which cater to games that you might not normally see on a portable unit. Strategy games are difficult to play on the GBA because of the clunky console-like interfaces. With the Zodiac you can use the stylus like you would use a mouse, allowing you to drag and click units. This opens up the door significantly for developers and a few of them are already taking advantage of the technology.

For storage you’ll have 32MB of internal memory at your disposal (128MB if you get the Z2) and when that’s not enough, two additional SDFlash slots. Most of the programs take up very little space as the designers were able to make the unit very space efficient. As an example, Tapwave’s review unit came with a 256MB SD card and here’s what they managed to fit on it: 20 games, two movie trailers, two full electronic books, five MP3s, eight pictures and a whole lot more. That’s a hell of a lot of stuff for such a little amount of space.Screen

The Zodiac utilizes a widescreen 480x320 16-bit screen to display all of the action. PC fans that aren’t fluent in portable technology might look down upon this but trust us, it’s damn impressive. For comparative purposes we’ve created the chart below.
    Tapwave Zodiac 480x320
    GameBoy Advance 240x160
    DELL Axim X30 240x320
    PlayStation Portable 420x272
    Nintendo DS (2x) 256x192
    Nokia N-Gage 176x208
Not only is it larger than one of its biggest competitors in the PDA market (the DELL Axim X30) but it fares quite well when compared to the much-anticipated PlayStation Portable. The N-Gage doesn’t even come close and the GBA is literally only half of the size of the Zodiac. On top of that, the device can be used in either the landscape or portrait setting, making it easier to read books and play vertical shooters.

In this comparison shot, the Zodiac's screen is much larger than those of the Motorola T720 and the GameBoy Advance.

Another area where the screen excels is in its sharpness. It’s exceptionally sharp and brilliant, providing the user with some of the slickest and sharpest fonts that they’ll ever see on a handheld device. This is further fortified by the fact that the device supports eBooks which are books that can be bought online and read on the Zodiac. Tapwave included copies of The Wizard of Oz and The Last of the Mohicans along with the unit, neither of which we had trouble reading.

One of the problems of early PDAs was that they lacked backlighting, making them difficult to use in low-light situations. Today’s advanced PDAs come fully equipped with some sort of backlighting mechanism so it’s no surprise that the Zodiac comes loaded as well. An interesting design decision forces the backlight to remain on as long as the device is in use (unless the user turns the brightness setting all the way down). It makes it helpful in dark situations but when there’s ample lighting around, it just serves as an unnecessary battery killer.

In a weird bit of reverse fate for GBA users, the Zodiac is actually more effective in low-light situations than it is in ideal-light situations. I brought the device with me to the beach and my girlfriend experienced some trouble when trying to use it in the car. In direct sunlight the colors become washed out and the text becomes very difficult to read. It’s the same dilemma that plagues most color PDAs and color cellular phones so it’s not really a big knock on the Zodiac. Just be careful if you’re planning to use it at the beach or at the park where there’s heavy sunlight.Gaming

There’s a common misconception about gaming and PDAs. Most hardcore gamers are resigned to thinking that since gaming is a secondary function of the PDA, that gaming is also second rate. The Tapwave looks to change that by adding in games that provide players with plenty of depth. This includes a Zodiac-exclusive version of Duke Nukem, ports of classics such as DOOM II and Altered Beast, and a bunch of other unique and fun titles. This isn’t to say that the cheesy shareware titles don’t exist anymore; it’s just that the developers have really decided to kick it up a notch.

The 32-bit GBA is capable of producing pseudo 3D images (see: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater) but they pale in comparison to the true 3D renders of the Zodiac. That’s because the Zodiac houses a secret weapon, an Ati powered graphics chip that works in conjunction with a Motorola i.MX1 ARM9 processor. Together they form a rather formidable duo that’s capable of producing some pretty powerful visuals. Just take one look at Stunt Car, the bundled racer, and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the system.

Savor this shot, it's probably the last time you'll see a new version of Duke Nukem for a long, long time.

Eager to showcase the power of the system, Tapwave signed exclusive deals with some of the world’s largest publishers to create Zodiac-exclusive versions of their biggest properties. This includes a Zodiac-exclusive version of Duke Nukem 3D, a GBA port of Tony Hawk 4, a port of DOOM II, a Zodiac-exclusive version of SpyHunter and a hell of a lot more. The system has even gone retro, featuring some of yesterday’s best games like GoldenAxe and BreakOut. Overall the library is pretty impressive with well over 40 releases and dozens of other freeware releases created by fans of the system.

In this aspect the system really excels if you’re looking for a great portable gaming system. It does an excellent job of providing a wide array of games that are both fun and appealing. It's not quantity that counts though, it's the quality, and the device fares well here too. The games are well made and because the device was designed to so well, they're fun to play too.Audio

Tapwave was able to deliver 3D sound through two channels thanks to the use of some age-old audio tricks. Essentially what the device does is it mixes the audio appropriately through the two channels and increases or reduces the volume in order to trick the ears into believing that the audio is coming from different locations. What you get here is an audio effect very similar to the old Aureal Monster Soundcards. It all sounds very gimmicky until you realize that this hasn’t been done on a portable gaming device yet. Even the GameBoy Advance is limited to some very cheap and generic 2-channel audio that sounds like it was recorded in a port-a-potty. Tapwave included an audio sample that showcased this technology and we’ll admit, it’s very impressive to hear. We almost completely forgot that we were listening to the positional audio on a set of headphones. We haven’t heard it used in any games yet but it’s nice to see that the developers had the foresight to include it. It shows the forwards thinking of the designers and the producers.

Without having to purchase any additional hardware, the Zodiac is capable of playing MP3s. One of the nice features implemented into the audio interface is the ability to shut off the screen while the audio is playing, saving you precious battery life. While the fidelity doesn’t quite match what I receive out of my iPod, the quality is excellent for the casual listener. Our only gripe is that the device lacks the proper storage space to compete against dedicated MP3 jukeboxes. You have to keep in mind that the real audio geeks look at 10Gigs of storage as inadequate, and look towards the 20 and 40Gig solutions. Luckily I’m not one of those people. You can store as much music as your SD Cards can hold. Generally one minute of music equates to about 1Mb, so that’s four hours of listening right there, more than enough for that train ride to and from work.


Included with the device is a set of headphones, an AC adapter used for charging the device, some quick start guides, and a USB Hotsync cable. Both the Hotsync cable and the AC adapter plug into the bottom of the unit. In order to compensate for the Hotsync’s larger opening, the end of the cable features an adapter which allows you to plug in the charger. That way you’re able to charge the device while it’s hooked up to your PC. One of my favorite advantages about syncing the iPod up to my PC is that the USB port charges it while I’m transferring data. I wish that Tapwave was able to develop a similar solution, that way it would help to remove some of the clutter. Another problem I had with the charger was that the male end came out of the device far too easily. It just sets into the bottom without any sort of latching mechanism. The slightest tap or movement will cause the charger to become unhinged, making the device difficult to use while charging.PDA and Multimedia

As a Personal Digital Assistant the device fares exceptionally well. Tapwave utilizes a modified version of the Palm OS that is both powerful and user friendly. Essentially what you have here is a mini Windows OS without all of the unnecessary hitches and such. Users navigate through the menus with the use of the stylus via the touchscreen interface. Moving and customizing menus is as simple as dragging and clicking icons while changes can be made through the easily accessible preferences menu.

If you’ve used a Palm Pilot before you pretty much know what to expect from the Zodiac. You can enter dates, addresses reminders, events and other such events in the calendar function. Like all Palm PDAs, you’re able to HotSync the device with your PC in order to upload data and programs. Using the included Chapura Pocket Mirror, you can even sync up your device to Microsoft Outlook. I haven’t used a PDA since the days of the old Palm M100 and I had no problems using the Zodiac. “Typing” with the stylus is pretty difficult though, but that’s a problem with the Palm OS and not the Zodiac.

One of the amazing features of the Zodiac is its ability to display high quality video and audio. Utilizing Kimona Video, users are able to transfer their own video files for use on the go. I tested out the unit with a video that my girlfriend sent to me via her Logitech Web cam. Transferring the video was as simple as going through the Palm Desktop interface, dragging and dropping the video, and then setting it to install on the next HotSync. On top of personal videos, the Zodiac is also capable of displaying high quality video. This version of the Zodiac came bundled with trailers of Shrek 2 and King Arthur, and while they weren’t perfect, they looked pretty damn good. Overall you get some pretty decent on-the-go video without having to use up too much of your flash card.

If you’re photo savvy then you’ll appreciate the Zodiac’s ability to store and showcase your digital photographs. By using the included picture viewer you can showoff your pictures to all of your friends and co-workers. What’s nice is that you can even set one of your photographs as your wallpaper. It’s great for when your family keeps asking to see your girlfriend and keep sidestepping their requests. Now you simply show them her picture and say, “see guys, I told you I had a girlfriend. It’s not that I don’t want you to meet her it’s just… well, frankly I’m embarrassed by you.” Sure you might get disowned, but hey, at least they'll know you weren’t lying.

Final Thoughts

How good is the Tapwave Zodiac? Now when I go shopping with my girlfriend I find myself reaching for it instead of my GameBoy Advance. It’s one of the most amazing peripherals that I’ve had a chance to lay eyes on ever since I entered the gaming industry four years ago. It’s one of those rare circumstances where the product does indeed live up to the hype. I’m not sure how they managed to do it, but Tapwave has been able to create a portable device that excels in gaming, multimedia and personal organization. If you’re in the market for a PDA or a portable gaming unit, you’d be a fool not to put the Zodiac on the top of your list.
Every so often a device comes along that really changes the way we look at technology. A couple of years ago it was TiVo, now it's the Tapwave Zodiac. If you want an all-in-one product that can truly do it all, then don't hesitate to pick one up.

Rating: 9.3 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.

It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.

It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.

When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."

As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.

When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.

Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile

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