Sunday, August 1, 2004

Computing Unplugged reviews the Tapwave Zodiac


By James Booth

The Zodiac from Tapwave. Is it a mobile entertainment device with an organizer? Or is it a serious PDA that plays games?

In truth, it's both.

The signs of the Zodiac

The Zodiac from Tapwave, shown in Figure A, is the first Palm-powered handheld device that has been optimized for entertainment.


The Zodiac from Tapwave is a Palm OS-based entertainment console. (click for larger image)

When it comes to handhelds, the Zodiac offers a basketful of firsts, the most noticeable of which is the analog joystick. It also sports a 480x320 16-bit (half VGA) color TFT screen, a 200 Mhz Motorola ARM9 processor, two (count 'em two) SD slots, IR and Bluetooth, and is available in two models, which I'll describe a bit later.

Surprisingly, for all it packs into its frame, the device is quite svelt. Figure B shows a comparison of the Zodiac and Palm Tungsten T2.


The Zodiac's screen is slightly larger than that of the T2, including the input area. (click for larger image)

The Zodiac 1, light gray in color, comes with 32MB of RAM. The charcoal-colored Zodiac 2 has a monster 128MB, and at $399 is only $100 more than the Zodiac 1.

Another first on the Zodiac is the ATI Imageon video processor with 8 MB of SDRAM and the FatHammer X-Forge 3D graphics engine. In essence, what this amounts to is an 8 MB 3D video card. At this time, no other handheld I know of incorporates a dedicated video processor.

The Zodiac's control configuration belies its gaming intentions. Looking more like an Xbox or PlayStation controller with a screen than a handheld, the Zodiac has four Action buttons on the right, the analog joystick, Function/Select button on the left, and trigger buttons on the left and right shoulders. Also on the left of the unit, and flush with the surface, are the Power and Home buttons, the only two buttons that will activate the unit.

For sound, the Zodiac features a Yamaha audio processor with dual speakers for stereo sound, a headphone jack, and a vibrate option for silent alarm that doubles as force-feedback in games.

For power, the Zodiac relies on an internal 1540-mAh rechargeable lithium battery for extended use.

In the stars

The Zodiac runs an optimized version of Palm OS 5.2 that has been specifically tailored for it. Rather than the traditional list or grid of categories and apps, the Zodiac uses a customizable eight-point radial menu shown in Figure C.


The Zodiac uses a radial menu interface. (click for larger image)

Alternatively, you can display all apps in a list format, like in Figure D.