In Depth – Tapwave Zodiac

by Reads (23,362)

Tapwave’s Palm-powered gaming device, the Zodiac, goes on sale today. We bring you a full preview of its design and specifications.

The Zodiac runs on a 200 MHz Motorola Dragonball MX series ARM processor, and features a 480 x 320 pixel widescreen display, 32 or 128 MB of RAM depending on model, built-in Bluetooth, and special graphics acceleration and 3D rendering hardware. As if this all weren’t enough, Tapwave claims up to 16 hours of battery life. At this point, without a test unit in our hands, we can’t really comment on the performance of the Zodiac’s enhancements, or its actual battery life, so we’ll mostly be discussing design and established features.

Tapwave Zodiac front

The Zodiac’s most striking feature is the large, 480 x 320 pixel display. In addition to it’s extensive hardware support for video and games, the display can operate in either the default landscape or in portrait modes, depending on the user’s preference.

If you examine the very bottom edge on the lefthand side, you’ll see a small projection. This is the 3.5mm headphone jack.  Moving clockwise, we find the Home button. All this does is return you to the application launcher, taking the place of an icon normally silkscreened. Above that is the “function button”. This, according to the manual, “Performs various actions based on the application.” Your guess is as good as mine.

The pad that rests in the indent is a complete, nine-way directional controller–eight directions, plus ‘in’ to select. The Zodiac specs go to some length to point out that this controller is ‘analog’. This means that it recognizes the difference between a little movement and a lot, making it more like a flattened joystick than a traditional directional pad.

The dark grey button in the upper left is the power button, and contains the battery status LED. The button will glow green when fully charged, yellow when charging, or red when the battery is critically low. Top center is a Bluetooth button, which–stay with me here–turns on the Bluetooth.

Right of the screen are four buttons arranged in a circle. These double as both game controls and normal application buttons, and they can be mapped to apps of your choice.

On both sides of the screen are small grilles for the speakers. The Zodiac has a stereo set of speakers, so headphones aren’t neccessary for basic games.

Not visible in these pictures are two buttons along the top edge of the Zodiac. Labeled ‘trigger’ buttons, these are intended for use in games. Likewise not visible is the Zodiac’s vibrating ability, to be used as visceral feedback in action games.

Tapwave Zodiac back

Rather than put it in a silo, the Zodiac keeps its stylus in a small groove in the back of the case, held in by small grips. On the right side is located what appears to be an snap-on point for accessories.

Along the top edge, not visible here, are the expansion slots. Yes, slots, plural. The Zodiac is the first Palm-powered handheld since the HandEra 330 to feature proper, fully supported dual expansion card slots–though in this case, they are two SD card slots rather than the SD/CompactFlash combination used on the HE330 and most PocketPCs. More good news is that both slots SDIO compatible, so you’ll be able to add a WiFi card when drivers become available. The infrared port resides next to the SD slots.

Tapwave Zodiac accessories

Left to right, Tapwave Zodiac, cradle, USB sync cable, AC adapter, and headphones.

Its important to note that the sync cradle shown here is not included with the Zodiac, but sold seperately.

The cables used by the Zodiac are highly modular, lending the user a great deal of options in how to employ them. Connect the AC adapter to the sync cable, and connect the sync cable to the Zodiac. Or connect the sync cable to the optional cradle, and the Zodiac to the cradle. Or connect the AC adapter directly to the Zodiac, which is a nice touch all too often lacking in the Palm world.

Though the Zodiac has a lot going for it, I have to wonder if it’s focus on gaming has hurt it. There’s basically no question that except for the lack of WiFi, the Zodiac out-features all the competition. Had it been built along more traditional lines, it’s dual expansion, single-piece HighRes+ design could have beaten all the other offerings in the mid-range and high-end spectrum. Lose some of the 3D acceleration hardware, and you probably could have squeezed WiFi in, too. As it is, I think a lot of users will probably be scared off by the heavy gaming accents. Still, it remains to be seen how well the Zodiac will fare.

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