Tapwave Announces Palm Powered Handheld for Serious Gamers

by Reads (34,897)

Whenever a new handheld is released, many users immediately begin examining its potential for playing games. According to Handango, a quarter of all handheld applications sold are games. Obviously, there is a strong interest in using these devices for gaming. A new Palm OS licensee intends to capitalize on this by releasing a handheld in which gaming is the primary focus.

Tapwave gave an initial glimpse of its first product late yesterday. The Helix will have a 320 by 480 pixel screen, with portrait and landscape modes. This transflective display will be 3.8 inches when measured diagonally and offer 16-bit color. It has an ATI Imageon graphics accelerator and will use the the Fathammer X-Forge 3D Game Engine.

There was a launch party for the company at the PalmSource developers seminar and Brighthand‘s founder, Steve Bush, was in attendance. There were several prototype Helixes there but no pictures were allowed. However, a rough diagram of the device has been created based on his description.

The major complaint people have with using current handhelds for gaming is the buttons are not well suited for the task. The Helix will have a built-in analog joystick, a full complement of action buttons, and trigger buttons on its sides. It will also offer rumble effects.

To allow users to play games head-to-head, the Helix will include Bluetooth short-range wireless networking. Up to eight Helixes will be able to be connected together simultaneously.

Of course, a gaming platform is only as strong as its games. Tapwave says it has been working with Activision, Infogrames, Midway, and Digital Eclipse to produce titles for the Helix. The company intends to license well-known games and encourage other developers to write new ones for it.

It will offer strong multimedia features besides just gaming. The Helix has a Yamaha sound chip and will be able to play MP3s and video. It will include built-in stereo speakers and a stereo headphone jack with earbud headphones.

For all its gaming and multimedia capabilities, the Helix will still be able to run Palm OS applications, meaning it can function as a regular PDA, too. According to a Tapwave executive, the target market is 18- to 34-year-old gamers who have outgrown a GameBoy and need a device that can help organize their life.

The Helix uses a virtual Graffiti area for text input. A tap on the screen switches it between portrait and landscape modes.

It will run Palm OS 5 on a Motorola .MX1 ARM-based processor The processor speed and the amount of RAM are not yet known. The exact dimensions for the device are also unknown, though the company says it will weigh less than 6 ounces. The device is about the size of a large handheld and is roughly .6 inches thick. The Helix will also sport two SD slots.

It employs the Palm Universal Connector, which means it potentially can use a variety of accessories already on the market, like cables, cradles, and maybe even keyboards. This is located on the bottom when the screen is in landscape mode.

The metal stylus is held on by clips running along the top.

A requirement for any gaming device is a long battery life. Tapwave hasn’t made any predictions about how long the Helix’s will be, but the device does use two internal rechargeable lithium batteries.

According to an unnamed source in the handheld industry, there will be two versions, one costing $199 and a second costing $299 and offering a built-in camera.

Tapwave itself has not said yet what the Helix will cost and only says it will be available in late 2003.

Hands-On with the Helix

Brighthand‘s Steve Bush, in attendance at the launch in San Francisco,managed to get ten minutes with the Helix and came away impressed. “If Tapwave can bring this device to market at the $199 and $299 price points we’re hearing, it should succeed,” he notes. But as Joyce Morrell, Director of Developer Programs for Tapwave, told Brighthand, it hinges on the development of compelling content. Ms. Morrell said to expect more games appearing on Secure Digital cards.

“The Helix has an excellent Sony display, along the lines of the Clie NX and NZ series, and seemed reasonably fast, although Tapwave wouldn’t release the processor speed,” added Steve. “I played a Kinoma video, a couple of MP3 files, and a game that was optimized for the Helix. The only downside I noticed was that the sound wasn’t very loud, even listening through headphones at its highest setting. But that could have been due to the noise in the club where the launch was held.”

Steve also noted that several venture capitalists were in attendance and had a lot of positive comments about Tapwave and the Helix.

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