The Palm OS has impressed as much with its market penetration as with its ability to enable entirely new product categories, all without some giant software behemoth charting a massive strategy or trotting out old rock bands at elaborate product announcement events. Innovators who use the Palm OS are more often smaller companies with a need for a smart, compact operating system; one with an established user base and a widespread range of programmers able to write for it. The latest group of people may be the most impressive of all, for a number of reasons. Their small size, their big dreams, and their fine product could make Tapwave one of the fastest rising stars in the handheld industry.
Numbering now about 35 employees, Tapwave was started by Peng Lim and Byron Connell. Back in Palm’s early days, Peng was Vice President of Engineering and Byron was Vice President of Marketing and Product Management.
“Once their business plan for Tapwave was funded,” said Tim Twerdahl, Tapwave’s Group Product Manager, “they hired about twelve more folks (myself included), who are considered ‘founding employees.’ We are a team that has an absolute passion for building mobile devices. For all of us, the promise of joining Tapwave to create a device like nothing else out there was a prime motivator.”
That this small group brought about a such an ambitious product is impressive, but becomes even more so once you spend some time with it. The Zodiac is solid. Its design and build rivals that of the mighty Sony; and as a gaming platform, the Zodiac makes the Gameboy Advance look like the toy that it is.
The Tapwave Zodiac comes in two models, the Zodiac 1 and Zodiac 2. The major difference between the two is RAM. The Zodiac 1 comes in gray has only 32MB and the Zodiac 2 comes in black and has the most RAM yet to appear in a Palm OS handheld: 128MB. Very roomy. Both models have Bluetooth for wireless gaming and Internet access, and both have the same high-powered Motorola i.MX1 ARM 9 processor and ATI Imageon graphics accelerator, augmented by the Fathammer X-Forge 3D graphics engine. The Half-VGA (480 x 320) screen dominates the device, oriented horizontally, and two SD slots round out the basic hardware specs. Oh yes, and the battery is a pretty big one, at 1540 mAh. That compares to palmOne’s Tungsten C at 1500 mAh.
I should also mention that the Zodiac is a Scott Summit design. To see more of his work, visit www.summitid.com. His other PDA credits include the AlphaSmart Dana and 2000, the Stowaway XT keyboard, and the never-released Palm Pilot Razor design that preceded the Palm V.
It’s not until you hold it that you’re truly impressed with the Zodiac. At first glance, it looks a little big for a handheld. But the curves do a lot to mitigate that, and once you begin to play games with the machine, you see that its size and form more than just serve, they’re just right.
The body is composed of two anodized aluminum shells sandwiching a multi-part plastic frame. A soft vinyl flip cover fits perfectly over the recessed screen, and wraps over the top to the back, where it’s pinned rather like a watchband, only looser. Bend the plastic pin a bit, and the flip lid comes free. The wispy Tapwave logo is impressed into the center of the matte black vinyl cover, the first of many excellent impressions.
Left of the screen are four of the more important controls. First is the power button, which lights up orange when charging, green when charged, and flashes orange when the battery is dangerously low. When music is playing and the screen goes to sleep, the green power button fades in and out slowly, an almost organic touch that we’ve seen in Apple notebooks for years. The button is flush with the body, somewhat minimizing accidental activation. Near the bottom is a hardware version of the Home icon, complete with the little house. Above that is the slightly domed function button, whose use varies depending on which program you’re using. Left of these two buttons is the left speaker, whose companion is directly opposite on the right. The distance between the two is indeed enough for good perception of stereo sound via the Yamaha audio chip, so long as the unit is around a foot from your head. Not bad for such a small device, and just the right distance for gaming.
Analog Joystick The final and most important item on the left side of the screen is the Analog Joystick. This was the most challenging aspect for Tapwave, according to Twerdahl. It had to be analog, because good gaming requires finer control than most digital input can provide. It actually serves three functions. It acts as a 5-way navigator for legacy Palm programs and basic OS functions, going North, South, East, West; pressing down on the center is the fifth way, which usually means “set” or “enter.” I usually find this method to be clumsy, preferring a separate center button, but this is tuned surprisingly well. The Analog Joystick also acts as an 8-way controller, with eight zones around the dial. And finally, it’s an analog controller, with a reasonably high resolution if the programmer chooses to write for it. It’s capable of 360-degree rotation, with varying degrees of speed given the diversion from the central axis. Tapwave has applied for a patent on the analog joystick design, which uses a pair of small potentiometers. “Wear characteristics change when you make these smaller,” Twerdahl told Design News earlier this year, “so testing tools and determining failure points and how wear occurs were critical.” Time will tell how the design holds up, but in my testing I noticed only a minor drift occasionally, which was eliminated by re-calibrating the joystick from within Preferences.
The joystick rolls around like an eyeball, most easily controlled with the ball of the thumb directly over the big black pad. Like any other joystick, the Tapwave design snaps back to center upon release.
Action buttons Right of the screen are four action buttons, originally intended for use by game designers for controls like fire, accelerate, or whatever the programmer needs to create a complete experience. They can also be programmed to launch any set of applications when the user is on the Palm OS home screen. Once inside most Palm programs, they perform the basic scroll functions, duplicating the controls built into the Analog controller on the left.
Top There are yet three more buttons on this unique device, two of which most gamers will find familiar; the other they will find an unexpected bonus. The first two are of course the shoulder buttons, or triggers. Their use varies depending on the game, and they seldom have a purpose in other Palm applications. The center button is the unexpected bonus that replaces a broadband connection, or dragging your entire PC to a friend’s house to connect via Ethernet (as I know many still do) for local competitive gaming. It’s the Bluetooth button. It may be the second great killer application for the low-power personal area network, and it’s even easier to access than on the palmOne Tungsten T3: You just press the big blue button top center of the screen and your device is discoverable for three minutes. In those minutes, the Bluetooth button flashes blue. This is also how you turn it on for Web and email access. A Web browser and SMS application are included on the disk. No email application is included, but I managed to load Palm’s VersaMail (the old MultiMail), and it works just fine. I’m told by Twerdahl that others use Mark/Space Mail and SnapperMail with success as well.
Getting back to the hardware, just behind the Bluetooth button are two–count them: two–SD/SDIO slots. PDA users rejoice. This makes the Zodiac the second Palm OS device to have two of the same type slots on it (the first I’m using to write this story–the AlphaSmart Dana). You can either lay down the big bucks and load your already healthy Zodiac 2 up with two 512MB SD cards, or go for one SD and one SDIO peripheral. That’s right, make your Bluetooth PDA Wi-Fi or give it a camera, and still enjoy the benefits of accessing data and games on your removable storage. Let’s hope other manufacturers follow this example–at least those using SD and Memory Stick. After all, they’re small, why shouldn’t all PDAs be able to handle two?
Back The back of the unit is a beautiful expanse of black metal, tastefully strewn with logos, approval marks, a serial number, and the rubber-mounted stylus. The stylus and its silo (if you can call it that) are unique in the PDA world, and Twerdahl tells me that they mounted it this way because there was just no room inside for a traditional silo without destroying the hourglass figure of the Zodiac. So they molded a long groove across the back near the top, and pressed in some rubber grips that manage to hold onto the device just gently enough to keep it in place while keeping it from falling free in normal use and carry. The stylus itself also has a taper in the middle where the stylus is gripped by the rubber. Still, Twerdahl says people insist on sliding it in from the side. Though the design is unusual, it’s very easy to line up the slender parts of the stylus with the rubber grips and press the stylus into place once you get the idea. To remove it, just press down on one of the ends of the stylus, and the other side will pop out of the rubber grip for easier removal. Though I thought I would, I have not had any trouble with the stylus at all. The stylus itself is pointed on one end and hollow-point on the other.
Centered left to right on the back is the reset button, and the pointed end of the stylus fits right in, no fumbling for a reset pin.
Four torx screws hold the device together. The last feature on the rear was a mystery to me. I thought it might be a mounting point for an external peripheral similar to the Universal connector on a Palm device, but I was finally told by Tapwave that it’s the lanyard lashing point, dashing my hopes for an external battery. I am glad that there’s a lashing point, however; and a lanyard (or wrist strap if you prefer) is included.
Bottom Last is the bottom, where we find the HotSync Port, charging port, and the uniquely mounted headphone jack. When the included headphones are attached to the Zodiac, they wrap around and up to mate with the device very neatly. There’s a relief in the opening that really shows the thought that went into the design.
Even the HotSync and charging ports keep to the smooth design, themselves wrapping around to the back. Much like my Sony-Ericsson cell phone, the power and HotSync ports are separate. The power port can be separated from the HotSync cable and brought along for recharging, and attaches to the device on its own. For HotSync, users must use the included cable or optional cradle, which joins the HotSync and power components into one. The HotSync cable snaps in place, and is released by pressing the buttons on the side. I had a little trouble getting the connection to be reliable, having to grab the Zodiac from the top and press the HotSync connector in hard. This usually makes me press on the Bluetooth button, thus turning it on. This is the only real problem I’ve had with the device. I think a cradle is always a better idea, because a cable that hangs over the front of a desk is always in danger of getting snagged and sending your multi-hundred dollar device to the floor. The cradle is available for $19.99, though it requires you to plug in your existing cables, as does the Sony-Ericsson cradle I use for my phone. An additional charger and cable are $19.00 and $14.99 respectively. I think the cradle and at least a spare charger are absolute necessities. Tapwave is to be lauded for keeping these essentials reasonably priced.
Screen Finally, we get to turn on the screen. It is beautiful. Great contrast, 320-by- 480-pixel resolution. Compared to the NX80V and Tungsten T3, the Zodiac 2 is not as bright at its brightest setting. I found this surprising, because I was perfectly happy with the brightness setting, often turning it down indoors. Still, the Zodiac seemed somehow different, though I couldn’t tell why. Blacks do seem to be a bit blacker on my unit, so it could be a matter of the screen coating. Then I got out my ruler. Just holding the three units up against each other, it’s not easy to tell, but the Zodiac screen is just a little bigger than the T3, and identical to the Sony NX80V. Something about the Zodiac’s design makes the screen look bigger than the NX80V, but my measurements show both the Sony and Zodiac to be 54mm wide, pixel to pixel along the 320 pixel side. Measured diagonally, they’re both 98mm (I chose millimeters for their higher resolution). The T3 is 53mm across and 96mm diagonally. Granted, this is an unscientific test with my own eyes and a crappy ruler, but it’s the same crappy ruler, so it does mean something. So the Zodiac screen is bigger, but not brighter than the T3, and as big as, but not as bright as the NX80V.
The screen performs fairly well outside, so long as you don’t mind looking at your own reflection as you play; a great feature for narcissists. In direct sunlight and indoors, the screen is bright enough to burn through your reflection and allow you to concentrate on what’s important: your game. Compared to the T3, the Zodiac 2 is better in the sun, and not quite as bright in outdoor shade or indoors.
Turning the unit on, we’re greeted with an entirely new launcher interface. We’ve seen this effort to augment or circumvent the stylus-driven nature of the Palm OS interface before. Just as Handspring’s original Treo interface revolved around the keyboard, palmOne’s around the 5-way navigator, and Sony’s played off the jog dial, the Zodiac launcher naturally takes advantage of its Analog Joystick. Icons are arrayed in a wheel. Moving the joystick toward a given icon can take you to either a program or a category. This is one way to deal with the problem of categories; something Sony has taken many strikes at with varying degrees of success. Users can build elaborate wheels that lead to other wheels, or leave some of their programs on the right side in a list view. Once you get used to it, it works fairly well. It can be surprising sometimes, because after moving through a few categories you suddenly move the joystick to a program and that program launches. You don’t press down on the joystick to activate, because that always takes you back one level. Once you learn the system, you find it’s very quick. For example, to launch the MP3 player, I toggle down to the Media category, and up to the music icon. Two toggles, and I’m where I want to be, and the stylus is still in its clamps.
There’s also a large list view that fills the whole screen for those who like to tap with the stylus, or just don’t like novel interfaces. You can either tap or scroll around with the Analog Joystick acting like a 5-way nav disk.
The Zodiac interface also adds a couple features that we’ve been missing in the Palm OS space. Color themes are not new, but color themes that can be set individually within each program, and background photos on the home screen are. Background colors are available in a number of flavors. You can pick from 16 stock colors, select from a 200-plus palette of colors, or create your own with the RGB sliders. For the Home screen wallpaper, you can pick from any 320 x 480 picture in the small library of pictures, or use your own. On the wheel, the text is black and in the list view it’s white, but on most images, some of the text will disappear in either black or white areas of the picture. It’s better to select photos without a lot of contrasting detail if this bothers you, or stick with the standard soft watercolor-like background.
Status bar Along the right side is the status bar, something now standard on 320 x 480 Palm devices. Depending on the “handedness” you choose (as in Left or Right-handed), it will appear on the left or right. Which side the Graffiti area and status bar appear is set when the unit is initialized, or you can change it in the General area of Preferences. The status bar has a house icon, which takes you to the home screen, a menu icon, a find icon, and a volume control icon. This last control launches both volume and brightness controls. The volume control also features a typically thoughtful Tapwave touch: tap on mute, and a pull down menu comes up with the title: “Mute Until.” It offers the first value of approximately an hour from the present time, then a half hour from present, then two hours, then when the unit would next become active, by default 8:00 am. Finally you can choose to mute indefinitely. This tiered mute is a great feature for those who want to game silently for awhile, but don’t want to permanently disable their alarms.
The upcoming version of the system software also includes a Music icon for quickly controlling MP3 playback from almost any application. And if you try playback while the unit is muted, the software asks you if you want to unmute rather than leaving you wondering why your MP3 player doesn’t work. Thoughtful design once again.
Rotate I still haven’t finished with the status bar, because I haven’t mentioned the hide Graffiti area icons, nor the rotate feature; there are limitations to both. Like other handhelds with this status bar, the Graffiti area can be hidden, and the screen can be rotated, but the Graffiti screen cannot be used to jump to the next letter in a long list of programs as it can on most other Palm OS devices; and though the screen can be rotated in many games and programs, it cannot be rotated in the Home screen. Indeed, in most Zodiac-specific applications the screen cannot be rotated. The Address book can, and so can the Datebook, ToDo list, and Memo Pad. Another peculiarity is that once these programs are rotated and their Graffiti area hidden, they keep this state until each is changed individually. So if you prefer your Datebook sans Graffiti area, you can remove it, and if you like your address book with Graffiti for quick lookup, you can have it that way permanently. Good stuff Tapwave. Rotation and changes to the Graffiti area are systemwide and affect all programs on the palmOne T3. Actually, I prefer my Address Book wide open in Landscape format, because names are no longer truncated in that view, and neither are phone numbers or email addresses, even in list view. So though I think neither Tapwave nor palmOne’s is necessarily superior, I can see advantages to Tapwave’s method here.
The Graffiti area itself is also different. It spans the height or width of the screen (depending on the orientation) with three entry fields: Upper case, lower case, and numbers. It works very well, with traces of the letters you write appearing onscreen. Too bad it’s cursed with Graffiti 2.
More Little Things There are many little touches that Tapwave put into both the original and the upcoming 1.1 release. I’ll go through a few to give you an idea. The Prefs screen is not a boring white space with words, but an application wheel of its own with custom icons unique to the Zodiac. Press on these icons, and you’re taken to the traditional, boring white space that’s so familiar, but at least they did something with the main Prefs menu to give it that Tapwave feel.
The clock application is crafted nicely, following the design cues of other Tapwave applications. It has an analog clock and a digital clock, both onscreen simultaneously, plus an option for an alarm separate from the Date Book, and a countdown timer. Press on the watch icon, and up comes a keypad where you can enter any set of numbers you’d like to count down. When the sequence is complete, an alarm sounds. Tap on the Alarm icon and you can set your wakeup time with a tap. Up pops another, smaller keypad, and you can enter your time down to the minute. No more confinement to a 5-minute schedule as we have in the Date Book. Even better, you can set the alarm to be an MP3 track of your choosing. In the original release, the alarm would play only part of the song, but the 1.1 release will reliably play the entire song, offering one more reason to bring the Zodiac along on your next business trip.
Sound Last year Palm came out with the Zire 71, adding new sounds to replace the tired status beeps and noises we were used to. The effect was pleasant, giving the device a sense of elegance and poise among an office full of shamelessly and blandly beeping computers and peripherals. The Zodiac team has achieved a similar effect with their unique sounds, only the sense is more of magic and fun than one of poise. I won’t bother trying to imitate the sounds here in text, but they show again how much fun Tapwave engineers had making this device, as well as their keen sense of how important good sound is to make users really appreciate their device. Just as car manufacturers work to make their doors sound solid when they close, Tapwave worked to instill personality into the device. You get a sense that the device is thoroughly enjoying serving you as it swishes from app to app, and chimes brightly when it returns you to the home screen. It doesn’t sound corny or silly either. They did a good job of creating the sounds to be both cool and respectable.
The whole point of the Zodiac is gaming, and I’m just getting down to it, mostly because I’m so impressed with every other aspect of the device. But the gaming does eclipse everything else, so I decided it was better to wait until the end.
To be honest, I spent a lot of time tinkering with the interface at first, and not much time with the games. I thought I’d played most of them before on other Palm devices, so there wasn’t much allure. Little did I realize how much more interesting most of these games are. When I fired up Stuntcar Extreme, one of the main games bundled with the device and probably the one that best showcases the capabilities of the Zodiac, I was sucked in. I must confess that I have intended to get this review done quite a few times, and instead got absorbed in the play of Stuntcar Extreme, obsessed with getting that better time to move up to the next level. Not only are the sounds, textures, scenery, and sense of speed intoxicating, but the game interface is beautifully designed, with smooth fonts, good graphics, and decent music. There’s even a bit of character development as you sit in the milkshake bar between races to chat with the other drivers. Milkshake bar? Well, you know, can’t associate drinking with driving, and it’s probably a good thing. Wouldn’t be prudent. You compete against the drivers to earn points and gather cars along the way, and the chatter adds a subtle depth to the rest of the play.
The Zodiac’s stereo sound is better and more immersive when used with the included headphones. Using headphones also makes it easier to avoid bugging the wife, sleeping kids, people on the plane and in the airport, or even letting mom and dad know what you’re up to, depending on what your situation is.
I must admit that I have caused a disturbance or two when I got particularly into a game and verbally expressed my displeasure or satisfaction. It’s a testament to the platform that it’s able to draw someone like me so completely into the world it’s presenting on its under-four-inch screen. The natural fit in my hand, the excellent Yamaha audio, and the seamless, non-jerky gameplay with vivid, high-resolution graphics–even the black anodized case–help me forget about the device itself and focus on defeating the latest driver, villain, spaceship, or skater. That, my friends, is the definition of game platform success. After all, who is thinking about their game console or television while trying to get their character into the next level?
Extra immersive depth is added by the vibrate feature, whose strength in many games can be modified from weak to strong with a slider. It lets you know when you’ve been hit, damaged, or in the case of Stuntcar Extreme, that you’re riding up the wall or bouncing excessively and losing traction, which lowers your overall speed.
Which brings us back to the Analog Joystick and why it’s important. In a game like Stuntcar Extreme, where you’re piloting a four-wheel drive hotrod with extra spongy suspension, it’s important that you stay on the road to maintain your speed so you can win the race. When I first started playing, I would steer as if the steering wheel were a button, pressing the joystick all the way left to follow a curve in the road. That made the tires screech, as it would on my own truck, and made it bleed off speed (actually, my own truck would most likely flip). But I eventually discovered the beauty of the Zodiac’s analog controller. If you move the joystick just a little as you approach that curve, you’ll steer more gently and maintain your speed (you can tell because if you turn too abruptly, the sound of your engine moves to a lower frequency).
A truly surreal effect can be achieved using the 1.1 OS upgrade coming at the end of March. Just turn off Stuntcar Extreme’s built in music, but leave the sound effects on. Then go start the MP3 player and play your favorite playlist. For contrast, I play Norah Jones and John Mayer so I feel like I’m in my own truck as I fiercely rip past competing drivers and leap over obstacles at high speed. Though I’ve mentioned that the games are always uninterrupted fluid motion, at least in beta, a minor pause occurs in the game between MP3 tracks. When you consider that the Zodiac is essentially running two processor-intensive applications at the same time, it’s to be expected.
I’ve tried a few other games like Megabowling, which tests your skill with the stylus rather than the controller. It’s also addictive, with great graphics and decent sound effects. I do get bored of the same crashing pins sound. Realistic as it is, there should be a few different ones, like for when you’re hitting only one pin. As it is it still sounds like you’re hitting all of them. This game can be played in landscape or portrait formats. It’s better in portrait, because your stroke resolution is greater due to the longer screen.
Firehammer is another intoxicating game. An arcade-style flat flying game, it immediately draws you in with the fast action, powerful weapons, and driving techno music. You feel like a studly action hero who’s nearly invincible. Then the opponents get more challenging and start shooting at you from all angles, and you have to prove your studhood. With the Analog Joystick, you’re able to move all around the screen, dodging projectiles as you collect what appear to be power cores. I like the way it makes you feel powerful right away and gradually sucks you in for greater challenges. It can only be played vertically, which means you maneuver the ship with the joystick under your left thumb (if you’re right handed) and wrap your hand around to the action buttons on top to fire. You can also use the left shoulder button to fire, and the Function button fires your “Experimental Super Weapon,” which fires a multi-second devastating blast. Hardcore gamers can post scores via the online ranking system
Galactic Realms is a space game that offers some excellent graphics and decent space simulation, but it’s incredibly difficult to defeat your opponents, at least in my experience. Dogfighting with the enemy in practice is worse than difficult, and a few hours of attempts didn’t improve my play much. I’m probably missing something here, but I only play if I want to get frustrated, which is rare.
Shattered Worlds isn’t much better, and the joystick controls work opposite from a plane’s. Pulling back on the joystick would normally put you into a climb, but in this case it puts you into a dive. The game looks like fun otherwise, but not until they invert the controls.
Finally, Tony Hawk Pro Skater was just introduced and shipped earlier this month to rave reviews. I’ve played it, and it looks great. But I’ve never played it on other systems, so I have no frame of reference. I can only say that the graphics look great, the controls seem to work well, and it looks like it would be fun for someone who gets it. As for Tony Hawk, I can only apologize for spilling so much of his virtual namesake’s blood all over the city.
Personally, I’m waiting for Doom to appear for Zodiac. I plan to mindlessly waste countless hours killing fireball-throwing demons until my head hurts. Ahh, the good old days.
Battery life with the Zodiac 2 is around 3.5 to four hours of solid gaming. I have noticed that playing MP3 songs and Stuntcar extreme seems to drain it more quickly, but I haven’t had time to test from a full charge, since testing means not writing this review. This really isn’t unexpected, running two processors (main and graphics) two SD cards, and sometimes Bluetooth will use a lot of energy. Without gaming, I get a basic two days out of the device, checking email via Bluetooth, and looking up phone numbers. I recommend a charger for home and brief case, plus a big SD card (at least 256MB) and a good backup program, just in case. The Zodiac 2 will go some time on a little charge without losing the power necessary to maintain memory, but it’s still possible.
The Tapwave team should be proud. Their first two devices are far more solid than anyone had a right to expect. There are still a few aspects that could use some improvement, such as slow MP3 listing from my 512MB SD card, taking as long as 30 seconds to retrieve a listing of 50 songs. But I really can’t complain. Here we have a well-built computer with processor power, graphics power, high battery power, two SD slots, and a screen that’s just right for holding a foot from your face, plus superb audio–all combining to make one great gaming platform. Then you add just about everything that makes me love my Tungsten T3, including Bluetooth, general Palm OS application compatibility (I’ve not found the app that doesn’t work), and reasonable portability, and you have the gamer’s handheld of choice with double the onboard RAM for $400, the same price as the T3. Not bad. And if you can get by with less RAM, the Zodiac 1 is an even better deal at just $300.
If you’ve ever wanted to use your daily-carry handheld for games, there’s really no reason not to give Zodiac a closer look. It’s purpose-built for fun, yet lacks nothing for serious work.