Tapwave Zodiac Review

by Reads (26,397)

When it was released, the Tapwave Zodiac made waves by attempting to meld a handheld video game system with a Palm-powered PDA. How successful were they?


Unlike most handhelds, the casing of the Z is metal, specifically anodized aluminum. Other than a few buttons, and the markings on the back of the case, it is also completely matte black. It has a little bit of a figure-8 shape to it, broader on the ends and a little narrower in the middle. In normal operation, the Zodiac’s directional controller is on the left of the screen, with most of the buttons on the right. When in portrait mode, the whole thing takes a 90 degree left turn, resulting in the directional controller being on the bottom, and the buttons on the top.

Front left, from top to bottom: power button, directional controller, ‘start’ button, left speaker, and launcher button. The power button is basically just your standard flat plastic button with a tri-color LED inside. It blinks red when battery power is critically low, glows a steady orange while charging, and turns green when the battery is fully charged. Tactile response started out well, but after a while the button began getting mushy to the touch. There’s no real click, and a few times I have pressed it and the machine has failed to turn off.

Rather than a conventional directional pad, which can register the four standard directions, the Zodiac has an analog controller with a full 360 degree range of motion. This is accomplished by using what is basically a half sphere embedded in a socket in the Z. It’s spring loaded, so when you’re not using it it stays dead-center like a joystick, and the top is flat and capped in rubber for better gripping. Next step down is a round white button that is defined by the Zodiac as the ‘start’ button. This is mostly a game context, and as such it doesn’t do much in normal functioning. Bottom most is the launcher button. Alone, this brings you back to the main application launcher. It is also used in conjunction with the application buttons on the right side to launch applications–more on that under Input. To the right of the screen are four more buttons, along with the right speaker. These buttons do double duty as application buttons and game controls. Their feel and response are okay, each having a definable tactile and auditory click.

Moving to the nominal top of the Zodiac… This side’s most prominent feature is the dual SD card slots, but it also houses the infrared port, centered below the slots, and the Bluetooth button located in a similar position above them. The Bluetooth button controls the internal Bluetooth wireless radio, and contains a blue LED that blinks while Bluetooth is active. Pressing the button once both activates the Bluetooth radio and makes the Zodiac visible over Bluetooth for 3 minutes. After that time period, the radio remains on, but the Zodiac is invisible to other Bluetooth devices that it isn’t already connected or paired with. You can make it visible again by pressing the Bluetooth button. To deactivate the Bluetooth radio, press and hold the button for about two seconds. Though you can t see them, there are also two buttons on the upper edges of the case, where they could be operated by the index fingers as you hold the Zodiac. These aren’t application buttons, but controls intended mostly for games. Their motion is rather flat, but they do produce a decent click.

The right and left sides of the Zodiac are plain, curved aluminum, save for the bottom left corner which hides the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Bottom center are the docking connectors. The two-pin connector on the right in this photo is the power, and the set of pins on the left is the main docking connector. Due to the placement of the connectors, you can operate them either independantly or simultaneously, just by connecting different cables.

From this angle, you can also see the stylus attached to the back of the case. Rather than being slipped into a silo inside the case of the device, the stylus actually held into a depression on the case by two pairs of rubber teeth. While this saves a considerable amount of space inside the case, and allows for a better stylus than might otherwise be possible, it also makes the stylus very easy to lose. The stylus itself is long and relatively comfortable, with a cylindrical metal main barrel terminating in plastic end caps.

Overall, I like the anodized aluminum case, but I’m not too fond of the form-factor. The figure-8 shape and the placement of the SD slots make it uncomfortable to hold in portrait mode, and the two-handed grip isn’t always convenient.



200 MHz Motorola i.MX1 ARM processor
Operating System: Tapwave-modified Palm OS 5.2
Display: 3.8 inch, 320 x 480 pixel transmissive/reflective LCD, ATI Imageon W4200 graphics processor with 8MB dedicated RAM

32 MB RAM, 20 MB available (Zodiac 1) OR 128 MB RAM, 116 MB available (Zodiac 2)

Size & Weight: 5.6 inches long by 3.1 inches wide by 0.55 inches thick, weight 6.3 ounces.
Expansion: One SD/MMC memory slot, One SD/MMC/SDIO expansion slot
Docking: 15-pin Tapwave connector, 2-pin power connector
Communication: Integrated Bluetooth (Class 2), IrDA port

Internal stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone jack, Yamaha audio processor

Battery: Dual 3.7 volt Lithium Ion rechargable batteries, total capacity 1540 milliamp-hours
Input: 4 remappable application buttons, analog directional controller, trigger controls, touchscreen
Software: Bluetooth chat client, SMS program, audio player, image viewer



I found the performance of the Zodiac’s 200 MHz Motorola processor more than satisfactory. Most Palm OS based models have no real problem with speed, and while the Zodiac’s CPU isn’t a barn-burner, the independant graphics processor takes some of the load off.


Operating System

The Zodiac runs a version of Palm OS 5.2 that has been specially modified by Tapwave to accomodate their hardware and the neccessities of mobile gaming. Most of this is under-the-hood stuff, but some of it is more obvious, such as a new application launcher, a VFS driver (more on that under Memory), and some other tweaks.

Though the Zodiac boasts of its ability to run in either portrait or landscape screen orientations, the truth is that it is basically unusable in standard portrait mode. Tapwave’s application launcher doesn’t allow for any kind of portrait orientation, so while you can use some applications in portrait, as soon as you return to the launcher you’re kicked back to landscape. The only way around this is to replace the Tapwave launcher with a third-party option like ZLauncher. This works (mostly, at least, see below), but that’s not the point–the point is that out of the box, the Zodiac isn’t properly equipped for it.

One problem with the ZLauncher solution is that at least one app, Warfare Incorporated, objected to the new order of things, and refused to run. I don t know whether this is a specific problem between Warfare Inc. and ZLauncher, or if it s the combination of those two and the Zodiac that results in the problem, but either way it needs to be noted that it isn t a 100% solution. If one app can fail, more apps can fail.

Tapwave has also done some custom work on the control bar that resides at the left or bottom of the screen. The good: there’s a little icon that lets you pop up controls for the audio player, so you don’t have to leave your current application to mess with your MP3s. The bad: they seem to have omitted the on-screen keyboard as a soft input option. To use a software keyboard, you need to go into the menus and pull up the default Palm OS keyboard that covers the entire screen. Bummer. Also, unlike the Tungsten T3, the Zodiac lacks a Bluetooth control on its bar.



The Zodiac carries a 480 x 320 pixel transmissive/reflective LCD display. For those just joining us, “transmissive/reflective” means that the screen both transmits light from an internal source, called a backlight, as well as reflecting ambient light. This makes the display visible both in low or moderate light as well as in direct sunlight.

The overall quality of the Z’s display is good, but not Earth-shattering. That’s not saying a lot though; the quality of modern LCDs is such that a display has to be really dazzlingly good to stand out of the crowd. In all, I found the Zodiac’s screen to be more than sufficient for ordinary use, games, photos, video, or more or less anything you wanted to throw at it.

Left, Tapwave Zodiac. Right, Dell Axim X30.

The Zodiac also features an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics accelerator chip for enhancing the Zodiac’s display performance. Curiously, aside from the fact that it features 8 MB of integrated video RAM, there’s next to no information available about this chip. ATI doesn’t list it on their site, and Tapwave doesn’t offer any more information about it than the RAM. I really can t imagine why–you would think that they would want to tout its abilities. The additional graphics memory is, however, a nice touch, and should give the Zodiac a little more power in those really intensive games.



The Zodiac 1 comes with a moderate 32 MB internal RAM. Of this, 12 MB is used by the system, and 20 MB is left accessible to the user. Not altogether a whole lot, and it could be run through rather quickly once one started adding programs. Dual slots lessen this difficulty, but more internal RAM is always desirable.

There’s certainly no way that the Zodiac 2 will run out of memory. It has 128 MB of internal RAM, 116 MB of which is available to the user. This is easily the largest amount of internal RAM on any Palm OS-based handheld. On top of that, Tapwave includes a driver built into both Zodiacs that allows the use of spare RAM for VFS, essentially an internal memory card. That means that in addition to storing just programs on the Z’s internal memory, you could also use to to store native-format documents, MP3s, and other real files that Palm OS usually doesn’t allow in memory. And, if THAT isn’t enough memory for you, the dual SD card slots each support up to a 1 gigabyte memory card.


Size & Weight

At 5.6 inches long by 3.1 inches wide, the dimensions of the Zodiac give it a very large footprint. Though the Z is also relatively thin, only 0.55 inches, it isn’t at all suited to a breast pocket, and any other kind of pocket would have to be rather sizable to accomodate its length.

Left to right: Tapwave Zodiac, Dell Axim X5, Dell Axim X30.

Top to bottom: Tapwave Zodiac, Dell Axim X30, Dell Axim X5.

The metal casing makes it a bit heavier than it might otherwise be, but I think that the trade-off is worth it. Anodized aluminum is considerably tougher than ordinary plastic or many other metals, and this translates to an increased ruggedness against drops, scratches, and flexing. As an aside, this also translates to better protection for the screen, since there isn’t as much torque to worry about.



The Zodiac is the first and only Palm-powered handheld to offer dual SD card expansion slots, and the only current model PPH to offer fully implemented dual expansion of any kind. Slot #1, on the left-hand side as you hold the Zodiac, supports only memory cards, while Slot #2, on the right, supports either memory cards or SDIO peripherals. Not that it makes much difference, as the the existing WiFi cards are not compatible with the Zodiac, but it is there.



Neither the Zodiac 1 nor the Zodiac 2 come with a cradle. I thought it kind of cheap for $300 and $400 devices, but that’s the way it is. In the box, it includes an AC adapter with a proprietary 2-pin tip, and a USB sync cable with a 15-pin Tapwave connector. For an additional $20, you can get a USB cradle. However, even with the cradle, you still need both of the original cables. The cradle doesn’t have a USB cable of its own, nor an AC adapter, so you have to plug in the cables you already have to make it work. Unfortunately, that also means additional cost if you want to, say, set up a cradle at work in addition to home. In that case, you’d be looking at a total cost of $50 for the cradle, cable, and AC adapter. I did not recieve a cradle with my review unit, so I can’t really comment on it.

The docking connection on the Zodiac is rather suspect. With a very minimal bump, the cables will lose their connection. Sometimes they fail to click fully, seemingly in place but not really. It’s really quite annoying to plug the charger directly into the Z, set it down on the table, and notice that the cable popped off already. It also makes ‘hassle free’ charging rather problematic, since you don’t have any assurance that the cable won’t pop out and leave you without a full charge.

There’s a popular myth that says the Zodiac uses the Palm Universal Connector. This was spawned by the fact that the initial reports about the Zodiac’s specs listed the PUC, and said that the Zodiac would be able to use PUC accessories. I don’t know whether Tapwave ever really considered this during development, but I can say conclusively that the connector on the Zodiac is not the Palm Universal Connector, and it won’t work with any PUC accessories.



The Z comes with integrated Bluetooth short-range wireless communication. Tapwave intended this for multiplayer gaming, but aside from that it supports all the normal Bluetooth application profiles such as serial port, beaming, internet access, etcetera. Also integrated is the standard infrared port, although these days this is of less and less use.



Another first from the Zodiac is its speakers. Unlike most handhelds, which only feature a single built-in speaker, Tapwave went to the effort of putting in stereo speakers. They’re not stunning, but they provide a little more definition than the average internal mono speaker. Volume through headphones is really very good, and quality is excellent. One thing that the Zodiac does not have, however, is an internal microphone, so no voice memos or audio recording.

My Zodiac came pre-loaded with an MP3 file that was labeled “Listen with headphones.” Never one to avoid cryptic suggestions, I popped in my favorite Sony in-ear headphones and gave it a listen. The track turned out to be a set of sounds specifically formulated to show off the Zodiac’s stereophonic sound capabilities. For those that don’t know, stereophonic sound is a way of using two sound channels, like a pair of headphones, to reproduce sound with a more natural range of motion. It’s kind of like 2-channel surround sound. The file was very impressive for its crispness, and the accuracy of its movement. First the sound of wind, then a distant hammering, followed by a rattling which moves all around the user to show off the stereo.

Suddenly, my idle toying was most rudely interrupted by the sound of a half-dozen gunshots, from a semi-automatic .22 caliber hunting rifle, coming from my side lawn maybe 50 feet outside the dining room window. Here outside my home town of North Boondocks, it isn’t exactly an unusual event for someone to open fire for no better reason than the fact that they’ve got alcohol, ammo, and a red neck, but the placement would indicate that my neighbor was at least 1000 feet on the wrong side of our property line, which I instantly intended to get him arrested for. I ripped out my headphones, and had sprung from my chair when my brain suddenly placed a hold on the current plan of action. I couldn’t hear anything. No gunshots. No drunken whooping. None of the all-terrain vehicles my neighbor drives. Nor, for that matter, were my dogs reacting.

But there was an odd tapping noise coming from my headphones…

Even listening to it again, knowing what the sound is, the reproduction is so good that I’d swear it’s the real thing. Only when I turn my head, and the sound stays in the same place relative to my attitude, does the illusion become perfectly transparent. I presume, from listening to the rest of the file, that the noise they intended was a door knocker, but it’s very close to the sound of a rifle. All I can say is that the Zodiac’s sound system is first rate. Probably due at least in part to the special Yamaha audio processor built-in, the Z has amazing quality of sound.



The Zodiac comes with dual internal Lithium-Ion batteries that have a combined capacity of 1540 milliamp-hours. For these tests, I fired up one of the more visually intensive 3D games that came with the Zodiac, and let the CPU and GPU do their work. I also left Bluetooth running.

Brightness at maximum, Bluetooth on, playing games: 3 hours, 52 minutes

Brightness at minimum, Bluetooth on, playing games: 6 hours, 19 minutes

Given what it was running, these results are very good. The dual battery design of the Zodiac allows for considerably more capacity than normal without increasing thickness, but it does require a larger footprint to accomodate the two batteries. There’s just no way around the fact that more battery power requires more volume, but the Zodiac uses what it’s got to good effect.



The buttons on the Zodiac don’t quite work the way other handhelds’ buttons do. Unlike most models, where you push the button and it launches a program, the four buttons on the right of the screen by default perform action within the current application. To use them to launch applications, you have to depress the Launcher button on the left side of the screen, then use the appropriate application button. Unfortunately, this makes it next to impossible to launch an application without having both hands free and on the Zodiac.

Frankly, I’m not too sure of the directional controller. The whole point of having an analog controller is so that you can have fine degrees of control over motion. However, I found that the tiny size of the controller really impaired its usefulness. Despite a careful attention to its use, the controller seemed to frequently over-react to my movements, losing the fine detail of control. Even more, there’s so little space between the center-point and the edge that to achieve anything other than a full burn is nigh on to impossible. And last but not least, the neccessities of an analog controller prevent any kind of tactile feedback.



Tapwave includes their own MP3 player in ROM, as well as an image viewer called Pictures. Both are hardwired to landscape, like the application launcher, so if you want to run portrait mode you’d better count on finding replacements for these two as well. Other than that, they’re not bad, particularly the music app, which can be controlled from within almost any other application by way of a small pop-up button in the command bar.

The review unit that Tapwave sent us also carried a number of the available games for the unit. This isn’t a game review, but given the gaming orientation of the Zodiac, I might as well at least touch upon some of the more noteworthy titles.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4: Enh. I suppose this would be fun if you were in to this sort of thing, and it does show off the Z’s video capabilities to good effect. Still, not my kind of game.

Duke Nukem Mobile: I had high hopes for this one. I confess that the original Duke Nukem 3D was the only 3D shooter I ever really got into, and it still earns a place in my nostalgia list. Boy was this a let down. As it turns out, DNM is really a marginal shooter game with a thin veneer of Duke Nukem insprired art slapped on for brand recognition. The gameplay is tepid at best, and no strategy need apply. Even worse, it’s ridiculously short. For your normal purchase price of $30, you might get one minute of game time per dollar.

Warfare, Incorporated: I’ve been meaning to check this game out for some time, but I just never seemed to get around to it. Very nice, though. It brings back memories of the original Command & Conquer, which is no small praise.



The Gameboyesque focus of the Zodiac is a dead albatross around the Z’s neck, and the lack of actual games is a wild ferret in its pants. With the business and prosumer markets, the Zodiac’s challange is not to show that its capable of gaming, but rather that it is capable of more than gaming. They don’t see a handheld computer with gaming capabilities–they see a handheld gaming machine. You can’t sell it to them if they see it as a Gameboy. You can’t sell it to the youth market if it’s priced at $300-400. And, without a worthwhile number and class of games, there’s no way it will attract the hardcore gamer set. What’s that leave? Unfortunately, only a niche of those who find the Zodiac’s eclectic mix appealing, or who can look past the design to the specs. Not many.

To be a capable gaming machine, the design doesn’t have to be completely oriented around gaming to the point of exclusion. Just make it usable, give it the horsepower, and it will be fine. Build it, and they will come. Just dispense with the flashing neon signs. It’s unfortunate, since many of the Zodiac’s core specs are actually pretty good. Dual slots, 128 MB RAM, Bluetooth, and a 320 x 480 screen make for serious power, but some design choices also make for serious headaches.



  • Dual expansion
  • Excellent sound
  • Good battery life


  • Questionable design
  • Touchy analog controller
  • Portrait mode requires additional software

Bottom Line:

Great core specs, marginal design, poor implementation.

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