Tapwave Zodiac

by PocketGoddess on November 20, 2003

Part of my newfound devotion has a lot to do with the Zodiac’s impressive list of features:

  • 32MB (Zodiac 1) or 128MB (Zodiac 2) of RAM
  • Gorgeous 3.8 inch high res 320×480 screen, with full landscape and portrait support
  • dual SD expansion slots, once of which supports the SD/IO standard
  • analog controller, two shoulder buttons, and stereo speakers for an amazing game performance
  • Bluetooth wireless for mulitplayer gaming, connecting to Bluetooth phones, etc.

    That’s just for starters, of course. And since I’m not a technical kind of gal, this review focuses more on daily use and how I feel about the device more than all of the tiny details. It’s comprehensive and should give you a very good idea about why I like the device and about whether or not it might fit your needs, but I won’t be discussing the battery voltage! There are just a couple of pictures here, for more shots that include what you get in the box (flip cover, USB sync cable, power adapter) as well as comparisons with some other Palm OS devices in my collection, click here for the teaser article I wrote last week when my Zodiac first arrived.
     

    As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been using the Kyocera 7135 as my main handheld device or “daily driver” since February. My “Kyo” as I call it has performed very well, and I’ve found the experience of having a combined phone/Palm OS handheld device to be quite liberating. But when I went to the Tapwave company launch party in May and saw a prototype of the Zodiac, I simply knew that I had to have one, and as soon as possible. I only got a brief glimpse, but the capabilities of the device were simply outstanding and the design was just beautiful. I waited anxiously for months until the day finally came to place my preorder, and then waited anxiously for six more weeks for my order to be fulfilled. I chose the Zodiac 2, the 128MB model, because I’m a firm believer in the “more is more” principle when it comes to technology. I’m not rich by any means, but handhelds are my only “vice” so I thought that an extra $100 for four times the internal memory was definitely worth it. The fact that the Zodiac 2 is a much cooler-looking very dark grey than the Zodiac 1 was also nice, but not as important. Palm OS programs are relatively small, and both models feature dual SD slots, but I like having the best so the Zodiac 2 was a natural choice.

    When I finally got my Z2 (as I’ll refer to it in this article, though I also sometimes think of it as my “precious”) it was very hard to wait for that initial charge. I used the time to backup ALL of my handheld data by burning it onto a CD, as you can never be too careful, and then uninstalled the Palm Desktop and installed the Tapwave version of the Palm Desktop. The Tapwave version features a high scores conduit, as well as conduits and a spot in the desktop for photos and music. Other than that it’s a pretty standard version of the Palm Desktop, though ever since installing it I’ve been having some problems with other applications. Every time I sync my firewall program crashed, though now that I’ve switched to ZoneAlarm that problem seems to have gone away. I can’t get Pocket TV Browser to work either, which is a much bigger problem for me. I’ve heard some reports that other Internet-enabled applications such as Avantgo that need to run during HotSync are also having some issues, though I haven’t tested that personally. It’s a small price to pay though, for such an incredible device.

    The Tapwave Zodiac has pretty much everything that I could possibly want in a Palm OS handheld, except for integrated wireless phone capabilities. Every Zodiac comes with the basic PIM applications such as Datebook, Address, To Do, and Memo, as well as powerOne Graph (calculator), an integrated music application for playing MP3s, a Photos application, Kinoma for video content, and Palm Reader for ebooks. It also comes bundled with Acid Solitaire and Stuntcar Extreme, two games that have been optimized for the Tapwave Zodiac with beautiful graphics, great sound, and analog joystick support. There’s also a web browser and some other trial software on the software CD that comes in the box. So right away, the Zodiac includes everything you need to get organized and stay entertained on the go. The PIM apps and Palm Reader feature full screen support in both portrait and landscape modes and work very well. The Music application plays MP3s and the sound quality is just amazing. It doesn’t support background play at the moment, but there are other Palm os music players that do. The Photos application is very easy to use, especially since all you have to do is select “Add Photo” on the desktop and everything else is taken care of automatically, including resizing and optimization for handheld viewing. You can even choose to put the photos in RAM or on one of your memory expansion cards. On the handheld thumbnail viewing is supported, as well as slideshows. One truly nifty feature is the ability to use any of your photos as a “skin” or background for the built-in launcher application. Nothing complicated here, just go to the Launcher, choose Preferences from the Options menu, and choose which picture you want to use. Just don’t pick one with a white background, since there’s no way to change the background text color, and apps are listed in white text.
     

    The launcher deserves a larger mention here as well. It includes color theme support, but what I really like is how well designed and just plain cool it is. The Tapwave Launcher is built on a hub and spoke system. When you first get your device you’ll notice categories like Organizer, My Stuff, and Media in different spots around the hub. Press the analog joystick toward one of those options, and you’ll be inside that folder. Media contains the Kinoma Player, Music, and Photos applications, while Organizer includes Datebook, Address, etc. On the right hand side in each window you’ll see a list of ALL of the applications in that category, and you can drag and drop them to one of the eight spots on the wheel. once you do so, another single press of the joystick will launch that application. That gives you access to up to 64 applications with two very quick and simple movements. It’s elegant and delightful to use, at least for me. Some people positively hate the new launcher, but at least it can be replaced by a third part application like ZLauncher if you just can’t stand it. The status bar is also a very nice touch, and is similar to the one you might see on the Palm Tungsten 3. It includes a Home key to get back to the launcher quickly, as well as a menu button, a Find button, and then the Power Controls. The icon looks like a speaker, and it allows you to control the volume of the device, mute it quickly, and change the brightness and contrast of the display. The display is perfectly brilliant, by the way, the best I’ve ever seen on a handheld device. Paper white background makes reading great!

    As far as the PIM applications are concerned, they’re basically the same applications that you’ll find on any Palm OS device, with a few tweaks. There’s a little more color in the datebook, with colored note, alarm, and recurring event icons, which is a nice touch. The really nice thing is the fact that they’ve been enhanced for fullscreen viewing in both portrait and landscape modes. In order to switch, just tap on the icon in the status bar and it works. The same is true of every application on the Zodiac, whether they’ve been enhanced for the Zodiac or not. That’s great news, since it means that pretty much any application you could want to use on the Zodiac will work just fine– what will take time is support for the collapsible Graffiti area, though again you may not have long to wait. The good folk over at Tapwave seem to have followed all of the PalmSource standard APIs for the screen, which means that if an application already works in full screen mode or has been enhanced to work with the Palm Tungsten 3, it will probably work just great on the Zodiac. Shadow, one of my all time favorite must-have applications (since it completely runs my life) works almost perfectly. There are a few graphical glitches, such as when the Graffiti area pops up to add an item or edit text, since it cuts off part of the screen and covers up your information. Finish editing though, and the Graffiti area goes away and everything is back to full screen perfection without a hitch.

    Another nice touch is the extra “function” button between the analog joystick and the Home button. It acts as a surrogate hard button, so that you can press it repeatedly to scroll through categories in the Address and To Do applications. It works surprisingly well, though sometimes I completely forget to use it and find myself reaching for a stylus. About the only frustration I have at this point (aside from the oddities I mentioned above with the desktop software) relates to scrolling. There are no dedicated scrolling buttons on the Tapwave Zodiac, and that can mean some difficulty scrolling in various programs without having to use the stylus. I’ve found that there’s really no rhyme or reason to what works in the various applications, so the best thing right now is just trial and error. Some applications work just fine pushing up and down on the analog joystick, and some allow you to use the four buttons on the right hand side of the device. Other applications just don’t work at all, and you have to use the scroll bar. I think this is just a matter of time though, as Palm Reader shows what can be done with just a little ingenuity– you can page down in an ebook just by pressing the right shoulder button. I hope that as more and more applications are enhanced for the Zodiac, or as new enhancements come out for the Zodiac ROM that this problem will be addressed. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, just an annoyance.

    One of the best ways to deal with annoyances is to blow off a little steam, and the Zodiac certainly can handle that. This device is after all aimed squarely at the “older” gamer– the sgment of the market that’s too grown up for a Nintendo Game Boy, but still wants a portable entertainment device. Since the Zodiac can play music, movies, and games, it has everything covered–and then some. Stuntcar Extreme is a great racing game, with a fun trick/jump system thrown in. The graphics are certainly better than anything I’ve ever seen on a handheld device. The stereo sound effects and music are amazing coming through the speakers, and even better with headphones. But then the rumble effects start when you land a jump, and you realize that handheld gaming is never going to be the same. There aren’t too many Tapwave-enhanced games available right now, but the Zodiac will play almost all of the hundreds upon hundreds of Palm OS games that are already out there. And sure, the GBA is less expensive, but then you have to buy all those game cartridges and all you have is a gaming device. With the Zodiac you have a gaming device that plays MP3s and keeps you organized, and is expandable to boot. The two SD slots up top are perfect for memory cards, SD cameras, and any other peripherals built on the SD card format. Hopefully there will be drivers for the Sandisk Wifi expansion card soon.

    Of course one of the most important things is one of the hardest to describe: the overall experience. A lot of intangibles go into it of course, but so do some of the tangibles. The Zodiac looks and feels great in the hand. The stylus placement has been a cause of much discussion, but I’m not really bothered so much by it because I always use a full size replacement stylus. About my only use for the stock stylus is as a reset pin, since the tip does fit in the reset hole on the back of the Zodiac. It’s also a little heavier than some handhelds (since it has a metal body), and not so “pocketable” since it’s a bit longer too. But that huge high resolution screen is certainly worth it. I find myself sticking with landscape mode almost exclusively, though I’ve switched to portrait mode a few times to look at some of my longer Shadow lists. I’ve really been enjoing the “big picture” view that having a collapsible Graffiti area can provide–I’d forgotten just how much I missed that feature from my Sony CLIE NR70. It was a little painful at first to give up the integrated wireless of my Kyocera, but since I don’t travel very much I just couldn’t help but make the switch. If I can find a new Bluetooth phone to pair with my Zodiac, I won’t have given up anything at all.

    So if you’re thinking about getting a new handheld anytime soon, be sure to take a very close look at the Tapwave Zodiac. Don’t dismiss it as a simple gaming device, because it’s actually much more than that. It has a very impressive feature list that compares very favorably to the Palm Tungsten 3, and for the same list price the Zodiac provides twice the internal memory and two SD expansion slots. The 32MB Zodiac 1 is $299, and the 128MB Zodiac 2 is $399, and with a special holiday promotion going on right now, you can get a free case with purchase. If you want more information, or want to buy one, head on over to the Tapwave web site. They aren’t available in retail stores yet (the company hopes to have them at retail sometime next year) so the only place to get one is at the Tapwave online store.

    PocketGoddess Rating for Tapwave Zodiac: 5 out of 5

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