Originally created 12/15/03

Zodiac not quite a star in handheld market



RICHMOND, Va. -- Video gaming never looked so good on a handheld computer.

The Zodiac from Tapwave Inc. is a first: a portable digital assistant based on the Palm operating system that's built mainly for playing games.

With a sleek oval design, a snazzy gray-and-silver finish and a thumb joystick, the Zodiac makes Nintendo's Game Boy Advance look like a blocky, budget-level Toyota. Yet while its vivid, 16,000-color display is gorgeous, the Zodiac does have its shortcomings.

Tapwave got plenty right: the six-ounce Zodiac boasts a screen about 50 percent bigger than Palm's top models and on par with Sony's best multimedia handhelds.

Game Boy Advances have twice as many colors, but only a quarter of the screen resolution.

Nokia's new N-Gage, a combination cell phone/gaming device, places dead last here, with only about 4,000 colors, a screen resolution roughly equal to the Game Boy's and contact-lens sized games that are difficult to install.

With a built-in eight-megabyte graphics accelerator, the Zodiac has almost unheard-of muscle among handhelds. And it has stereo speakers and support for headphones and external speakers that enhance music- and video-playing.

The Zodiac offers more input options to game makers and players, with two shoulder buttons and a set of four-way buttons - in addition to the joystick and stylus.

A Zodiac with 32 megabytes of built-in storage costs $300. For $400 you get 128 megabytes. Other high-end handhelds can cost $600 or more. This one even vibrates, and its screen display rotates horizontally or vertically with the tap of a stylus.

But the Zodiac's beefy specs alone won't win it converts.

For one thing, the Game Boy Advance has an overwhelming edge with its titanic library of more than 550 game titles.

Both the Zodiac and N-Gage are scheduled to get less than 25 titles each so far, with the Zodiac getting a few top titles the N-Gage won't, including the role-player Neverwinter Nights and shoot-em-ups Doom II and Duke Nukem.

Also, the Zodiac can't do two things at once. For example, it can't play music while showing stored pictures. This is common in handhelds, but walking and chewing gum at the same time ought to be easy for a comprehensive new entertainment device like this.

Zodiacs also lack certain features increasingly common in high-end handhelds, such as voice recording and a thumb keyboard - or the ability to attach one. The software doesn't link with Microsoft Outlook's e-mail program as a standard feature.

The Zodiac also comes up a little short on multiplayer gaming, offering it only via a Bluetooth wireless connection, which has a range of just 30 feet.

Bluetooth-networked games tended to take at least a minute on average to start when I tested them with two Zodiacs. A few games didn't connect at all and others, including top offerings like Spy Hunter, were rather sluggish and difficult to control.

Tapwave aimed to beat Sony to the punch with the Zodiac. Sony's PlayStation Portable, promised for late 2004, is being touted as the "Walkman of the 21st Century."

Tapwave has partly succeeded. But Zodiacs are only evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I think I'll wait for Sony's attempt.