My Zodiac


I bought a Zodiac last week at Palm DevCon. I wasn't an attendee, so I had Ewan escort me up to the sad, empty room where a kindly Tapwave representative was essentially giving away the Zodiac 2 for $200, including a snap-on gaming handle, international adapter kit and four games (SpyHunter, TonyHawk and a couple other not-so-great games). Even though it was a Palm, I couldn't resist: I've been lusting after a Zodiac since I played with one at Mobile Monday last year.

And this was an especially good deal as the Zodiac 2 normally goes for $150 more than this without the extras, and is a pretty advanced gadget for it's age: 128MB of on-board storage, two SDIO slots, 200Mhz ARM 9 processor, integrated Bluetooth, vibration, stereo sound and a huge, bright 480x320 resolution screen with landscape resolution. Check out the stats: That's not a bad gadget for the money!

But wait, didn't I say Palm was doomed? Yeah, of course. And so is this device - Tapwave has already announced that they're going to an OEM model instead of competing in the gaming market as an independent distributor. With the launch of the PSP this isn't much of a surprise, anyone who wants an advanced portable gaming machine is going to go in that direction. And honestly there's good reason for it - the games on the Zodiac are pitiful. Comparing the two racing games I got to either Ridge Racer or Need for Speed for the PSP and you can see the difference easily - the graphics and gameplay on the PSP blow away the Zodiac. This makes sense, the PSP is a dedicated gaming machine, released years after the Zodiac and the UMD can hold tons more data than the SD cards that the Zod uses.

That said, I haven't been playing my PSP much since I bought it. The games I have just aren't super compelling to me. The graphics are great, but Sony isn't Nintendo so I'm still waiting for great games. Coded Arms will come out next month (an FPS) and I bet you that will be something I spend a while playing, but right now I've raced as much as I'm going to and played a bunch of soccer, so mostly the PSP sits in its case.

I have, however, been messing with my Zodiac daily since I bought it. Here's why: It's hackable. I felt this strongly when I bought it, though I really wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with it. Turns out you can do quite a bit - the Zod is a passable Internet Tablet, Movie Player and an Emulation Station as well.

First I got it set up as an Internet Tablet. Shortly after buying the Zodiac, Nokia made headlines with their Nokia 770 Linux device and I figured I'd try the same. So I loaded up the Mail and Web clients that come with the Zodiac (the Web app is on the CD, by the way, I bought some other crappy browser before I realized this) and I found a chat app as well. I sprung for a SDIO WiFi card from Palm at Fry's in a gadget-buying frenzy before I realized you can just as easily share out your Internet connection on your computer via Bluetooth and use it that way (it works great).

So as an Internet table, the Zodiac isn't the greatest. First, as I expected, using a Pen is a pain in the ass, especially for entering URLs or trying to chat. Secondly, though the Mail app is pretty good, the browsers I found were either under-powered (500 error, page too long?) or didn't play well with most sites. Bloglines Mobile works great (obviously) but everything else had problems. Nokia will have a much easier time with its device running Linux and real browsers from Mozilla or Opera. The other problem with the Zod as an Internet device - and this is a problem with Palm in general - is that there's no multi-tasking. Want to use Bluetooth while connected with WiFi? You have to drop one connection to use another. Want to run a browser while having a chat in the background? Background? What background? It's Palm OS, there is no background. Joy.

Regardless of the fact that the OS is underpowered (and thus are the apps that run on it) the device works okay to read the web while away from my PC (but within range of BT or my WiFi AP). This is a key feature missing from the PSP - look at all those people out there messing with Wipeout Pure's integrated browser just to get a bit of this functionality out of that closed system. Though it'll support it sooner or later, it's still a shame that right now you can't get any third party software to run on the PSP. It seriously limits that platform.

So next, as a video player, the Zodiac does a pretty good job. Mike bought a Zodiac as well (and also won a Treo 650!) and wrote about it on his mobile blog. From him I learned about this great media app for the Palm called TCPMP, which I grabbed. It's very nice as there's no conversions needed - it plays the original media files directly from your SD card. To test it out, I messed around with a bunch of software this weekend for converting video and ripped the first episode of 24 from DVD to play on my phone, Zod and PSP. They all look pretty good (though, honestly, the PSP looks the best).

Finally, the Zodiac's main functionality is as a game machine so it wasn't long before I went on a search for other games besides the really cruddy ones that came with the bundle. I mean, they are really bad - the best game was actually one that came on the Zodiac install CD called Stuntcar Extreme. The games on the SD cards generally sucked, even Tony Hawk. But fear not as there's a strong Zodiac community out there and before long I was messing around with ports of Doom, Quake and Hexen. Note I didn't actually say "playing" those games, as I couldn't get any of them working, but it's nice to know that they're out there.

What I did find was this INSANELY INCREDIBLE game emulator called Little John Z. It is easily the most incredible piece of software I've used in a long time. Not only does it have support for a bunch of different types of game system ROMs (NES, SNES, Gameboy, GameGear, etc.) but it's also just a really well done app. I had already gone out and found a bunch of GameBoy Color ROMs for my Series 60 phone probably a year ago (for use with the great Super GoBoy emulator from Wild Palm) so I loaded up the GBC ROMs onto the Zodiac and started playing. WOW! You won't believe how great it is!

First, LJZ is able to list all the ROMs right from the SD card, so you don't have to convert them into PDBs or anything. Then the app itself is clean and pleasant to use, the screen is formatted for the Zodiac so you're not limited to a small version of the UI that other Palm apps written for smaller screens give you. Then you're presented with the list of games - I've got several hundred, so it's an incredible sensation to see them all. Then, the emulator plays the games perfectly - both the sound and the presentation is amazing. Best of all, for Gameboy games, which have a much lower resolution than the Zodiac's huge screen, LJZ will double the resolution or more, but add anti-aliasing so you don't see the jaggies. All these GBC games never looked so good! But there's more, integrated into the shoulder buttons are Quick Save options, so that as you're playing games, you can save your state with a click of a button - die a horrible death and clicking the other shoulder button brings you right back to your last saved state. Awesome!

Best Emulator EVER.

So this past weekend I did something I've been wanting to do since, ohhh, probably 1987? I finished Super Mario Bros. Yes, it's something I've never been able to do until now. I got through most of the levels on my own, but around the middle of Level 6 (out of 8) I started dying *a lot* and made liberal use of the save state buttons to get me through the rest of the levels. Cool! So great. Yeah, it's cheating. But it was fun, so I don't care. I got to see all the levels finally! In a game I've played off and on for 20 years! Tell me that isn't awesome? And tell me it isn't sad that I couldn't do this on the PSP?

So what did I learn from my experience with the Zodiac?

First, Nokia may have a market for their Internet Tablet after all. Though I still think the pen interface is annoying, if I could get a decent browser to take with me out back to read my news in the sun (or honestly, in the john), that'd be very cool. And it needs to be multi-tasking so I could have mail and chat working as well which Linux is, so this works well.

Secondly, hackability is key. The best apps out there many times are the open source ones. Closing off a system really limits the ability of the community at large to take advantage of a platform. I don't use my PSP much because there isn't a browser or community. This makes me think that maybe the Gizmondo might have a chance as well, since it's based on Windows CE - if it lets you run arbitrary apps (like a game emulator) it might just be a hit after all. And this bodes well for Nokia's efforts as well.

Third, Palm OS *really, really* does suck. Going back to it after using 32 bit, multi-tasking Symbian OS on my smart phones is a huge step backwards. Someone should fire everyone at PalmSource and just let the guys from China MobileSoft run the show. I can't believe the Palm community has put up with this POS for so long.

Finally, I think Nintendo is going to have a HUGE hit on its hands with the Revolution's ability to download older system's games. It *is* about the gameplay for many people, and in my opinion Nintendo does it best. Being able to download and play all the games from Nintendo's catalog will be incredible. They'd rule the mobile world right now if they launched a Java emulator for their back catalog and started doing this for mobiles right now. The best game on my 6680 is the Gameboy ROM for Tetris DX - its just a killer app.

Wow, that was a long one. I'll try to add some useful links here later on in the comments as well.


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