The device itself feels solid with a nice weight and metal case. It has a touch screen, an analogue control stick on the left, four buttons organized in a circle on the right, right and left shoulder buttons as well as power, home, and function buttons. The Zodiac feels good to play when it is working perfectly however the analogue has a tendency to slip out of true, at least on my unit. This does not happen often, maybe once every week or two and is simple to recalibrate, but is still a negative. Software is read off SD cards that are inserted in one of two slots on the top of the unit. All in all, the unit feels very nice and high quality. The screen does not get nearly as bright as the DS lite, iPhone, or PSP and at full brightness reduces the already poor battery life to approximately three hours.
The Tapwave Zodiac had a tiny library of officially licensed games, but it had a strong homebrew community that invested a lot of work bringing quality games to the system. Many of the games available were in the form of emulation. Homebrewers were able to bring NES, Genesis, arcade, and even barely functional PlayStation 1 games to the Zodiac. As far as official games went Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, Tony Hawk 4 and a couple racing games makes up the majority of official notable Tapwave games.
Tony Hawk 4 on the Zodiac is not a full blown version of the game but is very similar to Tony Hawk 4 on the GBA. The game uses a ¾ isometric view for the world but manages to capture the feel of the main fully 3D pre-Underground era of Tony Hawk skating games. There are some true 3D gaming experiences available on the Zodiac such as Doom II. Even though the Zodiac has an analogue control stick Doom is best played with a mouse and keyboard or Dual analogue sticks. Doom II has not aged well. The 2D sprite based enemies in a 3D world are quaint and the AI feels nonexistent to a gamer used to modern FPS console experiences. It seems developers did not quite know what to do with the device. The best official games on the system are the few casual games available such as Solitaire or the Fun Pak i.e. games that have a traditional mouse and keyboard or palm game design.
The strength of the system truly lies in its strong homebrew community which have brought many classic systems to the unit thru emulation. This could be a major draw however there are many better options for classic gaming enthusiasts that want to play classic games on the go. A great option for the classic gamer on the go is the GP2X which can be found at a lower price point then the Zodiac. The GP2X has better feeling controls and has a wider range of software with in general higher degrees of compatibility. Adventurous iPhone and PSP owners can jailbreak or install custom firmware in order to run unsupported homebrew. There are even special cards available for the DS that allow users to run downloaded software.
The other advantage of the system is that it is a fully functional PDA. Again this is overshadowed by newer systems such as the iPhone or the Blackberry which have similar core functionality as well as superior connectivity and media functionality. All in all the Tapwave Zodiac is, despite a rather critical review, a very cool system that unfortunately is currently overpriced, has little unique software, and has superior options available. The Zodiac is a curiosity that will be remembered by few but is a worthy platform for old school game enthusiasts and handheld game collectors.
Screen: 7/10 The screen is not quite as bright or crisp as the newest generation of handhelds however the 480x320 resolution still looks quite sharp.
Sound: 8/10 The machine is quite capable of MP3 quality sound. The system itself sounds a bit tiny with the internal speakers however the headphones sound great.
Controls: 7/10. Touch screen is responsive and buttons are springy. The only problem is that the analogue controller tends to slip out of true. This can be minor to quite annoying depending on how much it happens. In general it does not happen often and can be quickly addressed by recalibrating the control stick.
Availability: 5/10 It can be found online but one would be hard pressed to find one at a thrift or resale shop. You would be better off searching for another device that might be easier to find.
Price: 5/10 It is possible to find online for as low as $225.00 however the GP2X which is a similar and frankly superior gaming device can be found for $179.99. As a PDA it is a bit of a relic already, cell phones or PDA devices that offer a greater degree of connectivity are better choices.
Library: 8/10 Though the official library of games is quite modest, the homebrew community was quite active for the unit. It is capable of running NES, Genesis, and older systems’ games at full speed. SNES games run a bit slowly or at full speed with no sound. Newer systems’ games are generally impossible to run.
Overall: 7/10 This was an excellent choice at the time however it is too expensive and has too many flaws to justify the purchase of one unless you can find one under the $100 price point. The battery life is very short, the analogue controls sometimes slip out of true, and there are other systems that have similar libraries available.