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11/22/2004
04:09 PM
Fredric Paul
Fredric Paul
Commentary
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The Quest For The Perfect Device

The Nokia N-Gage and Tapwave Zodiac have their merits, but the quest for the perfect all-in-one personal mobile device continues.

I've been on a quest. . .a digital quest for complete mobile-electronic perfection. I know I'll never find it, but I'm counting on the search to be ennobling and educational.

I seek not the Holy Grail, but something much more prosaic yet equally elusive. Like a lot of other searchers, I'm looking for that one perfect personal-mobile device that does everything. You see, I always need my cell phone, so I carry it with me wherever I go. But that means I often leave my PDA behind, or at least in my backpack. My digital camera and MP3 player? They spend most of the time in my desk drawer.

The holidays are supposed to be a time for fun and celebration, so I want my perfect all-in-one unit to do more than make calls, track appointments, and all that business stuff. I want it to play games, too.

No Lame Games
And not just the incredibly lame games that come with typical cell phones (even my 9-year-old son won't play the pathetic box-drop, Centipede, and "bowling" games on my cell phone). I want real games. Like Doom or FIFA Soccer. The kind of games someone might actually want to play.

All without sacrificing the business functions I need (or at least that I need to justify buying myself these cool toys in the first place).

Amazingly enough, I found not one, but two potential answers to my prayers. For the past couple months I've been playing around with a TapWave Zodiac 2 that stuffs a high-end PDA and a proprietary gaming environment in a curvy Palm-size package. Then, a couple weeks ago, I got hold of a Nokia N-Gage QD, which melds a cell phone with its own gaming system in a device only a little larger than a typical cell phone.

A Constellation Of Capabilities
I liked the TapWave Zodiac 2 the moment I saw it. It's a top-notch Palm OS PDA, and a powerful gaming deck with a big, bright touch screen (3.8-inches, 480 x 320 resolution, 65,000 colors), and good gaming controls (even a pressure-sensitive joystick and vibration feedback). It also offers built-in MP3 playback, video playback, image viewing, word processing, and other functions, along with a couple of cool games: StuntCar Extreme and Acid Solitaire.

Powered by a 200-MHz Motorola i.MX1 ARM 9 processor and an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics accelerator (with 8Mb dedicated SDRAM) for fast action games, the 6.3-ounce Zodiac finds room for stereo speakers, 128Mb of RAM, and a pair of SD card slots for additional memory, programs, and games. Gaming performance is excellent. (It even sports Bluetooth for multiplayer gaming, though I was unable to test that function.)

At $399, it's pricey for a PDA, and the special versions of popular games like Doom II, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, and Duke Nukem Mobile cost almost $30 each. That's why I loaded mine up with a bunch of free and low-priced games developed for the Palm OS.

I've also used the Zodiac to scan my schedule on business trips to CMP headquarters, blast tunes while biking in the Sierras, show pictures to proud grandparents, and play games while waiting for the bus.

Though well designed and well executed, the only thing wrong with the Zodiac is that it doesn't really get me any closer to completing my quest. You see, about the only function the darn thing doesn't have is a phone. So for all those times when I can carry only one device, that device usually isn't the Zodiac.

It's OK, We're N-Gaged!
PDA's are being overtaken by smartphones, which is why I was so excited to try Nokia's N-Gage QD. Cheaper and more portable than the Zodiac, the N-Gage marries a GSM smartphone with a game deck. This device I do carry with me all the time.

Unfortunately, the QD's phone functions leave a lot to be desired. Even though QD is smaller and more phone-centric than the original N-Gage, it's still difficult to use. Scrambling to find the teensy-weensy button you press to answer an incoming call, for example, has already led to many a missed connection. In general, you have to press too many buttons to perform too many standard phone functions. After relying on it for a week or two, I'm starting to long for my boring old Nokia cell phone.

At the same time, squeezing a game deck into a 5-ounce cell phone form factor engenders some compromises. The QD sports a 2.1-inch, 176 x 208-resolution, 4096-color screen that's fabulous for a phone, but scrawny for a game machine. And the same controls that make for a confusing phone seem a bit inadequate for serious gaming--although the game pad is useful for both phone and gaming functions. Plus, with just 3.4 Mb of memory, you need to insert a game card to play anything. Want to play more than one game? You'll have to carry extra cards, which is an annoyance.

Still, playing FIFA Soccer 2005 or shoot-'em-ups like Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Jungle Storm on the QD blows standard smartphone games out of the water. And the N-Gage Arena service promises to make good use of both cell phone and Bluetooth for multiplayer gaming, though I wasn't able to test it.

I was also excited about using the Symbian OS-powered N-Gage QD to hold my PDA data, but I ran into a hitch. The QD doesn't come with a cable to synch with your PC, relying instead on its Bluetooth connection. Well, none of my four computers happen to support Bluetooth, so that solution was a non-starter for me--and no doubt for many other users. The QD also claims full e-mail support (IMAP4, POP3, SMTP, MIME2), but I didn't test that either. (Hey, let me find a viable all-in-one device before I worry about e-mail and Web browsing.)

Still, if you're looking for an entertaining cell phone, the N-Gage could be an easy choice. That's because rebates currently bring the $199 cost--half the price of a Zodiac 2--to essentially zero if you sign up for a qualifying cellular-service plan.

The Quest Continues
Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed playing with both of these gadgets, which have been conversation starters for any interested technophiles I meet. The Zodiac is better in every way than my current PDA, and the N-Gage is certainly more fun than my plain-Jane cell phone, even if it's frustrating to use in some ways. Plus, you'll never have to lend it to your friends: one look at its tangled interface and they hand it back mumbling, "Uh, maybe I better find a pay phone, man."

So my quest continues. The Zodiac still requires me to carry a cell phone, so it doesn't even really address the issue. And the N-Gage's connectivity and phone frustrations keep me from fully embracing it as an all-in-one solution. And serious mobile gamers would never accept either in place of the pure game-playing oomph, industrial-design elegance, and huge game library offered by my son's $80 Nintendo GameBoy Advance SP.

I've still got hope, though. About a year ago I reviewed PalmOne's Treo 600. While expensive, its combination of first-rate phone functionality and decent PDA performance--along with the ability to play Palm OS games on its bright color screen--still make it my top choice for all-in-fun mobile device. I'm planning on reviewing the new Treo 650 as soon as I can get my hands on one. Stay tuned.

Fredric Paul is editor-in-chief of TechWeb.

TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, Mitch Wagner, and Cora Nucci. We hope you like it, and even if you don't we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it.

Check out The TechWeb Spin Archive.

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