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Gaming for the Road Warrior

by Drew Dunn

I suppose that if you're the well-equipped road warrior, you have everything that you need to communicate, navigate and recreate once you leave the comforting glow of your computer monitor.  That means that your trusty cell phone, PDA and portable gaming device are all rattling away on your belt as you clatter on down the sidewalk.

Now, I'm not a big computer gamer, but when I have to kill time, it's great to have some kind of portable device in hand to entertain myself.  Before the electronic age (as in the mid '90s), that portable device was usually a book.  Nowadays, it's still likely to be a book, but there are plenty of times when I'm also twitching my thumbs on a Gameboy Advance, too.  The only problem is that a 40-something guy with gray hair gets a lot of strange looks when he's nose to screen with what is obviously, well, a toy.

On the other hand, I like to think that I'm also pretty well equipped with a modern cell phone, to wit, a Nokia 3650, a model that sports a fairly large screen, the Symbian operating system and Java.  The obvious problem with it, however, is that it's just too darn small for both my eyes and my big thumbs.

But I do have a PDA.  It so happens that my PDA of choice is a Palm Tungsten T3.  But I have friends who use PDAs powered by Microsoft's Windows Mobile.  I chose the T3 simply because I've used PalmOS devices for a long time, so I'm used to the interface.

Now, one thing that I know the T3 can do is play games.  It's great at this because it has a very large (as PDAs go) screen - 320x480 pixels.  It also has a reasonably fast Intel XScale 400MHz processor and 64MB of RAM.  The T3 also accepts SD cards which it can access like memory.  It has Bluetooth and infrared connectivity.  And it has a tiny little speaker that sounds surprisingly good.

So I play my games on the Tungsten T3.  But how does Palm OS5 on a T3 fare against a comparable Windows-based PDA?  I turned to a few friends for help.

For what it's worth, the Windows Mobile 2003 users that I know all have Dell Axim X3i PDAs.  They are the corporate standard at their company.  It seems fortuitous, though, because the PDAs run on the same Intel XScale processor as the T3 and feature the same amount of memory.  According to Dell's web page, they also sell for about the same price, just south of $400.

Put an Axim and a T3 next to each other and you might think that they came from the same company.  I suppose that says something about the state of development of the physical interface design.  Both feature a five-way D-pad and four application buttons.  The T3 has an advantage in screen real estate over the Axim's 240x320 pixel display by virtue of its sliding lower section.

Now, since this isn't a review of these devices as PDAs, I'm not going to delve into their respective personal management abilities.  I didn't spend much time with the Axim as a PDA, so it wouldn't really be fair.  But one thing that I will point out is that the Axim has an interesting feature that the Tungsten does not - it has an extra 35MB called a "file store" that works pretty much like a memory card, giving the PDA a total of 99MB of user storage.  That's not too shabby!

In terms of connectivity, the Axim comes with WiFi instead of Bluetooth.  It seems to me that the Axim is targeted as an Internet-enabled PDA.  Although the T3 can be Internet-enabled via a Bluetooth connection to a GPRS (or similarly equipped) cell phone or a computer, the Axim definitely makes the job much easier.  And its web browser (Pocket Internet Explorer) pretty much supports anything that the desktop version of Internet Explorer supports.  That's a potential leg up in the gaming department.

The T3 supports Internet gaming with the Web Pro browser, and I was able to connect to a few Java-based games using my Nokia 3650 cell phone, but the GPRS lag and relatively slow speed of Bluetooth really didn't make for a tremendously fulfilling experience.

With that in mind, I turned to installed games.  My mind-numbing addiction of choice is Bejeweled.  The game is available for pretty much any platform you can find (it even runs on my cell phone!)  Play was virtually identical on each PDA.  The interface is via the stylus and touch sensitive screen.  The animations were equally snappy and the pace of play was indistinguishable between the devices.  But the T3 edged out the Axim in the sound department.  I'm really quite amazed at how good the extraordinarily small speaker sounds.  No, it's not your hi-fi, but it's no slouch, either.

But Bejeweled doesn't take advantage of the giant screen that the T3 offers.  On the other hand, PDAMill's Snails does.  Since this is another piece of mind candy that I can play for hours, I tried it on both the Axim and the T3.  The action game is very playable on both platforms, with smooth action, an intuitive interface and reasonably good sound.  But it really shines on the Palm because of the larger screen.

I ran through a few other games on each platform.  It didn't take too long to realize a couple of things.  First, there isn't a lot of crossover between the two platforms.  It appears that developers tend to target one platform or the other, then stick with it.  Second, performance was pretty much identical between the two.  The two games that were available on both platforms performed basically the same, with the exception of better speaker sound and the larger screen of the T3.  But if you use headphones, then the sound is a wash.

What's the conclusion?  If you've decided on one platform or the other for a reason other than games, then you've made the right decision.  If you can't choose between one platform or the other and you're a gamer, take a look at Handango and see if one platform or another offers the games that you're after.  And if you still can't make up your mind, then our recommendation is with one of the large-screen PalmOS devices.

We should also mention that there is another option that we were unable to review: the Tapwave Zodiac.  This is a high resolution Palm OS5 device that is designed with games in mind.  We're still working with Tapwave to obtain one for review.





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