I want to be nice, no really, I do, and I want to like the Gizmondo, because it's brave for an independent company to try and launch a mobile games device at the same time as Nintendo and Sony are slugging it out over mobile market supremacy. I'll praise the design by Rick Dickinson, the man who brought us the Sinclair Spectrum, I'll rave about of the quality of ‘Flextronics' manufacturing and the carefully cratered GUI from the Swedish company ‘TAT' (The Astonishing Tribe) because all of that is true, the Gizmondo does look great. The body is something you intuitively want to pick up and play with, the combination of the black and the silver works and as for the graphics quality of the 320x240pixel, 65,000 colour screen, powered by a NVIDIA ‘GoForce 3D' 4500 graphics accelerator, well, those are great as well.
But the simple fact is that almost all other aspects of the device have something wrong with them. As a colleague rather rudely pointed out ‘It's like they thought of a name and made a product to fit” and in so many ways, it might be true. So what's wrong with it, well let me tell you!
The layout looks like a games paddle from the next generation of PS. There's a 4-way paddle on the left, 4 classically annotated buttons in a VERY PS2 configuration on the right, 2 larger function buttons on the top edge and 5 quick-keys above the screen. All of the games controls work fine in doing what they are meant, but not the 5 quick-keys. They're too small and stiff and there is simply not enough depression on them, you press and hold but you're never sure that the button has made contact properly. This especially serious considering that the penultimate button to the right is meant to be an ‘Emergency Alarm', activating a GPS tracking system alerting the devices location to up to 5 pre-set mobiles.
Besides being a games console, the big sells are that it plays music, movies, has a camera, Bluetooth, has SMS and MMS, enabled via GPRS and satellite tracking via GPS. The games, music and movies are all stored on SD cards that fit into a slot in the bottom of the device. There's SMS and MMS, all via a Vodafone pre-pay SIM card, located underneath the battery, but no phone. The reasoning behind this being that as Gizmondo is aimed at children, users who will be more into texting than calling, apparently. But since most children seem to have mobiles now anyway this would mean that you'll have one phone and one SMS device, so two numbers and two bills to pay. Cynics might also point out that how many children are going to shell out £230 on a games device that has 2 poorly known games at lunch.
On the topic of games, I played both ‘Fathammer' and ‘Trailblazer' and must admit that I enjoyed both titles. The games take a little time to load but one they are up and running they work well. Gizmondo are promising more games but without confirmed launch dates you are stuck with goodwill and just the above two to choose from.
What is interesting however, is the idea of the Gel-location based games, such as the forthcoming ‘Colours'. You interact and battle for gang supremacy with other Gizmondo owners who stray into your ‘turf', with the game-play monitored via GPS. Which will be ingenious, if the GPS can be made more reliable and you'll be in one place for more than five minutes.
The SMS and MMS text entry relies on a proprietary system called ‘EZ tap' and although quite easy to use, it does require some experimentation to figure how to make the cursor move from the selecting letters to moving around the message, to make correction or alter words. There also seems to be a lack to quick key to select the suggested words that appear at the footer of the screen as you are typing, which is annoying.
The GPRS function sadly does nothing more than allow you to browse and download tones, themes and wallpapers or access the GPS map service, presumable to prevent the user from downloading huge swathes of data and wasting all the pre-paid credit on the SIM card. Second generation devices are rumoured to offer full web browse access and may even include POP3 e-mail access.
The GPS tracking feature, when it works, offers a number of interesting features. You can register the device, via the Gizmondo website, so it can be tracked via satellite. The rationale being that little ‘Jonny' has the device in his pocket and so you know where little ‘Jonny' is. Since this isn't CIA-grade tracking, It seems though that little ‘Jonny' will require getting the Gizmondo out of his pocket and having it in clear line-of-sight of the sky for a good while to allow the GPS system to initiate and detect enough satellites to get a baring. As previously mentioned, there is an emergency button, which, when pressed, sends out an SMS's to 5 mobiles, alerting the recipients as to the Gizmondo's location, but again only if there is a signal. There is also a ‘Geofence', this being a self-created boundary around the device. This can either be set on the device or via the operator of the device's Guardian account, via the website. All these functions are fine in principle but rely on the device establishing contact with the above and beyond, which the Gizmondo seems to resist.
Amazingly, the service also relies on you to have some prepaid credit on your SIM-Card. Because there is no onboard memory all the maps are stored remotely and accessed via the GPRS. In fact it seems that 99% of all messaging and connectivity ceases to function once your credit runs out, thus making it a wholly unwise proposition as a device you are going to used to keep track of your children with. Gizmondo do point out that as the device runs low on credit the administrator of the Guardian account will get notified, apparently as you fall past the £5 mark. But since the device only comes with £1 of credit on it and if you enter into the automated SIM update scheme, you receive another £4 of free credit you are still below the warning level, so no message. So unless you top the card up with over a £5 of credit this vital function will never work and strangely the device never alerts itself to the dropping credits unless you check your SIM balance manually.
But the problems don't stop there. Battery life is appalling. We failed to get more than 24 hours out of the device. Of course, you can't charge the battery outside the device so you are hampered at your every turn. Naturally there are power saving methods, such as ‘stand-by', which interesting seem to always kick in just before you get a Geo-fix from the satellites.
Overall the Gizmondo is ‘work in progress’, and was pushed onto the high street before it was ready, which reminds us a little of Nokia’s N-Gage learning curve - and Gizmondo should have learned from Nokia’s mistakes for free. The body of the device looks good but nothing works properly besides the games, and even those were partly to blame for the device ‘crashing’ more a dozen times during the test. The software is buggy and recent excitements include a problem with the conversion of the clocks to BST, which took 14 days before a software upgrade could be offered to users. But all is not lost, the first version of any new system is filled with problems, you only have to look at the issues that dogged the PS2 and are dogging the PSP. Don’t write the Gizmondo off just yet, but give it six months to fix all its niggles, other wise you’ll buy something designed to be handled and played and end up dashing it against the wall in fury, as I nearly did! We just hope that coming into the market with a v1 product in the year of Sony and Nintendo getting a handheld fix to help with the next next-gen full consoles, won’t sink Gizmondo’s dream.