Zeemote – right now, the best Bluetooth game controller – on WinMo / iPhone soon?

At MWC, I’ve played quite a bit with the Zeemote controller; the controller that, currently, is probably the best external game controller solution for gamers on both Symbian S60 and the Blackberry. If we’re lucky, we’ll see Windows Mobile support later this year – and, most importantly, iPhone support when Apple, at last, opens up their Bluetooth API.

I’ve used the Bluetooth gaming and multimedia controller designed for Windows Mobile and Symbian S60 devices, the Chainpus (now out of business) BGP100 Bluetooth Game Pad so I had something to compare the Zeemote one to.

The Zeemote gaming controller, which is a brand new product (see for example this August 2008 report on its release) compared to the Chainpus BGP100, is a completely different animal. First, it’s a separate module and, as it doesn’t “enclose” the phone (PDA), you’ll hardly be able to control your handset as your PSP, Nintendo or any other handheld gaming console – unlike with the Chainpus. (Of course, one needs to add that you can’t put most Windows Mobile PDA’s or phones into the Chainpus controller in Landscape mode; this alone makes it impossible to use the controller to control these kinds of games.)

However, when the phone is connected to a TV set (assuming it does have a TV output – most Symbian N-series phones do), it becomes pretty nice to control your games with. Furthermore, if you don’t mind keeping your phone in one hand and the controller in another (unlike with “real” handheld gaming), you’ll pretty much like Zeemote.

Nevertheless, currently, it does have some disadvantages – at least for users without a Symbian / Blackberry / SE handset or planning to buy it right away unbundled (you’ll need to wait a bit in order to purchase it unbundled). Note that I don’t list its design as either an advantage or a disadvantage – if the phone is used as a gaming console connected to an external TV set, it is advantageous to have such a design; otherwise, it isn’t.

First, it’s Symbian S60 and BlackBerry only. It also works on S-E feature (non-Symbian) phones. This is definitely bad news for Windows Mobile and iPhone users. (More on this later.)

Second, it’s only sold bundled with phones and can’t be purchased separately. It’s currently available only in few countries (Sweden, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Mexico, Spain) and with few phone models (N79, N85, N95 and N95 8GB, N96, 5320). This means that if you’re living for example in the U.K., you won’t be able to purchase it – you’ll need to stick with the Chainpus controller. As Chainpus is out of business now, you’ll have a ard time finding it anew, though. As of now, not all of the listed models are offered in the listed countries. For example, the, in my opinion, best of the bunch, the N95 is only available with the controller in Germany.

However, they plan to introduce it as a separately purchasable item in Europe for quite a low price: 39.99 euros. The planned release date is Q2 of 2009.

Windows Mobile / iPhone plans

Fortunately, the Zeemote folks are pretty open to release drivers for other mobile platforms. They stated the Windows Mobile version will be released this year. The Windows Mobile version, like the Symbian one, will support everything, meaning native Windows Mobile games and apps too. Nevertheless, as the Windows Mobile gaming scene is pretty much dead now (there hasn’t been any really important game release for the platform for at least two or three months – see THIS if you don’t believe) and very few models supporting hardware TV output support, I can only hope the Zeemote folks will indeed try it very hard to come up with decent Windows Mobile support. iPhone support will come as soon as Apple opens up their API.

They also mentioned support for the BlackBerry. This, given that it’s very easy to port Java games on the Java-based BB platform, is pretty much self-evident. Nevertheless, the BB has never been a strong gaming platform, even when some titles (for example, Civilization IV) were released for the BB first and only later for other platforms (with Civ IV, Windows Mobile). In addition, not any of the BB models have TV out. Note that the built-in trackball in most BB models is pretty usable for gaming in titles where analogue controls are preferred (like the built-in wallbricker title) but severely fails with for example jump’n run / action ones. With these titles, an external gaming controller like the JS1 can become very useful.

And, of course, the iPhone, which is, currently, without doubt the best “serious” gaming platform with all the goodies: 3D hardware acceleration, HVGA (320*480) resolution (as opposed to QVGA, 240*320 – the resolution still only supported by most Nokia N-Gage games) and TV output by default (via a specific cable / cradle, though). (I use the term “serious” to refer to not just plain PSP’s. Of course, there are still much more excellent PSP games than for the iPhone, but, given that there is a constant flow of quality iPhone games, I think the difference will decrease in the future.) The biggest problem with the iPhone is, of course, the closed Bluetooth API, which, currently, makes it impossible to release anything for it. One can only hope the Bluetooth hack projects become successful if Apple goes on refusing to open the API.

For one of the demos, the Zeemote used a non-hardware accelerated Nokia S60 phone (the N85) with Asphalt Racing 3. Of course, it was really pixelizated (and still slow). I would definitely have gone for a 3D accelerated title like Global Race or the System Rush demo running on the (compatible and 3D hadware accelerated) N95 instead. Upon talking to their rep, they stated all kinds of games work with the controller – even the (unfortunately, very rare) 3D accelerated ones.

Currently, the Zeemote controller has an analogue stick. The zeemote folks stated they’d switch to a digital one sometime. Nevertheless, I couldn’t spot the traditional disadvantages of the analogue stick in Asphalt 3 and a top-down scrolling shooter, Space Impact. Probably there would have been a much bigger difference in for example jump’n run games where digital joysticks are a must. Other folks, however, enjoyed Sonic when played with the controller.

Unfortunately, according to them, they don’t really take advantage of the analogue stick either in applications like remote desktop controllers. (There, an analogue controller can make it much easier and faster to move the cursor around.) They stated this is because the (third-party) developers of these kinds of apps. Nevertheless, an analogue controller on touchscreen-less, pre-5th edition S60 models (or, for that matter, the touchscreen-less Windows Mobile Standard [MS Smartphone] devices like the HTC s7x0 models), this control schema would be just great and would greatly help for example remote terminal access, drawing/sketching programs or ones that heavily rely on cursor usage and where any analogue form of cursor moving would be highly advantageous, compared to the D-pad-based digital one. Think of, for example, the ScummVM emulator for the MS Smartphone platform: an analogue joystick would make it possible to speed up the cursor when it’s away from your target and slow it down when you’re nearing it. The same stands for “hacked” MS Smartphone programs (originally written for the touchscreen-enabled Pocket PC only) using an external cursor emulator app.

The lag, which can’t really be fought in Bluetooth, is pretty well controlled. There is some lag but it’s not really detrimental to gaming. They stated they’ve developed their own protocol over the Bluetooth link to make lag as small as possible.

Finally, they’ve made their module compatible with desktop Windows too. Unfortunately, this isn’t available to individual users, only corporate or bulk customers. Using such a controller can be advantageous for, for example, one-handed mouse emulation when keeping presentations.

Other, related articles

Hands On With Zeemote JS1 Bluetooth Controller
Pictures: Zeemote JS1 Controller (with video)
How the Zeemote JS1 turns your mobile into a mini-console (with video)
The Zeemote Solution?
Zeemote’s press release HERE or HERE; it links to some additional videos
Zeemote Exclusive: Standalone price and BlackBerry demo (note that this is in no way a pocketgamer.biz exclusive – the Zeemote folks did tell everyone at MWC, including me, the planned price and release date of the device. Also, anyone could play Asphalt3 there – I did too.)
Zeemote JS1 Mobile Joystick (Wired’s review; a bit outdate but still worth checking out)
Zeemote JS1 To Be Sold Individually, Finally
CES 2009: Zeemote for BlackBerry (with video)

MWC / ShowStoppers booth shots (click the images for larger versions):

UPDATE (later): PocketGamer frontpage
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