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Under the Radar: Zeebo

Hardware

The following console’s degree of obscurity depends exclusively on your location on the planet. In markets such as Mexico and Brazil, it is simply one of the 7th Generation home console options. Gamers from the United States, however, have a better chance of getting a hold of a Playstation 4 prototype.

Part of the reason for the system’s limited market ties heavily with the manufacturer’s intentions in developing the system in the first place: Tectoy, a Brazilian firm founded back in 1987, boasts a long history of publishing and distributing Sega’s consoles and software to South American countries had come to the realization that a large segment of the market there simply couldn’t afford to lay out the exuberant costs of modern video game equipment coming out of Japan and the United States.

Their solution was to offer modern hardware at a much more affordable price point (in addition, many of the system’s retailers would allow buyers the option of making payments opposed to having to raise the funds up front). Rather than force gamers into purchasing costly software on DVD or cartridge medium for their new system, all of the console’s library would exist as downloadable content through a proprietary network.

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First announced in November 2008, and calling their new platform the Zeebo, Tectoy’s hardware would be the result of technical participation from 12-global companies. The primary gaming processor came in the form of Qualcomm’s BREW mobile gaming chipset, not unlike those used to turn cellular phones into mobile video game players. However, unlike the fairly limited specifications hampering most mobile phones, the Zeebo would boast an ARM11 central processor clocked at 528Mhz, 1 gigabyte of NAND flash storage, an ATI Imageon graphics card and support for both wireless and motion control. Additional perks included an SD Card input as well as USB 2.0 ports (the actual number of these connectivity options varied based on subsequent hardware releases/ updates).

While the concept of obtaining software via Internet downloads is hardly unique, as any XBox Live or Playstation Network member can attest- the Zeebo took a rather exclusive approach to this concept. Using an internal SIM card, the Zeebo hardware was essentially a wireless broadband 3G-networked device that was always connected without the burden of a customer subscription fee. What this means is that it not only enables users to retrieve games and patches by downloading but that it could also be used to connect to and enjoy broadband Internet without requiring the user to have an Internet Service Provider of their own.

As such, social networking, email, running educational applications, competing against other players over the net, and of course purchasing new games are all a possibility right from the comfort of the living room couch and without any subscription needed. Since the hardware offers USB 2.0 support, wired and wireless keyboards were compatible right out of the box (and Zeebo did offer a branded USB version of their own that often came bundled with the console).

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The controller, like everything else about the Zeebo hardware, actually underwent a couple of design variants to correspond to new hardware releases but maintained 7-button, dual analog and then finally wireless support.

Oddly enough, later versions of the hardware did not support standard AV output nor did it make use of HDMI capabilities but rather came equipped with the much rarer (at least here in the US anyway) component cable setup.

Perhaps most exciting of all is the fact that since the system made use of Qualcomm’s BREW application development environment, the console came ready-made with an instant base of top-tier developers already building games for cellular phones. Activision, Capcom, Digital Chocolate, EA Mobile, id Software, Namco Networks and THQ were all creating games for the Zeebo platform out of the gate. All told close to 50 titles have been released to date.

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Americans were hopeful when in March of 2010; Zeebo Inc. announced a partnership with wireless carrier AT&T for, as they put it, “a chance to explore opportunities in the US market in the future.” At present such opportunities have remained untapped.

Oddly, there is no longer any mention made on Zeebo Inc.’s official website of the console or, for that matter, video gaming in general save for a cryptic announcement on the homepage that Qualcomm Ventures backed Zeebo Inc. is currently working on a next generation Android-based platform for launch in 2012.

On May 31 2011 Zeebo announced on its blog the end of operations in Brazil as well as ceasing all activities in Mexico. All games, according to the announcements, would undergo a price reduction and that the Zeebonet 3G network would remain active until September 30.

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In the reasoning that good hardware never actually dies but rather simply gets cut off by its developers, there are confirmed groups working on a homebrew front end for the Zeebo hardware to expand the console’s capabilities and continue with limited software support.

In conclusion, the scarcity of the Zeebo game console is heavily dependent upon the region you call home. Developing nations for which the hardware was designed benefited from fairly brisk distribution of the system between 2009 & 2010. While plans to expand the user-base to countries like China and India for 2011 and beyond seem to have been axed (presumably due to the firm’s development and devotion to their forthcoming Android console), a few systems have leaked out of their target regions and found their way into the possession of collectors from around the globe.

As the console was technically “unlocked”, it typically required an area-specific mobile phone SIM card be installed even to access the operating system, embedded games or web surfing capabilities.

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It could be argued that the Zeebo actually made good on the potential promised by Infinium Labs with their ambitious Phantom game console proposal back in 2004 (which would prove to be little more than vaporware). The Phantom’s most novel feature was the fact that it would use no removable media whatsoever: instead, users would purchase and downloadgames for the system over the Internet. By the time the Zeebo came into existence, mobile Internet would have advanced to speeds where the concept could be realized without requiring a household to have a broadband ISP.

Sadly with Zeebo’s most recent announcement of shutting down the Zeebonet 3G network permanently, it appears as though the Zeebo console will take its place in the hallowed annals of videogame console history.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2011.

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