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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – The Gizmondo

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No, it's not a review of the website Gizmodo, and it's not a typo. This is a review of the Gizmondo, the bonkers handheld from Tiger Telematics in March 2005.

The electronics design was done by Plextek Limited and the industrial design by Rick Dickinson, but that is not the name most commonly heard in conjunction with the Gizmondo, that dubious honour would go to Stefan Eriksson, but more on him later.

The Gizmondo handheld console had a similar form factor to the Gameboy Advance with a colour screen, dpad and 2 shoulder buttons but the Gizmondo had 4 action buttons, and it also had a row of 5 media buttons along the top edge. Looking at the Technica l specs, the Gizmondo has:
• 2.8 inch TFT screen of 320 x 240 pixels
• A Samsung ARM9 processor running at 400 MHz
• nVidia GeForce 3D Graphics accelerator supporting 65,536 colors
• 128MB RAM
• 64 MB ROM
• Bluetooth, WAP, GPRS and GSM tri-band
• SMS and MMS
• GPS
• Built-in speaker, Stereo headphones port
• Polyphonic ringtones
• SD slot
• Mini USB
• Camera
• Windows CE .NET
• Windows Media Player 9 for MPEG 4 video and MP3, WAV and MIDI
• 8way D-pad, 4 action buttons and 2 shoulder triggers

So what exactly is it then? Well, it is essentially a gaming system but it has lots of other abilities on top of that. It’s a music player, a video player, a GPS device, a camera and a communication device all rolled into one, which is not necessarily a good thing and is very often a bad thing.

While not a fully-fledged phone you could use the built in camera to take pictures and then send them as MMS picture messages much like you would do on a phone, and you could also obviously send normal SMS text messages.

The Gizmondo launched in the UK in March 2005 priced at £229 and in the US in October 2005 at $400, that was if you could find them as only the official website and a handful of retailers ever stocked them, but there was a way to buy the item more cheaply if you had them enabled with something called “Smart Adds". The Smart Adds system was intended as a way for consumers to subsidize part of the cost of the unit, so that a Smart Adds enabled Gizmondo would cost less because it would display adverts on the screen at random intervals whenever the user entered the Home screen.

These adverts would be downloaded through the GPRS data connection and could even be targeted at users based on any data they may input into the device. That sounds like a real nightmare scenario to me but users were assured that a maximum of 3 adverts would be shown per day. and some of them would include special offers such as vouchers or barcodes, and some would even use the GPS system to direct users to the nearest store carrying the advertised product. Is that Big Brother enough for you?

Anyway, luckily for some the Smart Adds service was never activated, so anyone who bought a reduced price Gizmondo never actually received any adverts.

In total it sold less than 25,000 units and this could be partly due to the fact that just before the US launch, Tiger Telematics announced plans to release a widescreen version which would also add Wi-Fi and TV-out support, so anybody about to buy a Gizmondo held back and waited for this alleged widescreen version instead.

The system launched with a line-up of fourteen titles, including a port of EA's FIFA Football 2005 and SSX 3, and SCi's Richard Burns Rally, and there were up to thirty other games in development but they were all cancelled when Tiger Telematics were declared bankrupt in February 2006. Obviously the product was discontinued, but then in 2008 the founder and CEO, Carl Freer, announced that he had reached an agreement with the liquidators, and he made plans to re-launch the console as Gizmondo 2.

The original planned launch for Gizmondo 2 was May 2008 but that got pushed back to November, probably delayed because it was a new company that was behind the launch, Media Power, which was headed by Carl Freer and a Swedish partner Mikael Ljungman. By December there was still no Gizmondo 2 and they made an announcement that the console had gone through a complete redesign and would now be a smart phone running either Windows CE or Google Android.

Following that announcement there has been nothing new and there is unlikely ever to be anything new.
Around that time, it came to light that one of the Gizmondo Executives, Stefan Eriksson, had been involved in organised crime, and the co-founder Mikael Ljungman was arrested and accused of serious fraud. It turns out that Eriksson was guilty of crimes in connection with the Mafia in the Swedish town of Uppsala and other members of the board decided to resign over similar connections.

Using a debt collecting company as a front for his operations Eriksson would collect debts using threats and violence. Both he and another future Executive of Gizmondo, Peter Ulf, were found guilty of fraud and counterfeiting and he was sentenced to ten years though he only served half of it. Court documents show that Eriksson and a partner broke into a man's apartment, smashed it up and assaulted the home owner, with Eriksson first holding a knife to his throat then putting a gun inside his mouth while threatening to cut off his fingers. Understandably there were not many witnesses willing to testify and the chief witness later survived two bomb attacks.

Another big resignation to result from all this attention was that of Tiger Telematics cofounder and chairman Carl Freer. He co-owned the third-party developer Northern Lights Software Limited with Stefan Eriksson.
Northern Lights was paid over $3.5 million to develop two games called Chicane and Colors, but the two games were actually being developed in-house by Gizmondo Europe. Freer paid back the money to the company pending an investigation but that wasn’t the only shady deal done between the various companies involved in the Gizmondo.

Both Eriksson and Freer resigned to pursue other opportunities, but both managed to hold on to their stock in the company. As one review puts it;
“Only eight of the fourteen planned games were ever released because the Gizmondo was never about launching a viable gaming machine; rather it was a front for company president Stefan Eriksson to sucker (ahem, bully) investors for money, throw a year long party, spend exorbitant amounts of cash, and bifurcate Ferrari Enzos in southern California before getting arrested for Swedish mob ties then going bankrupt a year later.”

So, Eriksson was indeed a colourful character, born December 14, 1961, he was essentially just a Swedish criminal from Uppsala who is more famous for wrecking a Ferrari Enzo than he is for developing a handheld console, or even, perhaps more to his disappointment, than he was for his Mafia ties.
He was known by the Swedish police as Tjock-Steffe ("Fat Steve") or as The Banker by the local mob. He started with thefts and progressed to cocaine and arms related crimes, serving prison time for both at various times.

Known as a playboy, he often showed off a 1,200 horsepower offshore race boat, and liked to be seen behind the wheel of his Mercedes with the license plate reading "GEO" which in Swedish is pronounced similar to the Cuban slang for cocaine, a word used by Al Pacino in the 1983 movie Scarface.
Trying to live up to the lifestyle of a playboy, Eriksson tried to promote the Gizmondo by entering the 24 hour Le Mans race in a Gizmondo-sponsored Ferrari 360 Modena GTC in 2005, but he was forced to retire with mechanical troubles. He had arrived at the circuit in a grey Ferrari Enzo, and that wasn’t his only time behind the wheel of one. On February 21st, 2006, Eriksson lost control of an Enzo while driving at high speed and intoxicated along the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

The car went over an embankment outside Malibu and hit a pole at about 162 miles per hour with a force hard enough to split the car in half.
Eriksson claimed that in fact he had been the passenger and not the driver. He said that the driver was a man he only knew as “Dietrich.” The other man found at the scene, a friend of Eriksson’s called Karney, claimed to be the driver of a McLaren that was racing the Ferrari. Neither the mysterious “Dietrich” or the McLaren were ever found, and the police concluded that Eriksson was the driver and Karney the passenger, and that neither "Dietrich" or the McLaren existed. Also, Eriksson had a cut lip and blood was found on the driver’s airbag.

Investigators also confirmed the existence of a videotape of the accident shot from inside the Enzo that showed the speedometer reading 199 mph just before the crash.

The whole episode reads like a disaster movie because at the crash scene Eriksson identified himself with a business card that claimed he was a deputy police commissioner with the San Gabriel Valley Transit Authority. The man who the business card belonged to was later arrested for perjury in connection with the case.

Also at the scene Karney had borrowed a phone in the car of a passerby and at the same time had concealed a magazine for a Glock pistol in the car.

The next month Nicole Persson, Eriksson's fiancee, was pulled over while driving a 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren because a Police Officer had found the car's European license plate suspicious. It was discovered that Persson did not have a valid driver's license and the car was found to be unregistered and illegally exported from Britain, along with the crashed Enzo, another black Enzo, and two other Mercedes-Benz cars. All five cars were valued at $10.8 million, had been leased in Britain but the leases had not been paid. Worse still, after the Mercedes had been exported it was reported stolen in Britain and the insurance company had paid out.

In April 2006 Police raided Eriksson's Bel-Air home and as he was preparing to leave the US Eriksson was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement, grand theft auto, drunken driving, cocaine possession and weapons charges. Facing fourteen years in prison he entered a plea bargain to get it reduced to three years with deportation to follow.

Not faring too much better his former partner in crime, quite literally, Carl Freer was arrested on suspicion of impersonating a police officer, perjury, and other charges after his home and yacht were searched revealing twelve rifles and four handguns.

Eriksson was released in January 2008 and deported to Sweden where he is being held on suspicion of extortion and aggravated assault. So, in all probability, we’re not all that likely to see an updated version of the Gizmondo. I think the people behind it probably have more pressing matters on their hands.

I was offered one a while ago that had one or two issues that are common to them, mainly sticky buttons either on the shoulder buttons or the action buttons but I really wish I’d picked one up earlier because a UK chain sold off all of their inventory last year at a reduced price. They’re quite a novelty item and I wanted to try out the GPS functions as much as the games but eventually I did find one on eBay that came with the Navigator software, a car charger and a cradle for mounting the device in the car. While I waited for it to be delivered I picked up a couple of the games as well, TrailBlazer and Toy Golf.

The list of released games is short:
• Classic Compendium
• Classic Compendium 2
• Fathammer Classics Pack
• FIFA Soccer 2005
• Gizmondo Motocross 2005
• Hockey Rage 2005
• Interstellar Flames 2
• Pocket Pingpong 2005
• Point of Destruction
• Richard Burns Rally
• SSX 3
• Sticky Balls
• Toy Golf
• Trailblazer
and of course there is the satellite navigation pack as well which I tried out. I found it to range from completely useless to quite useful and all points in between. Sometimes I would be driveing along a road, and the map would have me positioned about 20 yards to the left or the right of the road rather than on it, and would constantly tell me to turn left or right when I actually just needed to continue straight on along the loang and straight road I was using.

I thought initially it might be related to the number of satellites that the device had picked up, but it doesn’t seem to be. I think it’s just not that great a GPS device, so it’s probably just as well because one of the games in development for it when it died wasColors which was intended to be the first game ever to use GPS to track a user's real world movements in real time. Other games such as Motocross 2005, Hockey Rage 2005, and Sticky Balls had bluetooth multiplayer functionality in them which I haven’t been able to try thus far.

What I have tried so far is the media playback capabilities with both video and audio. I watched an episode of the X Files on it which was OK but did lose a little in very ark scenes, but was acceptable for occasional use. For audio, the quality of the playback was reasonable through the single mono speaker, but once you put on a pair of stereo headphones, the device seems to take on a new personality.I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the best handheld gaming experiences I’ve ever had is to play the game Trailblazer on the Gizmondo while wearing stereo headphones.

The sound quality is amazing, the soundtrack is amazing, the fast paced nature of the game is amazing and everything comes together to create a hectic and almost mesmerizing experience. I’ve never taken drugs but I imagine it would feel somewhat like playing Trailblazer on the Gizmondo through headphones.

So, should you buy one if you see one available? Well, I personally would say that it is worth owning for Trailblazer alone, but throw in some of the other excellent games like Toy Golf and it becomes even more so. If you’re interested in hacking it (which is very easy) so it can be used as an emulation device, it becomes even more useful, but it is not without its problems. Some of the emulators I tried weren’t great, and sometimes when you exit them it will crash which is annoying, so it is no replacement for a GP2X or a hacked PSP, but as a bit of a novelty that will become increasingly rare and sought after it would be worth you buying if you get the chance.

Just bear in mind that it’s a bit of a novelty rather than a credible alternative to the more mainstream consoles and in 2007 it actually won Gamepro’s category for the Top Ten Worst Handhelds.

I suppose that’s what you get when you have a device that’s made by people who aren’t interested in the gamers themselves.

Well not unless they owed them money anyway.

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