by Dr. Axel Schumacher

Chess Programs for Pocket PC and Palm devices


Intro

When I started to write this review, I estimated that it will take me a few days to do so. How was I mistaken. I though, I could test the handful of programs quite easily, without knowing that over 60 chess programs for Pocket PC and Palm already exist. How much of you would have guessed that (especially only a minority shows up in reviews or in chess discussion fora)? The speed of development is currently huge and many new programs and even more chess engines are ported to Pocket PC and Palm. I was always eager to have a program such as Arena or Winboard on my PDA to play with different chess engines. However, this is not such a trivial task. Windows for Pocket PC and Palm OS are not fully compatible to other operating systems. For example, a chess engine can't easily run as .exe under an Pocket PC GUI. Usually it has rather to be incorporated as dll, so that it will be difficult to just import many of the hundreds of chess programs to these platforms.

I included all Pocket PC programs as well as all Palm programs I could find (I didn't rank chess programs that do not contain an chess playing engine, nor chess clocks or training software, although the new Pocket CT chess trainer from Convekta is excellent). It is a long discussion (mostly quite fanatic) what platform is better to use. (Of course, if you're resolutely anti-Microsoft (and many are), it's a no-brainer. Some people would die for Palm devices whereas others would only use Pocket PCs. In recent years I would have agreed that it probably doesn't matter much which platform to choose, however, in the past two years, the development for Pocket PC was simply much better compared to the Palms. You have a better compatibility with Desktop PCs, the graphics are much better, higher speed and more and more programs are coming out for Pocket PCs, which is already reflected in this review, where we have >37 programs for the Pocket PC, but only 21 programs for Palm devices (this was the other way around only 2 years ago). When you want to chose a device from scratch mainly for chess playing purposes, you may have to consider several points. Pocket PC's are multitasking (you can run several programs at once), whereas Palm devices are intended to run one program at a time (although Palm OS 5.0 introduced some multitasking ability). Palm devices are cheaper, but if you want also to play online, your way has to go over the Pocket PC platform. In the moment I would certainly buy a Pocket PC, no question about that. When you pick a PDA, you should also remember to choose a device with long battery hours, since chess programs are very demanding in power consumption.

Another interesting development came with the announcement of the first Palm emulator for Pocket PCs 'StyleTap'. That means that you can run most of the Palm chess programs also on your Pocket PCs. I tested the program since it's pre-release quite some time ago and found only 2 or 3 programs that were not really compatible. Of course, not all Palm functions are available with the emulator, for example the use of bluetooth. It's important to note that when dealing with any applications that have data files (e.g. PGN files), there's actually no way to transfer data off the device other than cutting and pasting via the clipboard, which you can do only a line or so at a time. StyleTap doesn't support HotSync or conduits and can't access your Pocket PC's network stacks, either, so Internet access through the emulator is out. This would probably be of interest only to those wanting to use Palm chess programs to connect to a chess server. StyleTap runs in two video modes: a full-screen mode that expands the Palm OS display to take over the width of your Pocket PC screen, and a reduced-size mode that opens up a Palm OS box of 160 by 160 pixels (on QVGA) or 320 by 320 pixels (on VGA) in the middle of your screen. This works out fine, since all Pocket PCs have screens greater than 160-by-160. Performance is noticeably faster in the reduced-size mode, which is good, because that mode looks better anyway; in the full-screen mode on a QVGA device, fonts look distorted and chess pieces are really not that pretty to look at.

But back to the programs. So, the first question most users ask: "Is there a best program?". Well, that is difficult to answer, since different persons have different demands on a software. Some people need a very sophisticated chess program that can do nearly everything, from board setup, book selection, variant analysis, test suites with a strong engine. Other don't have the time for this and need only a simple program that makes it possible to play a quick game when waiting for the bus. Then again, other people, may require nice graphics with all kinds of fancy add-ons etc... For all these players, a different program might be best. For that reason, I sorted the programs into different categories:
Pro: Programs, which are suitable for strong players who needs a strong opponent and who want to analyze games with it.
Fun: For not so serious games, which are mostly targeted at people that just want to enjoy playing without any competitiveness involved.
Casual: Programs, that are suitable for the beginner and average payers, which doesn't have the time to indulge too much into chess playing.
For each category and several subcategories I determined a winner depending on 100 ! different program attributes:

Clock display, Board design, Board design customization, Board size/adjustability, Piece design, Piece customization, Piece Animation, 3-D set, Layout customization, Menue/Layout, Hashing, Coach watching, Web support, Hint button, Select database, Select book, Book customization, Opening book style, Setup board, Save Game, PGN support, reads text in pgn/saved game, Annotation/Comment move, Game details, Search database, Search online database, Tablebase support, Connects to FICS/CB/ICC, Online Chess, Help file, Chess rules, Career mode/Tournament, Player statistics, Level adjustment, Dynamic level adjustment, Supports time/move, Diff. Personalities, Engine strength, Additional engines, Analyze/Infinite analysis, Fischer time, Predefined time controls, Time customization, Different time/player, Bullet, Tournament time control, Database, Tutor/Trainer, Replay moves, Sound effects, Support DGT-board, Announce move, Highlight last move, Highlight legal moves, Move entering, Adjustable replay speed, Adjustable Pondering, Show threat, "Go!" command (Move now), FEN support, Adjudicate game, Drills/Puzzles, Takeback, Writes logfile, Delay move, Customizable notation, Detect draw, Shows nodes/s, Displays thinking, Blindfold Chess, Displays evaluation, Resign, Insert Nullmove, Shuffle/Fischer Chess, Rated games, Autoplayer, Benchmark, Testsuites, epd support, Playout, Vision Trainer, Stop engine, Change engine style, Learning, Safe energy, Displays Depth, Stealth mode, Support landscape mode, Displays material balance , Additional features/bugs, Autoanswer on/off, Demo available, Fun factor, Auto off, Anti human mode, Chess set editing possible, Displays board coverage, Chose next best move.

Each of these attributes had to be weighted differently for obvious reasons. For example, the ability of a program to save games or the board design per se are important, yet, the ability to have a Benchmark feature will probably be not important to most users.
Originally, I wanted to include additional attributes, however I found that some functions were unfortunately not available in any PDA program. For example, none of the programs offers the possibility to read text-files from PGN-databases that are not part of a game PGN file itself. That means that it is not possible to read, for example, the introduction of a PGN e-book. Also other nice theoretical features couldn't be found, such as an integrated chess clock (very useful), a chess piece editing tool, engine-engine matches (tournament mode) or a mate solving tool. Additionally, it is rather unfortunate, that the only Chessbase product available for Pocket PCs (Pocket Fritz 2) doesn't understand the Chessbase format! Why? I don't know. Also, it would be nice to have a program that would be able to connect to the Playchess server from Chessbase. Again, Pocket Fritz doesn't support that either (yet). Anyway, the detailed achieved point listings for each attribute for each program are available in a separate Excel sheet, which can be downloaded here:


So, who are the winners? In fact, I think we have an overall winner, which clearly outperforms all other programs. For some people it will not be very surprising, since the program won other software-awards already in the past. It is the German program PocketGrandmaster from Kai Skibbe and Frank Schneider. Unfortunately, the program is only available for the Pocket PC. The best Palm program is a different program, nobody else than the famous Chessmaster program.
Winner Pro for Pocket PCs: PocketGrandmaster v2.1

Winner Palm: Chessmaster

However, although Chessmaster scored highest of all Palm programs, many of the programs points are derived from different fun-factors. The 'serious' player, who is more interested in playing a good chess-program may want prefer either Chess Tiger for Palm or Hiarcs for Palm, both excellent programs. However, Chessmaster doesn't get the Fun category. There is one program which scored even higher. Although it is not as well known as Chessmaster, it doesn't have to hide from it. Part of it's developer team came originally from Chessmaster.
Winner Fun: Majestic Chess (Pocket PC)

Yet, some people don't have the money to afford such programs. Luckily, a number of free programs are already available for the Pocket PC and for the Palm. So, the winner in the category freeware are:
Winner Pocket PC: CEBoard

Winner Palm: OpenChess

I have to metnion especially the program CEBoard, developed by Alain Zanchetta. It is truly an excellent program, better than the majority of commercial products (see list below). I recommend to everybody to check out his great program. For people who can afford a commercial program, but don't want to spend many dollars, we also have a winner in the Budget category:

Winner Budget (Pocket PC): Pocket Grandmaster Light

Other players are only interested in the playing strength of a chess program. Recently, several extremely strong chess engines entered the PDA field, so it is not so easy anymore to say which program is really the strongest. Yet, for quite some time now the strongest program was clearly HIARCS from Mark Uniacke. other engines, such as Fruit, Toga or even the latest Thinker may have a similar playing strength. Unfortunately, not enough games are available to make such a conclusion. Yet, we know many results from these engine from the desktop platform. To a certain degree this may help in establishing the playing strength of an engine on a Pocket PC/Palm. For example, you can expect that an engine running on a 624Mhz device will be about 15 times slower than running on a 2 GHz Athlon, which would indicate about 150-200 Elo difference, assuming a branching factor of 2.5 - 3, and about 50 to 65 Elo per ply (source: Albert Silver). Although engines like Fruit surpassed Hiarcs 9 on the PC, they still have to prove their superiority on the Pocket PC/Palm. Also, the engine in Hiarcs Palm is an improved version to Hiarcs 9 and an even better version is in work. So, for now the winner of the category strongest program belongs to:
Winner strongest engine: Hiarcs (Palm)

The last winner we have is coming from the category online-play:
Winner Online-Play: Intelli Chess (Pocket PC)

Further down you will find the complete ranking list of all tested engines. Each program comes with a detailed review on it's own, viewable in either a html list, a pdf file or as winword document. The review is really detailed and hence the file size is relatively big. So, depending on your internet connection, the download may take from a few seconds (DSL) up to several minutes (56k modem). I tried to show some example games from all programs to demonstrate the playing style of each engine. Most games were played by me against the programs on a Dell Axim X50 624MHz (Palm programs with StyleTap emulator). I had a chess engine running as Kibitz (either Toga II or Shredder 9), to avoid big mistakes on my side. The games were annotated by me and Fritz 8. If the evaluation of Fritz showed a value of 6 pawn units difference for more than 6 consecutive moves, the game was adjudicated accordingly.

Here it goes to the Review:


Here you can also find the short ranking list of all tested programs:

Rank

Program

Developer

Platform

Points

1

PocketGrandmaster v2.1

K. Skibbe & F. Schneider

Pocket PC

195

2

CE Board v2.1.589.1

A. Zanchetta

Pocket PC

173

3

Pocket Fritz v2.01

ChessBase

Pocket PC

171

4

Majestic Chess v1.10

Fluent Entertainment

Pocket PC

167

5

Chessmaster v1.56

Ludigames/Gameloft

Palm

161

6

Chess Tiger v15.2

Christophe Theron

Palm

156

7

HIARCS v9.5

Mark Uniacke

Palm

156

8

ChessGenius v.1.7

Richard Lang

Pocket PC

130

9

ChessPartner v1.02

Lokasoft

Pocket PC

129

10

Chess Genius v2.22
(Also marketed as 'On Hand Chess')

Richard Lang

Palm

116

11

PocketChess Deluxe v2.51

Handmark/Pocket Express Inc.

Palm

112

12

AxChess v1.4.09

P.H. Nguyen

Pocket PC

105

13

Kasparov Chessmate v1.0.9

Hexacto

Pocket PC

100

14

Pocket Grandmaster Light

K. Skibbe & F. Schneider

Pocket PC

96

15

Pocket Crafty 2004 v1.0

Pocket Chess Champion

Pocket PC

88

16

Pocket Crafty v1.0

Robert Hyatt

Pocket PC

85

17

Intelli Chess Bundle v1.72

Intorine

Pocket PC

85

18

Silke Chess v1.20

SilkeSoft

Pocket PC

84

19

Mastersoft Chess v1.0

Mastersoft

Pocket PC

83

20

Intelli Chess v1.72

Intorine

Pocket PC

79

21

Graduate Chess v1.27

Noel Dillabough

Pocket PC

72

22

ChessToGo v1.4

Learning ToGo

Palm

70

23

MobileThinkerBoard v0.1.0009

Lance Perkins

Pocket PC

68

24

OpenChess Pack v2.01

O. Richter

Palm

66

25

OpenChess v2.01

O. Richter

Palm

64

26

Mobile Chess v2.00

ID Gaming

Pocket PC

60

27

The Travel Collection v1.41

Earthlink

Pocket PC

57

28

Chess King v1.1

B. Whitby

Palm

56

29

Championship Chess v6.2

Dreamquest

Pocket PC

53

30

Palm Chess v2.03

Synctel Software

Pocket PC

53

31

Championship Chess Pro v.6.2

Dreamquest

Palm

52

32

Naum v1.8 light

Alex Naumov

Palm

52

33

Chesscapade v1.52sv1.24

Superscape

Pocket PC

52

34

Cascata (Star Chess) v2.00f

Purplesoft/Cascata/ZingMagic

Pocket PC

52

35

Naughty Chess v1.0

Bettybytes

Pocket PC

52

36

Cascata Chess (Star Chess)

Purplesoft/Cascata/ZingMagic

Palm

51

37

Palmarov v1.0

JSJ Micro LLC

Palm

50

38

International Chess v1.0

HiPocket

Pocket PC

47

39

Valentin Illescu Chess v.2.0

Valentin Illiescu

Pocket PC

47

40

PocketChess v1.0

Tinyware

Pocket PC

43

41

Chroma Games Chess v1.8

Astraware

Pocket PC

40

42

Double Chess v3.1

NonVi Games Inc.

Palm

39

43

Chroma Games Chess 1.8 for Palm

Astraware

Palm

39

44

HellChess v1.2

HellHound

Pocket PC

37

45

9.95 Chess v4.6

9.95 Soft

Pocket PC

37

46

9.95 Chess Palm

9.95 Soft

Palm

36

47

HandChess II v1.1a

Chris Seeger

Palm

32

48

Microsoft Chess

Microsoft

Pocket PC

27

49

Chess Quantum v3.6

Wideknowledge

Palm

25

50

Ultimate Chess v2.0

Handbots

Pocket PC

23

51

Ultimate Chess v1.6

Handbots

Palm

18

52

Pocket Gnu 2004

Pocket Chess Champion

Pocket PC

17

53

BtChess v3.0r15

IS complete Inc.

Palm

17

54

Gnuchess v3.21

Eric Thiebaut

Pocket PC

13

55

Transparent Blue v1.05

H. Iwata

Palm

6

Not ranked

Rampart Chess for Pocket PC

Rampart Games

Pocket PC

nd

Not ranked

Rampart Chess for Palm

Rampart Games

Palm

nd

Not ranked

Midnight Chess v1.0a

Midnight Programmers

CE Palmtop

nd

Not ranked

Suicide Chess

CronoTech

Pocket PC

nd

Not ranked

Suicide Chess

CronoTech

Palm

nd

Not ranked

Rook's Revenge

Astraware

Pocket PC & Palm

nd

Not ranked

Beamable Chess

 

Pocket PC

nd

Not ranked

OlmiChess

OlmiChess.com

Pocket PC

nd