It's getting more and more difficult to avoid this monthly gadget round-up becoming nothing but cell phones and digital music players, as there are just so many interesting such products around at the moment. April is proving to be no different with four high-specification handsets and three neat new music players.
Look closely and you'll notice the cell phones all come from South Korea with three from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. It's certainly a testament to the competitive nature of the local market, where three major domestic brands and a handful of smaller companies and some foreign competitors battle for space in an extremely crowded space.
I was recently in Seoul and took a trip to Technomart, an electronics department store of the type popular in Asia in which floor after floor is filled with nothing but gadgets, components, blank media, PCs and software. Cell phones pretty much take up the entire sixth floor of the building: an impressive sight for the first time visitor. Counter after counter is packed with the latest handsets and even after walking around for five minutes, I was still coming across phones that I hadn't seen before.
What makes such competition even more impressive is that the Korean government has banned the practice of carriers subsidizing handsets so all of these phones are selling at the full price of several hundred dollars. It's quite a change from Japan where most handsets can be picked up for free after a couple of months as long as you sign a contract.
Technomart also delivered a surprise when it came to digital music players. The majority of shops on many of the floors featured at least a few MP3 players in there display cabinets – hardly a surprise since South Korea virtually invented the portable MP3 player as a product – but I only came across one store selling Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod. Is the music player really that unpopular in South Korea?
Apple won't comment on market share figures but there's general recognition that local players, such as IRiver-brand owner ReignCom Ltd., are leading. Perhaps it's the lack of a Korean iTunes Music Store, maybe consumers aren't wooed by the clean design of the players or perhaps it's just too difficult to buy one. Apple never responded to two requests asking for the location of any major retail outlets in Seoul but I set off to the Coex Mall, Asia's longest underground shopping mall, according to several Korean friends, where I had heard there was an "Apple Experience Center."
I seemed to be on the right track as soon as I walked into the mall. Posters advertising the recently announced iPod Shuffle hung from the ceilings and decorated columns through almost all sections of the mall. They were impossible to miss for the thousands of holiday shoppers that were visiting on March 1, Korean Independence Day, so what did those people find when they gave into temptation and went to buy the iPod Shuffle? Closed doors. The Apple shop was shuttered while staff reorganized shelves.
Possibly the coolest of the new Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. handsets is the SGH-I300, which packs a 3GB hard-disk drive (HDD), offering more storage space than any other phone on the market. Matching the capacious drive is support for a host of audio and video standards that stands to make the handset into a mean little multimedia machine. Video support includes the MPEG4, H.263, H.264 and Windows Media Video standards while audio support extends to MP3, Windows Media Audio, AAC, AACplus and Ogg. The new phone runs on Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system. It's the second handset from Samsung to include an HDD and there's a big difference between this and the previous model: the new phone is based on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), the dominant cellular standard in use worldwide, and so has been designed with the overseas market in mind. That should come as welcome news for gadget-hungry users who are usually stuck reading about advanced phones that will only be available in Samsung's home market. The bad news is that no launch date or price for the handset has been decided.
Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5
It's been just over half a year since Sony Corp. first announced its hard-disk drive-based Network Walkman range and the company has already launched three models. The latest, the NW-HD5, will be available from late April and is the first to depart from the common design shared by its predecessors. The NW-HD5 is based around a portrait design in which the display sits above the controls but landscape use is supported thanks to the ability to rotate the image on the display by a quarter of a turn. There's a couple of things that set it apart from Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod players, which are undoubtedly its biggest competitor. One is the rechargeable battery, which supports up to 40 hours of playback and is removable; the other is a USB connector and a power jack on the player itself so a dock or adapter isn't required. To top off the changes, it's smaller than its predecessor, at 60 millimeters (mm) by 89 mm by 14 mm. It weighs 135 grams. Look for it worldwide from later this month. It will cost around ¥35,000 (US$327) in Japan.
Following on from the handful of cell phones currently available that do their best to look like digital still cameras, South Korea's Pantech&Curitel Inc. has developed a cell phone that looks like a camcorder. The PH-L4000V is held the same way as a camcorder and a QVGA-resolution 2-inch fold-out display helps complete the illusion. The phone includes a 2X optical zoom lens and can record video in MPEG4 at 640 pixels by 480 pixels resolution, which is about equivalent to that of a conventional camcorder. However, it fails in one respect: the video is only recorded at 15 frames per second, which is about half the rate used by many camcorders and by broadcast television. The smaller number of frames per second could also mean a slightly jerky picture. An FM radio is included in the handset. The device is already on sale in South Korea and costs about US$600. There are no plans to sell it overseas.
Panasonic D-snap SV-SD100V
The latest music player from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known as Panasonic, is a nice little number. The SV-SD100V is a small square-shaped player that features a bright OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display, support for MP3, AAC and Microsoft Corp.'s WMA (Windows Media Audio) formats, as well as an FM tuner and voice recorder and compatibility with SD (Secure Digital) memory cards. The battery life is 14 hours 30 minutes when playing audio and 7 hours 30 minutes when using the FM receiver. It will be on sale worldwide during May. In Japan the device will cost about ¥18,000 (US$172).
Web: Pretech Digi Photo
At first glance Pretech Electronics Co. Ltd.'s Digi Photo looks just like one of those ever so handy all-formats-in-one memory card readers. There are slots for Compact Flash, SD, Smart Media, Multi Media Card and MemoryStick cards but look a little closer and you might notice the lamps or buttons that hints at more power within. The Digi Photo includes a picture viewer and can be hooked up to a television or projector so that images stored on memory cards can be viewed without the need for a computer. The system supports images up to 16,384 pixels by 16,384 pixels, allowing the user to zoom in several times on large images and still keep the same on-screen resolution. Other features include slide-show mode, standard or widescreen display, display of multiple pictures and support for both the PAL and NTSC video formats. It's available now from Pretech online for NT$1,499 (US$48) or through regional distributors.
The latest version of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s satellite entertainment phone should be on sale soon. The handset can receive DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadcast) signals direct from a satellite or, when inside buildings, from a network of terrestrial transmitters. The subscription service offers a range of local radio and TV broadcasts, and the phone makes it possible to tune into these while on the move. The phone is a "slide and rotate" model with a 2.2-inch QVGA (320 pixels by 240 pixels) TFT (thin film transistor) LCD screen. The display can be slid upwards to reveal the key pad and then swiveled into a horizontal position for TV viewing. Battery life is estimated at 3 hours, which is a 30-minute improvement on the previous handset. It will be available in South Korea beginning in June. Pricing has yet to be decided and there aren't any plans for overseas sales but that hardly matters because the satellite DMB service is only available in Japan and Korea.
Ezmax EZMP4200P Music Player and Phone
It seems that hardly a month passes when a couple of devices aren't combined together into a new miracle of miniaturization. One of the latest is an MP3 player that doubles as a VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephone from South Korea's Ezmax Co. Ltd. The MP3 side of the device is quite standard but the VOIP functionality is more interesting. The device contains a VOIP application, which can be accessed when the player is connected to the PC via its USB connection. The software runs directly off the player and uses the PC's Internet connection to place a VOIP call. The device's software is presently compatible with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000 and later editions. Ezmax is considering making the player's software compatible with Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X. It's really quite a cool idea. Ezmax hopes to put it on sale in Europe in May with a price tag of around US$220 for a 1G-byte model.
The final new handset this month from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. looks a lot like a PDA (personal digital assistant). The front panel is dominated by a 2.8-inch TFT (thin film transistor), QVGA (240 pixels by 320 pixels) resolution display and a directional keypad and function buttons are placed underneath the screen. There's also a hidden number keypad that is revealed by sliding the top half of the phone body upwards. In addition to supporting the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) cellular standard, the device also packs a 802.11b wireless LAN adapter, so network multimedia features can be used for little or no cost when within a hotspot. It comes with built-in support for KT Corp. NESpot service, which offers content including streams of major South Korea TV networks, and because it's based on Windows Mobile 2003 for Pocket PC Phone Edition, the device can also run other applications. It's available now in South Korea and costs around US$700. There are no plans to sell it overseas.
R&D Corner: Toshiba Detachable Display
One of the latest prototypes from Toshiba Corp.'s lab is a notebook computer with a detachable display that the company says will combine the convenience of a Tablet PC with the computing power of a conventional notebook. Communication between the screen and the rest of the PC usually flows along a ribbon cable but is replaced with a wireless connection in the concept model. It could be available as soon as three years from now but Toshiba still has some work to do on the project. For starters, there's battery life: the prototype can only operate about an hour away from its notebook PC base. The idea is similar to Microsoft Corp.'s Mira smart display system, that used a wireless link to connect a small portable display to a more powerful base computer but which failed in the marketplace. Perhaps in three years the time will be right for such a concept.