May's coolest gadgets from Japan

TOKYO -- Last year, Japan's No. 3 cellular telephone network operator, Vodafone KK, was faulted by analysts and customers alike for not having a wide and attractive enough range of handsets. Now it's seeking to put that right and in early May launched six new phones that will go on sale in the middle of this year. Two of them caught my eye.

Visit a cellular telephone retailer in Japan and you'd be able to see what are undoubtedly some of the world's most technologically advanced handsets. Packed with megapixel cameras, high-resolution color screens, music players, radio tunes and televisions, the handsets on offer from about 10 companies can satisfy a consumer's every wish -- unless that wish is for something that looks a little unique. Clamshells rule the roost here and have done for several years. Aside from a few styling lines on the cover and the placing of the subdisplay, the most ambitious most phones get is a small number of different colored cases.

That's all changing now thanks to the surprise success of a series of telephones for the Au network that featured design as their biggest selling point. The Au Design Project produced the first candy-bar-type cell phone that has been a success in Japan for several years and also a number of other funky designs that have attracted consumers who care more about looks than megapixels or Java applet size.

Now Vodafone Japan is getting in on the act with one of its new handsets, called Koto. Produced by Toshiba Corp., the telephone was designed to blend traditional Japanese and modern design elements based on the concept of universal beauty, according to Vodafone. The outside of the phone is smooth and shiny with a very discrete Vodafone logo embossed into the front.

It's good news for customers who want their cell phone to be a little more unique than the mass-market models crowding shop shelves. Better news yet is that it's the first of a number of telephones planned for the design project range, said the carrier.

Vodafone V303T Koto Handset

For a handset that is so much about design, I almost feel I shouldn't be paying attention to the technical specifications, but they are probably just as important for the majority of users. So, what's inside the cool-looking case? The telephone has the now-standard QVGA (320 by 240 pixels) 2.2-in. screen and there's also a 1-in. subdisplay. The camera has a 300,000-pixel resolution sensor -- a little on the low-resolution side these days -- that can be used to take photos or video images. The internal 8MB memory can accommodate up to three minutes of video, said Vodafone. Talk time is 120 minutes, and standby time is up to 360 hours. The phone measures 48 by 96 by 26mm and weighs 108 grams. It will go on sale in Japan in May at a price yet to be determined and won't be offered for sale outside of Japan.

Sharp V602SH Handset

Sharp Corp.'s latest cell phone probably comes closer than any other phone to duplicating the functions of a standard digital still camera. The V602SH will go on sale in late June and combines a 2-megapixel charge coupled device (CCD) image sensor and optical zoom. A 2X optical zoom can be realized with a single button push when the phone is in digital camera mode, while a second push returns it to no zoom. Positions between these two settings aren't available. It's the first time a cellular telephone has featured an optical zoom, Vodafone said. Optical zoom requires the position of the lens to move, and that makes it more difficult to fit into small devices such as cellular telephones where space is limited. Sharp installed the camera module behind the hinge on the lower half of the clamshell phone, to make use of the extra space at the thickest part of the case. It measures 50 by 98.5 by 24.9mm and weighs 132 grams. Talk time is 130 minutes and standby time is 400 hours. No price has been set for the phone yet, and it won't go on sale overseas. However, Sharp has recently been taking technology from its Japanese handsets and offering it in GSM handsets for the European market.

Sony Qualia Mini-Disc Player and Headphones

For the first time since it unveiled its initial four Qualia products, Sony Corp. has added some new devices to the highly priced range of gadgets. If you're not familiar with Qualia, it's Sony's attempt to touch the hearts of consumers with high-quality design and manufacturing and differentiate its products in an increasingly mass-produced consumer electronics world. It's also Sony's attempt to hijack an emerging word from philosophy that is used to refer to individual feelings associated with particular experiences. The MiniDisc player can be largely differentiated from its cheaper cousins by its design, while the headphones can reproduce high-frequency sound up to 100 KHz and are said to be perfect for use with high-resolution audio systems like DVD-Audio. As for the price -- well, you shouldn't ask because you probably can't afford it. The MiniDisc player costs $1,900 and will be launched in June, and the headphones will be available in the middle of the year and cost $2,600. Both will be sold in Japan and the U.S.

Olympus AZ-1

Olympus Corp. will put on sale in late May a digital still camera that is the first device to feature a recently launched LCD developed by Sharp Corp. Called the Mobile Advanced Super View, the 2.5-in. display uses technology developed by Sharp for its popular range of LCD televisions and is said to offer a wide 160-degree horizontal and vertical viewing angle, three times the contrast of conventional LCDs and fast response. The camera has a 3.2-megapixel CCD sensor and JPEG images of up to 2,048 by 1,536 pixels can be recorded. The camera also has software that allows the user to organize images into up to 12 photo albums of 100 images on each memory card. It measures 94 by 67 by 22mm and weighs 160 grams excluding the battery and memory card. It will cost $440, and there's no word from Olympus on overseas sales.

Sony Vaio HDD Music Player

Two and a half years after Apple Computer Inc. launched its iPod and began to steal thunder from Sony, which had ruled the portable music market since the Walkman appeared in the 1980s, the Tokyo-based company has unveiled the first hard disk drive-based music player to bear its name. The Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1 has a 20GB hard disk drive and a 2.2-in. color LCD screen with 320-by-256-pixel resolution (just over QVGA). In addition to acting as the main user interface, the screen displays track information when songs are being played, and it displays album art if available. On the right-hand side of the display is a touch-sensitive panel dubbed "G-sense" that is used to control the player. Users can navigate a series of on-screen menus by running their fingers over the panel in the appropriate direction. The player is compatible with Sony's Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc 3 plus digital music formats and supplied software will convert MP3, Windows Media Audio or WAV audio files. The device, which is a little larger and heavier than Apple's iPod, will go on sale in Japan on June 5 for $466. There are no plans to sell it outside Japan at this point.

Toshiba RD-XS33

Toshiba Corp.'s latest combined hard disk drive and DVD video recorder features a new recording mode that allows users to cram even more video onto the built-in drive. Using the MN1.0 mode, up to 284 hours of video can be recorded onto the 160GB drive, said the company. The disadvantage is that quality will be lower, but if you care more about content than picture quality, it could prove handy. Then again, I wonder how many users will need so much recording space -- it works out to almost 12 days of video. The machine supports all three recordable DVD formats -- DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD-R -- so you can copy programs onto discs to make space on the hard disk. Copy to DVD-R and you'll be able to get it done at eight times normal speed, the company said. It will go on sale in Japan on July 1 and cost $704. It will be available from September in Europe at a price yet to be determined. Launch details for other regions weren't available.

NHJ Watch TV

Technology is making television more and more portable. Last year, Casio launched a waterproof TV for the bathroom, and Vodafone has released a couple of cell phones with built-in TV tuner, and now NHJ Ltd., a Tokyo-based company, is about to begin sales of a portable TV that can be worn as a wristwatch. The VTV-101 has a 1.5-in. thin film transistor (TFT) color display with 280-by-220-pixel resolution. That means you're getting a little less than quarter of the resolution of a standard TV, but the lower quality will be less noticeable because of the small screen size. Battery life is up to an hour and can be extended to up to three hours with an optional extra battery pack. The watch measures 46 by 49 by 18mm and weighs 55 grams. Overseas sales will begin in the U.S. this month at $200.

Sony Vaio U50

Sony Corp. has redesigned its Vaio U PC by removing the keyboard and reducing the display size to come up with a tablet-style PC that's about the size of a paperback book. The front face is dominated by a 5-in. TFT LCD that sits in the center. The case is rectangular in shape and is designed to be held horizontally, so the user's thumbs are near a small number of control buttons positioned on either side of the display. The screen resolution is 800 by 600 pixels, although the machine can drive an external monitor at a higher resolution. The VGN-U50 is based on the ultralow-voltage version of Intel Corp.'s Pentium M processor running at 900 MHz, has 256MB of double data rate synchronous dynamic RAM (DDR SDRAM) and the Windows XP Home Edition operating system. It will be launched in Japan on May 29 at a price of $1,575 and there are no current plans to sell outside Japan.

Toshiba 100GB hard disk drive

Developments like Toshiba Corp.'s latest hard disk drive are helping to drive the miniaturization of digital consumer electronics. Right now the highest-capacity 2.5-in. drive available can hold up to 80GB of information, but Toshiba's new drive, due on the worldwide market in the third quarter of this year, raises that to 100GB. Such drives have been used in notebook computers for some time, although they are now beginning to find a home in devices such as digital video recorders and music players. In addition to indicating that products with higher storage capacities are on their way, the development also gives an indication to the current pace of development -- the 80GB drive was announced almost exactly one year ago.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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