TOKYO -- Mobile telephone retailers here in Japan are showing off what are undoubtedly some of the world's most technologically advanced handsets. Packed with megapixel cameras, high-resolution color screens, music players, radio tuners, and even televisions, the handsets from a number of vendors can satisfy a consumer's every wish--unless that wish is for a unique look. Clamshells continue to rule here. Aside from a few styling lines on the cover and the placing of the subdisplay, the phones tend to look alike, typically offering only a small variety of colored cases.
That's about to change, thanks to the surprise success of a series of telephones for the Au network that feature design as their biggest selling point. The "Au Design Project" produced the first candy-bar-style mobile phone, which has been a success in Japan for several years. A number of other funky designs have attracted consumers who care more about looks than megapixels or Java applet size.
Even Vodafone, Japan's number-three cellular telephone maker, is getting in on the act. The first of its new handsets, called "Koto," is produced by Toshiba and is designed to blend traditional Japanese and modern design elements based on the concept of universal beauty. Its outside of the clamshell is smooth and shiny with a very discrete Vodafone logo embossed into the front while the inside has a matte finish.
It's all good news for customers who want their cell phone to stand out from the mass-market models crowding shop shelves.
Vodafone V303T Koto Mobile Phone
For a handset that is so much about design, I probably shouldn't pay attention to the technical specifications--but they are just as important for most users. So, what's inside the cool-looking case?
The Koto has the now-standard QVGA (320 by 240 pixels) 2.2-inch screen and a 1-inch subdisplay. Its camera has a 0.3-megapixel resolution sensor--a little on the low-resolution side these days--that can take photos or videos. The internal 8MB memory can accommodate up to 3 minutes of video, according to Vodafone. Talk time is 120 minutes and standby time is up to 360 hours.
The phone measures 0.16 by 3.8 by 1 inches and weighs 3.75 ounces. It will be sold only in Japan, starting in May, at a price yet to be determined.
Sharp V602SH Mobile Phone
Sharp's newest cell phone probably comes closer than any other to duplicating the functions of a standard digital still camera.
The V602SH combines a 2-megapixel CCD image sensor and 2X optical zoom--but the zoom is not incremental. Still, it's the first cell telephone to feature an optical zoom, according to Sharp. Optical zoom requires the lens to move, and that's difficult to achieve in small devices such as mobile telephones where space is limited. Sharp installed the camera module behind the hinge on the lower half of the clamshell phone, to use the extra space at the thickest part of the case.
The camera phone measures 2 by 4 by 1 inches and weighs 4.6 ounces. Talk time is 130 minutes and standby time is 400 hours.
Pricing has not yet been released, but the phone is scheduled to become available in late June, in Japan only. However, Sharp has begun taking technology from its Japanese handsets and offering it in GSM phones for the European market.
Sony Qualia MiniDisc Player
For the first time since unveiling its four initial Qualia products last June, Sony has added devices to the high-end range of gadgets. Qualia is Sony's attempt to touch the hearts of consumers with high-quality design and manufacturing and to differentiate its products in an increasingly mass-produced consumer electronics world. The term qualia refers to individual feelings associated with particular experiences.
The MiniDisc player is differentiated from its cheaper cousins largely by its design. Its headphones can reproduce high-frequency sound up to 100 kHz and so 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 $1900 and will be launched in June; the headphones will ship in mid-year and cost $2600. Both will be sold in Japan and the United States.
Olympus AZ-1 Digital Camera
Olympus is releasing in late May a digital still camera that is the first device to feature a recently launched LCD developed by Sharp. Called the Mobile Advanced Super View, the 2.5-inch display uses technology that Sharp developed for its popular range of LCD televisions, and is said to offer fast response and a wide 160-degree horizontal and vertical viewing angle.
The Olympus AZ-1 has a 3.2-megapixel CCD sensor and can record JPEG images of up to 2048 by 1536 pixels. It includes software that lets you organize images into up to 12 photo albums of 100 images each on a memory card.
The camera measures 3.75 by 2.68 by 0.88 inches and weighs 5.6 ounces excluding the battery and memory card. It will cost around $440 and there's no word from Olympus on overseas sales.
Sony Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1 Music Player
Two and a half years after Apple Computer launched its IPod and began to steal thunder from Sony, which had ruled the portable music market since shipping the Walkman in the 1980s, the Tokyo company has unveiled its first music player based on a hard drive.
The Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1 has a 20GB hard drive and a 2.2-inch 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 played and displays album art, if available. On the display's right side is a touch-sensitive panel dubbed "G-sense" that you use to control the player. You can navigate a series of on-screen menus by running your fingers over the panel.
The player is compatible with Sony's Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc 3 and ATRAC3 Plus digital music formats. The bundled software converts MP3, Windows Media Audio, and .wav audio files. The device, which is a little larger and heavier than Apple's IPod, will go on sale in Japan in June priced around $466, and Sony currently has no plans to sell it outside Japan.
Toshiba RD-XS33 Hard-Drive DVD Recorder
Toshiba's newest combined hard drive and DVD video recorder features a new recording mode that lets you cram even more video into it. Using the MN1.0 mode, you can record up to 284 hours of video onto the 160GB drive, Toshiba says. 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 need so much recording space: It works out to almost 12 days of video.
The machine supports DVD-RAM, -RW, and -R, so you can copy programs onto discs to free up space for even more TV shows. Copy to DVD-R and you'll be able to get it done at eight times normal speed, Toshiba representatives say. The unit is scheduled to go on sale in Japan in July priced around $704. Toshiba plans to start selling it in Europe at a price yet to be determined, but launch details for other regions are not yet determined.
NHJ VTV-101 TV Watch
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 tuners. Now NHJ of Tokyo is about to ship a portable TV that can be worn as a wristwatch.
The VTV-101 has a 1.5-inch TFT color display with 280-by-220-pixel resolution. That means you get a little less than a quarter of the resolution of a standard TV, but the lower quality is less noticeable because of the small screen size.
Battery life is up to an hour and can be extended to 3 hours with an optional extra battery pack. The watch measures 1.84 by 2 by 0.72 inches and weighs just under 2 ounces. It is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. in May, priced at $200.
Sony Vaio U50 Handheld PC
Sony has redesigned its Vaio U computer by removing the keyboard and reducing the display size to come up with a Tablet PC that's about the size of a paperback book.
The front is dominated by a 5-inch TFT LCD that sits in the center. The case is rectangular in shape and is designed to be held horizontally, so your thumbs are near a small number of control buttons positioned on either side of the display. The screen resolution is 800 by 600 pixels (SVGA), although the device can drive an external monitor at a higher resolution.
The VGN-U50 is based on the ultra-low-voltage version of Intel's Pentium M processor running at 900 MHz, has 256MB of DDR SDRAM, and runs Windows XP Home Edition. It will be launched in Japan in late May priced around $1575. Sony has no plans to sell either Vaio U--tablet or traditional style--outside of Japan.
Toshiba 100GB Hard Drive
Developments like Toshiba's latest hard disk are helping drive the miniaturization of digital consumer electronics. Right now, the highest-capacity 2.5-inch drive available can contain 80GB of data. Toshiba's new drive, due to ship worldwide in the third quarter, raises that to 100GB.
Such drives are used in notebook computers and are now finding a home in devices such as digital video recorders and music players. Besides indicating that products with higher storage capacities are on their way, this technology demonstrates the current pace of development: The 80GB drive was announced almost exactly one year ago.