September's Coolest Gadgets

All high-definition, all the time. That’s the way it sometimes feels looking through the new products from East Asia’s consumer electronics powerhouses. The rush to market with high-definition TVs has been going on for some time, and now it’s the turn of video cameras (highlighted last month), games consoles (the PlayStation 3 and upcoming Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive) and other gadgets.

This month, a Blu-ray Disc drive and home photo viewer both do the HD tango, and an upgraded version of Sony’s LocationFree TV base station serves to remind that there are still some obstacles to HD ubiquity. While sending a 20Mbps digital TV stream through the air might be easy, sending the same thing across an Internet connection remains much more difficult. In fact, for the vast majority of Internet users, it’s impossible. That’s why even with an upgrade, LocationFree still won’t transmit HD images across the Internet.

Sony LocationFree Base Station

Sony LF-BOX1 LocationFree Receiver
Sony LF-BOX1

Sony is upgrading its LocationFree platform with more efficient video compression and a receiver add-on for televisions. The new base station, the LF-PK20 (called the LF-B20 in the United States) streams using the MPEG4 AVC compression system. The payoff for users is better pictures at lower bit rates because it’s more efficient than the MPEG2 and MPEG4 systems used in the current devices. Sony is also adding a new receiver device, the LF-BOX1. Named the "LocationFree TV Box," the device connects directly to a television to allow for viewing of streamed video on a TV. The LF-PK20 will go on sale in Japan on Oct. 20 and will cost around 33,000 yen (US$282), and the LF-BOX1 will be available Oct. 27 for about 23,000 yen. Details of overseas sales were not announced.

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Samsung 8GB Music Player Cell Phone

Samsung SCH-B570 Cell Phone
Samsung SCH-B570

As it is the world’s biggest maker of flash memory chips and one of the biggest cell phone manufacturers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Samsung Electronics is putting the two together. Its SCH-B570 cell phone packs 8GB of built-in memory; that’s double the amount of memory in Apple Computer’s hit-iPod nano and enough room for about 1,600 MP3 music files or about 16 movies. There’s also a receiver for South Korea’s mobile satellite broadcasting service (S-DMB) and a 2-megapixel camera. The phone goes on sale in South Korea soon. It won’t be available overseas.

Visit the Korean website.

LG Blu-ray Disc Drive

LG Electronics’ Blu-ray Products
LG Blu-ray Products

LG Electronics is adding its name to a long list of companies producing Blu-ray Disc writer drives for PCs. The drive supports data recording at up to 4X speed, which LG says is a first. The drive is now on sale in South Korea and will be available in Europe in September. Like other Blu-ray Disc drives from competitors, the LG model doesn’t come cheap: It will cost 900,000 won (US$945). LG will also sell a PC featuring the drive. The machine is powered by a dual-core Pentium D945 processor running at 3.4GHz, has 320GB of hard-disk space and 1GB of memory, and will cost 3.5 million won.

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Sony Big-screen Digital Camera

Sony’s latest digital still camera is a sight for poor eyes. The DSC-N2 camera has a 3-inch touch-screen monitor that displays the images and can be used for all sorts of picture editing functions. You can even handwrite a message across a picture. There’s a 10-megapixel image sensor, which is pretty impressive for a camera of this size, sensitivity to ISO1600, and it comes with image stabilization to help guard against blurriness. It will hit Japan on Oct. 13 and retail for about 50,000 yen (US$427). Look for it in the United States in October for US$450 and in other countries soon.

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Panasonic D-snap and D-dock

Panasonic SV-SD800N Music Players
Panasonic SV-SD800N

Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic) is taking its MP3 players a step further with companion home stereo systems into which the portable players can dock. The D-snap players are secure digital (SD) card-based and have no internal storage, while the micro-stereo systems come with either an 80GB or 160GB hard-disk drive. In typical use, Panasonic envisages the user’s song library will be stored on the hard disk and selected songs transferred to the portable player as desired through a dock atop the systems. Both players and home systems are now on sale in Japan and will reach overseas markets at a date yet to be announced. The players cost 16,000 yen or 20,000 yen (US$137 or $171), depending on version. The stereo systems are 80,000 yen for the higher-capacity model and 65,000 yen for the lower-capacity model.

Visit the Japanese website.

Sony HDD Picture Storage and Viewer

If transferring pictures from your digital camera to your PC sounds like too much work, then Sony’s HDPS-L1 might be just the ticket. The device is basically a hard-disk drive in a case with a memory card slot. Slide in a card from your camera, and you can quickly transfer the images to the device’s 80GB hard-disk drive for storage and to free up the card for more pictures. The box can also connect to a television so the pictures can be viewed on screen. High-definition output is also possible. It goes on sale in Japan on Oct. 27 and will cost about 35,000 yen (US$299). It’s on sale now in the United States for US$300.

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Pantech DMB Phone

Pantech IM-U140 Cell Phone
Pantech IM-U140

Cell phones that pick up TV and radio direct from satellite are becoming something of an everyday item in South Korea now, but we still can’t get enough of them. One of the latest is Pantech’s IM-U140, which has a 2.6-inch widescreen display that pops up from the handset when a button on the phone is pushed. The QVGA resolution screen is the largest on any satellite digital multimedia broadcasting phone, according to Pantech. Other features include a 3-megapixel camera, stereo speakers and a touch screen. The handset will soon go on sale in South Korea and won’t be available overseas.

Visit the website. 

R&D Corner: Triple-layer optical disc

Toshiba and Memory-Tech have developed a three-layer optical disc that can be read by both DVD and HD-DVD players. The disc, which could be on the market early next year, will make it possible for movie companies to package both a standard definition and high-definition version of the same movie on a single disc. That would mean consumers wouldn’t have to repurchase the same movies when or if they make the jump from DVD to HD DVD. Each layer is capable of storing about two hours of standard and four hours of high-definition content, the latter assuming the MPEG4 AVC compression is used. That means about four hours of SD and HD content can be stored if two layers are used for DVD and one layer for HD DVD.

-Martyn Williams, IDG News Service (Tokyo Bureau)

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