Christmas Shopping

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2001


With Christmas looming large, J. Mark Lytle takes a look back at the year's bumper crop of gadgets and gizmos and makes a few recommendations for your yuletide gift list.

by J. Mark Lytle

WE ALL KNOW THAT Christmas is the season for family gatherings, fun for the kids, and a time to reflect on the important things in life, but here at J@pan Inc, we tend to have a slightly different outlook. After all, as a Tokyo-based magazine with a soft spot in our heart for technology, we get to see today what most of the rest of the world might eventually get to drool over sometime next year. We're constantly amazed by the richness and variety of new products and services that hit the market here with unfailing regularity. Most folks take it for granted that the Japanese make solid, dependable technology -- we'd place a hefty bet on at least half the consumer electronics in your home originating in the land of the rising sun -- but it's the innovative nature of many of this year's releases that has really surprised us.

Take, for example, Panasonic's latest car navigation system, which you can take out of the car and into the countryside -- yes, it doubles as a handheld GPS. How about Sony introducing a new member of the Aibo family at a price that makes it affordable as a children's toy (albeit for the more affluent families)? Perhaps it's the first step on Sony robot boss Satoshi Amagai's journey to making everyone a robot owner. The marketing's certainly on the ball. Panasonic's DVD recorder that allows simultaneous recording and viewing is another piece of kit that had us in raptures. Kodensha's mobile translation service impressed us with its ability to translate Japanese to English and vice versa via your mobile phone -- nothing so boring as paper-based translations in this keitai-obsessed culture. In the realm of the home computer, our favorite little number was the new Fiva sub-notebook from Casio, featuring a Transmeta Crusoe processor and more ports than you can shake a stick at. Sharp managed to make a significant contribution, too, thanks to its wafer-thin new Mebius.

These are but a selection of the goods and services we've plumped for -- we're not pretending to produce a definitive list of the best of Japanese technology, rather we simply aim to present a somewhat subjective look at the most interesting and innovative products to catch our collective eye in 2001. So, if you're stuck for a gift idea for that annoying "person-who-has-everything" figure in your life, read on ...

Product: Sony DCR-IP7 Network Handycam IP
Great Buy For: The convergence advocate in your life
Price: Open -- around JPY170,000

Dissatisfied with the size limitations imposed by the miniDV cassette, Sony has scrapped it and come up with an entirely new format called MICROMV. The new tape is just 30 percent of the size of the miniDV and slots into a camera measuring just 4.7 cm (w) x 10.3 cm (h) x 8.0 cm (d) and weighing 310 g. In keeping with Sony's current range of camcorders, the Network Handycam IP has a Carl Zeiss lens, an i.Link (FireWire or IEEE1394) port, and a Memory Stick slot. The difference lies in the online capabilities of the camera -- hardly surprising given the name. If you have a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone or Sony's own Bluetooth modem adapter, all the fun of the Net can be yours straight from the camera. Browse Web sites on the 2.5-inch LCD screen, or email pictures and clips stored in the Memory Stick. This camera's great -- but it does represent yet another new format to switch to.

Product: Kodensha phone translation service (J-Server Pocket)
Great Buy For: The linguistically challenged
Price: JPY100 per month

Anyone who's ever used a Web-based translation service such as AltaVista's Babel Fish can testify to the fact that it's pretty handy in a pinch. They might also caution that it's always wise to take the results as a rough guide at best. Nonetheless, if you don't speak a word of Japanese, it's a useful way to make (first) contact. As that's all via the wired Net, mobile phone users have had to make do with word-by-word translations from online dictionaries ... not anymore. Kodensha's J-Server Pocket edition of its respected translation software changes that, as it brings a similar level of service in English, Japanese, and Korean to your mobile. If your phone's from KDDI, it can also download and playback an audio file of the result, neatly sidestepping the difficulties of reading non-Western script. It's far from perfect, but it's fast, cheap, and a guaranteed attention-grabber.

Product: Casio Fiva MPC 206VL
Great Buy For: The "road warrior" with a small briefcase
Price: Open -- around JPY135,000

Casio's Fiva 206VL is the kind of PC that prompts questions of the "Is it a real computer?" ilk, weighing in at just under 1 kg and with a svelte A5 footprint. The real beauty lies in its range of integrated ports: It's completely legacy-free and sports PC card and Compact Flash slots as well as a 56-K modem and LAN, FireWire, and RGB (for output to a monitor) sockets. It uses a 600-MHz Transmeta Crusoe processor that runs at variable speeds to economize on battery life and has a healthy 30-Gb hard drive. This is one of those products that is often cited as Japanese miniaturization taken too far for Western tastes (and typing fingers), but it is well engineered and should win over all but the most ham-fisted. Finally, in something of a surprise, Casio has included a switch to allow dual booting between the two pre-installed OSs: Windows and -- wait for it -- Linux.

Product: Aibo -- Latte and Macaron
Great Buy For: The big kids and robotics professors in your family
Price: JPY98,000

Unless you've had your head in a bucket for the last few years, you'll know that Aibo is a dog-like robot from the many-tentacled Sony Corp. and that it has spawned a legion of imitators. While Sony has gone on the record to say that it sees the latter as "tributes" rather than ripoffs, there's no avoiding the fact that -- 100,000 sales notwithstanding -- the original two series of Aibos are expensive. That has now been addressed in the shape of two cheaper additions to the range. Apparently, Latte (the grey one) and Macaron (the cream one) come with pre-programmed cute and mischievous personalities, respectively, but that's not why we like them so much. Sure, they're not quite as advanced as their predecessors, but the marketing from Sony Entertainment Robot Co. is spot-on: Aside from the more affordable price, these Aibos are available on Main Street for the first time, yet still retain the brand's fun factor and "must-have" qualities.

Product: Sharp Mebius PC-MT1-H1
Great Buy For: The "style over substance" follower
Price: Open -- around JPY170,000

Sharp has been refining its Mebius series for some years now, gradually paring the notebooks down from huge bricks five years ago to this latest supermodel-slim iteration. In terms of innovation, it doesn't quite match the new Fiva, but Sharp's offering certainly feels like a "real" computer from the off. Before launch, Sharp had been providing tasters with in-store displays of cardboard Mebiuses (Mebii?) looking little thicker than a few sheets of paper. When the real thing finally hit the streets, we weren't disappointed -- 19-mm thick (that's around 3/4 inch) yet solid and good looking, a winning combination. The screen on this Mebius is an excellent 12.1-inch TFT (Sharp is a leader in TFT technology, after all), and the other components are up to scratch, too. 128 Mb of memory, a 56-K modem, and a LAN port combine with a slightly underpowered (strangely, the norm in Japan) 500-MHz PIII CPU to make a tempting package. The OS is Windows Me and, lest we forget, it has a keyboard that pops up on little springs to give a superb typing experience when the lid is opened.

Product: Sony Bipedal Robot SDR-3X
Great Buy For: The aspirational thinker
Price: Prototype only

If Aibo's just a touch too down-to-earth for your tastes, how about Sony's other robot, the bipedal SDR-3X? Admittedly, it's still a prototype, but it offers a few pointers toward the future of domestic robots. The SDR-3X manages that trickiest of tasks -- walking on two legs -- with aplomb, thanks to three new joint-controlling actuator motors developed by Sony. The robot's brain is a 64-bit RISC chip and it has 32 Mb of DRAM, as well as a PC card slot and room for two of Sony's ubiquitous Memory Sticks. It manages to remain upright using data from a variety of sensors and can do its thing even on sloped ground. Voice recognition tops off an interesting little package -- we can't wait to see if Sony ever markets the SDR-3X or one of its descendants.

Product: Fujifilm FinePix 50i
Great Buy For: The music-loving shutterbug
Price: Open -- around JPY55,000

Although no longer brand new, our digital camera choice for this year has to be Fujifilm's FinePix 50i, by virtue of its outstanding styling and, well, its sheer desirability. Not content with producing a very respectable 2.4-megapixel camera, Fujifilm has shoehorned in a full-featured MP3 player too. Music can be stored on an SD memory card for playback through headphones -- copy protection is courtesy of NTT's InfoBind technology, which binds the files to a particular SD card to prevent copying. It isn't unique in offering up to 80 seconds of movie recording and audio captioning for each snapshot, but the PC link cradle that doubles as a charger is particularly stylish.

Product: Recette cinnamon bread
Great Buy For: The Sumo wrestler who's tired of chanko nabe
Price: From JPY2,000

Food in Japan is big business -- a typical evening's TV programming features a smorgasbord of food shows, and there is scarcely a street in the country without at least one restaurant. Particularly big are sweet treats, which is a market into which Meiko Tanaka hoped to make inroads two years ago when she set up her Tokyo bakery, Recette. The business has done well, but we're most intrigued by Tanaka's online-only product: a cinnamon bread she calls @Cinnamon. She says: "I knew @Cinnamon would be a big hit if I sold it in the store, but I wanted to make a different store on the Web, and I knew this bread would make the online store more special." We like the fact that she's prepared to go out on a limb and offer a product online that can't be bought over the counter. In fact, her online offerings have expanded this year to include limited-edition loaves she calls @Vanilla (JPY3,000) and @Berry (JPY1,400). Her store's open for business at www.recette.co.jp.

Product: Sharp Zaurus MI-E21
Great Buy For: The gadget freak
Price: Open -- around JPY60,000

Sharp's latest Zaurus is being touted as a "Personal Information Tool," rather than a PDA. When it launched in August, it appeared to come with more options than a typical family car, thereby giving the impression that it was either a)incomplete or b)horribly geeky. Thankfully, neither is true. One of the E21's headline features is that it can record television via its optional video recording card, although quite why you'd want to do this on a handheld is beyond us. Putting aside doubts over the sanity of some applications, the core product itself is excellent, particularly the 65,000-color screen and the slide-out keyboard. Although the E21 has only 32 Mb of onboard memory (15 Mb useable), it can accommodate both Compact Flash and SD memory cards, which are perhaps most useful for the onboard audio player. It sports the full complement of Internet tools and has a pretty accurate handwriting recognition system.

Product: Sony RDR-A1 DVD recorder
Great Buy For: The square-eyed goggler
Price: Open -- around JPY200,000

DVD has been poised to finally knock the geriatric VHS off its pedestal for at least three years now, but it has always been held back in the home recording market by the lack of an agreed standard. Therefore, when Sony's RDR-A1 came along and proved capable of handling regular DVDs, DVD-RW, DVD-R, CD-RW, CD-R, VCDs, and audio CDs, we sat up and took note. Although it doesn't account for the rival DVD-RAM format, this machine covers enough bases to possibly tip the scales in its favor. Sony's discs allow for up to two hours of high-quality images, but do force a choice at the outset. Either you choose VR mode, which allows you to edit your clips at the end of the process (ideal for camcorder input via the i-Link port) or Video mode, which doesn't permit editing, but does allow the disc to be read in different machines.

Product: Sony VPL-HS1 projector
Great Buy For: The home cinema buff
Price: Open -- around JPY250,000

As usual, Sony continues to excel in every field it enters, and the projector market is no exception.

Although most folks will think of projectors in a corporate setting for presentations, Sony is aiming this one squarely at home users. The "Cineza" (Sony's moniker for the VPL-HS1) is the first projector we've seen that can project a uniform image without being directly in front of the screen. This trick is called "Side Shot" and is simple, but effective -- it just adjusts the horizontal projection angle to produce normal, rectangular images. The result is that you can put the projector wherever suits you best and avoid viewers clustering to the sides of the room, while the projector takes center stage. As it's a Sony, you get a Memory Stick slot, too.

Product: Panasonic DMR-E20 DVD video recorder
Great Buy For: The time traveler
Price: Open -- around JPY100,000

Unlike sony's rdr-a1, Panasonic's DMR-E20 can write to DVD-RAM and DVD-R, but not DVD-RW. The use of DVD-R means that discs can be played in most other machines, coming at the expense of all but the most basic editing facilities, while DVD-RAM offers much more limited compatibility. Format flexibility isn't the strong point of the E20; instead, Panasonic is pushing its ability to record and playback simultaneously. This opens the door to time shifting la the PVR (Personal Video Recorder), such as TiVo. Up to six hours of footage can be squeezed onto a blank 4.7-Gb disc, while there is also support for VCRPlus+ codes to aid your viewing extravaganza. A nice device that represents the way ahead, rather than the Holy Grail.

Product: Panasonic KX-GP1
Great Buy For: The lost soul in your life
Price: JPY148,000

Finally, we come to our favorite product of the year, Panasonic's wonderfully gadgety new car navigation system. The KX-GP1 is the world's first car navigation system to flip-flop like a transformer robot and become a handheld GPS device. It manages this by having a detachable screen section with a rechargeable battery. The fun doesn't stop there -- Panasonic also offers an optional TV tuner and an SD memory card slot. The benefits of the former are dubious, but the latter means the KX-GP1 can do all manner of exciting things other than saving your bacon when lost in the woods. It can hook up to a mobile phone for a spot of impromptu emailing and can even play your stored digital music -- what more could we ask for?

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