January's coolest gadgets

Phones become more useful, VoIP earns its stripes, and a new rugged laptop

With the new year comes a lot of buzz from the phone industry. Not only are regular cell phones improving by getting smaller, smarter and lighter but a host of new network services, like higher-speed data transmission, are making them potentially more useful. There's also a new breed of handset packing digital TV reception, and you can find some examples of these in this month's hot gadgets round-up. Looking ahead to the rest of the year we're sure to see more advanced phones with features like VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) telephony too.

The year will also be, like 2006, marked by severe price competition. That means in some cases that the products you want will be cheaper and in other cases the price will remain unchanged but the number of features increased. It's been happening for the last couple of years and -- much to the dismay of gadget makers -- looks set to continue as they all battle to become king of the digital age.

Samsung TPEG Cell Phone

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. has developed a cell phone capable of receiving real-time traffic information using a new system called TPEG. The SPH-B5800 phone can receive and decode the information broadcast using the Transport Protocol Experts Group format that was developed in Europe in the late 1990s and is already in use in South Korea. The phone updates travel information every five minutes and can also display the TV stations broadcast through the country's Satellite DMB system. It went on sale in South Korea in December for around US$600 and includes a 2-megapixel camera, 330,000 word dictionary, and 2-inch color TFT (thin-film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display) screen. It measures 96 millimeters by 46 mm by 16 mm and weighs 96 grams. It won't be available overseas.

Toshiba Gigabeat V-series

Toshiba Corp.'s out to impress with the new Gigabeat V-series models. Available in both 30G-byte (V30E) and 60G-byte (V60E) models, the hard-disk drive players have a 3.5-inch QVGA (320 pixels by 240 pixels) resolution display that occupies most of the front panel. It will play a host of music and video formats including Windows Media, WMA9 Lossless, MP3 and WAV audio files including those encoded with Windows Media DRM10 and it can also show JPEG images. The video playback is a little disappointing as it's limited to Windows Media Video files. Also included is a tuner for Japan's mobile digital TV service, called "OneSeg," and the device can record TV shows off-air for later viewing. The on-screen interface is in Japanese or English and it's been on sale in Japan since late November for ¥49,800 (V30E) and ¥59,800 (V60E) (US$419 and $503, respectively). There's no word on international launch plans.

Panasonic ToughBook Laptop PC

Drop it, bang it, crash it, do just about anything you like with the latest ToughBook laptop computers from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic). Two models are available, the 19- and 30-series, and each is based around an Intel Centrino Duo processor. Both can withstand a drop of 90 centimeters and are resistant to shock, vibration, water and dust. The 19-series model is a convertible with a touchscreen while the 30-series model includes a super-bright (1,000 nits) LCD (liquid crystal display) panel that should make it easy to use outdoors. They'll be on sale in Japan in February and will cost around ¥450,000 for the 30-series computer and ¥300,000 (US$2,526) for the 19-series. They are available now in the U.S.

Samsung Yepp T9 Music Player

The latest addition to Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s Yepp T9 line of digital music players is a model with 8G bytes of memory. That's double the capacity of the previous top-of-the-line model. Like the earlier models it has a 1.8-inch LCD (liquid crystal display), is 11 millimeters thick and has a Bluetooth wireless link to headphones. It costs 375,000 won (US$408) in South Korea. There's no word on when it will be available internationally although lower capacity models are already out, so it shouldn't be far off.

Canon Network Camera

If you need to monitor somewhere that's handy to an Ethernet connection then network cameras like Canon Inc.'s new VB-C300 are great. They plug into an Ethernet connection and stream video to a computer at the other end. Features include a 2.4x optical zoom and autofocus. Canon has added a day and night mode which switches automatically to provide a better picture at the respective time. The camera is mounted on a bracket that provides for 170 degrees of pan in each direction and tilt of 25 degrees in one direction and 90 degrees in the other. Security sensors can also be connected, as can a speaker, so a real-time audio feed can be broadcast by the camera to the area under surveillance. It will be on sale in Japan in March and will cost around ¥145,000 (US$1,221).

NEC HSDPA Cell Phone

Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. has just launched its HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) network providing downloads of up to 1.8M bps (bits per second) and uploads of 384K bps. To coincide with the launch NEC Corp. has launched its chunky-looking N902iX cell phone. The handset also supports the DCMX service that means it can be used to make credit payments in some shops. It is available now and costs around ¥20,000 (US$168) although the price depends on carrier incentives and discounts. It won't work outside of Japan.

Sharp Aquos Cell Phone

Sharp Corp.'s latest cell phone for Japanese carrier Softbank Mobile proudly carries the Aquos badge that the company uses on its LCD (liquid crystal display) TVs. The phone packs a 3-inch widescreen display panel based on the same technology used in the TV sets and includes a tuner for the mobile digital TV service, so it's almost like having an Aquos TV in your pocket. Other features of the handset include dual-mode WCDMA/GSM (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access/Global System for Mobile Communications), Bluetooth, 2-megapixel camera and a browser for conventional Web sites. The price hasn't been announced yet.

R&D Corner: Hitachi Color E-paper

Commuters in Tokyo got a chance in December to experience some cutting-edge display technology -- but they had to look hard to see it. Three commuter trains each carried one advertisement panel in which the traditional paper was replaced by an 13.1-inch e-paper panel made by Hitachi Ltd. and Bridgestone Corp. However the displays, while technologically advanced, proved difficult to read during a demonstration. Inside each display is an 8M-byte memory that can hold 37 advertisements, which cycle. So it's early days for e-paper but with a little more work the displays could be at the point where they start replacing traditional ads, and that could save some big money for the railway company. Each of the trains carries 1,414 advertisements and, with the exception of 96 that are on LCD displays, the rest are all paper and need to be changed by hand.