The end of the year provides us with the perfect excuse to look back at some of the coolest gadgets that have come out of the consumer electronics giants of east Asia in the last year. As you might expect, the continuing convergence of all sorts of products into smaller and more functional devices was a big theme in 2007. Some of the gadgets also reminded us of the importance of services that often go hand-in-hand with hardware and are a big but often forgotten part of the "cool factor" we attach to such products. Take for example Casio's Exilim EX-S880. Like many other digital still cameras on the market it does a good job of shooting video but Casio innovated by adding in a capture mode that records videos in the format preferred by YouTube. Combined with a desktop application to upload the videos, this means that movies can be online minutes after you've shot them and with nothing more than a couple of mouse clicks.
On the hardware side, there's been plenty of impressive gadgets and we've also witnessed the birth of a completely new product category: OLED (organic light emitting diode) televisions. Several companies have been promising these for years and in the end it was Sony that made it first to market. You've got to see this TV to fully appreciate its coolness! At just 3 millimeters thick, the TV was the star of October's Ceatec show in Japan and leads off our look back at the coolest gadgets of 2007.
Sony OLED TV
Without a doubt the coolest product of the year was Sony's OLED TV. First shown as a prototype at CES in January, the commercial version came along in October and didn't disappoint -- except perhaps on price. The set has an 11-inch OLED panel and is 3mm thick. OLEDs offer several advantages over LCD and PDP technology, including wider viewing angles, faster response time, and better contrast and colors. However, the technology is difficult to manufacture and the OLED material degrades over time. Sony said the XEL-1 has a viewing life of 30,000 hours, which allows a user to watch eight hours of television every day for 10 years. The television went on sale in Japan on Dec. 1 for ¥200,000 (US$1,750) and promptly sold out. It's not only a cool TV set but perhaps the first product for a few years from Sony that really makes you say "wow". After the turmoil of recent years could Sony finally have its mojo back?
Toshiba Dynabook SS RX1
It may not look very special at first glance, but pick up the Dynabook SS RX1 (called the Portege R500 in some markets) and you'll immediately realize why it was one of the coolest laptop PCs we saw all year. This 12.1-inch screen laptop weighs just 768 grams in its lightest configuration -- more than 100 grams lighter than Sony's impressive Vaio G laptop. At the computer's heart lies a 1.06GHz Intel Core2 Duo processor and on some models you'll also find 802.11n Wi-Fi. Toshiba has put a lot of work into smart design so that it's thin and light. The laptop has also shed a few grams thanks to the use of a 64G-byte solid-state disk (SSD) in place of a conventional hard-disk drive. It costs around US$2,000.
Casio YouTube digital still camera
Casio brought up the first digital cameras with a video mode optimized for YouTube: the Exilim EX-S880 and EX-Z77. Getting a clip onto YouTube is easy: Shoot it, put the camera in the dock, and click a couple of times on the PC uploader application and you're done. The EX-S880 can take 8.1-megapixel images, has a 3X optical zoom and costs about US$300. YouTube mode has subsequently made it into other Casio models. The Casio deal with YouTube gave them exclusivity until the end of the year so you can look for it in devices from other makers in 2008.
NEC Lui concept PC
Imagine most of the PC innovations you've seen in the last few years thrown together inside a single box and you start to get an idea of what the Lui from NEC is all about. The machine is a PC running Windows Vista that can also act as a home server. It has two digital HDTV tuners, so you can watch one channel while you record another. It has DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connectivity so that programming -- live or recorded -- can be streamed to other DLNA devices over Ethernet, and it will come with a Blu-ray Disc writer so that TV shows can be copied to disc. Users outside the home can log into the server and access content in the same way Slingbox or Location Free TV works. The PC is due on the Japanese market in the first half of 2008 at a price yet to be announced. NEC is one of Japan's leading PC makers despite not being well known for PCs in all countries.
Hitachi Blu-ray Disc camcorder
The first camcorders based on an 8-centimeter Blu-ray Disc appeared in 2007 from an unlikely vendor: Hitachi. The company launched two models, the DZ-BD70 based solely on disc and the DZ-BD7H, which adds a 30G-byte hard disk drive. A single-sided 8 cm recordable (BD-R) or rewritable (BD-RE) disc can store about an hour of footage shot in full high-definition quality (1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels). The hybrid model can store an additional four hours of high-definition video on its hard-disk drive. The cameras have a 10X optical zoom lens, a 2.7-inch widescreen monitor and a viewfinder. Additionally, the cameras can be used to take still images at up to 4.3 megapixel resolution (2,400 pixels by 1,800 pixels). The DZ-BD70 costs about US$1,299 and the DZ-BD7H about US$1,499.
Nissan Pivo 2
From Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show came the impressive Pivo 2 concept car. Fully electric, it has a cab that can rotate through 360 degrees and can also twist its wheels around so that it can move into parking spaces sideways. Equally impressive is Pivo-kun, the robot embedded in the car's dash. Since Pivo-kun is equipped with voice recognition, the driver can ask questions like the location of the nearest parking lot. Its facial recognition has an important safety aspect: It monitors the driver's face for signs of tiredness and suggests a rest if one is needed. More than that, it provides virtual companionship to the driver and that should mean safer roads -- Nissan research shows happy drivers have fewer accidents. Look for cars like Pivo 2 on city streets around 2015.
NTT DoCoMo Raku-Raku Phone Basic
We love NTT DoCoMo's Raku-Raku Phone Basic for its lack of gadgets. Developed by Fujitsu, the handset is designed to appeal to users for whom the dizzying array of functions, features and buttons on current phones are just too much. The buttons and on-screen text are bigger than conventional cell phones and there are three dedicated speed-dial buttons. The phone includes a neat-sounding "slow voice" function that can slow the speed of the other person's voice without slowing down the conversation (it slows the speech and shortens the gaps between words to compensate) and "clear voice" which automatically adjusts clarity and the ringtone volume to match the surroundings -- now why don't all phones have that?
Samsung TPEG Cell Phone
Samsung Electronics 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, which 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 receive TV via the country's Satellite DMB system. It went on sale in South Korea at the beginning of the year 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.
World's smallest high-def camcorder
Panasonic claimed headlines with what it said was the world's smallest camcorder. The HDC-SD7 measures 52 millimeters by 110 mm by 87 mm and weighs 350 grams. One of the secrets to its small size is the use of an SD memory card as a recording medium. The electronics and socket needed for a flash card take up much less space than a DVD or hard-disk drive. It packs three CCD (charge coupled device) sensors behind a 10X zoom lens and has a 2.7-inch widescreen LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor. It can record full HD (1,920 pixel by 1,080 pixel) MPEG4 AVC/H.264 video at a range of quality levels. At the average 9M bps (bit per second) rate, a 4G-byte SD card can hold up to 60 minutes of video. It costs about ¥140,000 (US$1,175) in Japan.
Sony Video Walkman with TV
The year finally brought from Sony a Walkman with video support and then later in the year an upgraded model with mobile digital TV viewing and recording. It's an important addition because Apple's iPod, which is the biggest competitor for the devices, doesn't offer TV reception. The "OneSeg" TV system has proved very popular in Japan and can now be found in many portable gadgets including cell phones, laptop PCs, car navigation systems and even electronic dictionaries. The only difference between the three new Walkman devices with TV is their memory capacity. The NW-A916 has 4G bytes of memory, the NW-A918 has 8G bytes and the NW-A919 16G bytes. Compared to the last players the screen size has been increased to 2.4-inches from 2-inches. They went on sale in November and the NW-A916 costs about ¥30,000 (US$260), the NW-A918 ¥35,000 and the NW-A919 ¥45,000.
IDG News Service , Tokyo Bureau