NEWS: September's coolest gadgets

When it comes to new gadgets there's nothing better than a product that breaks ground in a market sector or does something genuinely new.

This month we're got examples of both: Sony's latest LCD (liquid crystal display) that's less than a centimeter thick and the first digital still camera to bridge the gap between compact point-and-shoot models and bulkier SLRs (single lens reflex) with interchangeable lenses. The Sony ZX-1 is pushing the boundaries of the flat-panel TV market where screen-size is no-longer everything. After Sharp rolled out its 108-inch display there was pretty much nowhere for LCD (liquid crystal display) makers to go because larger screens aren't mechanically possible with current production lines. So now producers have turned their focus on making displays thinner. Sony managed its jump with some engineering cleverness but will need to stay sharp -- the same day it unveiled the ZX-1 TVs Dutch electronics company Philips detailed an even-thinner 8mm LCD TV, but the Philips set is still only a prototype. In the digital still camera market the Photokina show in Germany provided a push for camera makers to release new models including Panasonic's Lumix G1. It's the first camera to offer a relatively compact body while also supporting interchangeable lenses and if the competition in the camera market keeps up it won't be the last. Panasonic Lumix G1 digital camera In the race to carve out a niche in the competitive digital camera market, Panasonic has unveiled the Lumix DMC-G1, which straddles the boundary between point-and-shoot and larger SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. Rather than an optical viewfinder you get a live view from the sensor on both a rear 3-inch display and a high-definition LCD viewfinder. This simpler design means the DMC-G1 weighs just 385 grams, around half that of a conventional SLR. It's also the first camera based on the new Micro Four Thirds System lens mount but Four Thirds System lenses can be used with an adapter. It will launch in major markets in October and will cost around €800 (US$1,140) in Europe, and a bargain US$800 in the US. It's aimed at casual users who want to take better pictures than is possible with a compact camera but don't want a bulky SLR. Sony Alpha 900 digital SLR Two years after entering the digital single lens reflex camera market, Sony has capped off its Alpha range of cameras with the Alpha 900, a high-end model that features a full-frame sensor and 24.6-megapixel resolution. Sony is aiming the camera at serious photographers and it carries a price to match: around US$3,000 for the body alone. The full-frame sensor, named so because its the same size as a 35mm film frame, integrates 6,000 analog-to-digital convertors in the chip to reduce picture noise, according to Sony. One neat feature is the ability to evaluate different settings without taking multiple shots. By pressing the depth-of-field button the camera grabs a preview image then, by using the 3-inch display on the rear, it's possible to try different white balance settings and adjust the dynamic range and exposure compensation before taking an actual shot. The Alpha 900 will be available later this year. In Europe it will launch in October and in the U.S. in November. Nikon D90 digital SLR In the battle of digital SLRs (single lens reflex) cameras Nikon's latest salvo comes in the shape of the D90, the updated version of the D80 in Nikon's range. The camera's claim to fame is that it's the first digital single-lens reflex camera capable of shooting high-definition video. The resolution on the movies is 1,280 pixels by 720 pixels at 24 frames per second, so it won't replace a dedicated video camera but is an intriguing feature especially when you consider the ability to change the lens on the camera. One big difference in video mode: you're limited to manual focus only. The camera will be available this month in the U.S. and other markets and the body alone will cost around US$1,000. Later this year an add-on GPS (global positioning system) unit will be available so all photos are automatically geo-tagged. World's thinnest LCD TV from Sony Sony's ZX-1 is a 40-inch TV that's just 9.9 millimeters thin -- less than half of competing sets. The big jump was managed by removing the backlight from behind the LCD panel and placing it around the side of the screen. It means a thinner TV but also restricted the screen size to 40-inches. Any larger, and the light doesn't reach the center of the screen. Another secret to its size is that the TV tuner and some other signal processing technology have been removed from the TV case and put into a stand-alone unit. To connect the TV to the box Sony has developed a wireless transmission system that is capable of sending high-definition video over a distance of around 30 meters. Look for it in Europe and Japan from November. In Japan it will cost ¥490,000 (US$4,542). Pricing for Europe wasn't available. LG Network Attached Storage unit LG is targeting home and small-office/home-office (SOHO) users with a network-attached storage (NAS) server. Among the main features of the N4B1, which will go on sale in major markets from December, is the ability to automatically download data from USB storage devices, memory cards, digital still cameras, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs or any other storage media that is connected to it. Version management software helps keep track of the files it has already downloaded so only new ones are pulled into and cataloged in its disc storage. When discs are ripped they become virtual discs that appear to all users on the local network and mean data can be shared between many users. The N4B1 will also automatically burn little-used files onto Blu-ray Discs and can accommodate up to 4 drives and 4T-bytes of data. Pricing has not yet been decided. Samsung X360 laptop Samsung's latest laptop was ushered in under the slogan "Lighter than Air," a subtle reference to Apple's Macbook Air which shares a similar 13.3-inch screen but is 90 grams heavier than the new Samsung laptop. To put that into perspective, it's about the weight of a cell phone. Inside sits an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and there's a 128G-byte SSD (solid-state drive). SSDs are based on flash memory and should allow PCs to start and shutdown faster than laptops with hard-disk drives. Other features include a webcam, Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. Battery life on the X360 is between 6 hours and 10 hours depending on usage, according to Samsung. It will be launched in September in the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia and Hong Kong. Pricing and launch details for other markets were not announced. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Apple laptop still beats the Samsung machine when it comes to overall size. Sony high-def camcorders Sony unveiled a couple of DV-tape based, high-definition camcorders: the HDR-FX1000 is aimed at the high-end consumer market, with the HVR-Z5J at the professional market. Both cameras share the same look and feel as many other Sony camcorders in the same portion of the market including the distinctive LCD panel placement next to the microphone above the main camera body. They have Sony G-series lenses with 20X optical zoom in front of 3-CMOS optical pick-up sensors and Sony's Exmor image processing chip. The HVR-Z5J comes with some additional features for professional users. There are, for example, XLR audio inputs and the camera can handle the DVCAM format in addition to DV/HDV. It is also compatible with both the PAL and NTSC color systems. The HDR-FX1000 will go on sale in Japan on Nov. 10 and will cost around ¥400,000 (US$3,700). The HVR-Z5J will be available from early December for ¥554,400 (US$5,138). They should be heading to other regions but precise international launch timing wasn't announced. Toshiba Cell TV We got a chance this month to see Toshiba's latest prototype TV based on the powerful Cell processor and it had a new feature over the version shown at CES back in January. It can automatically analyze and display multiple chapters of a TV show stored on a hard disk drive. The set decoded 5 high-def streams simultaneously and played them back on-screen. One was the main picture and the other four were for navigation to different chapters. We also got a clue to a launch date: autumn 2009 in Japan. That puts is about a year away from launch so you'd better get saving.

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Martyn Williams

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