Ikea Is Pro-Vinyl

The furniture retailer has announced that they will soon offer, gasp, a turntable

By Low Teck Mee

Is there anything for the home that Ikea will not offer? I have bought bookshelves, chairs, and kitchen ware from Ikea, but never electronic devices. And certainly nothing close to audio equipment, such as a turntable, although, to be sure, I was tempted by their speakers. The furniture giant announced a week ago that their first turntable will be available in fall this year. I am unable to confirm if it will be sold on our shores then. One of their speakers I did consider is the Symfonisk “picture frame with Wi-Fi speaker”, launched a year ago, but it was not released here until recently. I, therefore, fear that I won’t get to audition the turntable till next December.

The vinyl player is part of the new Obegränsad collection that includes a table (for “music production at home”, with stands that can accommodate speakers at ear level!) and a chair (that “represents the perfect balance of form and function”). Has Ikea come into some data that shows people spending more time at home listening to and recording music on, say Spotify and Soundtrap respectively? The turntable is, interestingly, co-designed with the electronic dance music biggie Swedish House Mafia, which is unlike the Symfonisk speaker series, conceived in collaboration with the American audio products manufacturer Sonos. I would have expected Ikea to produce their first turntable with, say, Audio-Technica (based on their affordable AT-LP60XBT-BK, perhaps?), but they went with musicians, not that that’s a bad thing. Just not sure how that would turn out, sound wise. Hopefully, rhythmic and expressive.

No specs have been released by Ikea with regards to the turntable, other than it “has a sleek, minimal style, and works with the ENEBY speaker (their earlier Bluetooth audio boxes that are recognisable by their squareness)”. I think one of the possible appeals of the Obegränsad turntable is the price; it is likely affordable. In terms of looks (as seen in the official photographs), I fear it might be a bit too chunky for my taste, after using my first and only turntable, the slender (and very capable) Planar 1 from the British maker Rega Research, for so many years. Perhaps, the Ikea model would look more fetching on their Kallax shelves? I am just guessing.

Watch this space for more information—and price—on the Obegränsad turntable. Product photo: Ikea

A Camera That Makes Calls

The new Sony Xperia 1 IV really deserves more fans. Unfortunately, the price is too prohibitive

The sleek Sony Xperia 1 IV

By Low Teck Mee

It has been a while since I contributed to this site. Not that I have been out of action, but, there is, to me, not that much happening in the gadget world these days to write about. Few things could get me excited (what more do we really need?), even when I still love my tech toys. Sure, there are stuff constantly coming out, but they are mostly not game-changers, just small upgrades to existing product churns. Digital devices are getting less appealing also because they seem to be everywhere, across all price points. Even luxury/fashion brands, with no history in hi-tech gadgetry, are putting out kit and caboodle that do nothing to enhance their branding. One comes to mind: Louis Vuitton, and their new flashy Horizon earphone (or the supremely-Beng Light Up speaker). Sure, the buds are made by the New York audio firm of Master and Dynamic, but a discerning ear would go for the brand’s MW07 model (which the Horizon is based on, anyway) for less than a third of what LV is asking for, with no loss of audiophile cred. I won’t be surprised that LV would be offering smartphones in time to come.

Still, a monogrammed phone (or any flashily branded) is never an object I’d desire. When it comes to smartphone, I have a happy relationship with the Sony Xperia series for so long, despite the brand’s waning (and them climbing) popularity, that a close friend of mine—an iPhone diehard—even remarked, “actually, I don’t know anyone who uses a Sony phone except you.” True, you don’t see that many Xperias in the hands of phone zombies. But, I have been sold on the Sony handphone (yep, it’s been that long) aesthetic that it’s hard for me to wean myself off it (to be sure, I have used phones from other makers, but I could never decamp). How long? Since Sony sold their phones branded as Sony, way before they went into partnership with Ericsson in 2001 and labelled their products with the ungainly moniker Sony Ericsson. Smartphone users today, probably don’t even remember the joint-venture products (Sony acquired the Ericsson shares in 2012, and today all their consumer and professional merchandise come under Sony Corporation), but my personal history with Sony communication devices goes way, way back—to the Sony CMD Z1 (with the unique fold-down microphone stick) and, my favourite till today, the CMD Z5 (the first music-player phone), released in 2000, both with my favourite feature the Jog Dial. I did say, it’s been long!

For the ken of today’s smartphone users, let’s stick to the Sony Xperia, a more familiar name. As you would have figured, I have been a user of the Xperia phones, too, since its inception in 2008. I have always liked Sony’s minimalist design language for Xperia (a clear departure from the sometimes too gimmicky-looking Sony Ericsson phones), and have remained a firm user since the under-rated X10 of the following year. But it is in the Xperia 1 series that I find Sony offering their most compelling smartphones. In 2019, the company decided to ditch the letters of their previous models (after being criticised for years for the confusing naming convention) with a simple number ‘1’. It has remained their flagship phone, and, more and more, prohibitively expensive top-of-the-line. And now, after three iterations of the ‘1’, their fourth is finally out (pre-ordering was available about a month ago). For those who have not found even a vestige of love for the Xperia 1, the latest Xperia IV will not tug at heartstrings, and worse, they won’t look significantly different from previous versions.

To be frank, there is no reason for me to upgrade to the Xperia IV. I am currently using the Xperia II (I have skipped the Xperia III as I did not think that it significantly trumped the model before), and I am pleased with it; I am, in fact, still holding on to the very capable Xperia 1, which now sits on my bedside table, where it serves as alarm clock and movie screen (with the 21:9 aspect ratio and 4K definition of 3,840 horizontal pixels, a very competent one). The life cycle of mobile phones, as the market research firm Kantar Worldpanel reported in 2019, has been “on the uptrend”: people were, and are, clearly keeping their devices longer. To me, Sony makes lasting smartphones: The Xperia Z Ultra from 2013 that I own is, believe it or not, still working! Normally, I would be intrigued by new phone releases, but I do not quickly succumb to them. The Xperia IV, however, has one thing going for it that I find hard to resist: “the world’s first true optical zoom lens” (even if, to some, is debatable). Although I am the only one among my friends still totting an actual camera (compact) around, I do find an even more adept smartphone-shooter tremendously tempting.

The triple-lens camera (above) of Xperia IV is clearly a draw and, I am certain, the selling point, but it’s the optical zoom (85-125mm) that’s the star. Now, I can depend less on the somewhat inconsistent digital zoom of the past (not just on the Xperia). Some reviewers consider Sony’s claim of being the first to be “brazen”. There are, of course, smartphones with optical zooms before the Xperia IV, such as the iPhone 13 Max Pro, Galaxy S22 Ultra, and Pixel 6 Pro, but it is arguable if optical zoom was actually applicable to the latter three. I generalise here: most phones’ optical zooms are based on a single focal length. If one touts 3X zoom, the image at 3X would be lossless, but not at 1.5, 2, or 2.5 times. The rest are likely digital zooms. This is where the beauty of the Xperia IV lies: actual telephoto camera lens within the 8.2mm-thin body that can protract and retract to zoom in and out (the Xperia III used a similar lens, but it was useful at only two fixed positions), and shoot different proximities to the subject without degrading image quality. In use, the optical zoom is really rather fast, although it is not as responsive as what I am used to on an actual camera.

Two other reasons why I stick with Sony Xperia (other than habit and the familiarity of form) are the now-curiously dated features of a headphone jack and a slot for expandable storage (up to 1TB to boost the onboard of 256GB. Yes, I avoid keeping anything in the cloud). There is, additionally, the phone’s overall design which has not changed drastically since the introduction of their OmniBalance design philosophy of 2012: Minimalist—a bad word these days, I’m afraid—and discreet. I also like the lens placement in the rear. Unlike other makers that prefer massive squares, definitely-noticeable circles, or a bar across, Sony has kept to a clean and simple strip on the left side of the phone. It’s this little tempering with the shape and exterior of Xperia phones that has kept me returning to them, even with the sometimes disapproving looks I get when I hold one in my hand. I like that the Xperia 1 IV is not different in looks from its predecessor (so no one knows I have upgraded, including the missus!), except the eye-watering price. And that it and its past iterations could never be thought to be iPhone killers. A toast to that. And, the optical zoom, of course.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Sony Xperia IV, SGD1,969, in black or purple, is now available at Sony stores. Photos: Low Teck Mee

Here Comes RoboDog

It’s sent out to make sure that when you’re out to walk in the park, or jog, you’re not pulling up to the bumper in front of you. But does it bark?

 

Robot dog Lima 002The robot dog seen doing its rounds at Bishan park

By Low Teck Mee

We do have a knack for doing things to get noticed. These days it isn’t enough, for example, that we retain the title of the World’s Best Airport for Changi (the now empty Jewel, no doubt, an added reason for the clinch), we need to be the World’s First Country to Deploy a Robot Dog to patrol our parks as part of the hi-tech effort to fight COVID-19. Identified as Lima 002 on its body and produced by the American engineering and robotics design outfit Boston Dynamics, this headless, four-legged creature seemed to me destined to be the next Merlion, only way more mobile.

NParks’ deployment of this creature in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park has naturally created a lot of press for SG, still in the very midst of bringing COVID-19 infection numbers down and making sure you keep your safe distance from me. But when it gets a roughly 90-sec mention in A Late Show with Stephen Colbert at Home, we seemed to be heady with pride, just as we were when our pandemic case detection efforts were deemed “gold standard” by a Harvard University study. The gold has now lost its sheen, but something else looks poised to shine forth. “Robot dog enforcement—that must be so cool,” Mr Colbert enthused, before showing a footage from Black Mirror, the 2011 British television series (available on Netflix, if you are curious) as a mistaken-identity joke.

In that 2017 season-four episode called Metalhead, which, interestingly, was filmed in black and white, we follow a speak-not-quite-much character Bella in a world that appears to be coming to a horrific, death-galore end. What’s frightening for me is Bella’s harrowing run from robot dogs gone amok. Series creator Charlie Brooker admitted to Entertainment Weekly that the mechanical creatures in the show was actually inspired by the Boston Dynamics canid that goes by the innocuous name Spot.

Metalhead robot dogThe robot beast in the Black Mirror episode Metalhead

In Metalhead, the beasts in question looked more like deformed turtles with faceted shells and long, super nimble legs. As they are so agile and so willing to kill upon sighting humans, they look terrifying, more so as they roam and slay in a world so barren and damaged that it looks positively hopeless. Black Mirror has been described as a “future shock” anthology, and if the Metalhead episode foretold a hereafter, possibly already destroyed by a virus (the backstory is not revealed, so I allow my imagination to fill in), I shudder to imagine what prelude N-Parks’ sudden deployment (also referred to as “trial”) of the Lima 002 might suggest. Stephen Colbert concluded with, “I gotta say, people would be more receptive if the dog was cuter, cuddlier, and less dystopian.” Ah, Mr Colbert, this, you see, isn’t Japan—we don’t equate cute with patrolling.

Our very own, now seen in our midst, looks exactly like Spot, in the same yellow as traffic markings on roads. It isn’t known how many of these wired creatures N-Parks have acquired or will sent out eventually, but from the videos I have seen, that one dog is enough to inspire thoughts of rage of machines! It is creepily agile, with a ready-to-pounce gallop-gait, and seems highly aware of human presence. Who knows? This could be a crime-busting ex-police dog revived as a headless cyborg safe-distancing ambassador!

At the moment the metal canine is deployed to “encourage” (other words used include “assist” and “promote”), as the media reported, social distancing. It is equipped with cameras (notice, plural!) that enable park managers to estimate the number of visitors they receive. When unsafe proximity is detected, the mutt-ranger will play a recorded message to remind visitors that safe distancing measures are applicable, even under the trees. No barking! Frankly, I’m embarrassed that after more than two months of social-distancing public notices, we still need to be reminded of where to place ourselves in a crowd, and by a mechanical animal. I am also thinking, isn’t this similar to the drones used in China to chastise people for not wearing face masks? I suppose we’re deploying (robot) dogs because drones, by now, are a tad too common. And probably won’t arouse the deep interest of WFH Stephen Colbert.

Photo: (top) Getty Images, (bottom) screen grab/Youtube

Neat Little Pouch-Bag

Dignis Borsa

While we buy all sorts of bags to carry our stuff, we do not often buy one for specific things that we carry in those bags. Sure, we have a wallet for cash and card (even those are redundant now that so many prefer Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayLah, and other e-payment conveniences), but for the other bag inhabitants such as smartphones, power banks, or the handy USB speaker, we leave them either in a sad case, or stark naked.

A recent encounter with this Dignis ‘Borsa’ pouch-bag for digital audio players (DAP) set us thinking that everything that we place in our bag can be clothed, not just to project them from the battering we put them through in the confines of our bag, but also for better organisation and easy retrieval.

The thing is, the ‘Borsa’ does not have to be used for housing DAPs only. It’s ideal for portable external drives, pocket projectors, charging cases of wireless buds, or any digital device (even smartphones, if yours is small enough) that requires padded protection in a handsome bag. Within the bag is a felt-like case with drawstrings that can tighten the opening. The bag itself comes with a detachable leather hand strap and, in the rear, a leather belt loop that works like a carabiner.

Dignis is a Korean brand that’s known for their handmade leather cases for DAPs from makers such as Fiio and Sony. The ‘Borsa’ is unusual because it’s not designed for any specific make of DAPs and has a silhouette that gives no indication of its intended use, which, like a camera bag that does not look like a camera bag (so as to deter would-be gadget thieves), is a disguise for safer travel or commute. All in all, a nifty little armour for your digital toys.

Dignis ‘Borsa’ pouch-bag, from SGD85, is available at Zeppelin & Co, Sim Lim Square. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Just One 👗 Emoji

Today is World Emoji Day. Come 2019, emojis would have been around for 20 years. After close to two decades and more than 2,500 ideograms later, there is, interestingly, only a single dress emoji in the small, shared wardrobe

 

Fashion emojis

By Clara Wong

It’s amazing how fashionistas, Twitterers, and Instagrammers have done so well with only one dress emoji. Yes, a sole, singular, solitary sundress. Social media diehards would not repeat-post a dress that they have worn, but emoji creators would have us believe that when we’re communicating online, one belted dress is enough. Yet, no one; no KOL is complaining. Sure, there is a blouse in the offering, but as many of you would attest to, that’s not a dress. You can buy a blouse on its own, but you wouldn’t wear a blouse just by itself. A blouse is only half an outfit, an incomplete ensemble, or, as my boyfriend would say, a plug without the socket, a bolt without the nut… until I told him to stop!

Today is no-holiday World Emoji Day, an occasion that should appeal to the users/senders who have reportedly sent 814 million emoji-containing messages via mobile phones in 2016. Apple has announced that it is “celebrating” this day by offering “more than 70 new emoji characters” to their slew of gadgets millions own. These emojis include “more hair options to better represent people with red hair, gray hair and curly hair, a new emoji for bald people, and new smiley faces that bring more expression to Messages with a cold face, party face, pleading face and a face with hearts.” People do look different—hair, smiles, et al—but apparently they don’t dress differently.

Emoji clothing & accessoriesThirty items in clothing and accessories emojis

Give or take an item or two, Apple and all other OSes and apps have mostly availed about eight articles of clothing in their tiny selection. Under the category of Clothing and Accessories, which falls under Smileys and People, there are 30 items, compared to at least 88 facial expressions available (not including the selectable skin colours ascribed to each) from a reported 2,623 official Unicode emojis in 2017. What’s puzzling to me is the presence of the graduation hat or even the top hat. Oh, there’s the crown too! Are our wardrobes akin to costume shops?

To be honest, I don’t use clothing emojis at all. The limited representation does not, well, represent my wardrobe. In fact, on Line, I like it better when the earliest iteration of Cony was without clothes (okay, Cony is a sticker, not an emoji)! If, for whatever reason I have to tell the person I am WhatsApp-ing with that I am going to wear a dress, I’d have texted, “I will be wearing my striped shirting Sacai dress”, not that I would ever need to be so specific. Or, even announce that I would be wearing a dress, but you know what some friends are like: they just have to know! 🙄

Dress emojisDress, according to OSes and apps: from top left (clockwise), Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Messenger

To be fair, while there is one dress emoji used by different OS or app, each is depicted differently from the other. Still, they’re all based on a single dress silhouette, as if drawn from the result of searches. Apple’s is the most three-dimensional and realistic of the group although I am not sure who’d wear this colour that could have been derived from the chart of emulsion paint—misty teal, perhaps? It is noteworthy that while Apple has aligned itself with the fashion industry, its emojis are not terribly fashionable or fashionably attired. Twitter’s dress sports very short straps which could mean the wearer likes it very high above the bust and snug at the armpit. Facebook Messenger’s strapless piece would be a delight to those who wants fashion to be more inclusive: it is generously girthed and the bustier-bodice looks proportioned for a well-endowed woman.

The thing is, face emojis can often be more specific than words, but the dress emoji is not. A red pouting face is the face of displeasure: nothing ambiguous there. But what does Microsoft’s red-dress emoji say? It is not evocative of Valentino; it does not communicate power or passion; nor does it say you’re a creature of fashion. If anything, it suggests to me something generic, standard, common—a dress unencumbered by trends. It’s girlish, which is not surprising, considering that the majority of emoji senders are young and likely sundress-loving (reportedly between ages of 25 to 29), and hence not threatening. It’s season-less too, which could mean the dress emoji, like all emojis now honoured on World Emoji Day, are timeless—to be used year in, year out, again and again.

Two red dressesGoogle ‘red dress’ and chances are, you’ll quickly find a match to the search giant’s own emoji

The red dress offered by Microsoft is perhaps the most consistent with what you may find online. While it may not get featured in Vogue, it is likely that this dress has its place in most wardrobes. As it turns out, the opposite is true too. If you search the hashtag of this dress emoji on IG (yes, it has its own hashtag #👗), you’ll be surprised that there are few dresses, sleeveless or otherwise, and fewer still in red. So it’s true: people tag blindly. To delve into this further, I looked at Google Trend, and the data today on the red dress emoji revealed that in terms of search, Iraq showed the most interest, followed by Pakistan! Maybe the Talibans aren’t rigorously enforcing rules and maybe it’s true what they say is worn under burkas.

Fashion has always been quick to adopt the icons of the online world. Emoji-emblazoned clothing, shoes, and bags are nothing new. Even Comme des Garçons launched an emoji collection, although theirs is nothing like what is commonly used in our messages. But the reverse is not the same. Emoji designers are not looking at fashion, not even Kim Kardashian’s Kimojis (admittedly there are barely any clothes there) or Virgil Abloh’s sweats and such. Which leaves us with one dress. And, oddly, that kimono, a leftover from the time emojis were conceived and first used, nearly 20 years ago, in Japan. Clearly, those Unicoders were no Hello Kitty fans.

Small. Wireless. Powerful

Sony WF 10000X earbuds

By Low Teck Mee

Sony is a late comer when it comes to true wireless, in-ear headphones. Sure, there’s the Xperia Ear, but that’s more a personal assistant that lets you do what you want to with your phone without touching the thing. Perfect for Okay-Googling, but, as it’s only for one ear, less ideal for The XX’s I See You.

Truth be told, I gave up waiting for the release of their completely cordless, the WF 1000X. So, in the middle of this year, I gave another pair a chance: the Nakamichi MyEars True Wireless Earphones NEP-TW1 (S$299). I have been looking around for a set that won’t take a chunk out of my bank account, but it was not easy to find anything sensational that’s less than S$300. I have even considered Samsung’s not quite eye candy, the oddly triangular Gear IconX (S$298), but I have never been a Samsung user, and to pair a Samsung earphone with my non-Samsung devices seemed a poor coupling to me. Someone suggested that I try the Apple Airpod (S$238), but the unsealed earphones (sound spill!) fail to impress me as they look like oversized cotton swabs bent from over-vigorous insertion into the ear.

The Nakamichi is a nifty little earphone mainly because it is so small and it comes with a compact charging case that doubles as a battery pack, which you can use to charge any gadget that has a micro USB port, assuming there’s juice left in the case. The neat tubular buds sound a tad too muffled for my liking, but I was happy to have them accompany me on my daily commute to work, on the dastardly, unreliable MRT trains. Until, the dearer S$300+ Sony WF 1000X debuted.

Sony has it displayed in their concept store in Wisma Atria, as well as the flagship in 313@Orchard. Strangely, at both places, they are secured behind clear cases that are clearly a case of see-no-touch. Virtually all Sony headphones are available to try and the staff will urge you to, but the WF 1000X sat haughtily in their confines—out of bounds. Although deep curiosity had a tight grip on me and the WF 1000X seemed to be casting speaking glances in my direction, I was able to walk away from it. A week later, the missus, sensing my unsatisfied yearning, bought me a pair! (An emoji should be placed here, but I won’t say which one.)

Sony WF 10000X earbuds P2

The WF 1000X is now the only set of earphones I use and enjoy. To be honest, when I first held them between my thumb and index finger after extricating them from the case/charger, I was uncertain about their aesthetic attraction as they’re rather big. I had gotten quite used to the compactness of the Nakamichi that these oval shapes seemed like the Hercules in the gym that has the talent of making you feel puny. The WF 1000X are, therefore, not discreet buds that won’t invite wireless headphone virgins from starring into the entrance of your ear canal. When the missus first saw me with them, she said, not without satisfaction, “So, now you have your own ear jewellery.” I am just grateful that, for me, the black was chosen over the gold.

In the end, the pleasure of using them drowned out the self-consciousness that comes with the conspicuous buds plugged in. After the initial pairing with the phone and a music player (I use the Sony Walkman NW-A26HN), I was honestly blissed out by what flowed into my ear. The sound was warm and balanced, revealing a level of detail I had not expected from such a small pair of Bluetooth-connected cans. Could it be because of the 6mm “dome-type” driver crammed somewhere in them? Bjork’s The Gate flowed magically, wrapping my head in some place more splendid than Na’vi-land, Pandora.

What’s also appealing is that the WF 1000X comes with noise-cancelling capability. I do not know of any true wireless earphones that are similarly endowed, so this is a welcome feature for me, especially when I am easily annoyed by train commuters who use their smartphone audibly. The noise-cancelling, however, is not 100% (I’m not sure it’s even 90%), but for me it blocked out more than adequate external audio intrusion without the need to turn up the volume (I mostly kept it at the half-way mark). There is also a choice for what Sony calls “ambient sound”, perfect if you do not want to miss hearing the announcement of which station you’re approaching next.

Like many true wireless headphones, the WF 1000X is not spared connectivity issues. For some reason, the right earpiece is prone to signal drop. It’s worse when your audio source is placed in your bag or even in any one of the pockets of your pants (I assume it’s the same with skirts)—especially the rear. So, I hold it in my hand. Sometimes, when you’re informed that the headphones are on, there’s no connection. To solve this problem, I place the headphones back into the charging case, which turns them off automatically, and then remove them again, which turns them on. The connection is re-established.

If you have fat fingers like I do, then the placement of the two control buttons—one on the bottom of each side—could be a problem. The buttons are tiny, but they are positioned precisely where your thumb will rest when you need to, say, position the buds for comfort or snug fit. This means there is a good chance that you will press them and, consequently, turn the set off, or cancel the enjoyable noise-cancelling peace. Or, maybe, that’s just me: unable to treat sensitive equipment gently.

Sony WF 1000X Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones, SGD349, is available at Sony concept store at Wisma Atria and flagship at 313@Orchard. Photos: Jim Sim 

Fragrant And Loud Jumping Jack

Mr & Mrs 'George'

By Low Teck Mee

What are the chances that you may need a room fragrance diffuser and a Bluetooth-enabled speaker all concealed in one figure of a Jumping Jack. A pair of Mr & Mrs Fragrance—aka Massimo Esposito and Simona Guerini—apparently thinks it’s high.

Meet George, a cute emoji-ish figure that’s as much a hybrid device as lamps that are also USB hubs. Unlike most multi-use gadgets, George is a lot cheerier, nicer-smelling, and perpetually stands with open arms. If you’re not getting such a welcome at home from the hubby, George may be a delightful substitute.

As an aroma diffuser, it is backed by the expertise of environment perfuming experts Mr & Mrs Fragrance, an Italian couple who started in the business of selling handcrafted candles in the shape of animals made in Swaziland (yes, Swaziland, not Switzerland). After a meeting with product designer Luca Trazzi, who was able to interpret the couple’s aesthetic preference for something modern, useful, and playful, Mr & Mrs Fragrance was born.

The scents are produced in Italy and France, and are free of artificial additives and colouring that influence the smell and appearance of the liquid aromas. More importantly, these electronically-dispensed fragrances are diffused in receptacles that are amusing and attractive to place in a room. For George, capsules are inserted into a tray that ejects from his torso. The capsule idea is not unlike that of Nespresso’s, which explains the former’s moniker: George Clooney is the face of the coffee machine!

As a wireless speaker, George is less compelling. While it produces a decent sound (possibly too bright for those who like palpable bass), it may not be captivating enough for you to want to listen to Kendrick Lamar on repeat while doing housework. But the fragrance it diffuses more than makes up for the sound it emits. If only Amazon Echo or Google Home smells as sweet.

Mr & Mrs Fragrance ‘George’ (with sound system), SGD268, is available in Robinsons and other authorised dealers. Photo: Mr & Mrs Fragrance

Cable In Disguise

By Low Teck Mee

It’s amazing how frequently devices and peripherals are now given a touch of fashion. I’m not talking about the odd iPhone case made more desirable when marketed as designer product. Or the digital bits and pieces given the tech colour of the season (don’t you remember “rose gold”?). I’m talking about those that are rightfully a fashion item, such as this Kyte and Key bracelet, under which lies a very useful charging and data cable.

The question I am hearing now is, don’t we already carry such a cable? Of course we do. Most portable devices that we buy come with an OEM cable—on one end, either a lightning or micro-USB connector, but, in practice and everyday life, do we remember to bring it along when we are not at home or in the office?

A friend of mine has a forgetful boyfriend (their relationship is, thankfully, not quite 50 First Dates). When not desk-bound, he carries along without fail a portable battery charger in his scruffy Eastpak messenger, but somehow, the charging cable is prone to be left behind. Kevin McCallister will know what that feels like. To make matters a little perplexing for my friend, her lover’s smartphone is an iPhone 4s with an equally aged 1,432 mAh battery that goes flat faster than a can of Coke. Since the battery charger and the cable are frequently not a twosome, he often finds himself with the former, but not the latter. Until she decided that he has to find away to strap the cord on a part of his body. That’s where the Kyte and Key wrist wear comes into the picture: she bought him one.

Kyte & Key Cablet

Kyte and Key is known as a maker of “luxury” connectivity units posing as fashion accessories that easily become your personal devices’ BFF. Fashioning cables as wearables is, of course, not a new idea. If you go to Sim Lim Square, where it is not quite the PC and cellular haven it once was, you’ll be able to find all manner of USB and lightning cables that are in the form of bracelets (bangles even!) and key holders and such. Many of these look more suited to sit among your daughter’s play things than to peak from under your sleeve during a board meeting.

These days, many of our gadgets are no more single-purpose devices (when was the last time you used your phone to make a phone call?). It is, therefore, not unexpected that our connecting and charging implements (already dual use there) serve more than what they have come to be used for. And since USB OTG (or by the full name, universal serial bus on the go) has become a mobile standard, allowing your smartphone (or other digital devices) to ‘talk’ to each other, you can basically add peripherals to it, such as a card reader or fan. The cable is more necessary to our digital lives than before.

This cable-ID bracelet, which Kyte and Key calls a “cablet” not only looks, but feels like a premium product. The cable is concealed within a braided leather bracelet and the connectors are hidden under the ‘hood’ designed as a quick-to-open hatch. I’m impressed that they have even bothered to acquire MFI certification for the lightning version. As a luxury item, the cablet comes with a carry tray that slips out of the packaging like a drawer. This tray, which looks like something you might find at Hermès, is also ideal for those stuff you also tend to lose when not assigned proper storage: more cables, memory cards, USB drives, cufflinks, or earrings.

Founded by Antonio Bertone, former chief marketing officer of Puma, in 2013, Kyte and Key alludes to the experiment that scientist/statesman Benjamin Franklin purportedly conducted in 1752 to understand the nature of lightning. The makers of the cablet may not have struck on power that can change the world, but they sure have created some very handsome and useful things indeed.

Kyte and Key Cavoletto Cablet for iOs and Android devices, from SGD19.90, is available at Robinsons and Tangs. Photos: Kyte and Key

The Dumb That Went For The Dumb

nokia-3310s

By Low Teck Mee

I admit: I was dumb. Hype had me. I was sold to it. The dumb was duped. I was quick to find the idea of a re-issued of Nokia 3310 appealing. What, in reality, would I do with a handset that is a “dumb phone” but goes by the more euphemistic description “feature phone”?

Truth be told, I have not had a hands-on with the new 3310; I was not at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where the phone was announced. What I know is based on what I have perused thus far. But once I read what is out there about the Nokia reincarnation, I can’t help but feel let down. Serve me right. Just because everyone is talking about it doesn’t mean I want it.

To be sure, I did not really want it. I was looking for a phone with keypad for my father and uncle. When I came to know of Nokia’s plan for the old 3310, I was excited by what I maybe able to purchase for two technology-averse patriachs. At the same time, I was seized by nostalgia, remembering the good days when cellphones were still novel and you could buy them in a myriad of styles and shapes, unlike now, when, in terms of silhouette, smartphones are as sexy as chocolate bars.

The new 3310 retains the curvy form factor of the orginal. Against everything we see these days, it’s quite a buxom. (Nokia did have a flair for unusual shapes. Remember 2003’s 7600 that was shaped like a leaf?) Even the 3310’s buttons are oval, not like those digital ones on our screens that seem to be inspired by mahjong tiles. So too is the enlarged screen: not rectangular—now looking like a wine goblet flatten by an elephant’s step.

Inside, it is a lot less similar that the oldie, but not anywhere close to what we’re used to in a smartphone. The 3310 does not operate on Android or Windows. Instead, it’s built on Nokia’s own OS, which means no downloadable apps… yet. To make it worse, this is a 2.5G phone, meaning you can’t use it here, come 1 April, when all our telcos only support 3G and up. If that’s a deal breaker, this will surely make you balk at the 3310: there is no WiFi connectivity! A little comfort may come in the form of a colour screen and a camera, which, gasp, is only 2MP-enabled. Retro fashion, I understand, many people love, but retro-spec tech?

New gadgets have become so constant in its perceived newness that we are so easily enticed by them. Even with 3310’s only-just newish skin above barely newish technology, we (maybe it’s just me) become rapidly seduced. Smartphone makers should not be too concerned with a faded name such as Nokia, yet they and tech reporters were all agog with the possibility of relieving the glory days of the 3310.

Sadly, the game-changing technology that had us all enamoured with smartphones is really no longer changing anything—not in the way we live, the way we work, the way play, the way we use our phone. Isn’t today’s phone already packed with everything including the proverbial kitchen sink?

A retro buy such as the Nokia 3310 should hold little attraction to me, but I do sometimes wonder: if we can’t move forward, is it so bad to slide back a little?

The Return Of An Old Favourite—Keypad, Too

The Nokia 3310, sold in excess of 100 million pieces in the 2000s, is rumoured to be re-released. Will it be the vinyl of smartphones?

Nokia 3310.jpg

By Low Teck Mee

I have been out looking for a new phone. No, it isn’t for myself; it is for two elderly gentlemen who have as much trust in a smartphone as in the prettily-dressed Chinese woman with a Beijing accent loitering in the void deck. One of them is my uncle who thinks Android is a new form of fibroid and wanted to know if his wife should be sent to a gynecologist for a check. Two months ago, he was given a Samsung smartphone, but was completely at a lost when it came to using it. He would call me on his land line to say that the contacts that I had placed on his home screen had “strangely disappeared.”

The other is my father. My dad has always been a bit of a technophobe, and the smartphone had presented him with a strange problem: “why is it smart when I can’t use it to dial”, he once asked me. To make matters worse, both men—in the 80s, I should, maybe, add—are as adroit with a touch screen as a Wyomingite with a pair of chopsticks. My dad, especially, swipes his screen as if he’s doing an imaginary tick on a piece of paper. His index finger performs as lightly as a wrecking ball.

So, as you can imagine, I am left with no choice but to buy them a phone with the old-fashioned 12-key keypad. The problem is, I can’t find them, in Sim Lim Square or anywhere. Mustafa has a few, but they are tagged as “export models”. Since I am not sending my father and my uncle to, say, Tasmania, they’re probably of no use. I was told that you can still find phones with “normal keypad”  in India, but I am not about to visit cheaptickets.com to book a flight to New Delhi to find a handset (or two) and, at the same time, enjoy some Maharashtran air.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I read that Nokia is rumoured to be releasing the 3310, the phone once (still is, in fact) considered “indestructible”. The Telegraph even calls it “historic”. It should be said that while I have used Nokia phones (my first was the 8110, also known as the “banana phone”), I am not a huge fan of their design aesthetic, particularly their UI. Still my three-year affair with the 3310 beginning 2001 was more-than-pleasant one because I rarely had such a strong digital mate.

Not much has been revealed about the re-born 3310 or what Nokia will do to make it relevant in the era of Snapchat and Youtube. The original version, I still remember (even when I no longer own it, having traded it in for a Sony Ericsson K300) as being quite an unusually shaped phone—sort of oval-ish, with keys that were somewhat like eyes. It was definitely not brick-like, the way smartphones these days tend to be. And there was the case (plastic) that was blue, a nearly navy that was to me cooler than the standard black or silver, the white of its day. Mobile phones had by then become a fashion accessory, and colour, as it now is, mattered.

These days, few people remember that we did not need to recharge our phones three times a day, or more. We did not have to carry a battery pack. We did not have to remember to bring along a charging cable, or wear one as a bracelet. Nokia 3310 was supposed to last more than a week with a single charge. I don’t remember how often I had to charge mine. In fact, I don’t remember much about the battery life other than the fact that I could play Snake II on my set over a few days, without having to recharge it that often, the way we have to these days after barely an hour of Pokèmon Go.

Nokia has not released any statement about the 3310 (reportedly to be sold for 59 euros) other than the fact that new phones under the Nokia name will be announced during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on 26 Feb. Will the new iteration come with a camera? Will it be able to receive WiFi signals? Will we be able to download apps?

I can’t wait to find out. Buying a new phone is always exciting and fun. The Nokia 3310 redux may be more so.

Photo: Getty Images

Cheers, CDG Emojis!

With the launch of Comme des Garçons emojis via the App Store, the brand that Rei built looks set for online domination

cdg-emojiComme des Garçons is not all that weird and bizarre after all. Just like the rest of us, it, in fact, loves emojis! While it isn’t the earliest fashion brand to march forth in the digital world (its IG and FB accounts came on rather late) by engaging those whose lives are more active online than offline, it is, as far as we’re aware, the first to introduce its own emojis. Launched after midnight in Tokyo on 23 November, CDG’s Holiday Emoji pack is possibly the brand’s most commercial and engaging marketing push yet.

For the rest of the world, the Holiday Emoji is available from today (here, a party at the CDG store in Hilton Gallery later this evening will mark the occasion). Each of them is based on the heart-shaped smiley first introduced in the Play line of T-shirts in 2002, then described as “a sign, a symbol, a feeling”. Did CDG already know 14 years ago that the now-too-popular logo will become an emoticon? The cute quirky smiley—first red before black, blue, green, even gold versions were added—was designed by Filip Pagowski, the Polish artist and occasional CDG non-model model (in the ’90s when the brand was heavily into ‘personalities’ such as John Hurt and Lyle Lovett), who had submitted the design for a different project before Play had its day under store lights.

cdg-aoyama-2cdg-aoyama-1The windows announcing the launch of Holiday Emoji at CDG’s Aoyama flasghip in Tokyo. Photos: Meiru Matsuya for SOTDcdg-aoyama-3Merchandise featuring Holiday Emoji and the Play logo in CDG Aoyama, Tokyo. Photo: Meiru Matsuya for SOTD

Play took off as soon as it was born. In no time, it was given its own space rather than sold together with CDG merchandise when Dover Street Market was opened in London in 2004. Its success, however, was scoffed by many a CDG die-hard fan mainly because by 2008, the already recognisable logo was widely copied and available on knock-off havens such as luxury fashion’s green mile Patpong in Bangkok. But strangely, counterfeit for CDG does not lead to demise. Play continues to be tenaciously popular. A visit to the Play box-shop at the lobby of Gyre Omotesando in Tokyo inevitably means a queue (although in the line are mostly souvenir-hunting tourists).

Now that it’s evolved into a smiley with different iterations for different occasions, CDG’s Play logo seems destined for ubiquity since emojis, also known as stickers, are presently preferred to words when we send messages—oddly still called ‘texting’. In fact, there, too, is something old-fashioned about the Holiday Emoji. Looking like they’re drawn by hand rather than with, say, Illustrator, these characters are noticeably one-dimensional and naïve-art-like when compared to Line’s wildly popular animated couple Brown and Cony. Yet, it is perhaps this hand-drawn quality that could make them even more endearing.

cdg-emojis

In giving Mr Pagowski’s icon more than one expression, CDG has also humanised it. In the beginning, you couldn’t really call it a smiley since it did not have a mouth. Now, it is given one to better communicate a range of emotions that an emoji is expected to express. The heart-shaped guy (we’re assuming it is male since it has not really shown feminine traits) is finally able to show happiness, as well as sadness, which, in modern communication is as vital as the thumb down—something Facebook is still unwilling to provide.

Emojis, of course, go beyond communicating one’s thoughts at one moment. CDG’s is supposed to show the gamut of holidays or holiday moods. In the 25-piece line-up, there are also those that indicate the weather, such as thunderstorm. Well, even a feel-good holiday such as Christmas (represented by he in a Santa’s hat) may be a stormy day. As for the one with the broken heart, well, isn’t it good counsel for the brokenhearted to go for a holiday? Put your preferred emoji here.

The Emoji Comme des Garçons app is available for download on the App Store or through the iMessage drawer. Additional reporting: Jun Shimamoto

Orchard Road Killer

shopandbox-pages

By Low Teck Mee

The one appeal of our increasingly digital life is its immateriality. We listen to music, watch movies, and view photographs by playing files. We read—assuming there is still appeal in that—on an e-reader or phablet. We ask for paperless bank statements, movie tickets, and boarding passes. We organise social events and put out invitations on Facebook; we even request the company of our friends at our wedding with e-invites! The Cloud, where we now store so many of these possessions, has practically de-materialised our very material world. Even the “cold hard cash” that Madonna once happily sang about is meaningless with the advent of Paypal and Apple Pay. Yet, ironically, it is online that we’re acquiring and purchasing very material things.

In a virtual vastness pregnant with products, limited offerings in real-world destinations such as Orchard Road look decidedly dull. Fact is, no one can negate that online shopping has adversely (and triumphantly) affected Singapore’s major shopping stretch. What’s disheartening is that Orchard Road is not seriously fighting back. While it (still) laments that there’s a dire lack of shoppers looking beyond shop windows, cyberspace is bursting with stores that out-stock, out-thrill, and out-sell the busiest spot on what we’re persuaded to believe is “a great street”.

The call to shop is never more strident online. Our in-boxes and timelines are constantly besieged with messages, ads, and links to sites that help us navigate the infinite, yet crowded, online marketplace, never mind if we do not frequently end up on the landing pages. Amid the many sites and those exasperatingly pertinacious, one stands out: ShopandBox. Here’s not your average choose-click-buy platform. ShopandBox does not offer products per se. Instead, it connects you to stuff specified by you in a store/place/city stated by you. Subsequently, an actual—not virtual—personal shopper will do the buying and “boxing” (since these are mostly not digitisable products) on your behalf. It does, therefore, appear that many, many things are within your reach. ShopandBox looks poised to ring the death knell for Orchard Road.

shopandbox-on-notebook-c

I did not explore the three-year-old ShopandBox until recently, and it was pleasure from first click, just like playing Pokemon Go for the first time (even if that initial encounter now seems such a long time back). Sure, it is hard to be readily lured to ShopandBox’s prosaic name, but if you shouldn’t judge a book by its e-cover, you should not assess a site’s appeal by what it’s called. No one will blame you for mistaking it as a storage service for your shopping. However, once you’ve entered their conversely more appealing, vaguely Kinfolk-ish portal, you’ll be so caught up with the seemingly endless possibilities that you’ll forget there’s laundry to be done and the baby to be fed.

Personally, I have not been getting retail kicks by clicking on “add to cart”, which seems to me a description of an act that’s evocative of a rural way of life, but I can see that e-commerce, specifically B2C (business to consumer) transactions, is not only burgeoning, it’s virtually exploding. Pervasive media reports inform me that by the end of this year, worldwide B2C online sales will reach USD1.92 trillion. Staggering figure considering that small-fry I probably contribute only 0.001% to that sum.

To my delight, ShopandBox employs a “submit order” button. But before you get there, there’s shopping to be done. The site spells the procedure in four, straightforward steps. There are, in fact, only three since the last won’t be done by you. To make things easier, especially for repeat and seasoned visitors, there’s a box on the homepage where you can request for what you already know you want and the system will do the rest. And rather swiftly too.

ShopandBox touts itself as a site for “global personal shopping”. Two words there jump at you: “global” and “personal”. You can really shop for almost anything, anywhere—28 countries, so far (discount all of Africa though)—and someone on the other side will pick the items up for you. Yes, it’s really having a living and breathing person run your errand (the Chinese have an excellent word for it: paotui or 跑腿, literally running legs). But those doing your bidding are not known as ‘shoppers’, since you, in front of your notebook or smartphone, are already the shopper. Instead, they’re known as ‘boxers’, which sounds like inductees of a fight club, but it makes sense since it is they who are the ones to box your purchases for shipping.

tai-xin-lung-and-rebecca-chuaCo-founders of ShopandBox, Rebecca Chia and Tai Xin Lung

The husband-and-wife team of Tai Xin Lung and Rebecca Chia (a Malaysian and Singaporean working out of Melbourne!) that dreamed up the idea for ShopandBox started by deploying those they know as boxers. “All of us have, at some point, asked our overseas friends to buy and send stuff to us,” Mr Tai said. “So we thought: why not develop this into an online service? We started the business by using our family and friends just as we had before.” These have since grown into a network of boxers around the world. Unlike shopping sites such as Qoo10, where anonymous handlers (and sellers) process your order, ShopandBox assigns a boxer to you. As your boxer—including a former beauty queen in the US—is known to you, some trust in the transaction can be established.

This one-to-one approach adds a personal touch to a normally cold and anonymous deal. When boxers are unsure if they have the right item, for instance, they could take a picture of the product and send to you for approval. If you need suggestions, the boxer could also offer them. In fact, some of the listed boxers have “recommendations” that you could browse through. What I find especially appealing is that you could also request for the boxer to go to a specific store in the city where they’re based to buy exactly the item you already have in mind. That could avail to you product releases specific to a certain country, which means you could be wearing or using something not available here.🙂

ShopandBox , in fact, goes beyond their perfunctory name. For popular items, such as the Playstation VR, they offer price comparison across five cities (cheaper in the US than in Japan—who would have thought?!). This can be found in the page called The Blog, where a host of ideas and suggestions can be found in the form of articles. Okay, the writing is not exactly the stuff of the Pulitzer Prize, but it does get you going, or, in the case of the city guides, in a mood for shopping.

shopandbox-blog-page

To me, the biggest appeal of ShopandBox is the freedom and flexibility it affords when shopping online. You start with knowing already what you want. Nothing is curated for you; well at least not when you don’t need it. And you’re not confronted with a mind-boggling array of merchandise. This is not Taobao, the gaudy online pasar malam that bombards you with so much that you do not know where to start. This is not Net-A-Porter, a site that many consider the “ultimate shopping destination”—now seducing you wih an e-mag on its homepage to better showcase its wares. This is not Luisaviaroma, with their categories and themes. This is not Amazon, which seem unable to completely shake off their bookseller image. This is not Farfetch, again just scores of merchandise even if they fetch from afar. ShopandBox may yet go to the end of the earth, but they have boxers in places distant enough to bridge desire and the desired.

When asked what’s next for ShopandBox or what is done so that it won’t be a convenient stop for the mundane, Mr Tai said, “We hope to grow the number of more sophisticated customers, not just the 18 to 25 year-olds.” Could this mean that the older, more affluent shopper isn’t embracing online shopping with the same fervour as the young?

With the world’s merchandise a click away, it is irrefutable that fewer people are doing their shopping on Orchard Road; fewer still the older consumer. The overall figures continue to look bleak. According to a May report in The Straits Times, retailers were raking in 3.2% less in February when compared to the same period last year (not that it was better then). If you exclude motor vehicle sales, the drop was even steeper: 9.6%. More than six months later, the situation does not seem to have improved. Orchard Road, I hate to say, ShopandBox is here to stay… and slay.

ShopandBox mobile app is available on Google Play and Apple App Store. Photos: Zhao Xiangji