Aiptek International (天瀚科技) is among a growing number of fledging Taiwanese manufacturers with brand name aspirations in the consumer electronics market. The Hsinchu-based firm, formed in 1997, has built upon its experience as a producer of digital photo frames, camera and camcorders to develop some niche products that will catch the attention of videophiles.
The Taipei Times spent a week sampling three of Aiptek’s latest showcase products: a pocket-sized digital camcorder, an e-book reader aimed at children and a mini-video projector.
CAMCORDER IN YOUR POCKET
The PenCam Trio HD (NT$5,900) is a tiny camcorder that has 4 gigabytes of internal flash memory and makes surprisingly good videos. The device, which measures the size of two magic markers stuck together, joins a growing crop of mini-cameras that record HD (high-definition) video at 720p, the widescreen resolution that is becoming standard on the Internet.
The video quality is impressive considering PenCam’s size and weight (85g), but as with any product of similar size and specification, don’t get swept away by the HD label. You can make decent and quick home movies with this device — the picture is much better than the average mobile phone video but a far cry from the sharp, crystal-clear sheen of a modern Hollywood production. The reason for this is the PenCam’s tiny lens and 5-megapixel CMOS sensor, which produces a quality equivalent to that of a point-and-shoot camera from several years ago.
But the PenCam is very much worth considering for its packaging of form, function and usability. It has a pen clip and fits nicely in a front shirt pocket, and the slim shape makes the device feel much more comfortable to hold than a mobile phone. The “trio” part of PenCam’s name refers to its three functions: in addition to video, the device takes still photographs and records audio in WAV format.
Aiptek wins points for user-friendliness. Using the PenCam is easy to figure out without a manual, with clearly marked buttons and a simple and intuitive menu navigation system. It plays nice when you connect it to a Windows PC, simply showing up as a flash drive. I wasn’t able to keep the PenCam long enough to properly gauge the battery life, but the company claims 140 minutes of video recording time, thanks in part to the 1-inch OLED screen, which consumes less power than an LCD screen.
E-READER FOR KIDS
Aiptek has its eye on the e-reader market, but with a younger target audience in mind: elementary school-age children. Last month, the company launched its Story Book inColor (NT$6,900), an e-reader with an 8-inch color screen and 1 gigabyte of internal memory for storage, which comes with 20 books already installed.
The inColor is just one part of Aiptek’s business model for e-readers. The company has created an accompanying online store (tw.ebookincolor.com), where users can purchase additional books.
In fact, inColor users have to purchase e-books from Aiptek’s Web site: The device uses a proprietary format that the company has developed with several children’s publishers in Taiwan. The selection, composed of mostly illustrated books by Taiwanese authors, is limited for now, with only 108 titles averaging NT$150 per book. The company expects to have 500 Chinese-language titles available next year (Plans are in the works to develop stores in the US and Europe, but no definite date has been set).
Perhaps in a nod to Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the inColor sports a white casing and looks like a tablet, with four navigation buttons on the right side and a volume dial at the top. The display menus are easy to navigate and clearly laid-out. Colors look crisp and rich on the device’s screen, which highlights Aiptek’s storybook format: “Picture ebooks” and “story e-books” all have accompanying music and narration, which play on a built-in speaker. “Motion e-books” are animated videos.
The e-books look beautiful on inColor, which does justice to the authors’ illustrations, but the experience of using the device is less like actual reading and more like watching videos.
Even with the picture and story e-books, users have little control over how they read using inColor. Aiptek’s e-book format assumes that users want and perhaps need the accompanying music and narration, which can’t be turned off except for turning down the volume. The device also dictates the pace of reading, as the pages are turned automatically by default. There is no way to quietly read a story, or let one’s imagination provide the voice of the characters and narration.
Aiptek is currently testing the inColor out in a classroom pilot program overseen by the Ministry of Education, but in its current version, the device appears to be geared more towards entertainment — it won’t teach your child to read proactively, but it will certainly keep him or her occupied for an hour or two.
The inColor also displays still photographs and plays MP3s, and storage can be expanded up to 16 gigabytes using a SD card or a plug-in USB drive. Aiptek claims a battery life of approximately two hours.
The world can be your movie screen with Aiptek’s PocketCinema V10 (NT$9,990), a mini projector that offers a user-friendly, relatively low-cost solution for blowing up your digital images and video to big-screen sizes.
Slightly larger than a mobile phone and smaller than a TV remote control, the V10 uses a small LED lamp to display photos and videos at 640x480 VGA resolution. It comes bundled with a pile of cables, including a 3-in-1 AV jack that makes it easy to attach and watch video from devices such as an iPod, Nintendo Wii or a DVD player.
The V10 can also display images from only from laptops with an S-Video port; Aiptek is currently working on new firmware so the device will eventually be able to display content from any laptop using a USB cable.
Aiptek says that the V10 can project images up to 50 inches in diameter from a 1.8 m distance. In a dim room, I was able to project a movie at nearly 80 inches in diameter from 3m away. The picture was still clear enough and enjoyable to watch.
But choosing videos proved to be tricky without an external device. The V10 is supposed to be compatible with AVI and H.264 formats, but files stored on my hard drive didn’t work when I copied them onto the device’s internal 1GB flash memory.
I had a frustrating experience trying to convert a movie that was an AVI file from my computer to Aiptek’s recommended format using the bundled software from ArcSoft. The conversion failed — there was sound but a mangled picture and I was left unimpressed by the version of software I received, which didn’t have an option to convert DVDs.
The V10’s sister, the V10 plus (NT$11,900), has 4 gigabytes of internal memory and can record programs when connected to a DVD player or television. Both devices also support SD cards up to 32 GB. The device also makes for a nice photo album display and can handle Powerpoint files converted into JPEG format.
What makes the V10 tempting is its portability and user-friendliness. It has a simple menu navigation system and plugging in external devices is a breeze. The prices still favor early adopters and just as well, because the V10 has a few setbacks. The picture isn’t very clear unless you’re in a dark room. The device also gets very hot, and Aiptek says the heat affects image quality after several hours. But if you’ve always wanted a movie projector, this just could be the one.
The above three products are available at Guanghua Market (光華商場) in Taipei City, NOVA electronics stores nationwide (www.nova.com.tw) and online at shopping.pchome.com.tw
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