Take a walk with Jefferson Graham through Japan electronics shops, looking at some of the fun tech gadgets sold there, but not in the USA, on #TalkingTech
KOBE, Japan — The smart speaker comes in the guise of a bright yellow chicken or a brown bear and seems just as smart as Alexa. But it’s far cuter.
Sorry folks, the Clova Friends speaker is not for sale in the U.S. But it should be.
Talking Tech just spent eight days in the land that pioneered the Sony Walkman and PlayStation, with much of our time in those mega, multi-story electronics shops that sell everything from cameras and TVs to toilets, LCD home lighting and toys.
While much of what we saw was available in the U.S., at similar prices, many products we ogled were not available here. And that really piqued our interest. And gadget envy.
Come walk the showroom floor with us.
Clova Friends and Wave are the brand names of smart speakers from Line, the app that is to Japan what Facebook is to the U.S.
Line is the No. 1 social network in Japan, one that differentiates itself from others with really cute characters as mascots that get used as chat stickers.
So the Clova Friends speaker is in the shape of a yellow or a brown bear. It’s battery-powered, which makes it portable, and bluetooth-enabled, so it will play music from your phone. It sells for around $60.
Clova Friends and Wave, a larger speaker selling for around $140, are Line’s answer to Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s soon-to-launch HomePod speaker, using Line’s own Clova personal assistant, the equivalent of Siri, Alexa and the Google Assistant.
The functionality is pretty much the same as an Echo or Home, in that Clova will play music, set your alarm, tell you about your calendar and let you make and accept free phone calls. It also tells your fortune.
I contend that if Line sold these Clova speakers in the U.S., they could give Amazon and Google a real run for their money. Cute, small and smart vs. the black hockey-puck style of the Amazon Dot? Come on.
I wanted to buy a Clova Friends speaker for use in the U.S., but it only speaks in Japanese and can only connect to the Japanese version of the Line app, not the U.S. version, which I have and use all the time.
Lets Note laptops
The Panasonic Lets Note series is Japan’s answer to the popularity of Apple MacBooks and MacBook Air laptops in the U.S. These are a premium, more expensive line of computers that are displayed as Made in Japan, a signal to local consumers that differentiates them from Chinese-made Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Apple, Dell and other computers.
For some reason, Panasonic, best known in the U.S for TVs and cameras, has chosen not to sell the Lets Note line in the U.S. But oh, if we could have these specs.
Most computers have been getting smaller, as companies take away things like DVD drives and ethernet ports.
But the Lets Note line offers more on one machine than I’ve ever seen before. Many of the models on display at the Yodobashi store in Osaka had every port we could dream of: USB C, three regular USBs, an SD card slot, options to plug into projectors, monitors and TVs, and a slot for a SIM card, so if you’re not in a Wi-Fi zone, you can go online via your wireless cell network.
Oh, and the screen pulls out and becomes a fully functioning tablet as well. The products start at around $1,300 and go up to $2,000.
Panasonic bills the Lets Note laptops as the lightest laptops available today. This may or not be true, but in our comparison test, an Apple MacBook Air vs. a Lets Note, the Panasonic felt half the weight.
For years, the most state-of-the-art TVs were built in Japan by companies like Sony, Panasonic, Sharp and others. We fondly remember the Trinitron, the classic state-of-the-art tube that set the industry standard for decades.
Fast-forward 30 years, and we’re now in a flat-screen era, dominated by Korea’s Samsung and LG, and Sony.
So it was rather refreshing to take a stroll through Yodobashi and find a retro box-styled tube TV, one that harkens back to the day of TV as furniture.
It comes from a company called Doshisha and looks like the TV sets we grew up with but in fact is really a 20-inch LCD set on four legs. Sure, there are buttons to turn it on and off and change the channels, but there are also two HDMI slots and a remote control to bring the set into the modern era.
In Japan, the TV is a steal — the price tag at Yodobashi was listed at $500 — but we found the set on a Japan website for $900, plus $275 shipping to the U.S. Even worse, gougers are asking $1,700 on Amazon to buy it for U.S. delivery. Wowza!
Finally, it’s not out yet, but later this year, the new Sony AIBO reboot of a robot dog will go on sale in Japan only. She was the cute show-stopper from this year’s annual tech trade show CES.
AIBO can respond to owners with all sorts of tricks, at only $1,700 plus $30 monthly for new tricks, and best of all — she doesn’t poop.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter, @jeffersongraham and listen to the daily #TalkingTech podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Spotify, TuneIn, Podbean or wherever you find online audio.