Friday, February 24, 2006

Geek time - Phone U Want

(Damn, now I have a Devo song going through my head...)

Let's talk about something non-poker for once, shall we?

Recently I have begun craving a new mobile phone. This is nothing new - I crave a new mobile phone about every six months, and usually treat myself to one about once a year. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Growing up a homebuilt PC geek, I have had an almost overwhelming desire to toss my PC and build a new one every year for most of my adult life. But by converting this upgrade desire to my mobile phone, I save myself money by only spending about $100 a year for a new phone instead of $500-$1000 a year for upgrading my PC.

It's cheaper this way, trust me. Stop looking at me like that.

I've had my current phone for a long time now... gosh, maybe two years! It's ancient! I want a new one, of course, and recently the Mobile Suica campaign has hooked me.

The Suica card was a cool idea to begin with. JR, the Japanese National Railroad system, runs a lot of the trains throughout the nation, commuter trains in the cities and long distance and bullet trains between cities and regions. Probably half of Tokyo rides on a JR train during some point of their morning commute.

When I was first here in Japan as a student, many many years ago, most train lines ran on tickets. You went to the coin-op machine to buy a ticket based on the distance you'd be travelling to your destination. At the turnstyle, a JR attendent, a live human being, would take your ticket and punch it to show you had entered. During morning rush hours, hundreds, thousands of morning commuters flowed through those ticket gates. Those JR staff had MAD ticket-punching skillz! They could field tickets from commuters on either side of them, punch them instantly, and hand them back to the commuter almost as fast as people could push their way through.

When you reached your destination and left, the attendant at the exit gate would take your ticket, check where you got on the train and how much you paid. If the fare you paid didn't cover your distance, they'd stop you and make you pay the difference. Again, these guys were frigging incredible at checking tickets that hurried commuters would toss down in front of them and instantly calculating if they had been shortchanged and forcing the guy to stop and pay more. I remember seeing a tv show once about them, and how they learned to spot tell-tale signs that someone was trying to cheat and pay too little by their eyes and how they walked, so the attendant could spot a likely cheat even before seeing the ticket. How'd you like someone like that at your poker table?

Anyhow, this was not the most efficient of systems. Eventually they replaced it with automatic ticket gates and tickets with magnetic backings that you ran through the machine and it would do the check automatically. This was eventually augmented by a prepaid card system, so you could buy 10,000yen of credit in a card and your train fares were deducted from that as you used it.

Then, a few years ago, they upgraded again to the Suica card. Instead of a prepaid card you had to remove from your wallet or passcase and run through the ticket gate machine, the new cards had an IC chip and used and RFID reader on the gate, so you just had to tap the card on top of the reader and it would recognize it and let you through, deducting the proper amount from your credit. It even worked through your passcase, so you didn't have to pull your card out of the case. Hell, my girlfriend keeps hers in the side pocket of her purse, and can just wave her purse over the reader to get it to process and let her through.

You could also recharge your credit on the card, which was new. Previous cards were for fixed amounts and when they ran out, you had to buy a new card. Now you could dump another 5,000 or 10,000 yen onto the card and keep using it. Even better, many shops and restaurants in or near the stations set up suica readers so you could charge your purchase to your suica card! So if you stop into the convenience store to buy a magazine or soda or pack of gum, just put your card over the reader, BEEP!, and off you go. This was the most useful electronic money rollout I have seen so far.

Okay, fine and good. What's Mobile Suica?

Mobile Suica (so glad you asked), is integrating your Suica card with your mobile phone. They've put the same RFID chips into new models of mobile phones, so you can now use your phone as your train pass! You can also wave your mobile phone over the readers in the convenience stores and buy your miscellany without even pulling out your wallet.

Even better, I believe you can add credit to your Suica account on the phone itself. You can add another 10,000 yen to your Suica just using the Suica application on your phone, and then that 10,000 yen is added to your phone bill at the end of the month.

This is cool stuff. The first few mobile phones from KDDI, my mobile service provider, weren't all that impressive, but the new models are out and there are some nice-looking ones. I'm leaning towards the Casio W41CA, which is slim, nicely designed, big screen, bilingual (i.e. has English menus as well as Japanese), an included 2 megapixel camera, and various other goodies. The new au phones are big on portable music playing as well, so this one has the USB cable to rip your cds to memory, or download songs for playback. I have my iPod nano so I don't really need it, though.

I think I can upgrade to this phone for about 14,000yen. (Maybe $120?) Upgrade prices here depend on how long you have had your current phone. Brand new subscriptions have the handset price heavily subsidized so the prices are kept low. But if you are upgrading from an older phone, you pay more if you haven't had your current handset for long. I think I'm in the 17-24 months category, so I should get a reasonable discount. Unsubsidized I think this phone will run me 30,000-40,000 yen.

Still cheaper than upgrading a PC. And I've been such a good boy lately!


Mike said...

Oh hell no! It's all about the MUSIC-HDD W41T! 4GB HD and 3.23 megapixel camera!!!

Did you get a new phone yet?

James said...

I have an iPod nano, I don't need a phone with a hard drive in it. Have you SEEN them? They're thick. Not for me.

No, I am holding off for a bit. Another month or so and I get 3000yen off, and they should be cheaper by then.

Yarok said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...

Yarok --

This is Japan. You can buy it at most au shops here in Japan.

It is extremely unlikely to work with any non-Japanese phone carriers.

Yarok said...

how is the cell works in japan?
with sim card witch hetz like 900 1800?
i really want one of the new cell from japan u know of any that will work? and tell me if u knoow why america so behind with the 3G things? they dont have thinking to bring it over here.

James said...

I do not know much about the mobile phone technology here and in other countries, but Japan uses different frequencies and standards than the rest of the world, so I am pretty sure there is no way you can use a Japanese phone in other countries or on other mobile carriers. I know that Japanese phones don't use sim cards, so you can't simply switch those to use a Japanese phone overseas.