Retro-futuristic gadgets | icon 005 | September 2003

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Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP
Casio Exilim EX-S3
Apple iPod
Sony Ericsson T610

This summer's best-selling gadgets were all monochrome and rectangular with rounded corners and minimal detailing. But are they are pleasurable as their styling suggests?

Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP

Let’s face it, playing computer games isn’t cool. They’re still seen as the domain of the attention-deficient child and socially inept IT engineer. But there’s no reason why they should be, a central point to the design of the new Gameboy Advance SP.

Released in 2001, the original Gameboy Advance (GBA) was the first fundamental update of the then 12-year-old Gameboy. Sales were brisk, but it looked a little like a children’s toy. What’s more, you could hardly see the screen without strong direct light on it. Identical technically to the GBA, the SP was released this year with a completely new design and marketing strategy squarely aimed at gadget-centric adults that says the SP is not a toy; it’s a desirable object.

It looks the part; the clamshell design makes it neatly square when folded and angles the screen nicely when opened. Small and light (150g), it comes in the usual matt silver, black and blue. To touch, it feels just slightly plasticky, especially when compared with the generation of mobiles and handheld computers that it tries to emulate. But considering its price (£89.99) the build quality and durability are fine.

The lighted 7.3cm colour screen is one of the most important new components in the SP. It doesn’t compare particularly well with the latest generation of mobile-phone screens – being front-lit, the light isn’t even and colours tend to be given a bluish tint. But it is clear and perfectly usable, and a definite improvement on its predecessor.

The GBA SP uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (rather than the GBA’s AA batteries) which gives around ten hours of continuous play with light on and 18 hours with light off.

In keeping with its sweetshop image, the original GBA was criticised for apparently being designed for small hands. The GBA SP is perhaps worse in having the buttons closer together with less to hold on to; but while it’s not particularly comfortable, you get used to it, and the buttons feel pleasantly responsive.

The GBA SP is by no means perfect. It feels slightly cut-price in comparison with the high-quality gadgets it is trying to imitate. But as a development from previous incarnations of the Gameboy, it’s more usable and a lot more desirable. And the more people who feel free to play Advance Wars or Yoshi’s Island in public the better.

Alex Wiltshire
Nintendo Gameboy Advance SP, £89.99

Casio Exilim EX-S3

“Don’t ask me about this building or that one. Don’t look at what I do. See what I saw.” Luis Barragán

Part of the compulsion of photography is that it allows you to see what you saw over and over again. The urge to create a visual record is very strong in me: of work and life. I carry a camera around with me everywhere. As an architect, I use photography as a means to document what is happening and as a source of detail for what I want to make happen.

When work was on site in my own house in West London, I was there every day taking photographs. When I couldn’t be there myself, I sent people from my office. The result is a collection of images, which probably runs to thousands, sorted by month and edited into a series of books, covering the project in its entirety – from the dramatic moment when a mature cherry tree was craned into the garden at the back to the slow, incremental progress of the plasterwork.

A poorly designed camera is a constant source of irritation and distraction. An object earns its place in my life through absolute quality of form and function. The EX-S3 camera has certainly earned its place. Once acquired, it quickly becomes essential life-kit as well as a component in one’s routine: the first thing I do every morning when I get to my desk is download the latest batch of images. It is the essence of camera – an eye with a memory; in this case a considerable memory, given the size of available chips. It is also the essence of good design in the sense that it feels simple and logical in use, a piece of equipment where all the actions feel natural, obviating the need for extensive browsing in the instruction manual.

One of the camera’s great strengths is, of course, the combination of image quality and its extraordinary physical slightness: at 72g it is the lightest three megapixel digital camera currently produced. Its size means that it is convenient to carry around – you don’t really have to think twice about slipping something the size of a credit card into your pocket – and it also means that, unlike many cameras, it is generally too discreet to provoke self-consciousness in the photographer or the subject, particularly as the generous screen allows for a free approach to framing a shot.

“A camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own,” wrote Susan Sontag. In my experience, there are virtues as well as dangers in being a tourist in other people’s realities. And if you are going to be such a tourist, this is the best camera for the job.

John Pawson
The Casio Exilim S3 costs £299.99

Apple iPod

Since Apple launched the iPod in 2001, music fans have been able to enjoy the luxury of carrying thousands of their favourite songs with them on the move. As the new millennium’s answer to the Walkman, the iPod is already an icon and has, in the space of two years, converted many technophobes into avid (and perhaps even legal) music downloaders and uploaders.

If you are looking for an MP3 player, or even a Wav file player, there are few, if any, devices on the market offering the versatility and memory of the iPod. The iPod is Mac and PC-compatible, but in either case, it tops out at 30gb of memory and can store more songs than most people would ever own.

Like many others, I bought the first generation iPod planning to upload all my favourite songs (taken care of automatically by the Firewire “hotline”). This, however, was soon a secondary function of my iPod, as I became one of the increasing number of people in the music industry packing it as an integral piece of the studio. Gone are the days of endless CD burning as the nuts and bolts of music production (audio files, midi information, VST plug-ins and just about everything else) can now be transported between studios without leaving the inside of a small white and silver box. The cost of the iPod is almost covered by the fortune saved in CD-R purchases.

As companies like Griffin introduce radio transmitters for the iPod, which enable the user to tune-in at home or in the car (avoiding the messy cables of yesteryear), the functionality of the iPod increases with age. Rumours that the new iPod (now on the market) will also be able to record audio when future software updates are released, are largely substantiated. Songwriters all over the world will be able to abandon their Dictaphones.

The new iPod model is slimmer and lighter and features backlit buttons and comes with a dock that avoids all the plugging and unplugging of the Firewire connection. The second generation iPod has become more refined and as future updates of the iPod are launched, Apple will be in a strong position to claim that it has introduced a whole generation of people to audio on the move, and in the most stylish way possible.

Philip Larsen is a record producer. As part of Manhattan Clique he has remixed Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Soft Cell among others
iPods start at £249 (10gb version)

Sony Ericsson T610

We could be witnessing the last days of the mobile phone. The ubiquitous little device has long served a mixture of roles – communication tool, fashion accessory, status symbol – but it has essentially been a telephone without wires.

Suddenly, though, in an effort to shift units in a saturated market, manufacturers are producing handsets containing the functionality of previously distinct devices such as digital cameras, MP3 players, PDAs, radios and gaming consoles (how long before all the gadgets featured on these pages merge into one?).

Meanwhile, video-enabled 3G handsets and email-enabled PDAs are further blurring the boundaries of what a mobile phone is, as will devices that circumvent the cellular networks altogether by relying on wi-fi technology.

On top of this, there is no longer a consensus of what a mobile should look like: Samsung phones look like silvery crustacea, for example, while Nokias increasingly resemble exotic fruits or trainers. What does all this mean when your reassuringly straightforward old mobile falls apart? A headache-inducing afternoon at Carphone Warehouse, that’s what. And perhaps that’s why the Sony Ericsson T610 has been the hot phone this summer: it’s rectangular, it has straight lines and the buttons are in neat rows.

But the clean lines mask a fiendishly complicated interface that has you pushing dozens of buttons to do something that would take just a couple of presses on your old Nokia. Friends who have recently abandoned their Nokias for Samsung’s clamshells range say they make fewer calls and send fewer texts since they upgraded because it is so convoluted.

The joystick designed to facilitate navigation of the operating system is way too fiddly to use, and has a tendency to try to establish an internet connection when you want to scroll through your contacts list.

Also, you can’t see the colour screen when it’s bright outdoors. But there is a hidden compensation for this: at night, the screen glows so brightly that it becomes a torch. Maybe the next generation of phone users couldn’t care less about photo-messaging and polyphonic ringtones and want something that will help them find their socks in the dark…

Marcus Fairs
Price depends on network

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