Sony updates the Airboard

Sony has given its Airboard personal IT television a new look, improving the screen, giving it more functions and vastly improving the base station.

First announced a year ago, the Airboard marries the functions of a television and Internet tablet PC into a portable device that is designed to be carried around the home and allow access to TV, audio-visual devices or the Internet from anywhere within a 30-meter range of its base station. The connection between the base and the monitor is via IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN with 40-bit WEP (wireline equivalent privacy) encryption enabled.

The most obvious difference between the new and old Airboard is the shape and size. With a 12.1-inch TFT (thin film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display), SVGA (800 by 600 pixel) resolution screen, the device is noticeably larger than the previous model, which had a 10.4-inch screen. Sony has also changed the shape to make it trapezoidal rather than rectangular. Coupled with rubber pads on the rear of the device, this makes it easier to hold than the previous model.

Beyond the physical differences, there is a lot more. The screen itself is not just larger but, thanks to the addition of extra backlights, much brighter. Sony has also added a keyboard connector to the device to make typing out long e-mail messages easier than using the touch-panel on-screen keyboard. The new model boasts more memory as well: 64M bytes in the Airboard and 32M bytes in the base station compared to a 16M-byte/8M-byte split in the first model.

The device is based on the VXWorks operating system from Wind River Systems Inc. and the Internet browser and e-mail client were designed by Access Co. Ltd., said Satoru Maeda, senior general manager of Sony's Personal IT TV Division and the man in charge of the Airboard project.

Battery life in the new Airboard has also been improved as a result of complaints from customers, said Maeda. Through use of a larger battery, portable life has been extended to approximately that of a notebook computer: up to 2 hours for television watching and 3 hours for Internet use.

There's also a mini charging station which the Airboard can plug into when batteries run low. Looking something like a PDA (personal digital assistant) cradle, the charger is small enough to be carried around the house to where it is needed, removing the need for the Airboard to be returned to the main base station when batteries run low.

It is in the base station that some of the largest changes have come. Sony has supplemented the telephone jack with an Ethernet socket for connection to broadband modems and added a second direct video input, making it possible to connect, say, a DVD (digital versatile disc) player and digital satellite tuner to the unit and access them both from the Airboard.

The 802.11b link has an added bonus when the Airboard is being used around the house. The tuner is housed in the base station and connected to a fixed antenna which means a clean signal can be received anywhere in the house, unlike portable televisions whose reception often differs widely around the home.

To complete the upgrade, Sony has added a USB (Universal Serial Bus) interface and print server function to the base station. By connecting a printer via the USB interface, it is possible to print out text or images from the Airboard, via the wireless link back to the base station.

Maeda sees the Airboard and its base station as much more than just a wireless television with Internet access and is also anxious that the device is not thought of as an Internet appliance. "Our base station has the function of router, (wireless) access point and print server," he said. "There are a lot of functions in the base station and there are no products with all of these functions."

The 802.11b function of the base station allows it to provide high-speed Internet access to up to 15 devices equipped with wireless LAN cards, such as notebook computers, said Maeda. The print server also ties into this function and allows all devices on the network to access the printer.

To date, the largest group of customers for the Airboard has been those over 40 or 45, said Maeda. "The number of middle-aged people who bought Airboard has been increasing. We'd like to expand the market volume for middle aged people." As for younger people, Maeda believes many of them are already used to using cellular telephone handsets for e-mail and so, coupled with the high price, the market among teens and those in their twenties is limited.

The Airboard weighs 2.1 kilograms and measures 368 by 242 by 52 millimeters. The base station weighs 1.2 kilograms and measures 260 by 130 by 170 millimeters.

The Airboard IDT-LF2 will go on sale in Japan on Jan. 25. for around 130,000 yen (US$1,050). Maeda said he would like to sell the device overseas but there are no concrete plans to put it on sale in foreign markets at present.

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