It seems like only yesterday I sat down to write about the coming summer heat, and suddenly here we are in November. Summer has come and gone, the beer gardens have shut down until next year, and school is very much back in session.
With a full month still to go until New Year, this can be quite a dark and dismal time for some in Japan as we realign ourselves to daily drudgery of working life.
However, there is one good thing about this time of year. It’s the new smartphone and tablet season!
Photo: Yutaka Tsutano on Flickr
Yes, in late April and late September each year, Japan’s big three operators, Docomo, Softbank and AU line up to unfurl their new models and ranges for the autumn and winter season.
Of course the big players such as Apple, Samsung and HTC all get in on the act with the latest incremental updates on their long-running phone and tablet ranges. Local operators too such as Sony, Sharp and Kyocera are also stepping up their game as the gap between trendsetting Apple and the competition continues to narrow.
The last year or so has also saw a new player come to the game, one with the potential to go all the way to the top.
Chinese smartphones are quickly gaining traction in Japan as a both a technologically equal and economically more sensible alternative to the conventional smartphone manufacturers. The likes of Huawei, Lenovo and such like are fast becoming increasingly popular with Japanese consumer, if perhaps not so much with the carriers.
Photo: Maurizio Pesce on Flickr
In recent years, despite the emergence of competition from smaller firms like Willcom, and Y Mobile, which was subsequently acquired by Softbank, the ongoing allegation against the 3 major telecom firms in Japan I that they have all cornered the market to some degree and are operating a 3-way monopoly. This prompted one of the biggest shake-ups in the telecom industry in years when new laws pertaining to the use of long term cellphone contracts were passed into law earlier this year.
Previously, in order to get a phone with one of the big 3 providers, it was mandatory that the consumer purchase a 2 year plan, and a new phone to boot. “Unlocking” the phone, so it could work with another carrier was not allowed.
However, as of May this year, once you have been with a particular company for 6 months or more, you can order that your phone be unlocked and the company cannot refuse this demand.
This has brought renewed hope that with greater consumer choice, customers will have the chance to make greater savings. Though prices have yet to fall drastically, there are some early signs that companies are, at least on the surface, beginning to offer better deals.
Photo: Pinot Dita on Flickr
Previously, it was usually required when making the smartphone contract to purchase some kind of unlimited talk time contract. Now, I don’t know about you, but in the age of Line, Skype, Facebook messenger and so on, I very seldom if ever use my phone to make actual phone calls. These plans, which usually come in at around 3 or 4000 yen per month seemed pretty redundant. Add on about the same again for data and by the time you factor in the cost of the smartphone spread over the two year contract, you are probably looking at somewhere in the region of 10-12,000 yen per month before you’ve even made a call.
However, as of the end of September, there’s a new type of plan available. You still need a talk time contract, however for very light users like me a cheaper option is available.
Now, you can have an unlimited talktime contract for only around 2,000 yen per month. The only catch is that you will be charged extra for any call that lasts longer than 5 minutes.
I think when I get myself a new phone sometime in the next couple of weeks, this is probably the plan I will go for. Add in another 3-5000 for data, depending on your usage needs and then maybe 1 or 2000 for your incremental phone payment and suddenly that 10 to 12000 yen contract is looking more like 8 or 9,000 per month.
So, what about the phones themselves? Well, as usual, that hipster favourite, the iPhone by Apple has a new, slightly upgraded flavour, the 6S and for people who like a bigger screen the 5.5inch screened iPhone 6S plus.
I have to admit, while I don’t like faddy, brand driven products that tend to favour flashy gimmicks over actual substance, the iPhone is undeniably a modern technological marvel. Easy to use, fully integrated into your Mac desktop computer and also with a range of other connectivity options, it really is like a mini computer in your hand.
Apple also continue to make inroads into the “phablet” sector, with the iPad Mini 4. For those of you who feel the 10 inch regular iPad Air is too big, but a 4 or 5 inch smartphone screen is too small, the 8-inch iPad Mini 4 strikes a fair balance. Of course we will casually gloss over the fact that Apple’s Korean competitor Samsung has already been doing smartphones and tablets in this size range for more than 5 years!
And speaking of Samsung, for all Korea and Japan may not enjoy the most cordial of diplomatic relations at the moment, when it comes to smartphones the Japanese are very much an equal opportunities employer!
The latest incarnations of Samsung’s flagship Galaxy smartphone and tablet series will go head to head with Apple this year for the title of Japan’s smartphone and tablet champion.
However, as for me, I may be looking a little closer to home.
Of all the new models that have emerged in the last few weeks, the one that has impressed me the most so far is the latest offering from Sony’s Xperia range, the Z4.
Photo: Karen Bryan on Flickr
Available both in 4.5 or 5.5 inch variations, running the latest android software and with none of the protectionist control freakery Apple is so guilty of, the Xperia offers something genuinely different to consumers looking to change from the seemingly endless lines of iPhones, Galaxy phones, and their numerous clones. Also, last time I checked, Sony haven’t been found to have abused any of their factory workers overseas, making them a good “fair trade” choice as well.
Photo: Maurizio Pesce on Flickr
Personally, I may wait until November, when I may treat myself to a new phone on my birthday. By then the insanity will have died down as all the Apple acolytes will have their precious new iPhone in hand. And likewise with new release campaigns drawing to a close, a little bit of healthy desperation may have crept into the shop sales staff eager to make their year-end sales targets. Perhaps then, with a bit of luck, I may have just a little more bargaining power than usual.
After all, if there’s one thing we Scots are good at, it’s sniffing out a bargain!