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Sharp 931SH

The Sharp 931SH is one of the top-of-the line feature phones from Japanese manufacturing giant Sharp.  This is referred to as "Aquos Keitai".  Aquos is the brand name Sharp uses for their LCD televisions, while "keitai" literally means "portable", and is an abbreviation of "portable phone".  The phone is marketed under the company's LCD TV brand-name to impress upon potential customers that the phone has a "real" TV".  This is typical of recent phones, with Sony marketing many recent mobile phones as "Bravia", etc.  We'll discuss the TV functionality in depth later.

The 931SH is now several months old, and is scheduled to be replaced the 940SH, but as new models of Japanese phones are released quite often, they are typically evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary.  Thus, most of what is noted here should still hold true for the 940SH.  The main "special" feature of the 931SH is its large touch-screen.  This is a response to the relatively recent release of the iPhone 3G and other touch screen phones in Japan.  With this in mind, we will compare and contract the 931SH with the iPhone.  Both have their pros and cons, of course, but the bottom line is that the iPhone 3G is not a Japanese phone, even though it has been released in Japan.

This article is meant not only to be a review of the Sharp 931SH, but typical Japanese phones in general.  Many foreign users are unfamiliar with Japanese phones, and thus pick up an iPhone or similar by default, without even knowing what they are missing.  On the other hand, reviews of Japanese phones in English are typically either lacking or non-existant.  We will explain many of the special Japanese features here to help people who are unfamiliar get over the learning curve.

Basic Features
These are features that nearly all Japanese phones made in the last few years have.
1. IR (Sekigaisen) - This is a feature which lets you "beam" your contact information to other people, or receive the information.  This is important because many people have long and complicated email addresses, such as "".  Also, the name will be stored in both Kanji and Hiragana, etc.  The address book function of these phones is relatively rich, so keying in everything manually would be laborious and time consuming.  The best thing about this feature is that it is present and compatible on all Japanese phones.  If you have an iPhone or other foreign made phone without this feature, this can be a significant disadvantage when getting numbers/email addresses at a noisy dance club, etc.  Also, it is such a basic, simple feature that it is embarrassing to have an expensive fancy phone that can't do what a $50 phone can.
2. Email - Blackberry made their name by having phones with "real" email, and iPhone has continued this tradition - but all Japanese phones come with email standard.  SMS Messages can be sent only to other users of the same carrier, but emails can be sent to anyone with a mobile phone in Japan, or to any other normal email address.  Japanese phones also support special icons and message formats (Decomail, etc.) that can only be viewed properly on another Japanese phone.  This is another place where Blackberry, iPhone, etc., miss out.
3. Applications - When you see an advertisement in Japan for a mobile phone application, they all follow the same Java format.  If you have a normal Japanese phone, you can run it.  If not, probably not.  Some of these applications are quite useful, and have no analog for other platforms.  The number of apps is small compared to the iPhone or Windows Mobile, but the average usefulness is typically much higher.  On the down side, many apps (like Skype), simply don't exist.
4. Mobile Suica / Saifu Keitai / Mobile Felica - These are all brand names for the same thing - an embedded Sony Felica chip that can be used to wirelessly transmit data for cash transactions.  This is the technology used by Suica and Pasmo train passes, EDY cards, etc.  This is a very useful and convenient feature that no foreign phone to date has.  If you have Mobile Suica, then you can use your phone to buy goods at many stores and vending machines, and to ride the train.  The best part is that when it runs out, you can enter your password on the phone and recharge it without the hassle of visiting an ATM machine.  The iPhone and others lose out big here.
5. TV Call - Most recent Japanese phones support TV call, which is a phone call with not only sound, but video as well (think of Skype with video).  The 931SH is inconvenient in this respect, because unlike the typical clamshell phones, it is a slider, and has only one camera, pointing in the opposite direction of the screen.  The video call feature still works, but it is not as convenient to use as most of the dual-camera clamshell phones.  On the other hand, it works fine to show someone else what you are looking at, etc.  Again, the iPhone and others can't touch this.
6. Deco Call - Most Japanese phones support sending a custom icon/message/ringtone for the person you are calling to see until they pick up.
7. Predictive Japanese Input - The Blackberry and iPhone have been hacked to do Japanese input, but this has been refined year after year by the Japanese manufacturers.  This is subjective, but Japanese input on the non-Japanese phones simply can't touch the quality of the input on Japanese phones.
8. iMode/Y! - This is web browsing for sites designed for Japanese mobile phones.  Again, when you see an advertisement for a web site to use on your phone, it will invariably be in this format.  The pages are simplified and optimized for your phone.  They can typically log in automatically from your phone number, and have features to make them easier to navigate that will only work on the special browsers on Japanese phones.  For example, rather than having to touch the exact right spot for a link, or move some kind of mouse, each link is usually assigned a key you can press to follow the link.  (i.e. most pages are menus).  Aside from that, the many icons standard of Japanese phones can also be counted on to be present, and thus pages load much faster instead of trying to include images of their own.  These pages typically don't load properly on non-Japanese-phone web browsers, and these browsers also don't load general web pages very well.  The Japanese phones win over the iPhone and others in this area in a big way.  On the other hand, complicated PC Web sites are typically impossible to use on many Japanese phones, and inconvenient even with the "PC Browsers" some phones have.  The iPhone wins in the access of normal web pages due to Safari's prowess with PC sites.
9. Charging and Headset socket compatibility - Unlike in the US, where every phone maker seems to use different standards for everything, chargers and headset adapters are standardized in Japan.  That means that if you start to run out of power while pulling an all-nighter, you can go to 7-11 and have a battery-pack charger in 10 minutes.  It also means that if you lose your charger, or your pet chews through the cord, you can buy a new one  from anywhere without paying expensive fees for a proprietary adaptor.  Finally, it means, there is always someone around who will have a compatible adaptor you can use.  Unless, you have an iPhone or some other foreign-made phone, that is.  The same is generally true for headsets, although this is less of a practical problem since headsets are not used often in Japan.
10. QR Code - These are 3D barcodes you see on many advertisements for mobile phone services.  You point your phone at the QR Code, and it will decode the information, often a URL, and either save the information, or go to the web page.  This is a big plus as compared to typing in a URL.  Recently, QR codes are used on business cards.  They often show up in Japanese versions of sites like Google's Picasa to let you easily aim your phone at the screen and go to the mobile version of the same page.  Apps are available for some of the other platforms, but this is something that has been around for years and should be built in.
11. Real cameras - Japanese cell phones have had cameras for years, but the last few generations have features you will only see in digital cameras in other countries.  For example, the 931SH has AutoFocus and facial recognition, along with auto white-balance.  The resolution is 5MP, which easily beats even the newest iPhone of Blackberry.  If you ever wondered why you see so many Japanese tourists taking photos with their phones, now you know why. 
12. Video recording - Most Japanese phones can do video recording, though the quality varies with the age of the phone and quality of the camera.  The 931SH can do very high quality AVC Video.
13. Bluetooth - Bluetooth is infrequently used in Japan (since there is more focus on emails), but most phones do support it.  File transfer is typically also unlocked and supported.  This may be a bigger deal than it seems at first.  It means you can transfer files to your computer easily without involving your phone company (or paying for it).  It also means compatibility with (for example) Bluetooth printers.  (Note that the iPhone 3GS still doesn't have a "send by bluetooth" capability, but this could theoretically be added by a software update in the future)
14. MicroSD - Unlike the iPhone, but like most other newer phones, almost all Japanese phones support MicroSD for memory expansion (The Sony models, of course support their annoying proprietary Micro MemoryStick "M2" format instead).
15. 1Seg TV - Yes, many Japanese phones have a built in TV.  This is not some kind of streaming data, this is a real TV broadcast that has nothing to do with your cell phone service. This is another big deal, as many people like to watch this on the train.  This is another area where the foreign phones don't just lose, they're not even in the game.  There is an attachment available for the iPhone 3G to allow watching 1Seg TV, but it makes the phone twice as thick!
16. Standard menus and key shortcuts - Nearly all Japanese phones share a similar menu layout, and the same key shortcuts.  This is very useful in some situations.  For example, if someone does't know their own phone number, "Menu, 0" will show it to them in all cases in any phone.
17. Exchangeable batteries - enough said.

Features not standard on Japanese Phones
1. WiFi - Wifi is not a standard feature on Japanese phones.  Many people use their phone instead of owning a computer, so they might not even have home internet.  WiFi would mainly be useful for browsing data-heavy PC sites (which Japanese phones are not good at anyway), or running data intensive apps, which Japanese phones don't have many of.  The next revision of the 931SH (the 940SH) will have WiFi, but the main advantage is not clear.  It will probably not support VOIP.
2. Attaching to non-carrier email accounts.  The Sharp 931SH supports external PC email accounts (Via normal protocols), but while all Japanese phones support email, most don't allow you to add your own Gmail account, etc.  The main reason for this is that the smaller screen size makes reading large mails formatted for the PC screen a task better done on the PC.  Many Japanese people don't have PC Email accounts anyway.  Foreign smart-phones have the advantage here.
3. Handling PC File formats - Aside from MP3, JPG, and a few other formats, most Japanese phones don't support opening files like PDF, Presentations, Word Processing documents, etc.  (Mainly because they are not going to be reading mail that was destined for a PC in the first place).  The Blackberry and iPhone have the advantage here.  
Call Quality
Most Japanese phones have outstanding call quality, whereas many smart phones have issues in this department.  The iPhone in particular has the dubious honor of winning an award for "the worst phone".

"Extra" Features of the 931SH
1. The 931SH can not only watch TV, it can record it, in full quality, to watch later.  That's right, the phone is a DVR.
2. The 931SH combines the standard menus that most Japanese phones have with a touch-screen interface.  It's not perfect, but it works well, and is a very good first attempt.  It's not as refined as the iPhone in the touch department, but it does offer tactile feedback that you have actually activated something when the screen is touched - which is a nice feature.
3. Aquos FamiLink Remote control - Yes, your phone can control any sort of Aquos TV or other sharp equipment. (No Networking setup required since it's IR)
4. Felica Transfer - Besides the normal Sekigaisen IR transfer mentioned above, the 931SH and other recent phones support wireless transfer of contacts and other information via the Felica chip.Unlike WiFi, this is much more secure and requires no configuration  (It does require close physical proximity).
5. Business Card Scanner / OCR - The 931SH can scan and decode business cards into the phone book.  (Ones without QR codes). It works so well it's scary.  The phone can also simply OCR text from the camera and show it on the screen.
6. GPS with Compass - Many Japanese phones have GPS, but it's not exactly standard.  The 931SH was one of the first to have a digital compass, and came out well before the iPhone 3GS had the same feature.  There are several applications which use this, including Navitime.
7. Accelerometer - This is present on the iPhone and some other phones, but isn't standard on Japanese phones.  It is present on the 931SH, probably mainly to change the orientation of the screen appropriately.
8. Pedometer - The phone has a built in pedometer application which will record the distance walked, calories burned, time walking, etc.
9. Veil View - This is somewhat standard on Japanese phones, and I have never seen a foreign phone that offers anything like it.  This functions much like the privacy filters 3M sells for laptops and that are installed on some ATMs, but it is entirely electronic and can be turned on and off.  Sharp takes it to another level by allowing you to choose the patterns someone viewing the phone from an angle well see.  There are several different patterns and even animations.  In case anyone is wondering "why?", it's so the person standing behind you at work or next to you on the train can't read your private emails.
10.  Dictionary - The phone contains a normal Japanese dictionary, as well as a Japanese to English (and E to J) dictionary, built in.  This is a major time saver if you don't know every kanji in the world, because you can access it from any screen on the phone at any time.  There is also an option to access an online dictionary from the same interface, but having it built in is a nice touch (and it will work when out of coverage, etc.).  Note that there are good dictionary apps for the iPhone and other phones, but they cost US $40 or more.  Stand-alone electronic dictionaries are common in Japan, but typically cost US $100 or more.

So-called "Smart Phones" have made a splash in Europe, and especially the US, but that was due in part to how far behind technology was in the US.  Some of the revolutionary features (like email) are common place in Japan.  What's more, Japanese phones have evolved with particular technologies and feature sets.  If you buy a non-Japanese smart phone, whether it's a Blackberry, an iPhone, a Windows Mobile phone, or one of the new Google Android phones, you will have new options and flexibility - but you will also lose may basic features available in Japan, so you should know you are making a trade-off.  Foreign phones aren't really mobile phones in the Japanese sense, since they are more compatible with computers than other phones.  One of my Japanese friends said "The iPhone isn't really a phone so much, it's more like a PDA with a phone function."  With the iPhone in particular, there is a good option - buy an iPod touch instead.  You can do your PC email from the iPod, and run the iPhone apps, but still have a normal Japanese phone for all of the features the iPhone lacks.  The only downside is that the iPod won't have continuous network connectivity when you are away from home, unless you get a Pocket Wifi.  In the longer term, we can only hope that Apple or one of the other manufacturers will do their homework and release a phone which supports Japanese features and PC like features as well.

Japanese phones tend to do everything they do very well, yet the feature set is somewhat fixed compared with other phones that are more "hackable".