Monday, December 14, 2009


Korea is pretty much the Mecca of electronics. Samsung is here. LG is here. Both Hewlett-Packard and Energizer have Korea-based facilities. Iriver and SK Telecom are domestic-based companies that do serious sales just within Korea itself. This is one hooked up company.

So much so that Korea's cell phone companies still use proprietary frequencies and encoding. Meaning that fancy new phone you bought in Yongsan probably won't function in America. Japan had been the more notorious country with this problem for travelers but recently has started to integrate worldwide carriers.

Even the best VoIP software available comes at a premium for users in Korea. Skype has a pay-to-use feature that allows Skype users to call any number be it domestic, international, landline, or cell phone. Note the sad peach colored bar that represents the South Korean Won. Yep, that's us. That's the connection fee for each "real" number call made if you do the non-monthly plan. The price is not so good...but hey, at least the calling rates themselves aren't too bad. Plus, regular vanilla Skype is still free!
SkypeOut calling rates
Moving on, Korea is a country with so many proprietary gadgets and gizmos that it would make Steve Jobs blush. You thought a Mac was hard to use in a Microsoft world? It could be worse. I've got a sweet little electronic dictionary from IRiver that can do everything but make french fries. But all service, manuals, software, firmware updates, and GUI are all in Korean. Although I should say that many handheld products like the Sony PSP work just fine overseas; although the Nintendo DS doesn't fare as well. Having said that, anyone on the Seoul Subway Metro will notice pastel colored Gameboys and a few PSPs but the vast majority of the electronics are utilizing DMB.

Oh, has anyone ever heard of Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB)? Probably not many; and with good reason. It is a native Korean broadcast frequency essentially used to watch cable television on PDAs, mobile phones, and other handheld devices for free. High quality television channels come standard on most cell phones in the ROK. My iRiver dictionary has this feature too but keep in mind; only available in Korea. North Americans actually still use the frequency for VHF and UHF channels (think rabbit ear antennae). Although service is free and plentiful, it is harder to get a good signal out in some rural areas. So long as you are in Seoul, you'll get great reception.

Speaking of cellphones, I was with a friend over the summer in 인사동 and she broke out her cellphone when it rang. But this wasn't an ordinary call, it was a video call. She talked to her sister with decent fps and exceptional sound quality. Anyone else remember thinking that "Picture Phones" only existed in The Jetsons and that even if we had them that they would be crazy expensive? Her Korean cellphone ran about 400 USD and had plenty of other eye candy like an English-Korean dictionary and a travel time estimator. If we wanted to find the shortest route from 이대 to 산본 using a bus or subway, the phone would calculate transfer and travel times and present you with the option with the fewest transfers or quickest arrival. And to think I'm still figuring T9 out...
Korean Old People Technology
It's amazing to me how quickly Koreans adapt to new technology. Oh sure - premium Skype features are lame here - but all things considered, the electronics here are phenomenal. It stills mildly shocks me that grandparents on the Metro are text messaging their friends and family. It just tickles me to think of my own grandmother using public transportation, texting, and watching late night TV on her cellphone in a crowded subway train. My hat goes off to you, older generation of Korea.