Akihabara Report: July 1996
by Sigi Rindler
By the time you read this, prices on various items will have changed again (most likely cheaper), and new gadgets will have replaced the ones which I'm talking about in this article. The computer or peripheral which you purchased 3 months ago now counts as an oldie....
This time I'm going to report about my unofficial solo stint in Akihabara which took place on June 2nd. Those who have been with me on one of my trips can truly imagine the difference! No running around like crazy and searching for missing expedition members, no head count at every street corner, no attempts to search for one or the other in public toilets, and no wafts of secondary smoke from clove cigarettes. Or was the guy attending one of the last field trips puffing on cotton cigars?<g>
Well, this Sunday I knew exactly what I was looking for. My wife got so impressed with some stuff downloaded from the Internet, that she decided to do it herself. Of course, she CAN'T use my account since I don't use a Japanese system, and secondly, I'd be grounded when she spots my bookmarks and saved files... which are supposedly all work-related! I quickly decided to shop for a good notebook computer for her. Maintaining one's freedom carries a high price tag, however.
My usual first step wasn't STEP but T-Zone's "outlet" at the 8th floor of the Minami Denki building. Anyway, the outlet floor is one floor above the "Internet Coffee" which you might want to check out, too. At the outlet you can find older models of laptops, notebooks, desktops, and various peripherals at greatly reduced prices. Of course, these gadgets are all new and not second hand items (except for some models on display).
BTW, on one of the lower floors (3rd?) is a game center with over 20 computers and various action games. You can do car races (with steering wheel and foot pedals). There is a special flight simulator (seems to be a professional device) with a huge screen. Just drop your kids there while you shop. They won't miss you for the next 5 hours. The game center is never crowded as far as I can tell. I was there at different days and times.
Coming back to the "outlet floor" (8th floor). Here are some notebook models and their prices:
Compaq Contura 430C DX4-100, 8MB RAM, 420MB hard disk, PCMCIA type II, 10.4" DSTN,Win 3.1 and Word 6.0 loaded; 3 years worldwide warranty. Price: ¥188,000 With Win95 you'll be asked ¥198,000.
Another model (Contura 430C/V M420W) was around ¥190,000 and was loaded with Win 3.1, Lotus Organizer, Word 6.0, Excel 5.0, etc. Unfortunately there was no modem included. 28.8 PC card modems are too expensive at ¥34,800 for an outlet shop.
Most Compaq notebooks I have seen have screens that are too small, and most models do not have a CD drive nor a built-in soundblaster or integrated stereo speakers.
The Contura 420CX/V costs ¥198,000. This model is equipped with a TFT screen and a DX4-100MHz CPU. The rest is just like model 430C/V.
There was another gadget which I hadn't seen before. An MPC internal micro stereo speaker set to slide into a 5-inch drive bay. A headphone jack was also included. Price: ¥2,980! It's something for people who live in a 3-tatami mat room and have their ears 5cm apart from each other....
Down to the 5th floor where a series of Toshiba Dynabooks are on display. Model GT-S575 with a Pentium 75MHz, a 10.4-inch TFT screen, 520MB hard disk, PCMCIA slot, WIN95 and DOS 6.22 goes for ¥245,000. The same model featuring 16MB, and a 4X CD-ROM goes for ¥282,000. I assume that a soundcard and stereo speakers are included since the built-in CD-ROM wouldn't make much sense otherwise.
T-Zone has some shortcomings when it comes to displaying the precise specs. Its sales stuff doesn't deserve 3 stars either... Still, in order to use the Internet, one needs a fast modem card and everything else that is needed to produce sound. Every component that you have to purchase additionally for a laptop computer will cost you an arm and a leg. Some of the "good deals" don't look so good anymore at all when calculating the final bill. For the same money or a little bit more you can have the newest technology and a faster CPU... if you shop around for awhile. These are all things which I have learned during the 6 hours I spent on comparing specs and prices at various shops.
Finally I decided to give up on the DSTN models (with the lesser screen resolution) and look for TFT models. Very flat Digital Equipment notebooks for not so flat wallets, top brass Dynabooks for close to bubble economy list prices, Sotec Winbooks for the same rip-off prices. The Sharp Mebius series was a bit cheaper, but still above the price I'd have liked. The colors are even better than on the most expensive Dynabook models. These are truly dream notebook computers! I also get the strong suspicion that Toshiba tells the shops for how much they can sell off the old stock. Toshiba's prices are almost identical in various other shops of Akihabara. The same refers to the gadgets of a couple of other manufacturers.
Then I heard the tunes of one of my favorite Credence Clearwater Revival hits.... The sound came from a demo CD in this AST ASCENTIA (P series). The slide show on the stunning TFT screen was just like the one on the Mebius. Maybe Sharp is producing LCD screens for AST. I was already in the process to fall in love with this gadget, but when I saw the recommended list price of ¥600,000 on the pamphlet, love vanished in less than a second! Then I spotted another bad black & white copy with prices of ¥368,000 and ¥398,000! While reading the specs, my blood pressure shot up again.
ASCENTIA P100/P133: ¥368,000/398,000
¥400,000 is still a lot of money, but it's worth every single dime considering the circumstances mentioned aforehand...<g>
After that I went to the old T-Zone store to see the "Topper." It's a notebook computer (DX4-100 with an 800MB hard disk, and 12 or 20MB RAM). Sound card and stereo speakers included. Price: ¥138,000 for the 12MB model and ¥158,000 for the 20MB model. No CD-ROM drive. These prices are truly impressive, however, the screen colors were probably the worst that you can imagine. Maybe it wasn't well adjusted... otherwise I'd say that this is a screamer for color-blind users!<g>
The shop carried IBM Palmtop Thinkpads 110 from ¥99,800 to ¥198,000. That's probably ideal for my 10 year old, but no good for German and other sausage fingers. There were also Sportster Plug & Play modems on display (some for 33.6 kps). The external model was ¥27,400 and ¥24,800 for the internal unit. And there was this Sportster Vi. It's a Fax-Modem with personal Voice Mail feature. The internal model goes for ¥29,800.
The shop at the other side of the road from Attla (former Spunky) is usually not covered by me since it's a Macintosh outlet (one of the cheapest ones). I saw 2 Iomega (Maxell) ZIP drives (parallel) for ¥18,500. In the USA you'll pay $199.
I'm really amazed by all these weird Akihabara shop names. Spunky on the left side, Kinki on the other side. Guess what they have sold before computers became a commodity.<g> Anyway, who cares for names like Za Graceful and Bless if the guys pray around the clock to keep the prices low....
Finally I headed down to DOS/V Paradise since I needed another 10 floppies for my IOMEGA Zip drive (Epson made). 1 costs ¥1,780, 10 are for ¥1,650 each. Overtop (in the same building as TwoTop) sells them for the same price, but I don't like shopping in an overcrowded place like this one. Once I had to wait 20 minutes to
get rid of my money! There was a Hitachi Flora notebook on display. Very nice gadget, but ¥378,000 for no modem included and only 1 year warranty didn't make it my choice.
On the way back to Akihabara station I saw a modem card Suntac Ms288CF Pro for ¥25,600. I don't know how good or bad it is, but equivalent Megahertz modem cards cost ¥10,000 more. Netscape endorses Megahertz in their ads....
A week later my wife and I went down to Akihabara's T-Zone again since she should have the last word on her computer purchase. Since we had our younger son with us, we just dropped him at T-Zone's game center, the place where kids will never get lost!
Arriving at T-Zone's opening time (11:00 am) has its advantages indeed. No need to line up as number 4 in front of a computer and no waiting times when requesting a salesman. The latter was needed since the AST demo notebook was the only gadget that wasn't switched on yet. The salesman switched it on, the program loaded and started to display some Intel chip demonstration. I asked the salesman to demonstrate the CD-ROM player including sound.
He fiddled around for 5 minutes until I realized that his experience couldn't have gone far beyond operating an AM pocket radio! Since the pamphlet I saw a week before was gone, I asked him whether there was a soundcard in the computer. He responded immediately with "No," but mentioned that I could purchase soundcard and stereo speakers optionally. When I asked him whether the visible built-in speakers were dummy speakers, he started again to lift the notebook, look underneath, etc.... Being already fed up, I called for the manager since he didn't want to. There was no manager, but one of his colleagues reluctantly walked over, and the incompetent fellow just disappeared without saying a word! The new salesman confirmed that all the items were included in the package price. And since there are very few shops that sell AST computers, I bought everything at T-Zone. If I was after a Toshiba or Sharp notebook, I would not have supported salesmen who make wrong assumptions instead of asking their superiors. I don't care for their face-saving ceremonies if they waste my time and money....
With the new notebook and 400,000 yen less in my pocket, I headed down to the exit. I would have gone back to the station, but my wife suddenly remembered that the boy was missing (innate mother instinct???). He was in the middle of a game and very reluctant to leave. I had to promise him not to go to Akihabara without him next time. No problem, I can even save the money for his lunch since he wouldn't notice being hungry as long as there are TV games around...<g>
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