Cellphones With Seoul

Senior editor Mike Haney visits Samsung's South Korean headquarters and tempts us with photos of ultracool Asian gadgets. Launch photo gallery

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I´m in Seoul this week, visiting the headquarters of Samsung. South Korea leads the world in broadband penetration, and the people´s collective gadget lust puts the U.S. to shame. It´s also the world leader in online game addiction, but that´s another story, which you can read here. Pretty amazing for a country that was in economic and physical ruin less than 50 years ago.

On Monday I visited Anycall Studio, Samsung´s mobile-phone store (Anycall is Samsung´s local cellphone brand). The store reminded me of the Apple store-designed as much for people to come in and play with products as to actually buy things. In fact, the counter where you´d purchase a phone is hidden away upstairs. While I was there, a group of giggling schoolgirls came in and used the five- to seven-megapixel phones to take pictures of themselves (all flashing the peace sign), which they then printed from a kiosk. Similar stations are set up for gaming and music phones.

I also toured Samsung´s home-automation showcase. The company´s brand Homevita, which is already popular here, is being installed in new apartment buildings as they´re built. A small LCD panel on your wall controls everything-lights, security, temperature, air quality, all your A/V and some home appliances-and you can have preprogrammed settings. All fairly standard, but nicely done. The coolest features were those unique to Korea. Since many people here live in apartment buildings that have restaurants and groceries in the building, you can order food through your wall panel. You can also see a video feed of who´s at the front door, and visitors can leave video messages for you. Oh, and everything is Web-connected, so you can control it all online from anywhere in the world. The U.S. version, coming soon, will rely more on controlling things through a TV interface, because apparently Americans are scared of touchscreen LCD panels (or so testing would suggest).

Finally, today we visited Samsung´s main campus outside of Seoul, where it just built a $400-million R&D center that can house 9,000 engineers. There we got the history of the company and a bunch of stats on how it´s doing. The short version: Founded in 1969 as a B&W television maker partnered with Sanyo, it now has 128,000 employees and is number one in TV sales worldwide by a long shot. It´s dedicated to pouring tons of money into design and R&D-which probably means it will make even cooler phones that we´ll never get here.

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by Mike Haney

This phone is designed to take advantage of Korea´s mobile-phone TV service, known as DMB. There is a satellite version that costs around $20 a month and a terrestrial version that´s free. This one offers really high-quality reception.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

By far my favorite, this phone would kick the RAZR´s butt if it were released here. The size of a credit card and made of stainless steel, it includes a 1.3-megapixel camera and a leather case that doubles as a spare battery. It´s far more beautiful than my crappy photo shows.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

This is the photo station where you can try out 5- and 7-megapixel phones.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

Here's a photo station for printing 4x6 images from the camera-phones.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

Inside the Samsung store. Dig the high-design dcor and showcases full of amazing gadgets.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

This gaming station lets you try out phones that function as portable gaming units. Sadly, Korea is way ahead of us on this front.Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

Pictured here is the cellphone printing station where 5- and 7-megapixel camera-phones are connected to kiosks (a 10MP phone is coming later this year).Mike Haney

by Mike Haney

This is another phone that uses DMB mobile TV service. It employs a rabbit-ear-like antenna that pops out of the phone. The picture quality is incredible, with virtually no skipping or stuttering. According to the employees at the store, DMB phones are the most popular phones right now, and I can see why.Mike Haney