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Japan's Sharp updates 'analog' tablet after surprising success

Sharp says sales of a simple monotone tablet for scribbling hand-written notes have beat forecasts and launches an new model

Japan's Sharp makes multi-hued HD displays for iPhones and TVs, but it has had unexpected success at home with a simple, monochrome device it calls a "digital notepad," a small tablet with a lined screen and stylus for easily scribbling handwritten notes.

Sharp first announced the device in December, and its six-inch screen and modest specs generated little buzz compared to feature-laden rivals.

The device has been a success, however, and on Thursday Sharp announced a more advanced model. The newer version can store 2,000 handwritten notes, twice the original, and a single battery charge still provides 60 hours of use. Like its predecessor, it has a monochrome LCD screen, optimized for smooth and detailed writing using the stylus.

The company seems to have tapped into the cultural appeal of handwriting in Japan, where calligraphy is still taught in public schools and children learn complicated kanji characters by repeatedly writing them out longhand. Sharp would like to launch the device abroad, but isn't sure how it would be received, although similar products like the Boogie Board have been successful.

"It did better than expected," said Sharp spokewoman Miyuki Nakayama. "Hand-writing culture is Japanese, so we need to look into the market demand for foreign markets, because it's kind of analog."

The newer version will cost about ¥15,000 (US$150), the same as the earlier version. That make it the same price as some full-featured tablets: Amazon's Kindle Fire HD costs ¥15,800 in Japan.

Sharp said in December that it planned to produce around 8,000 of the original version per month. The company won't provide sales numbers, but says it exceeded expectations, and some retailers reported they sold out of stock in the months after it was released. Sharp plans to produce 5,000 of the newer version per month, with sales to begin in August.

The device features straightforward software, with buttons on the screen to change pen thickness or save notes. It also features a growing number of downloadable backgrounds, which range from simple lines to mimic traditional notepaper to time sheets and calendars.

"It's interesting because it's an electric notepad that's also analog, with templates that have ruled lines," tweeted one user, who said she liked a ruled design with a small bear in the lower corner.

Sharp calls the latest version of the device the "WG-N20." It features a six-inch screen with 600x800 pixels and measures 11.1cm by 15.5cm, with a thickness of about 1cm. It weighs 210 grams.


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