Geek world heaven

If you like new technology, Taiwan’s a great place to be

November 2021

Going to Guanghua today?

If, like Mitzi and me, you have a tendency to be a bit geeky at times, Asia is a great place to be.

If you like fiddling with computers, cameras or mobile phones, or having the latest high-tech toys, you can find all you’d ever wish for here, and more.

In Europe, if you want to shop for the latest electronic gadgets in the real world, you head to MediaMarkt. In the US it’s BestBuy.

In most of Asia it’s different – and much more fun. Instead of one or two enormous stores, there are hundreds of small ones which sell everything you can get in Europe and the US – and a lot more.

There are shops that specialise in computer motherboards or cables. Others only do microphones, or the lighting equipment you need to create an interesting background for video calls. There are some that only sell tiny electronic components, individually, for pennies a piece. Others sell second-hand computers and cameras, after they’ve been reconditioned.

Some also specialise in games, or gaming accessories, and there are even tailors nearby to make you look exactly like your favourite Anime character. Some are software specialists, able to recover your photos and other files from a broken hard drive.

In most major Asian cities all these stores are all located in one part of town. In Tokyo it’s the famous Akihabara district. In Hong Kong most of the electronic stores are in a labyrinthian building in Wanchai.

In Taipei, they are all located in and around two massive shopping complexes, known as Guanghua Digital Plaza, as well an almost-impossible-to-find underground mall nearby.

There are, literally, hundreds of geek shops, and we love going to this district, greatly because it fuels the imagination about what’s possible.

Ooh! This thing means we can connect this to that! That’s so useful!

Cutting edge without the paper cuts

One of the biggest delights is coming across entirely new products which aren’t sold in other places yet, and sometimes never will be. This is partly because Taiwan is home to many cutting edge electronic technology firms, and has some of the world’s largest component and device manufacturers*. Innovation is the fuel that keeps this industry going.

This week I came across a company in one of these stores called Readmoo selling a super-thin tablet. It’s about the size of a sheet of A4 paper, weighs half as much as a mobile phone, and is half as thick as a finger (see image).

As well as being an e-reader, for books and magazines, it’s a notepad.

With a stylus, you can write or draw on the screen, just like a piece of paper, and then save your work, or post it online, just like a computer.

They make a smaller, slightly thicker version for reading books. Both use Taiwanese-developed E-ink or E-paper, as well as clever lighting so that it looks just like real paper and is better for the eyes.

Unfortunately, the drawback with the Readmoo is that it’s only available in traditional Chinese and while I seriously considered getting it anyway (Max, you can only read 20 Chinese characters), I bought an Onyx Boox Poke 3 Mighty E-ink tablet instead.

This is another sort of E-reader, which uses the same technology and works in English as well as lots of other languages.

E-readers have been around for years, of course, but this one is super light and super small, and the technology just works. You can surf the internet too, and install any Android apps you like.

The larger versions (which unlike mine are available on Amazon) can also be used for taking notes or drawing.

A rather larger Taiwanese innovation is E-scooters, which are increasingly ubiquitous on the streets.

Scooters are both a blessing and a curse in Taiwan. With 14 million registered in a population of 24 million, they are everywhere. They allow people to travel around quickly, cut congestion and are cheap to run.

But, as well as cluttering up the pavements, where they are parked, they also create a lot of noise and pollution. So it is (a bit of) a relief that the number of e-scooters is growing so quickly.

Refueling the new way

Mostly, these have been developed by a company called Gogoro. Rather than sounding like angry insects, as normal scooters, their bikes whizz and whoosh through the streets, making sounds like cars from 1950s science fiction films.

As well as being voice activated, the noises they make when they are switched on and off are programmable. The really clever bit is that the batteries are interchangeable.

Across the island there are hundreds of battery swap stations where people can exchange out-of-power units for fully recharged ones in a few seconds.

Thanks to these bikes the air is just a little bit cleaner.

Unfortunately though, because they are recharged using energy that comes from burning coal, the overall effect is less than it could be.

Still, they are a good step in the right direction. And, yes, they carry dogs.

* Though you may not have heard of Taiwan’s high tech companies, six rank in the Fortune 500, the list of the biggest companies in the world. Hon Hai Precision? It employs nearly 800,000 people, and makes the iPhone, among many other devices, under contract. It’s bigger than Exxon, Daimler and AT&T. TSMC? It’s the world’s leading maker of semiconductors with a turnover of $35bn. Pegatron? Wistron? Quanta? Compal? They are some of the biggest electronics companies in the world too, and all Taiwanese.

Guanghua shopping centre: taiwannatravel

Images: Motorcycles waiting and spaceship: Andrew Haimerl

Gogoro bike getting new batteries: Gogoro

Mooink Tablet: Readmoo