The Case Against Thin

By  |  Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 11:15 am

iPhone

Over at the Atlantic, Robert Wright is being sacrilegious. He says he’s unhappy with the trend–seen in phones, laptops, and other products–to make gadgets as thin as possible:

Remember when Jobs first unveiled the Macbook Air? I do, because I had long been a fan of the small, lightweight computers that had until then been available only on the Windows platform. Jobs brought the machine onstage in a manila envelope, because the thing he wanted to wow the audience with was its thinness.

I thought: Who cares how thin it is? Thickness isn’t the dimension that really matters when you have to fit a computer into a tiny backpack or use it in a coach seat on an airplane. And, anyway, more important than any spatial dimension is weight. Sure, to the extent that thinner means lighter, thinness is good, but if you make thinness an end in itself, you start compromising functionality.

Bob has several specific beefs with whisper-thin gizmos. He points out that all things being equal, a thin case leaves less room for the battery, thereby leading to shorter battery life. He says that overly svelte devices are harder to hold and easier to drop. With laptops, he says, engineering for thinness leads to compromises in keyboard quality.

If you’re down on thin, you could point out other problems which Bob doesn’t mention–for instance, thin laptops and tablets often don’t have room for useful ports. (I might own an 11″ MacBook Air if it had an SD slot, but Apple jettisoned it.)

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about Bob’s argument, and it’s been surprisingly tough. In some instances, I know I like thin: I’m certainly happier carrying a MacBook Air than a MacBook Pro, and it’s not just because of the weight difference. Skinnier notebooks are easier to hold; that matters to me, because I’m out and about a lot, and have been known to attend cocktail parties with my laptop tucked under an arm that’s also holding a glass of wine.

But am I subconsciously buying into the thinness fetish which Bob derides? If you carry a MacBook Air or a thin Windows machine, you might impress other people who equate thin with good. But nobody ever increased his or her social standing by lugging a particularly chunky notebook. Maybe that unspoken truth influences my purchasing decisions without me even understanding it.

With phones, I don’t feel quite the same impulse to defend thinness. My favorite phone of the pre-iPhone era was my Treo 650, was 23mm thick. The iPhone 4S is 9.3mm thick. And yet, if I made a list of the 20 top ways in which the iPhone 4S improves on the Treo, its dimensions probably wouldn’t make the cut.

At least Apple, through clever engineering and a willingness to postpone 4G, manages to give the iPhone decent battery life by current standards. (Even then, lots of people buy Mophie cases for their iPhones–effectively opting for a portlier, longer-running iPhone.) Numerous makers of 4G Android phones have released skinny phones with dismal battery life; in these cases, it’s painfully obvious that consumers would have been better served if the phones had sported thicker cases that had room for bigger batteries.

The thing is, phone makers are stuck in their usual war of numerical specsmanship. After awhile, it doesn’t matter whether thinner is better or not. Bob heralds the arrival of Motorola’s Droid Razr Maxx, a thicker, bigger-battery version of the Droid Razr. I’m glad Motorola is giving it a try, but I also worry that if the Maxx isn’t a hit, it’ll make phone manufacturers even more thick-averse.

And then there are HDTVs, a product category that Bob doesn’t mention. They too are obsessed with thinness as a marketing talking point. That really confuses me: Why should anyone care much about the one dimension you can’t see when you’re watching TV?

(Yes, I speak as someone who owns an aging Vizio LCD set that is, compared to current models, laughably thick. Sorry if I sound defensive.)

The bottom line here is actually pretty straightforward. Every gadget represents a series of design tradeoffs. Every gadget buyer has a different comfort zone when it comes to the balance of thinness-vs.-other-stuff. If Bob doesn’t want a super-thin notebook–and is willing to use Windows–it’s okay, because he still has plenty of choices. But if he doesn’t want a super-thin phone, his options are surprisingly limited. That’s a shame.

Do you think today’s tech products are inappropriately fixated on thinness, not thin enough–or just right?

 
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22 Comments For This Post

  1. JohnFen Says:

    How thin a laptop is doesn’t matter to me at all. Phones, however, are a different story. I have a Samsung Infuse, which is 9mm thick.

    I love its thinness more than I ever thought I would have. Battery life isn’t terrible, and it’s extremely easy to pop a fresh battery in it as needed in any case, which makes it a nonissue. It’s solidly built, and in no way feels delicate or flimsy to me. I can keep it in my pocket without it bulging, it feels good in my hand and so forth.

    I’ve also noticed that thick phones now look hopelessly old-fashioned to me. That’s not a plus or minus, just a weird thing that I didn’t expect.

  2. Johnny S. Says:

    Regarding laptops, the original author answers his own question: "…To the extent that thinner means lighter, thinness is good." I think it's safe to say that most people would prefer a lighter laptop/notebook. So, what exactly would be the point of a "Thick & Light" laptop? Devices that are thick & light tend to be that way because they have a lot of empty space in them. So why not compress that empty space, and make the device thin as well as light?

    Regarding phones, that one is easy: The phone needs to fit easily in my front trouser pocket. Ergo, a thinner phone is better than a thicker phone. QED.

    Improved battery life would be great of course, but for now I manage the problem by having extra charging cables at work & in the car "just in case" — and honestly, I rarely need to use them.

  3. John Baxter Says:

    Proposition: The thinness of HDTVs is intended to force you to buy external sound equipment, preferably from the HDTV's maker.

  4. Mr. Jones Says:

    I love my iPhone but I would be fine if Apple made it a millimeter or 2 thicker to give it the call quality of my old Blackberry Bold.

  5. Dan Says:

    Why not just get an Eye-Fi SD card, so then you don't need an SD slot? Ergo you can get a MacBook Air.

  6. Peter Wade Says:

    The thing that really annoys me is that to make them so thin, none of the new tablets or music players have hard drives and you are stuck with small amounts of flash memory. I'd like to be able to put all my music, audiobooks and ebooks on one portable device. There are apps available for Android, iPad and iPod touch that would make this possible but I would need over 200G of storage and none of these devices have more than 64G.

  7. Jacques Says:

    Just get a Samsung Galaxy S2. Battery life and call quality is awesome and it fits nicely in my pocket.

  8. Todd Says:

    Before touch screens on smart phones were all the rage, we seemed to be completely enamoured with how small and thin we could make them. I have big clumsy hands and I just want something that fits. The same goes for my laptop. I want it to work in the environment I use it. I had a huge 17 inch model but I couldn't use it in my economy car because It was to cramped. But my old netbook worked great. I will take battery life over size to a point. I think there is marketing value to thinner but, at least for me I will look for a form factor that suits me (a big lug).

  9. Tarang Patel Says:

    I also thought about this topic few weeks back and scribbled some thoughts on my blog at http://tarangp.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/fragile-w

    Its true though it is up to the consumers what they prefer. But still how thin a device can get ??

  10. lepoete73 Says:

    @JohnFen : My phone is so thin that I bought a rubber case to make it bigger and less slippery, also fits better in the belt case.

    @Johnny S : Empty space in a laptop can help it breathe and avoid overheating.

    I too don't understand the craziness of making things thinner than they need to. Like said about HDTV, what is the difference between 1, 2 or 5 inches thick? its foot on which is stands is at least 8 inches to 1 foot so the TV don't fall over anyway, you don't gain much by the thinness of the TV.

    I'm still in the dinosaur era of HDTV, I'm still with my 3 foot-deep retro-projector 65" TV from 9 years ago which is still working perfectly fine in 1080i.

  11. TrevJ Says:

    I personally own the iPhone 4 of which I’m viewing this article with. I feel that this phone could be slightly thicker. Since I purchased this phone I’m constantly using it. When properly charged and taken care of the battery lasts me at best 1/3 of the day. With my profession that can be a bit of an issue as I use my phone for work, and entertainment. So to get to the point… The iPhone feels too thin for me I have a case that adds about 4-7mm to the thickness which is quite nice when it comes to handling the phone it’s self.

    Another point. I would gladly sacrifice a little size for a longer battery, and better/faster hardware. Other than the average battery life it’s not too bad and quite manageable

  12. Rob Says:

    I think it's clear that there are two views on thin. One group views thin as the goal, even to the detriment of other features or specifications. The other group views features and specs as paramount with the resulting device as thin as possible, but no thinner.

    I agree that having a phone fit in one's pocket is important, but anything thinner than, say, 15mm is thin enough for that. After that, height and width become important. Given a phone small enough to fit comfortably, then features, performance, and battery life become important. IOW, it isn't just about thin, and it isn't just about battery life. It's about meeting certain goals in each of several areas and weighting the relative value of "better" within each of those areas.

    @Johnny S.

    A lighter laptop can be lighter for many reasons, not necessarily because of more empty space. For example, lighter materials might be thicker to be strong enough for the purpose. I don't disagree that empty space should be removed, but only when it doesn't conflict with other priorities like battery life (space might be due to the battery configuration and its replaceability), performance, etc.

  13. Mick Says:

    If you have a decent DSLR, snapping a few bursts of pics requires the camera to stay on way too long to transfer the pics off. Most cameras have a battery saving feature that powers them off long before the photos are transferred. Not to mention, take your camera to the park and take a few dozen shots of your kids, animals, scenery – then come home and leave your camera on for an hour? Or go on vacation and want to get photos off your camera every night? Now I'm stuck carrying card readers again just so I can buy an Air? Nope, Apple missed the form over function boat again.

  14. Dave321 Says:

    Thinness is very important in phones because you need to put a case on them which make them much thicker. A thick phone with a case is too thick. A think phone with a case is just right.

  15. Nathan Stockstill Says:

    I agree that in laptops, thinness requires a significant compromise on keyboard feel and anything with a laptop-size screen is going to be awkward regardless how thin. On the other hand, if we ever get e-paper that can be folded, thin may make more sense.

    Phones are a whole different story. There are all kinds of activities where it's inconvenient to carry a wallet, so I'll just take my Drivers License, a Credit Card and $20. Once I have a phone that's a comparable size to any of those, I'll be happy. Actually, it would be nice if my phone could replace the drivers license and credit card…

  16. Jim Birch Says:

    Agree absolutely.

    This has a great parallel to evolutionary theory. Darwin had two fundamental drivers for evolution: natural selection, and, sexual selection. Natural selection is the one that everyone knows about, better function has survival values: better legs run faster, sharper eyes see prey and predator from further away, sharper teeth bite better, better digestion extracts more nutrition, better reproductive physiology has more babies, better maternal instinct helps them survive. Improve and recycle.

    Sexual selection is the peacocks tail. It is a positive hindrance: can’t fly as far, can’t run as fast, high maintenance, and actually makes him a better breakfast proposition. So why does Mr Peacock want the whopping tail? Answer: It pulls peahens. “Look at this big beautiful useless tail, Girls. I can carry this hulking thing around with me and and still survive well enough to constantly keep it looking spic. If you want healthy chicks, I’m the guy with the great physiology.” The trait itself doesn’t matter it, it’s a signal. It just has to be visible and impose a physiological cost so everyone can’t have one. Once a trait becomes attractive to the opposite sex it gets selected and amplified until it becomes so high maintenence that only the best individuals can have a great one. The traits of sexual selection are wildly divergent, unlike natural selection traits that can converge as they optimize for their particular ecological niche.

    Note that natural selection and sexual selection are actually opposed. Natural selection makes things that work well, and sexual selection makes them functionally useless again. But sexy. Human activities are replete with the products of sexual selection; art, music, fashion, poetry, being up on the latest gossip, having the best tools, having a PhD after your name, etc, etc, all demonstrate a brain with mental capacity to spare. Some of these things have functional uses too though for poetry it’s probably not much at all.

    CPU cycles, battery life, crisp keyboard, and bright screen correspond to natural selection: they are functional. Thinness – after a certain point – is sexual selection: it looks good to a tool making species. It may even make the device harder to use but that’s not the point. Thinness demonstrates engineering and design skill, fashionability, and, importantly, cost. The owner assumes a little of the design glow, and demonstrates their capacity pay for the latest sexy hard-to-produce item.

    Even if a thicker one might have longer battery life and work a bit better.

    (See Miller’s “The Mating Mind” for more on the spunky world of sexual selection.)

  17. fulltexts Says:

    haha when you say cocktail party, do you mean nerd sausage fests?

    I can't imagine a guest at a real cocktail party with normal people carrying a laptop. You'd look like the hosts' iimmature child snuck out of their room to gawk at the grownups

  18. GadgetGav Says:

    I think Robert Wright is conflating a lot of different and conflicting arguments into that piece:
    Firstly in the fact that he starts out as if it's a piece about thin smartphones, but really he wants to beat up on the Macbook Air and by his own admission, wanted to wait a "decent interval" after Jobs died.

    He is equating thin with poor battery life, but those don't necessarily go together. Look at thin phones that don't use 4G radios… Just because Motorola chose to cripple their Droid Razr with a tiny battery in order to claim thinnest bragging rights, doesn't mean every (or any) other manufacturer will make the same compromises. That's especially true now that Moto have had to launch the Razr Maxx with a decent battery less than 3 months after the original.

    He makes the same false comparisons between thin and flimsy. Again it's all down to manufacturer's choices. My personal laptop is a 13" Macbook Air and I can pick it up by one corner of the wrist rest and not feel the slightest movement in the case. At work I have a much bigger, thicker eMachines 15" laptop and that thing is the sh!tt!est quality you can imagine. Where ever you pick it up it flexes and creaks. You feel like it's either going to twist so much that it comes apart or you're just going to put your finger through the plastic if you grip it too tightly. I know the Air cost a lot more than the eMachines, but the feel of the machines has NOTHING to do with thickness or thinness – it's only about materials, design and manufacturing choices. Just because Windows ultrabooks get bad reviews has nothing to do with Steve Jobs unveiling the Macbook Air from a manilla envelope.

    The iPhone may be thin, but it's not the thinnest on the market and Apple don't go for the thin headlines (at least with the phone). I would guess that the battery in the iPhone is probably over 60% of the total volume. The phone may be small, but it's not at the expense of battery life. The "cult" mentality he tries to ascribe to iPhone buyers just doesn't hold because it doesn't "lives more problematic" because it doesn't have poor battery life like the Droid Razr.

    All in all a pointless piece in The Atlantic…

  19. professor Says:

    Thin TV's, are meant to be mounted on the wall and look like a picture frame, or ultimately be part of the wall or window.If you put it on the chunky foot, you're doing it wrong and it's probably going to fall over and crush your child.

  20. Brandon Backlin Says:

    This will become irrelevant when our wireless networks can reliably stream data; but for now and the coming years it's a good point.

  21. R Singers Says:

    I used to have a Sony Ericsson Elm as my phone of choice, but with its thin curved shape I was always losing it, or dropping it. One particularly bad drop broke the lens and the replacement lens kept leaking dust. So I now have a Sony Ericsson Hazel. The little bit of extra width is actually enough to prevent the problem I had with the Hazel, I now can feel when its in a pocket and I don't drop it. And it's still not a particularly big phone.

  22. steveofthedump Says:

    What about when you don't have access to your wireless network? I'm away from home a lot and would like all my stuff where I can get it without having to rely on dodgy hotel wifi and some kind of cloud storage…

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