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