Monday, August 13, 2007

Design for Living

CNET has a fun roundup of the best, worst and wackiest gadget designs of the recent past. When you look at exquisite designs like the iPod and the Wii, it's hard to believe someone could come up with something as dreadful as the Sony Bean or those My-Vu glasses (which, I'm sad to say, I bought and used maybe three times)

Every time I see a Honda Element, I wonder what kind of person would select that car above all others. And the Bang & Olufsen Serene cell phone was mocked in these very pages last March as "the ugliest fugging phone I've ever seen."

And in November, 2005, I suggested an alternative marketing approach for the Sony Bean that I still think is can't-miss.

I'm fascinated by design, by how ordinary things are developed and honed into extraordinary things... so I will vent/chime in a little more:

First of all, had you asked me for the Best Design ever, I might have nominated the classic peanut TiVo remote:

I've used every remote out there, and this is by far the most natural and pleasing design around.

On the other hand, Logitech's Harmony remotes, which copy TiVo's peanut shape but add tiny, flush buttons and a baffling, kludgy software interface, are a disaster IMHO:

I know the Harmony's have lots of fans, but I'm not one of them. It takes that huge screen and slices it up into tiny, impossible-to-read "Tasks"... like "Watch TV" or "Watch a Movie."

I don't want to "Watch TV"... I just want to TURN ON my TV. I don't need the remote to run a series of commands into a macro. I've pretty much got my TV prepped to go when I turn it on.

And if I want to use another component, I'm sorry, but I like to push the input button. (Or, as my parents call it, "Vid One") That around-the-block trip through the inputs is not such a hardship it needs to be automated for me.

Speaking of buttons:

I love buttons. Buttons make it possible to operate a device without looking at it. One of the reasons I don't have an iPhone is you can't dial if you're not staring at the screen. Buttons should, by law, be on all consumer devices, and should be raised and rubber. But as you can see, the Harmony's are all flat and indistinguishable. And there are buttons hidden in that silver ring. It's a mess.

(By the way, the exception that tests the rule is the iPod. Somehow Apple made a gadget with only one button that you can use without looking at it. Fantastic.)

Speaking of buttons, when I had my home theatre done the guy tried to talk me into selling a kidney so I could afford one of these monstrosities:

I have very few core beliefs, but one of them is that it shouldn't require two hands and your eyes to use a remote control. So I chose this one:

It's about as fugly as it gets, but it was the only one that had buttons! Unfortunately, every time I want to change something on it, I have to call in a technician (no, I'm not kidding), so I'll never quite get it perfect.

But back to the Harmony.

A remote is such a simple, beautiful thing. Press button, stuff happens. If the remote doesn't know one of your commands, point the old one at it and teach it. Such a simple paradigm.

Why add the complexity and crashability of software? It's like the old joke about how, if Windows made a car, you'd have to stop, get out and restart it every few miles. Before I wised up I had two of these things die on me (and in both cases Logitech gave me a laurel and a hearty handshake, but no dice on repair.)

Remotes just WORK. Why add complex, unfixable frippery?

But while I tipped my hat to TiVo, I must also wag my finger: on paper, the new Glo remotes from TiVo seem like a natural next step in the evolution:

But there are quirks that irk. First of all, the channel/volume rockers are too high now that they've been swapped with the Thumbs Up/Down buttons. For those of us who can work a TiVo remote in our sleep, it's a constant battle to keep from giving Thumbs all over the place.

(I still haven't forgiven TiVo for moving the TV POWER button all the way down to unusable-land on the DirecTV version, below.)

And the light-up keypad is a swell idea, but this is one area where Logitech gets it right: It would be so easy for the TiVo Glo to light up whenever you pick it up, as the Harmony does. But it doesn't. And it's irritating. Especially when you're looking for the damn channel-changing button.

Also, I'd like to commend one of CNET's choices for Worst Design:

I don't know why headphone manufacturers are making more and more of their products behind-the-head only. Not one behind-the-head set has ever fit my huge melon. It would seem that we should have a choice.

I also want to add a nominee for Best Design: the Jawbone Bluetooth Headset:

Is very beautiful, yes? It comes in silver as well, but I like the black one. It also happens to be the absolute best BT set I've ever tried. Fantastic. And, taking a cue from Apple, even the box it comes in is gorgeous.

On the other hand, my hands-down winner for the Worst, Wackiest, Weirdest Design of all time HAS to go to the Samsung Upstage:

You may have seen the commercials for it, starring two guys in black suits and sunglasses who, I'm willing to bet, have never had sex. And never will. If you're dressing up in a Men in Black outfit so you can trade Jack Webb dialogue with your buddy about your phone, then LOSER is lighting up on the centerfield scoreboard.

But then there's the phone itself. Ah, the phone.

If you gave a rhesus monkey a crayon he'd design a better phone than the Upstage.

Cool how the multimedia screen is on one side, and the phone is on the other, right? Well, what's not so cool is that you have to flip the phone over to type a text message, then flip it back over to send, then flip it back over to type... and so on...

And whenever you surf to a web page that requires data entry, it's flip-type-flip-repeat. Like to search the Sprint Music store. Or to search with Google. Or to type in your password, which you never realized how often you do until you have to turn your phone over every time you do it. Over and over. Flip, flip, flip. Until you lose your flipping mind.

And unlike the iPhone, which knows when you're turning it, the Upstage requires you to press a button to flip it. Believe me, you'll get to know that button well.

It is also not possible for the phone screen to be smaller. Seriously. It's practically nanotechnology. Of course, if they made it even one line bigger, you wouldn't have to flip the phone to read text messages. But then that would defeat the purpose of the Upstage, which is to torture the user.

But here's the best part: It has a faux-scroll pad... kinda like the iPod except:

1. It's square.
2. It doesn't work.

And, in the ultimate what-were-they-thinking move of all time...

When you scroll down, your finger naturally lands on the END button. Every time. Scroll down... then say SHIT!... then reopen your app... then scroll down... then say SHIT!... and so on.

Add to that AWFUL reception, NO printing, NO built-in email, NO doc viewing, and a camera that clocks in at a not-so-whopping 1.3 megapixels, and you've got a real shit sandwich.

Oh and speaking of sandwich? The battery is pathetic, but Samsung has you covered: the case has a battery in it. Unfortunately, you kinda have to clamp down one side to use the other, then unclamp to flip. It's not hard, but after a while it piles on top of the other aggravations and you're cooked.

If you are a Sprint user, do yourself a favor: but a Samsung A920 or a Sanyo M1 on eBay, then call Sprint to activate it. There's no law that says you have to buy your phone from them.

On the other hand, if anyone would like to try a Samsung Upstage, I have one I can sell really cheap. Only used for two days.

Meanwhile, I'm curious if anyone has any other nominees for Best or Worst Design.


The Crutnacker said...

Best design? I don't know if it has the best design, but while reading about the iPhone, I got psyched to read about the AT&T Tilt PDA.

Frankly, I love my Casio G Shock Wave Ceptor watch. It's the first watch I can say I love 100% because it does three things I love.

1) It keeps atomic time.
2) It charges its own battery
3) It has a nice raised plastic part around its face that prevents my apelike arms from scratching it up.

Worst design

Every Wal-Mart store in existence.

The Crutnacker said...

The Honda Element is ugly, but it is useful inside for hauling lots of stuff. From what I understand, Honda thought it would appeal to college age students who want to haul their friends, have a place to crash, fill with bikes, surfboards, etc. Apparently the audience skewed much older and its used a lot by old people hauling flea market crap and their 15 dogs.

Still, it's a neat vehicle inside, just not very useful for those of us with a family.

Sydelle Pearl said...

Worst design E.V.E.R.: Conair Ion Shine® Ceramic 1875 Styler

It is, quite simply, impossible to hold this device without turning it off. The power button is precisely where your hand HAS to go. HATE!