Your device can be too small and too thin (July 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran July 27, 2012; it’s on my mind again after two recent stays with relatives who had broadband Internet at home but no WiFi router connected to it.)

For well over a decade, I’ve had the same wish list for each new gadget: smaller, lighter and thinner than its predecessors. But lately, I wonder if I should be more careful about what I wish for.

too-thin laptopI still appreciate carrying around devices that weigh less and take up less space than earlier models—preferably while running longer on a charge. But some recent devices I’ve tested or purchased suggest the costs of being too thin or too small.

Consider the connections around the edges of many new laptops, including the MacBook Air I just bought, but also many Intel-based Ultrabook PCs. The thinnest among them often leave out wired Ethernet ports and standard HDMI video outputs, requiring users to pack adapters.

That’s not a huge tradeoff for video. If you expect to plug a laptop into a monitor or an HDTV, you’re foolish not to bring your own cable, and one with a micro-HDMI plug at one end will take up less space than a full-sized equivalent. But with networking, you’ll need to bring an adapter supported by your operating system or trust that Wi-Fi will always work, no matter how many other people jam the airwaves near you.

And as just about anybody who’s gone to CES or any other tech conference can testify, that rarely happens. Veterans of these events know to look for Ethernet, and some companies have taken note: Google won compliments for providing wired Internet access in the press seats at its I/O conference last month.

The race to build the thinnest laptop, as opposed to the lightest, doesn’t make much sense from a usability perspective. An added eighth of an inch in thickness won’t make a laptop any more awkward to operate or carry. It’s not a thick phone that will break the line of a suit when tucked into a pocket.

Smartphones risk a different sort of miniaturization malfunction. Since the 1990s, phones using the GSM standard have used compact SIM (subscriber identity module) cards to store account data. This has made it easy to move a number from one phone to another and, with an unlocked phone, switch temporarily or permanently to a new carrier.

That’s given GSM a serious advantage over the competing CDMA standard, which doesn’t require any such physical separation of an account and a phone. (Trivia: Some CDMA carriers have employed a SIM equivalent called an R-UIM  or removable user identity module, but not in the U.S.)

In recent years, the SIM scenario has gotten a little more complicated with the arrival of micro-SIM cards. But you can still use a micro-SIM in place of a standard card (technically a mini-SIM) if you pop it into an adapter or position it so its contacts align properly in the slot (I’ve done it, but it took a few tries). And you can cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size.

Now, however, the industry has certified a “nano-SIM” standard that is smaller still and slightly thinner. So you won’t be able to shoehorn a micro-SIM into a nano-SIM slot, and using a nano-SIM card in phones designed for bigger cards will require an adapter instead of just careful placement.

Whether saving .0037 cubic inches of space over the already tiny micro-SIM card (in context, .1 percent of the volume of an iPhone 4S, considerably less in the current crop of big-screen smartphones) is worth that complication seems to have gone unexplored. Would we be better off if everybody had standardized on micro-SIM and let designers find other ways to condense phone hardware? We’ll never know.

Manufacturing ever-smaller gadgets also imposes costs we may not notice until later on. You may find that you can’t upgrade the memory on a new laptop—a serious risk if an operating system upgrade requires more memory than the last release. Are we ready to foreclose on the idea of upgradable hardware?

Repairing a tablet or a computer can also move from tricky to difficult once its components get tightly-packed together. The same goes for recycling a defunct device—although if a manufacturer provides its own, easily accessible recycling service for those gadgets, I’ll give it a pass.

The risk in making this kind of complaint is sounding like a grumpy old man, desperately clinging to his trusty old Ethernet cable and SIM card as he stands in the way of progress and the laudable goal of making computers simple, worry-free appliances.

But at a certain point, standards friendliness, repairability and expandability should outrank shaving yet another fraction of an inch or an ounce off a product. That would leave plenty of other things companies can try to beat each other on. Did I mention battery life?

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Weekly output: TechShop, iPhone 5, WiFi routers, speed tests

Like last week, this week was cut up by travel–in this case, the Online News Association’s conference in San Francisco. (As in, the same city I went to last week for TechCrunch Disrupt.)

9/20/2012: TechShop: Laser Cutters For The People, Discovery News

My last stop before heading home from the Disrupt trip was a two-hour tour of this fascinating workshop–which itself followed a shorter stop when I was in the Bay Area in early June. There are a lot of interesting story angles to TechShop’s story (like the legality of cloning real-world objects using 3-D printing, something I discussed on a panel this summer) that I could only briefly mention in passing in this post. So I will have to find other uses for all the material in my notes.

Speaking of leaving things in one’s notebook, I had to update the post to correct a few errors I let escape into the copy. I hate it when that happens.

9/22/2012: IPhone 5 journal: So about that Maps app…, CNNMoney.com

Perhaps you, too, have heard that Apple began selling a new smartphone this week? My coverage of the new iPhone 5 kicked off with this first post in a series for CNNMoney.com; updates over the next few days will reflect my tests of its camera, performance, battery life and other issues. (I’ll also have a shorter writeup for Discovery.)

Note that this review didn’t involve the usual product loan. After getting the inconclusive responses to my review request from Apple PR that I’ve begun to expect, I bought a new iPhone 5 from a Verizon Wireless store in San Francisco. (Don’t buy a new iPhone on launch day from an Apple Store; the lines are vastly shorter at carriers’ retail outlets.) The downside is that I have to return the thing before VzW’s 14-day trial period ends, lest I get stuck with a two-year contract when I’m already under contract with another carrier; the upside is being able to go ahead and do my job as a reviewer. Which is, you know, kind of liberating.

9/23/2012: Tip: Reconnect your Wi-Fi and test its speed, USA Today

This Q&A item has more abbreviations than I usually want to inflict on readers, but it’s hard to discuss technical networking issues without throwing a few around. The balance of the column shares tips about third-party tools that can assess your Internet connection’s speed; some of that dates to last winter’s reporting on Sonic.net’s gigabit fiber-optic service.

Weekly output: iPhone 5, TechCrunch Disrupt, NFL Mobile, Gatekeeper

I’d like to have more items in this list, but travel took a big chomp out of this week. (And it’s going to do the same for next.) If you’re wondering about the absence of any CEA posts, we’re taking a break while their new communications guy Jeff Joseph gets up to speed and they decide if they want to make any changes to their online outreach.

9/12/2012: Apple’s iPhone 5: The Price of Thin, Discovery News

Confession: My first, peevish reaction when Apple didn’t invite me to its iPhone 5 event was to let somebody else write it up for Discovery–I’d have enough to cover at TechCrunch Disrupt, a couple of miles away. I’m glad I rethought that, since my post seems to be one of few to note the iPhone 5′s problematic fragmenting of the SIM card standard. (CEA readers got a preview of that argument in a post I wrote in July.)

9/14/2012: Smart Cycles, Transparent Time, Other Disruptions, Discovery News

Most of my coverage of TC Disrupt SF took the form of a prolonged stream of tweets (to readers who did not unfollow out of sheer fatigue: thanks!). Then I had to synthesize three days of watching startups pitch themselves and their products into 500 words and change. I did that by picking five of these companies–none of which won TC Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield–to note in this post. But in retrospect, I should have used a few more words to offer more details about their business models.

Also: If I haven’t written about at least one of these companies at greater length 10 months from now, can somebody call me out on the oversight?

9/16/2012: NFL Mobile app doesn’t work on new iPad, USA Today

As you can see, this piece doesn’t actually answer the reader’s question–the Verizon Wireless PR guy I’ve been e-mailing all week never provided a specific explanation. So I wound up making this post double as a critique of VzW’s failure to communicate with its users. It wraps up with a reminder about white-listing apps blocked by OS X Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper; please use that advice wisely.

You can also read this story in USAT’s new design; what do you think of the updated look?

About that “boring” iPhone 5 launch

In case you missed the news, Apple introduced a new iPhone this week. And for its trouble, the Cupertino, Calif., company has been getting dinged by tech writers for insufficiently stunning the audience. Wired’s Mat Honan spoke for many in a post that, while complimenting the iPhone 5′s advances over the iPhone 4S, handed down a final verdict of “boring.”

But what, exactly, is a company going to do to wow spectators with its fifth incremental update to a product that debuted in the long-ago era of 2007? Short of stunts involving guys in wingsuits, it’s hard to distract an audience from the fact that the smartphone is a maturing, evolving product. Breakthrough innovations don’t come as quickly as they once did. And in some areas, such as power, they don’t seem to be happening at all.

(To any journalists tempted to critique Apple for allowing more of the iPhone 5′s details to leak: What’s wrong with you? Speaking as somebody who can’t count on getting too much attention from the company–it didn’t issue me a press pass to Tuesday’s event–that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!)

Oh, and one more thing: Since Apple didn’t spend weeks and months hyping the next iPhone’s arrival, just where might everybody have gotten the idea that this new model would represent a next level of game-changing awesomeness? Could it possibly have been the sites (most of my past and present outlets included) that have been running speculative next-iPhone posts since this spring? Think about that for a minute.

Weekly output: iPhone rumors, remote controls, Kindle Fire, the Cricket iPhone, cable boxes, IE 8, Google alternatives

All three pieces that were on an editor’s screen a week ago went online this week. See how falsely productive I look now? This week’s list includes a new site, CNNMoney. (I enjoy how my freelance situation gives me enough spare time to try to chase down new business and write for different sites and audiences.)

5/29/2012: The Next-iPhone Season Draws Near, So Read Wisely, Discovery News

As you may have read here a year ago, I think obsessing over next-iPhone rumors can be a colossal waste of time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t provide some advice about which of this year’s crop could be true and which seem transparently ridiculous. Just don’t make me write that post every week!

5/30/2012: Your Next Remote May Already Be In Your Pocket, CEA Digital Dialogue

After seeing some interesting experiments in using smartphone and tablet apps to replace remote controls at the Cable Show–which, in turn, followed some similar demos at CES–I thought it was a good time to assess this overdue experimentation in replacing the remote and warn about how it might go awry.

5/31/2012: Rethinking the Kindle Fire, six months later, CNNMoney

Back in January, I had a great conversation with an editor at CNNMoney about the lack of follow-up in tech reviews: If car magazines and sites can set aside the time to write long-term evaluations of cars, why can’t tech sites do the same for gadgets? This six-months-later look at Amazon’s Kindle Fire is the result of that chat. Please compare it to my initial writeup for Discovery–and let me know what other tech products might deserve their own extended eval.

5/31/2012: The ‘Next iPhone’ We Didn’t See Coming, Discovery News

The week’s surprise was seeing Cricket Wireless, the prepaid carrier I reviewed back in 2009 and hadn’t encountered since getting a demo of its Muve music service last spring, get the iPhone. Even more surprising: Learning that Cricket’s version of the iPhone 4S will be unlocked for international use–and then seeing that highly-relevant fact go unmentioned in other stories.

6/3/2012: Off the Grid, Still In the Box: where’s Cable TV headed?, Boing Boing

My Cable Show coverage wrapped up with my second post at Boing Boing, in which I recap some surprisingly positive developments in user interfaces and energy efficiency–and a less-enthralling lack of progress in opening up this market to outside vendors. Having enjoyed the conversation with BB readers in February, my next move after posting this will be to catch up on the feedback I missed earlier today.

6/3/2012: How long should you hang on to IE8?, USA Today

A reader asked if it was okay to keep using Internet Explorer 8 instead of IE 9; as you might expect, I don’t think that’s a great idea. (To answer the “what if you’re still on XP?” replies I’ve already received: That’s not a great idea either. That OS is well past its sell-by date, and I can’t stand to use it myself anymore.) After I endorse Google’s Chrome as a good IE alternative, I explain how to set Chrome to use non-Google search engines as its default.

Last week, I also learned from my site stats here that ABC News’ tech site syndicates these columns. So if the orange highlight atop USAT’s tech section bothers you, maybe the blue-green header at ABC will be more to your liking.

Coverage I don’t miss writing: the iPhone-rumor story

If it’s Monday–or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or a day on the weekend–it must be time for another round of rumor stories about the next iPhone. The latest claim: The iPhone 5, assuming Apple calls it that, will have a curved glass screen.

That report follows dozens of earlier items that have suggested the next smartphone to come out of Cupertino will feature a bigger screen, possibly spanning its entire front surface; will support the vaguely-named and potentially useful wireless technology called Near Field Communication (unless it won’t); will have an 8-megapixel camera; will run on the same A5 processor as the iPad 2, perhaps in a dual-core version; and will let users switch between the CDMA and GSM wireless standards.

When I was blogging for the Post, the iPhone-rumors post was a regular ingredient of my coverage. I had my reasons: Those posts usually drew a good stream of traffic, my editors consistently wanted them and I could have fun critiquing the implausibility of a particularly outlandish forecast.

But I don’t know that the aggregate of all these iPhone-rumor writeups yields a huge amount of useful data. Some of them should be obvious–of course, the next iPhone will have a better camera and a faster processor, and a bigger screen makes eminent sense too. Others, such as the claim that the iPhone 4′s successor will feature a slide-out keyboard, defy credibility. A third category struggle for relevance: Can somebody define for me the upgrade in usability provided by a curved glass screen? (Confession: I didn’t even notice the slightly concave “Contour Display” on the Nexus S when I reviewed that Android phone.)

I realize that Apple makes a lot of cool stuff, and that the prospect of a new iGadget is more exciting than the upcoming debut of this year’s 20th new Android phone. But at a certain point, hanging on the details of the next Apple release gets to be a waste of time. The breathless evolution of smartphone technology just about ensures that no matter how well you time your purchase, your new iPhone will start to feel antiquated by the time its two-year contract still has eight months left.

You would do better to think about what you’d like to see improved on the current iPhone. Setting aside problems created by Apple or the carriers selling the thing in the U.S.–such as Apple’s control-freak curation of the App Store or the permanently-locked SIM card slot of the AT&T iPhone–my own wish list mainly consists of software issues.

There’s the iPhone’s app-switching interface, which barely competes with Android’s and falls woefully short of the elegant multitasking UI in HP’s webOS. Its clumsy notifications interface–a dialog that pops in front of everything else and must be dismissed before you can resume what you were doing–is an embarrassment compared to what its competitors offer. Its practice of routing most computer-to-phone synchronization through iTunes looks obsolete in an increasingly wireless world. (Edit, 11:55 a.m. I can’t believe I forgot to mention how weak its Maps app looks next to what ships on even entry-level Android phones.)

I’ll bet that fixes for those flaws represent the iPhone upgrade most people want. And if Apple has been paying any attention to the competition, that’s the upgrade you, as an iPhone 4 owner, should get for free whenever Apple ships the next major revision to iOS. (Those of you with an iPhone 3GS may be out of luck, and iPhone 3G owners almost certainly are, to judge from the history of Apple’s major iOS upgrades.)

But that iOS update–iOS 5, presumably–will ship when Apple has it ready and not sooner. Look up all the rumor reports you want in the meantime, but treat them as the equivalent of celebrity gossip: something read more for entertainment than enlightenment.

Update, 10/4/2011, 11:40 p.m. Now that the real iPhone 4S has made its debut–without a curved screen, larger screen, full-surface screen, or NFC chip–you may enjoy reading an inventory of incorrect iPhone predictions from ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow and the snarkier debunking by Gawker’s Ryan Tate.