The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]

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droidrazrthumb   The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]Slim. Sexy. Thin. Modern. These are words that are often used to describe sleek new devices with thin profiles. The not-so-subtle connection made between thin devices, sex appeal and futuristic design is an argument by itself. Thin is cool. Thin is the future. If you disagree, you’re outdated.

This is a position that doesn’t hold up to critical thought. Thin devices look nice, but they also have a host of disadvantages. Many of today’s thinnest ultrabooks, tablets and smartphones would be better if they were just a little thicker. Here’s why.

No Replacement For Displacement

v8engine   The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]

Muscle car enthusiasts have a saying that sums up their love for big V8 engines. “There’s no replacement for displacement.” This phrase states a simple fact of engineering a combustion engine. A larger engine will offer more power if all other things are equal.

A similar statement can be made about batteries and battery life. While improved processor architectures are doubling performance every few years, batteries are advancing at a snail’s pace. There is no way to get around the fact that batteries takes up a lot of space and can’t be reduced substantially in size without having an impact on endurance.

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There are plenty of real-world examples of this. Ultrabooks, the new super-slim laptops, have low-voltage processors and downclocked versions of Intel’s integrated graphics solution. But Intel’s demand that these laptops be thin has also reduced average battery size. The result? Battery life no better than what was obtainable from ultraportables two years ago.

Batteries also have to be custom-shaped to fit in such small computers. That means they’re no longer user replaceable. And that means extended-life batteries aren’t an option.

Smartphones are not immune to this problem. Consider the Droid Razr. This super-thin Android phone was found to offer terrible endurance because its slim size didn’t allow much room for a battery. The solution? Motorola’s Droid Razr Maxx, which is thicker and packs a huge (for a phone) 3300mAh battery. Because the phone was slim to begin with the Maxx isn’t terribly thick, either.

But why did Motorola choose to offer a phone with inadequate battery life to begin with? Did they think customers would be too busy admiring the phone’s slim profile to notice that it struggled to provide a full day of use?

Reducing Connectivity

connectivity   The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]

Tablets and smartphones have never offered much on the connectivity front, nor do they need to. Laptops, however, do benefit from connectivity. They’ve outsold desktops on the consumer market for years and most systems are effectively serving as desktop replacements. It’s important that they be able to connect with printers, external hard drives and more.

Yet connectivity is continually sacrificed in the name of thin design. Most of the latest ultrabooks only offer two or three USB ports and a single video output. You’ll be lucky to receive separate headphone and microphone jacks – nevermind line-in, which is nearly extinct outside of gaming laptops.  Other options like eSATA and FireWire are being brushed aside in today’s thinnest designs.

Companies love to justify this by showing press images of their newest, thinnest laptops being used in exotic locations. Intel even teamed up with Will.i.am to promote the hip, active lifestyle that the company believes is central to the appeal of the ultrabook.  Connectivity is allegedly not as important as a thin, portable chassis.

Reality does not match this fantasy. Most people spend the majority of their time in a relatively small number of locations – the home, a few favorite restaurants or shops, work. Connectivity is more useful for this silent majority than a thin profile. Wireless connectivity is no substitute and won’t be for years.

The Best Is Bigger

ultrasharp2412m   The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]

Apple’s new iPad is larger than the iPad 2. Why? Because it had to be. Apple wanted to offer a better display and faster graphics performance without reducing battery life, and this was only possible if the tablet was larger. Seeing a device grow in comparison to its predecessor was odd, but it was also the right choice. The new iPad is clearly superior.

Powerful hardware consumes a (relatively) large amount of power. This is simple physics. It’s possible to design a processor architecture that offers better performance per watt, but it’s not possible to design a processor architecture that offers improved performance when it uses less power. Making a laptop, tablet or smartphone thinner inevitably reduces its performance potential.

A similar rule applies to many other components. Let’s consider keyboards, for example. I’ve reviewed a number of ultrabooks and I’ve found that keyboard quality is a consistent issue. There’s not enough vertical space inside the chassis to provide acceptable key travel.

Display quality is impacted, too. A bright display is generally considered better, but it also requires a more powerful backlight, which consumes more space and draws more power, which in turn means you need a larger battery for acceptable endurance. While display technologies will likely become more efficient we’ll never be able to design out the fact that for any given technology a brighter display will always consume more power and/or require a larger light source than a dimmer one.

A Suitcase Analogy

suitcase   The Terrible Lure Of Slim Technology: Why Thicker Can Be Better [Opinion]

Any laptop, tablet or smartphone can be thought of like a suitcase. It’s almost always preferable for a suitcase to be small as practical. It will be lighter, easier to carry and easier to fit in tight places.

But as your suitcase becomes smaller you find that you’re unable to pack in as much stuff. There’s obviously a limit to how small a suitcase can be without sacrificing its usefulness, which is why most people don’t use a briefcase to pack for a week-long trip.

Today’s electronics are the same.  Making products smaller is no longer a technology problem and the assumptions made about product design must change to accommodate this reality. Companies should be asking not if they can make devices smaller but rather if they should make devices smaller. This is the truly modern way to think about the electronics we use every day.

Source: Scania Group, Marc Testspiel, Bart Everson

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22 Comments - Write a Comment

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Vipul Jain

1. Agree
2. Disagree, connectivity is very well in place even now (no idea about apple products). The only thing missing out is a DVD drive in new models.
3. Disagree, bigger is better is true, but the very point of these devices is to shrink sizes and reduce weights, so these products are meant to be this way.
4. Disagree again. Even with thinner bodies, they still have expandable storage options in (phones), and i’m sure SSD Chips with space more than 256GB would be released soon.
Also a new technology called OTG (On The Go) has been introduced by the new Xperia range, in which you cans imply connect nay flash drive to the phone and it will act as external storage.. :D
Pretty nifty!

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12b3dd1b1ab50a56f2d8d76595cdc9ba

Well written article! Totally agree with the battery issue bit!

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Esteban

No.

Look at F1 engines, they’re 2.4L V8 units with MORE power (about 780hp) than NASCAR’s 5.8L V8 (about 850hp).
They output almost the same power, but a F1 engine is about half the size (and it only weights 95Kg!). Also, they have reached about 1000hp at almost the same size in the past.

Bigger is not better, not always at least.

And “A larger engine will offer more power if all other things are equal” is false. Given two engines, one of them larger, then ALL other things are NOT equal: they’re larger.

Just wanted to point that out.

TucsonMatt

So many of those Android phones look so sleek, but then everyone goes out and buys the extended batteries with the expansion back and that sleek profile is GONE! I have an Evo 4G which I love, but for it to be usable, I had to get the highest capacity battery (two of them actually) which necessitated an extended back. So, my Evo is pretty fat, but it’s acceptable to me. But… it sure doesn’t conform to the designer’s vision because it didn’t work in the real world.

And, Esteban – when you read the phrase, you need to emphasize a different word than ALL. It’s “All OTHER things being equal.” So, when you take two engines and one is larger, it is the OTHER things being equal the author’s talking about. The displacement difference was taken care of by inserting OTHER after ALL.

Just wanted to point that out. :)

Esteban

Oh! Sorry, english is not my primary language…

Thanks for the note!

Matt Smith

Earlier 3.0L engines in the F1 series made over 900 HP. The engines were reduced to 2.4L to an attempt to reduce performance, though some of the effectiveness of this was lost due to technology advancements making it possible to create more power from a given displacement.

So while it’s possible to make smaller better, it’s not possible to maker smaller better than bigger without using better (see: more expensive) technology. At least when talking about engines and batteries.

Reply

Adrian

Good article. Also remember the heat issue. Smaller cases mean less air circulation and more heat which leads to premature failure of a lot of consumer electronics.

WOWaDeal

Not true. Newer cpus made in smaller die sizes use less power. Less power = less heat to dissapate.

Adrian

“Less heat” does not mean “no heat”. It’s simple physics: Smaller cases = less air circulation. There are lots of articles on alleged overheating with the iPad 3. I suggest you check them out.

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Doc

Don’t be dissing the reduction in size – the things that have been driving size reduction in technology equipment are reduced power consumption, reduced weight, reduced cost to manufacture, and reduced complexity.

Do you really want a laptop the size of a Kaypro or Osborne 1?

How about a desktop that weighs 100+ pounds?

Do you want your cellphone to be the size of a Motorola DynaTac, which was the size of a military field telephone? And it wasn’t a smartphone, either…

I’m not giving up my LCD monitor for a 50-pound CRT, either…can you imagine carrying a laptop, cellphone, or tablet with a CRT monitor built into it?

One of the benefits of moving from full-sized USB plugs to mini-USB, then to micro-USB (which has become a charging standard on all cellphones, thanks to the Europeans) is that micro-USB has at least 2x the lifespan (insertion/removal cycles) of mini-USB (10,000 cycles vs 5,000), and a passive latch that helps secure it in place.

Reduction in transistor size has helped reduce the power requirements of CPUs and RAM from 5V for the original Pentium and ‘486 CPUs) to less than 1.5V for modern modules. Running the number of transistors in a modern desktop (CPU, memory, graphics card) at 5V would probably equate a power consumption of greater than 5,000 watts…does anyone make a power supply that size?

If you want a “thicker, more rugged” portable device, buy a case/protector/sleeve for it. If you want it *built* more rugged, check out the military-grade or “industrial” versions of the same devices…vote with your dollars, so the more rugged models gain market share. Don’t complain when companies make what people *want*.

Matt Smith

I think you missed the point. No where did I remotely suggest that desktops should be 100 pounds, that we shouldn’t reduce transistor size, or whatever.

What I am suggesting is that we’ve reached a turning point where further reduction in size of mobile devices is not necessarily beneficial.

WOWaDeal

Thats your opinion. Not fact.

Matt Smith

You generally do find opinions in blog posts that are labeled opinion.

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Doc

Oh yeah…I won’t ever buy Apple products like the Retina MacBook (or the Motorola Droid Razr, for that matter) because of their tendency to glue in the batteries, or using nonstandard parts. That’s why I check out devices thoroughly, through sites like IFixIt, before buying.

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Renee

agreed
why does everything need to be this thin today
I don’t like the way thin cellphones feel

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Gary5

Good post. I have a cell phone with an extended battery sticking out of it in my pocket at this moment. My last phone was even thicker because it had a keyboard. I have not had to give up any connectivity so far, and I promise I won’t. The new ultra-thin phones seem silly to me. If I see a phone that’s two or three times as thick and twice as heavy with twice the battery life, I’ll buy that one for sure.

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druv vb

Its for sure that most consumers want slimmer phones, tablets even smaller car engines that gives better fuel economy (Ok, on this one I completely agree).
But drawback of these slim products is that they fail to work properly when broken. And if one component fail, the rest of the product is worthless.
My biggest problem is that when they fall, they die.
Repairs are futile when others will fail in time…

Battery life is seriously reduced, unless that said product is used only for the simplest basic stuff.

Connectivity ports take space and some thin gadgets cannot accomodate more than one.

Big is better, but it should be portable also.
I don’t mind a little thickness, provided it gets better battery life, better connecting solutions, robustness and solidity on build quality…

Matt Smith

There is certainly a middle ground, but I think we’ve already gone past it as far as electronics are concerned. I too would prefer a bit more thickness if it provides better battery life, connectivity, build quality, etc.

dragonmouth

You are forgetting one small detail, manufacturers DO NOT make money on reliability. Electronic devices such as phones, laptops, etc. have become commodity items. As such they are meant to be replaced rather than fixed. If an item is meant to be replaced, rather than fixed, it does not have to be as reliable. If it is not meant to be as reliable, the components don’t have to be as robust. If the components are smaller and thinner, the entire device can be made thinner.

druv vb

I agree with you. Reliability of devices doesn’t matter to manufacturers. Its up to the customer to decide. But it seems that our options are limited by slimness. But am sure in a couple of years, all those slim devices would be more mainstream than luxury items. And hats off to those engineers who try to put as much as they can in a device.

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Ujwal Adhikari

So interesting.but the concept is quite disgusting.

Reply

Austen Gause

i agree with you making things bigger and not insanely thin is better

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