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 If you disagree, you’re outdated.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
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.
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?
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
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
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.