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Phone aesthetics are getting out of hand

We’re getting too obsessed with design when it comes to technology. After all, what counts is what we get out of our tools, not how they look. And while I’m all for sleek, shiny gadgets, we should balance appearance with utility. That’s not always the case with today’s phones.

“You’ll love the new S6 Edge,” said a salesman in one of the local stores last year, taking hold of the device, which immediately squirted out of his hand. The Edge, especially without a case, can be a bit slippery to hold. Fortunately, the salesman had his moves down cold. He caught the phone with his other hand before it hit the table below. This was a good thing, because he dropped it once again while demonstrating it, and I almost dropped it when I tried it out.

Do phones really have to be so thin, sleek and slippery? There’s more involved here than my own clumsiness. I went on to sign up for the Samsung Galaxy S6, the model without the weird edges. This phone is 6.8 millimeters thick, but it’s not the thinnest phone on the market. China produces a phone called the Vivo X5 Max that comes in at 4.75 millimeters.

I suspect this trend took wing with the iPhone 4, but now it’s ubiquitous. A phone as thin as a credit card is surely on the way, but just because tech can create something doesn’t mean it’s a sound idea. We generally put phones in cases, for one thing, so a lot of the sleekness disappears. But more important, we’re building phones with real design issues. The other day my phone ran out of battery life at 3:30 in the afternoon. I do not want to carry a charger as well as my phone.

Phones are hardly the only thin devices, but I can make a case for a thin laptop like a MacBook Air, because I spent too many years carrying around much heavier alternatives, going back to an early “portable” KayPro. The new Kindle Oasis is billed as “our lightest and thinnest Kindle ever,” and it is, but a light book is great considering this one has excellent battery life.

Good battery life is not something I associate with phones and I’m surprised that consumers aren’t making more of a fuss about it. Most phones are considered acceptable if they just get you through a workday. That’s ridiculous, and it could be fixed if we would let our phones put on a little girth. We’d also do away with design compromises like the “bump” on the back of the S6 and S6 Edge where the camera is.

Moore’s Law is responsible for all this because it allows for a doubling of components every two years, a trend that has made an iPhone 6 more powerful than a room-sized IBM computer from the mid-1970s. Such progress is a powerful thing, but it has led to the unfortunate side effect of making us want to push every trend to the max. The mantra is constant change even if your current device is working just fine, and part of that change is in the direction of design, given that people change their phones so often as they keep up with the parade of new offerings.

But things are getting out of hand. We’re sacrificing not only battery life but expandability through additional storage and ports. And whatever happened to removable batteries? Added heft makes for a better grip and a more rugged phone as well.

What’s crazy about all this is that we use these devices so intensively – you’d think we’d be more demanding. Ninety percent of Facebook’s daily users get into the service through their phones. What with Twitter, texting and actual calling, we’ve made our phones into our primary devices. It’s absurd that we have to put up with compromises on battery life and features all for the sake of the aesthetics of anorexia. It’s time for high tech to bulk up a bit.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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