Irony of Phone Design

My last phone was a Droid Turbo (or some variant of that).  It was a tank (and btw the battery was so large it would last a week).  It was also butt-ugly, but you could drop that thing from an airplane and it would probably keep working.  I never bothered with a case.

My new phone is a Galaxy S8.  It is probably, looks-wise, the acme of phone design right now and the polar opposite in attractiveness from the Droid Turbo.  But it is literally almost all glass.  The front is glass.  The back is glass.  The sides, dues to the curved bezel, are mostly glass.  If you drop this thing you are going to hit -- wait for it -- glass.  I was changing cases on it and dropped it from a height of no more than three feet and both the front and back glass shattered.  So you MUST put this expensive phone in a relatively bulky case.  You can have a slim case that may or may not protect the screen and sort of retains some of the feel of the curved bezel or a bulky case that probably will protect the phone but makes the entire phone design moot.

My point is that companies seem to be designing phones for how good they look and feel in the Verizon store**, rather than how they will actually look bundled up in a large case in real life.  Once you provide reasonable life-protection for the S8, all its expensive design features are covered up.

One thing I have learned during this experience is that the vast majority of the millennials who rate cell phones on review sites like Engadget are wildly over-influenced by aesthetics.  For example they all seem to downgrade phones that have larger bezels and metal rather than glass packaging, irregardless of reliability. I am still looking for a site that publishes a good list of drop test results and ratings.  I don't think I will buy another phone without seeing these results (I was considering a pixel 2 until I saw is horrible drop results).  I would also like to see someone who grades phone aesthetics in the sort of cases we are all going to put on them.  Honestly if I had time I would probably start my own review site focused on real-world use, emphasizing characteristics like reliability, repair costs, drop test results, and battery life.


** For a long, long, long time, TV manufacturers ruined TV pictures so they would look better in a store.  Every TV you could buy, at least in the pre-LCD era, had super-high color temperatures shifted way up into the blues.  The colors looked like crap in a dark room watching a movie, but the picture appeared brighter in the TV showroom.  Back in the day, one of the first things one would do with a good TV if one was a movie snob was to get the TV color calibrated or look for a TV that had a color temperature setting.


  1. Ellen McKaskle:

    No! No! No! A Princeton graduate using the word "irregardless"?

  2. Chris Bickford:

    I've had 4 different Droid Turbo/Maxx phones because I live for battery life.

    The latest ones are supposed to have unbreakable screens. I have not tested if this is true yet, but I am not easy on phones and have not broke the current one, yet.

  3. craftman:

    I get that feeling every time I take my iPhone 7 out of its case to clean it. Like "oh wow this is a really small phone". And I wish I could trust myself enough to carry it around without a case.

  4. Solomon Foster:

    Warren is a great one for thinking, but if you want grammar and spelling you will have to look elsewhere.

  5. McG:

    I dropped and shattered the touchscreen on my Nexus 5, after having it for only a short while. I've bought cases for every phone since then. Well, except the one I "bought" through my then-carrier for $0.00 but at the cost of a two-year contract I bought out of with six months left on it.

    My tablet fell on the brick hearth a few months back, and the resulting cracks in the touchscreen have been growing -- but the thing still works. No real point buying a case for it now, but the next one, if there is a next one, will have a case.

    Design aesthetics? What are those?

  6. pbft:

    Better than 'nondisirregardinglessly'....

  7. pbft:

    Another one I'd add to the list that is impossible to find: How well does it work as an actual phone? Specifically, how is voice quality and connection ability in areas with a weak signal? I suspect that all the reviewers live in urban areas with really good coverage. Much of the world is NOT like that.

  8. Jens Fiederer:

    I have a regular Pixel now, with a small case. I've dropped it many times without problems.

    My previous phone was a Samsung 5 Active. I could go underwater with it, but I probably did that once too often. It was tough, but not invincible.

  9. Jerryskids:

    I still carry a flip-phone. I have no idea how it would rate in a drop test, but seeing as how it sells at Walmart for 20 bucks, who cares?

  10. johnmoore:

    IMO Silicon Valley has gone nuts over aesthetics. Apple demonstrated that aesthetics are important, but continue to demonstrate that aesthetics can be overdone and reduce functionality. Too late for me, I learned that the keyboards on the new MacBook Pro are very susceptible to dust, and a repair requires replacing about half of the device, at a very high price if it is not on warranty. This is because of a switch design to make the switches thinner, and a machine design to make it thinner.

  11. LoneSnark:

    I have an old Samsung Note 4. It is plenty fast, has an outter metal ring for drops that survived landing on concrete. So, other than a screen protector, I don't bother with a case. If I destroy it, I'm out $100.

  12. Maks Swing:

    Same here. Modern esthetics are made for strange people i dont understand.
    I would also add the following stuff:
    - Headphone Jacks should be mandatory
    - Thickness and battery life are more important than slimness
    - Phone width should be around 60 mm max.
    - Plastic & Metal are ok for me.
    - Fingerprint sensor on the back to have dual speakers on the front!
    - Bezels are not important, because aspect ratio gets skewed.
    - Camera is very important especially for low light (Portrait mode is not important for me, only for self-obsessed people imo)

    However, not even google respects this anymore...

  13. Stephen_Macklin:

    What you need is the Sonim XP7. It's a bulky device, but in pinch you could probably use it to pound a nail into a 2x4 and not break it!

  14. auralay:

    This is my pet peeve, too.
    I have been banned from one tech review site for asking too pointedly on reviews if the thing will actually make a phone call!

  15. auralay:

    ** Here in the UK my new Samsung 4k TV has two settings on the picture menu, labeled "showroom" and "home use". Showroom setting has unwatchable vivid colours. [I said I was in the UK]

  16. GoneWithTheWind:

    I recently finally got a smart phone. Mostly so I could tether my computer when we travel. But it is inconvenient to put in my pocket so as a result it sits on the table beside my easy chair. My wife now complains I never have my phone with me. But it is a nice phone and all it just isn't compact enough to carry easily. I have considered getting another flip phone to actually carry and keeping the smart phone for the motor home. But do I really need two phones, I make zero calls and the oonly person who calls me (or has my number) is my wife. So I guess I will just give up the smart phone and go back to a flip phone with a 60 minute 90 day card for $19 every three monnths.

  17. SamWah:

    Style und Looks Uber Alles! Like Jerryskids, I have a flip-phone. Got it in '09.

  18. ErikTheRed:

    It depends on the person.

    My wife and I have been carrying smartphones since the original iPhone ten years ago. We've never used a case (the last case I owned was for a Palm Treo), and we have one (easily reparable) broken screen in twenty "phone years" - an acceptable loss ratio in my book (and less expensive than buying new cases for each model change). I frequently get asked about the "horrible dangers" involved with carrying around a naked phone, and my responses are "1) It's just a phone. It's not a holy relic. 2) I'm going to replace it in less than a year anyway, and minor damage doesn't materially impact the resale value." If I absolutely destroyed one in a manner that was irreparable I'd be annoyed, but again, it's not the end of the world - it's the price of two or three nice dinners out. Perspective, people.

  19. slocum:

    I ignore aesthetics because I always have my phone into a slim rubber slip case, so the materials the phone is made of are irrelevant -- all you ever see and touch is the black rubber and the glass screen. For that reason, I definitely prefer plastic construction -- that makes the phone lighter and cheaper and it handle impacts better (though once the rubber case is on it that last factor really doesn't matter). Plastic also allows for a removable back and replaceable battery. But obviously people like me aren't the ones driving the smartphone market -- I'm still generally happy with my Samsung S4. The only thing that's at all tempting about a newer phone is a better camera, but the S4 takes excellent photos. The delta in quality compared to the newest models doesn't seem enough to upgrade. The next $600 I spend on camera equipment is more likely to be something like this I guess:

  20. Jeff:

    "- Thickness and battery life are more important than slimness"

    Agreed, except I'd put this at the top of the list. The battery should also be easily replaced and not some weird proprietary design. A "universal" power recharging port distinct from data ports would be nice, though both might be USB. The Power is the first priority. The "Micro" USB connector would work well with a thicker case and avoid the "But I thought I *WAS* charging it!" problem. A micro USB power and mini-USB data would avoid confusion.

    Though I also agree that headphone jacks is in the top 2. Headphone port should be on the short (top) edge not the long edge. This, for use in pockets.

    I recall the designer of the original "Palm Pilot" PDA specified the device fit into a standard men's shirt pocket. That's in the top 3 for me, however many millimeters wide that pocket and screen might turn out to be.

    Don't want fingerprint sensor. Or face recognition or other fancy "security". A password is sufficient.

    Not mentioned but on my personal wish list:

    FM radio and antenna that doesn't depend on headphones. Decent (mono) speaker. Bonus points for other radio bands like weather, shortwave, etc.

    For camera, an actual "shuttle release" on the edge rather than the "touch the virtual button on the viewscreen" method. I don't want my own hand obscuring the view. Camera lens (or lenses) should have some sort of "lens cap" to assure user the camera is NOT recording when a recording is not desired.

    Built in microphone for voice recorder that creates "normal" and easily edited MP3 files. Also, I should be able to touch screen to record a phone conversation in progress. (or stop recording, or mute the microphone.)

    Low resolution front camera specifically for Skype-type live streaming. Ditto button to screen-capture, video-record a "Skype" conversation in progress. Front camera should have a "lens cap", or course.

    I suppose an assortment of Swiss Army Knife tools folding in and out of the edges is asking a bit much ...

  21. Michael Stack:

    I'm right there with you. I've owned a 3G, 3GS, 4, 5, 6, and now a 7, and I've never put one of them in a case. I've dropped them a handful of times, but fortunately never had any real damage.

  22. Michael Stack:

    The fingerprint detection is a life-saver for me. I have used corporately-managed phones, and having to type a 6-digit password every time I use the phone is a huge pain.

  23. J Crain:

    Roger the Note 4! Still a good phone (and good camera).

  24. marque2:

    There are a lot of transparent cases now. I have one on my LG G6. You see the color and shape of the phone much better.

  25. ErikTheRed:

    On the iPhones, you can use the volume buttons on the side of the case in a similar manner to a shutter release - you can't "half-press" to update autofocus because modern smartphones continuously autofocus - but other than that it's push to shoot, and often with less hand jitter than you get from touching the screen.

    I think pretty much every smartphone can be used for recording audio in the manner you describe, along with front-facing cameras for video chat / selfies.

    A decent speaker is a pretty nasty physics problem on several levels. The iPad Pro is about the only mobile device I've used where I thought the speakers were excellent, and that's a very large device as these things go.

    As to the other stuff - it's personal preference so it's neither right nor wrong, but some thoughts:

    Shirt pockets are out of fashion, so "front jeans pocket" has become the place for phones. Thinner works much better there (we no longer have the "is that a smartphone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" jokes).

    Corded headphones and earbuds are like corded mice - wireless is, for many people, a *huge* step forwards because cords are obtrusive / get tangled and also because the DACs (Digital-to-Analog converters) in most cordless headphones and earbuds are far, far better than what you can cram into a phone. Even with cordless earbuds, the extra physical volume available for audio circuitry and separate batteries makes for a much better listening experience. I use V-MODA Crossfade 2s (over-ear headphones) and Forzas (in-ear, for working out), and the sound quality is about halfway between the phone by itself and using a very good (and not at all portable) headphone amplifier. This is a pretty solid compromise, even if it means (ugh) more things to keep charged.

    MicroUSB is a terrible design - both the cables and sockets are too easily damaged, and have to be plugged in the "right" way (silly). USB-C is far better as it fixes both of these issues and the specs allow for much faster charging and data transfer. Apple's Lightning plug design is pretty close to perfect (versatile - can also carry audio, HDMI, Ethernet, etc., reversible, stays in place better than USB-C while being slightly thinner, also allows high speed data and fast charging, and is more durable).

    Fingerprint sensors on phones sucked until Apple got around to raising the bar, but now they're generally very good from a functionality standpoint. Fingerprint storage and processing security is still a mixed bag on Android devices - some very new devices are better. Apple got it right the first time. Facial geometry recognition looks cool - we'll see how well it holds up in real life.

    Analog radio is technology that is "dead, but just hasn't stopped moving yet." You can get better sound quality and infinitely more selection for music/news/whatever by using Internet radio. The weather app info on any phone beats a weather band radio senseless. Those features could be useful in the event of a major disaster, but major disasters are rare enough to justify a separate, standalone device (with more durability and battery power).

  26. Chris:

    My iPhone SE has been durable with no case. I'll even hand it to my toddler. It's got some scratches and dents along the edges and sides, but that's where the metal (or plastic, I dunno) is.