Smaller Can Be Better (Except When It's Not)
 
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
Published: October 14, 2004

FOR decades, many makers of everything from televisions to cameras and from telephones to stereo equipment embraced the ideal of thinner, sleeker, smaller. These days, stores are stocked with an abundance of featherweight laptops, palm-sized digital cameras and camcorders and toddler-sized cellphones and digital organizers, along with portable radios, computer mice and digital music players that are sometimes even smaller than the price tags attached to them.

''Aesthetically, thin and sleek looks nicer,'' said Charles Seiber, senior product marketing manager for Logitech, a major maker of computer-related peripherals like keyboards, mice, Web cameras and speakers. ''People are attracted to the look.''

And as digital components, including display screens, microprocessors and memory chips shrink with advances in battery design and power, product designers can achieve drastic reductions in the size of commonplace electronic devices.

Further miniaturization is also being driven, some developers note, by advances in touch pad controls that are replacing clunky mechanical knobs and dials.

But many device makers and experts on the interplay between people and machines warn that rushing to make things smaller simply because they can be does not necessarily ensure that devices remain useful or even fun. Some of the smallest gadgets raise a new question: how small is too small?

''In some cases, things get so small that they lose their functionality,'' said Neil Cohen, a marketing consultant in Silicon Valley. ''You have to look at form and function.''

Apple's iPod Mini is an excellent case of a ''marriage of form and function that makes a lot of sense,'' he said. ''I can put it in my pocket and take it a lot of places. Its screen is readable, its dial easy to use, and it has real utility -- it can hold and play 1,000 songs.''

But on the other hand, Ken Klestinec, a technology account manager at Hewlett-Packard in San Diego, said he becomes so frustrated with his cellphone's elfin size that sometimes he feels like hurling it across a room.

''They are getting too small and hard to hold,'' Mr. Klestinec, who is 6-foot-4 and has large hands, said about mobile telephones he has recently owned. ''With one phone model -- and I won't say the name -- every time I would hold it, my thumb would cramp up.''

He said he is particularly irritated by cellphone keypads with number keys that are so small and tightly arranged they invite misdialing, ''especially if you are using the phone in a car, or in a hurry.''

Jim Wicks, vice president and director of the consumer-experience design group at Motorola, said he understood such frustrations. He said that up until about two years ago, the conventional thinking was to make products smaller while trying to see how many features could be crammed into them. Often, he said, the result was products that were not only too small but laden with a confusing array of buttons.

Stu Asimus, chief merchandising officer of Radio Shack, said he has generally found that many consumers gravitate to compact electronic devices like cameras and cellphones. But ultimately, he said, preference rules buying decisions, and many people -- often older ones -- prefer devices with what they consider a satisfying size and heft.

For example, he said many of Radio Shack's 7,000 stores in the United States still sell many single-piece ''candy bar'' cellphones as opposed to phones that flip open clamshell-style.

''The reason people want the candy bar phones is that they don't like the small buttons you usually find on little tiny flip phones,'' Mr. Asimus said.

He added that Radio Shack sells MP3 players that are about the size of a half dollar, but the advantages of their size is offset by the equally small size of their display screens. Personally, Mr. Asimus, who is 50, said, ''I want to scan the songs without having to put on my glasses.''

Mr. Wicks said his response to miniaturization was to recognize that products like cellphones ''need to be small, but they have to get back into this game of great usability.''

To accomplish that goal, Motorola will release what may well be the world's thinnest cellphone, the RAZR V3, later this fall. (Panasonic's DG 55, which weighs two ounces, is widely considered the smallest mobile phone in its overall dimensions, but is not as thin as the new Motorola.)

The aluminum, clamshell-style RAZR V3, about the width of a credit card, weighs 3.4 ounces and measures a half-inch deep when closed. Its full-size keypad uses a series of backlit, chemically etched pressure plates rather than conventional keys.

Mr. Wicks described the V3 as the product of an intricate weaving that included some rethinking about what needed to be small on a mobile phone and what did not.

For instance, he said, most consumers do not want smaller keypads and display screens. Neither were made smaller in the V3, which includes a 2.2-inch high-resolution color display, a digital zoom camera, Bluetooth connectivity and a polyphonic speaker. The phone is expected to cost $500.

Nokia has taken a radically different approach to miniaturizing a mobile phone, its makers say, while retaining its ease of use. The Nokia 7280, which looks more like a dark, slender cologne bottle than a telephone, is equipped with a sophisticated voice-activation system to place calls. It also has a tiny dial that can be used to select numbers displayed along a narrow strip of an L.C.D. screen.

The Nokia 7280, which has a dark lacquer finish, costs $600. Generally, ultracompact phones, which use not only custom circuitry and components but also exotic materials like hardened glass and nickel-plated surfaces, are much costlier than more conventional counterparts, their makers say.

Keith Nowak, a spokesman for Nokia, acknowledged that the camera phone might not be for everyone. But it clearly signals a shift to smaller and smarter products with an eye for fashion and cutting-edge technology, he said.

''Stand out like a flame in the darkness,'' reads a promotional line playing up the 7280's unique size and design.

The trend is by no means limited to cellphones. This spring, Panasonic expanded its line of ultraportable cameras with the D-snap multimedia series, which now includes the SV-AV50, a 4.2-ounce camcorder that offers playback quality comparable to television and also captures two-megapixel pictures. The device doubles as a voice recorder and MP3 music player. The entire camera, whose lens and two-inch color L.C.D. screen fold out in a single motion, is about the size of an iPod.

Much of the camera's severe size reduction was accomplished by using a postage stamp-sized Secure Digital memory card on which to store pictures and video instead of digital tape or optical discs, which would require motors and a bigger battery. The SV-AV50, which costs about $400, has no internal moving parts.

Olympus has recently introduced another small digital camera, the 3.7-ounce Stylus Verve. While easily compact enough to slip into a shirt pocket or clutch purse, the raindrop-shaped camera can take four-megapixel pictures, as well as video. Olympus product managers said that the Verve, which costs $350, was designed to be compact without compromising on ease of use.

For instance, designers removed an optical viewfinder and provided users with only a color L.C.D. screen. Even the metal clip where the carrying strap is attached doubles as a place to grip the camera while aiming it.

Mr. Seiber of Logitech said solid, thoughtful design helps ensure that the benefits of miniaturization are kept in balance. A good example, he said, is a wireless computer mouse that will go on sale this month. Not only is it appreciably more compact than many wireless mice on the market, but at the touch of a button this optical mouse expands to reveal a tiny removable receiver. Once the receiver is plugged into a computer's U.S.B. port, the mouse, powered by two AAA batteries, is ready to perform.

Mr. Seiber said some of the reduction in size was accomplished by using smaller printed circuit boards, as well as by operating on the 2.4-gigahertz frequency rather than 27 megahertz, which many wireless computer mice use.

The difference, he noted, allowed designers to install a much smaller antenna in the mouse. The new mouse's scroll wheel is a solid state, a change that also required less space in the mouse housing. Logitech's designers were able to shrink the mouse enough to add features without making it uncomfortably small, Mr. Seiber said.

But Asaf Degani, a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., warned that many problems that arise with creating highly miniaturized yet useful electronic devices cannot be solved with better engineering alone.

''The real question is knowing what the user really needs and how to simplify that,'' he said, noting that sometimes he and his wife are overwhelmed by all the tasks their cellphones can perform.

Dr. Degani, author of ''Taming HAL: Designing Interfaces Beyond 2001'' (Palgrave Macmillan 2004), said that if devices like video cameras could embed artificial intelligence to help anticipate what users want to do with them at a given point, the cameras would be vastly easier to use, compared with ones that have screens of icons, menus and submenus that many users are confronted with today.

The ultimate goal of technology, he said, should be not only to make devices smaller, but also to make them simpler. ''That,'' he said, ''is a lot more complicated.''


 
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