Toys That Last: Triumph of Design

In honor of a week when even my local veterinarian is running a Black Friday sale, I realize that resistance to the annual orgy of consumption is futile…or at least as hackneyed as the ritual itself. Griping about the excess, zaniness and occasional violence surrounding this shopping weekend is as much a reflex for some as is diving for the last blu-ray player in that doorbuster bin.

Somewhere outside of the point-counterpoint of Black Friday, which has now descended into sheer camp, there are still the goods themselves -- the thingamabobs, gadgets and toys that actually improve or ease our lives in some small way. When looking over my collection of gadgetry that has appeared on my desk in recent months there are some that stand out as improving my everyday wireless life and making the act of untethering from the desktop all the easier. And so this Black Friday, here are a few of my favorite wireless toys of late. They all share in common a single simple quality -- some small or large design aspect that makes them more pleasurable and thus more likely to be used. Over the many years of reviewing and commenting on gadgetry and the media that runs across them, there are boxes and boxes of unused technology in my basement. The stuff that actually slips into my everyday wireless habits often is more than just functional.

Nothing speaks to the simple joy of good design than the fact that one set of headphones is among my favorite additions to the wireless portfolio this season. For years Klipsch has made to my ears the best desktop speakers of all. For imaging and sheer power, nothing ever beat them. I admit to being less impressed by the low-end home theater speakers. But they have endowed the Image S4i series with the audio quality I have loved for years on my desk. There is a richness and layering of tones to these $99 earbuds that is sublime and on par with some of the $200 pairs I have tested in recent years. Klipsch made a small design move in this generation of earbuds that makes a ton of difference to a gym rat like me. The cord is flatter and thicker and genuinely resistant to tangles. Believe me, in the day-to-day use of devices, untangling earbuds is one of those problem you thought would be licked eons ago.

The in-betweener tablet category is the market to watch this season. With Amazon, Google, Apple and even Barnes & Noble coming in with extremely compelling cases for the viable 7- to-8-inch slab in a segment that is atop many wish lists, we will be talking about the implications of holiday sales here for a while. I continue to be underwhelmed by the iPad Mini, if only because I still veer back to its big brother in everyday use. I think the real bargain right now is Google’s Nexus 7, which is a good showpiece for the increased consumer-friendliness and scope of the Google Play market. While the iPad Mini suffers from being a diminished iPad in my mind, the Nexus benefits from looking and feeling like an oversized phone.

To be sure, much of the Android App Store is aimed at smartphones, and tablet development here is sad. But the range of multimedia content, interactive magazines, downloadable books, the usual streaming media suspects, etc., all add up to a tablet experience that no longer feels like the also-ran of a year ago. In comparison, Kindle and Nook offerings feel too limiting now. I wish WiFi performance were better, weight was lighter, and that the screen didn’t show my finger trails more than most.  Still, the screen is less of a compromise than the iPad Mini and it is significantly less expensive. The Nexus 7 is an easy choice for introducing most people to tablet media consumption. More importantly for mobile media and marketing, it makes a credible case for Android as the more customizable tablet OS.

Finally, the gadget that probably surprised me most in the way it has enhanced my everyday wireless life is the iPhone 5. I was not expecting that Apple’s preciousness about design in this model actually paid off for this user. In fact, I was just about to start writing a follow-up column about living with the iPhone 5 a month or two after its arrival when I noticed that a number of other mobile scribes were doing the same thing at about the same time. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think that the design decisions here -- from its weight, size, screen technology to sheer speed -- have a subtle, cumulative effect on use that proves itself only over time. The iPhone 5 is by a wide margin the best phone I have ever used. Its lightness and thinness give the impression of near transparency. Some have commented on its elegant watch-like precision of design. I think of it less as jewelry and more as a digital extension of me. It feels that much more a part of palm and finger. The LED technology that makes the content feels closer and as if floating atop the screen only enhances that detachment of experience from device.

I do wish more apps supposedly optimized for the iPhone 5 put more of their functionality at the bottom of the screen. The one weakness to the longer screen is the thumb-reach factor that forces some of us to reposition the phone in order to close a window. Still, the incrementally larger screen coupled with sizzling processor speed and faster connectivity (both dual-band WiFi and LTE) and the sheer beauty of using it have significantly increased my reliance on the iPhone as a media consumption and productivity device. I would not have guessed this would be the case a month ago.

Nothing convinces me more of the impact of smart functionally based design on use than the iPhone 5. But that idea has proliferated across several other of these devices. As the gadgetry becomes more genuinely personal, I suppose, it shouldn’t surprise us that little tweaks to comfort, seamlessness, speed and addressing little peeves all help us embrace the devices all the more. In tech parlance, “compatibility” often referred to a device’s fit within an ecosystem of other devices, standards, and operating systems. In the age of intimate gadgets, where we really do have relationships with the technology and depend upon them in highly personal ways, compatibility takes on a different meaning altogether. As with human relationships, here too the little things get writ large.   

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