State of the Handset Art, Part One

A designer's perspective on mwc. 
frog design mind
The major announcements at this year's Mobile World Congress have mostly revolved around Android handsets. The heavy competition is pushing companies to be more adventurous with their designs both aesthetically and functionally. A common theme this year has also been the emphasis on photography and music quality out of the handsets. Let's look at the style, imaging, and sound trends in more depth. In this post I'll talk about the handset design highlights, and in Part Two I'll look at imaging and sound.
Style, Baby
After years of me-too look-alike phones (mimicking you-know-what in many cases), or just plain ugly phones, Android is finally getting some handsets that try to be a bit different and a more stylish. We are seeing more interesting uses of materials, shapes that try to break out of the basic rounded rectangle (at least within the tight constraints of such a small device dominated by a flat display on one side), and nice detailing that again breaks out of the minimalist mold. Overall build quality is better too.
Asus - The maker of netbooks is rapidly transitioning into an innovative maker of tablets. Maybe too innovative - it's new Padphone is made up of modular smartphone, tablet (really just a display which the phone plugs into to provide the smarts), keyboard dock, and stylus...but wait, there's more, because the stylus is also a Bluetooth headset! This maybe a bit too much, but if you look at the less complex Transformer Prime, you will see a beautifully executed, very thin and light tablet that also plugs sturdily into a keyboard dock, so it can be used like a mini laptop. The aluminum case comes in subtly-chosen colors, and has a lovely spun metal pattern that is not only attractive but functional, as it makes the case fairly grippy.

HTC - HTC's new One series of phones was one of the biggest announcements of the show, and they are beautifully done. Very sleek, minimal without being boring, nice surface treatments, clean detailing. HTC One X:

LG - Their latest Optimus phones are more on the blocky side compared to HTC but still very thin, and are taking a fashion accessory approach to their materials and detailing.

Motorola: Love it or hate it, the Droid Razr's edgy design looks like nothing else. The carbon fiber back is interesting to look at and touch (and also a little grippy). But the thin-ness advantage is almost negligible at this point compared to newer offerings, and many new phones are getting too thin to hold securely while making a call.
Nokia: To their credit Nokia was one of the pioneers of really trying to create a different look for their smartphones. They haven't gotten as much press as the Android phones, and are maybe evolving a bit too slowly (the new ones look almost identical to the year-old ones), but they are distinctive, and the design matches well with Windows 7 Mobile's minimalist style.
Samsung - Samsung is continuing to take a page from the old BMW stylebook: same sausage, different sizes. And it has many, many different sizes of tablets and phones, most of which look pretty much the same. This just goes to show how quickly the market is moving - just a year ago Samsung was top of the heap, now it's looking like a design laggard.
Sony: Their new Experia phones are quite simple extruded forms, the main distinctive feature being a transparent bar at the bottom that helps make the phones look smaller. This detail is reminiscent of some of Sony's high-end LCD TV's from a few years ago that had glass panels on the sides with illuminated icons that appeared to float in thin air. On the Experia the 3 Android button icons are embedded in the transparent bar, and while interesting to look at, it's a bit awkward from a usability perspective - I kept wanting to touch the icons themselves, but the capacitive buttons are above, and unmarked. You'd get used to it fairly quickly I expect. The fine vertical lines you can see are apparently the antenna stretching down into the lower area.

In Part Two we'll look at what the latest phones are doing for our eyes and ears.

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