So What About Usability?

February 21st, 2014

As you read more and more about the possible specs of the next iPhone — and the specs of competing products — you have to wonder whether the coverage is misplaced. Right now, it’s very much about how can Apple’s iPhone 5s, with a 4-inch display, possibly compete with the 5-inch screen on the Samsung Galaxy S4? Besides, the Galaxy S5 may have an even larger screen, and don’t get me started on phablets.

So the perception here is that, since Samsung has mobile handsets with larger displays than Apple uses, Apple is falling behind the curve. What about pixels per inch? What’s the good of a Retina display with a “measly” 326 ppi, when the Samsung has over 100 more? Besides, that “advantage” might double with the next model.

Oh, you can’t see the difference? Well, the Samsung still has better specs. But didn’t anyone notice that Samsung’s AMOLED displays wash out almost totally in bright sunlight? Sure, the display dims on an iPhone too, but you can still usually see it.

The newer smartphones will also be offering cameras with more megapixels. Look at the Nokia Lumia 1020 with 41 megapixels. Must be more than five times better than the eight megapixels on the iPhone, right? How could it be otherwise? Isn’t bigger always better?

Oh, and by the way, the Nokia smartphone, a Windows Phone device, has a display with only 334 ppi. But isn’t that also better than the iPhone? Has anyone compared them side by side?

Now when it comes to using larger displays, Apple hasn’t actually said no. Tim Cook has pointed to what he regards as shortcomings of existing large displays, including color quality, longevity and the impact on battery life. A bigger screen, all things being equal, will mean a heftier battery, or sacrificing the time between recharges.

So maybe that’s one reason why Apple executives have talked with the folks at Tesla, the electric motor car company. It’s not about a merger, which would seem to be a peculiar move with few synergies, but about battery technology. Consider if Apple could get 50% or 100% more life on the same size battery used on an iPhone now. Some of that could be used for components, such as larger displays, which consume more power, and the rest would actually benefit the customer.

The customer?

One reason Apple gave for not jumping to a larger-sized screen when the iPhone 5 first came out was the fact that you could still do many things on it with one hand. Well, not if you have really small fingers, but you get the idea. Try to use one hand to navigate around the big Samsungs, and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, nothing matters in sunlight, where you can’t do much more than answer a phone call on the Galaxy S4; well, assuming you recall the location of the Answer button on the touchscreen.

None of this stops critics from pointing to features on a competing device and explaining why Apple is behind the curve for not having that feature. Some are still writing about NFC, the short-range networking scheme, which will supposedly usher in a new era of mobile transactions. Only it has quite worked out that way, and the fact that Apple has been down on NFC hasn’t helped.

Yet another tact used by the critics is to refer to a feature that debuted on an Apple product but now is being matched, more or less, on a competing product. That, they say, diminishes Apple’s advantage, but doesn’t that depend on how well the feature works?

So if the Samsung Galaxy S5, as claimed, has a fingerprint sensor, that will be a useful addition — if it works well enough for regular people to use. Apple’s Touch ID is certainly not perfect, but it appears to function correctly for most people. If Samsung’s version fails to operate consistently, will Apple’s critics care, or just ignore the feature as if it didn’t exist? Consider all that junk tacked onto the Galaxy S4, such as Tilt to Scroll and other useless and resource hogging stuff that looked good on paper, but nowhere else.

The other day, I quoted a Samsung executive referring to a “back to basics” approach with the Galaxy S5, where the improvements were largely “about the display and the feel of the cover.”

Not a better camera, more battery life, speedier performance?

Feel of the cover indeed!

If Samsung is going to concentrate less on home-brewed apps, they will be limited by whatever Google is offering in Android 4.4 KitKat.

Alas, the folks who demand Apple add this feature or that feature continue to forget the company’s long history of taking poorly developed or underdeveloped product ideas and making them work. From perfecting graphical user interfaces with the first Mac, all through the iPod, iPhone and iPad, this has been part and parcel of Apple’s approach to design. Sure, there were some clunkers over the years, but the successes far outweigh the failures.

But for other companies, usability is rarely on the radar, and that, unfortunately, seems to apply to many product reviewers as well.

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3 Responses to “So What About Usability?”

  1. Articles you should read (Feb. 21) …. says:

    […] “So what about usability?: February 21st, 2014 As you read more and more about the possible specs of the next iPhone – and the specs of competing products – you have to wonder whether the coverage is misplaced. Right now, it’s very much about how can Apple’s iPhone 5s, with a 4-inch display, possibly compete with the 5-inch screen on the Samsung Galaxy S4?” — Read the article on > […]

  2. Monotonous Langor says:

    Touch ID works great 99% of the time for me – the only issues I have are when my fingers are wet and / or very dirty.

    As for Samscum, I don’t support convicted thieves, and I steer family / friends away from all their products, e.g., my in-laws had decided to buy a Samscum washer / dryer set, but I recommended they get another brand, and they did!

  3. paulo says:

    Nice column!

    I’ve never understood one-handed use… I have big hands, but it’s awkward as all get out to use the iPhone in one hand.

    I mean, with the exception of ebook reading where you tap to advance the page (and that could be done on a 4″ , 5″, or 10″ screen), most apps and uses involve two hands! Or, at least one hand and a finger for typing, tapping, etc.

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