Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Milky Music

Apple had ignited the MP3 category with their iPod; now they needed a cheaper, simpler model to round out the line. The iPod Shuffle was launched to fulfill that role, its reduced cost evident by its limited storage capacity and lack of any kind of display. They also skimped on materials and design. Maybe they made it intentionally dull and monotonous looking to avoid stealing sales away from their more profitable models, but I still think the design is humdrum and unexciting. It's not offensive — its clean and white, with clear, minimalist controls marked in subtle grey — but it doesn't inspire either. There's an attempt at creating some visual interest by having sharply defined edges in one dimension that contrast with the rounded corners in an other, but that doesn't make up for its general blandness. It's very light, so it serves its purpose as a featherweight jogging accessory, but that also makes it feel cheap. There's a sliding switch on the back that selects shuffle modes, but it's tricky to grip and position accurately.

In one way it's superior to its more expensive brethren: it has its USB plug built right in — no need to look for that iPod connector cord. But as an avid Podcast listener that needs to find a particular show and then hear the episodes in an orderly sequence, I can't adapt to the random shuffling lifestyle.

It's interesting to note that the Apple Remote, included with all their computers for media viewing, has some similarity in form and control layout — although even it has a more pleasing aesthetic than the lowly Shuffle.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's About Time

Black-faced watches have always looked cool to me. As a teenager, when I bought myself my first watch, I picked out an all-black model with a bright red-orange second hand. I always liked that look. Years later when I first saw the Seiko Sportura line, I was reminded of that design theme. Sportura is Seiko's contemporary-looking line of 'Sport" watches. By the time I had made up my mind that I wanted one in particular — the all-black Seiko Sportura Chronograph snappily designated the SNA595P2 — it had been discontinued. And replaced with a line of very bling watches — all kinds of shiny chrome bits highlighting the dials and bezel, swathed in decorative patterns. Most popular watches have gone in this design direction — a shiny jangly 70s revival available from many manufacturers. I had to do a little searching online for a retailer that still carried it.

Precision timepieces are a staple in most designers' collections of revered objects. I think it's the technological precision of most watches that is so appealing. Even up close the details are sharply rendered, the graphics crisply printed, the quality of manufacture clearly evident. I have to admire a timepiece where the quality is to such a level that even fifths of a second are cleanly marked. I like the simplicity of the brightly contrasting hour designations, visible even in complete darkness. I love the repeating pattern of circular holes across its face (it's actually more subtle than appears in this photograph). I even like the racing stripe orange stitching on its unique leather straps — the inside surface of which carry on the orange color theme. The straps recently wore out; another worldwide internet search tracked down a replacement set from England. It has all the usual chronograph timing functions as well as a built-in alarm function, but I've never been able to figure that part out.

The bezel surface might be a little too shiny black for my taste (the surface of which has gotten pretty well scratched up if you look close). And I do wish the orange highlighted details were more towards the red side of the color spectrum. But the thing that bugs me the most are the product naming graphics — I mean, four different typefaces for four words — really?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Low, Sleek and Mouse

It's ironic that Apple, the force behind making the computer mouse mainstream, is often a couple of steps behind the competition when it comes to pointing devices. I remember going through half a dozen different Microsoft and Logitech mice before Apple supported anything more than a double click. The Microsoft wheel mouse was a revelation, allowing a whole new level of flexibility in working with bigger files. Scrolling horizontally was added with subsequent tilt wheel models, and then Apple finally joined the fray with the "Mighty Mouse" and its little scroll ball. At last, a Macintosh could be used by a typical graphic designer right out of the box, for the first time since 1988.

Apple has now upped the ante with the goofily named "Magic Mouse" It's got to be one of the lowest profile mice ever created — It's so slim it's hard to believe that it encloses a couple of AA batteries. Yes, the new mouse only comes as a wireless model, which means it's a tad tougher to slide around because of the extra battery weight. Too bad it doesn't have the option to work with only one battery like the previous model.

The big news with this mouse is its touch-sensitive surface. A wonderful, curving, smooth, glossy surface of clear plastic with its underside colored opaque white, giving the top surface a slightly transparent look. Incorporating some of the technology that went into the touchpads of its notebooks, scrolling is acheived by sliding your finger over its face; flicking through pictures is accomplished by swiping two fingers. It's an improvement on the tiny scrollwheel — your finger doesn't get as cramped as it swipes through a larger swath of motion to scroll. I love the momentum feature — it gives you a wonderful fluid feeling when you're skating around a large photoshop file. Being an old-school Machead I never set up the mouse with the two button mode — pressing the control key with the other hand to get that functionality is fine by me. The hard edge around the perimeter of the mouse was initially weird feeling, but after a couple of days, I didn't really notice it. It seems to help you position the mouse more precisely, and with a more positive grip, or at least it feels like you are. And I don't miss the loss of the side buttons of the previous mouse. I always turned off that functionality — it was way too easy to trigger accidentally.

The bluetooth technology also seems to have improved — the initial pairing with your computer is a level of magnitude faster than previous mice I've used. A simple slide of the tiny switch on the bottom starts the process — that tiny black dot is a piercing green LED that indicates status.

The level of fit and finish of this new mouse is flawless — the feel of the light click as the whole top surface depresses with each click, the crisp clean edge of the curving plastic, the tight tolerances of the mating parts, even the quality of the little sliding switch and silk screened graphics on the bottom. Apple has often been praised for its high level of design, but here the quality in its manufacturing has reached a new high. It looks and feels like something Bang & Olufsen would put out, except they would charge $600 for it.

The high quality carries through to the packaging — the mouse ships in a clear plastic box contoured to its shape, with room for instructions in its platform base.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Cutting Edge

I have been fighting the blade escalation of razors over the years, stubbornly continuing to use my trusty, 80s-era Gillette Trak II. How can it possibly do the job with only two blades, while all the newer models have three, four, even five blades in a row? It works fine, although the mechanism for holding the blades in is wearing out and becoming less effective. I have to admit though, I prize it mostly for its design.

Absent are the swooping curves and swirls of different colors wrapping around and in between each other in contrasting waves prevalent in current razor design. Here we have a clean, disciplined, structured design — a series of solid, functional, raised grips on a sleek silver handle. Everything is lined up — the handle clearly defined; the neck, appropriately abruptly, bent. A contrasting black metal seam runs down its spine, revealing and highlighting its manufacture.

This sort of restrained design language seems to be out of favor on many products these days. Cars, yachts, even toothbrushes — all seem to have numerous looping, curving intertwined surfaces — a design trend that seems to have evolved from the overdesigned, Nike running-shoe sector. Hopefully, there will be a return to santity, and maybe I'll even find a replacement handle of this model.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Blast of Whimsy

The Giotto Rocket is a rarity in product design — an intriguing-looking object injected with fun and whimsy that is actually completely functional. Intended for use by photographers to blow away dust and debris from the nooks and crannies of their equipment, it sucks air from its base and shoots it out the top, preventing the dust you're trying to get rid of from just getting recirculated. The rocket fins make a functional stand. It comes in several different sizes, this being the smallest version — extra cute because its squeezable rubber center is completely spherical.