The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least
This is the final part of my trilogy of iPhone 5 design reviews. Yes, I realize this has gotten way out of hand. I’m sorry.
- Part I. The unibody iPhone
- Part II. The foolproof dock connector
- Part III. The best, for the most, for the least
Charles and Ray Eames, famous mid-century designers, had a motto: “The best, for the most, for the least.”
How do you design the best possible thing? For everyone? At the cheapest cost? It sounds impossible, but that’s not what they were aiming for.
You start by designing for the most. That doesn’t mean literally everyone, it means most everyone. Still a tall task, but achievable by having the willingness to make tough decisions about what is essential and what is just nice to have.
Some people want a 5-inch screen, or a 3D camera, or a stylus, or a kickstand, or a slide-out keyboard, or a projector, or a microSD slot, or a removable battery on their phones. Those things are nice to have, and for some people, they can make or break a smartphone. For most, though, they aren’t essential.
Apple decided with the very first iPhone what they thought was essential for most people, and since then, they have worked relentlessly at making those features best in class and as affordable as possible. It may not always be the most exciting strategy, but it will almost certainly lead to the best possible product year in and year out.
More than any other product Apple makes, the iPhone represents the best, for the most, for the least.
Shortly after the iPhone 5 announcement, Dustin Curtis said on Twitter:
“Watching the iPhone manufacturing process video, it’s almost unbelievable that other phone makers are on the same planet at the same time.”
I think he’s looking at it the wrong way. Other manufacturers live on our planet. They do impressive things. Apple is from a different universe, and they’re playing a completely different game.
The fun stuff starts at the 4:34 mark.
For starters, they’re using friggin’ robots to measure 725 individual pieces to achieve fit tolerances that are measurable in microns. This is absurdly awesome. The only other time I’ve seen technology like this used is in the manufacturing of very low-volume, high-end Swiss watches.
I don’t want to undersell this. Apple has figured out a way to bring Leica-level quality to a mass-produced consumer-electronic device that is purchased by 34.3% of the smartphone market.
Let me say that in a slightly different way: When you buy an iPhone 5, you are buying something that is comparable in quality to the parts made for the Mars Curiosity rover BUT THEY MAKE MILLIONS OF THEM!! As a designer who manufactures things, my feelings are a mix of awe and extreme jealousy.
Apple’s external antenna design requires a metal housing. A metal that is the perfect blend of strength and lightness but is also machinable, scratch-proof, low-cost, and able to be built at the quality Apple demands doesn’t exist. Not yet, anyway. Stainless steel and aluminum are the only real choices, but neither is absolutely perfect.
Stainless is extremely rugged and has a weighty, substantial feel. It’s also hard to machine and perhaps too heavy. Aluminum is very light, easy to machine, strong, and has the bonus ability of being able to be anodized different colors. However, it’s not quite as strong as stainless and is more easily scratched.
You can only make this decision by prototyping both a stainless and aluminum version and seeing what feels right. Ultimately, you go with stainless if you value ruggedness above all else. You choose Aluminum if you value lightness.
The best, for the most, for the least.
Apple chose lightness.
You use more senses than you realize when you evaluate something like aluminum. The look is important, but so is the weight, the texture, and even the sound.
Apple uses aluminum on most of their products. On larger items like the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or iPad, it’s instantly recognizable as a metal because the product has weight from the rest of the components. Those products also feel incredibly solid as opposed to products made from large pieces of plastic, which tend to flex and sound creaky.
On smaller items, it’s harder to read aluminum as being a metal. Once you remove as much material as possible, much like Apple has done with the 5, aluminum can have an almost imperceptible weight difference from a lightweight plastic. Couple that with a unibody design and an across-the-board part-size reduction and you’re going to have people in disbelief over how light it actually is. This can actually turn out to be a problem.
Think about any high-end watch or camera. They always have a satisfyingly solid feel to them. The iPhone 4/4S had this quality. It wasn’t exactly a brick, but it had a weight that made it feel like it wasn’t just another plastic phone. It felt special.
Lightness can make a product feel cheap. Plastic watches are light and cheap. Metal watches are heavy and expensive. Our brains are wired to take weight into consideration when we evaluate new things.
Matte, anodized finishes can be easily confused with a silver-painted plastic. Small pieces of plastic can feel as strong as small pieces of aluminum. Once you pick it up, you can start to tell the difference, but the point is, you want to entice people to pick it up in the first place.
The first thing people say when they hold an iPhone 5 is something like, “Wow, that’s really light.” You want to make sure that’s a quality feeling and not a cheap feeling.
With the iPhone 5, Apple’s designers wisely decided to combine two finishes: large swaths of matte finish for protection, and then small, polished details to highlight precision. Apple places so much emphasis on those diamond-cut, high-polished chamfers because, besides being really freaking impressive, they let you know that the iPhone 5 is made from a high-quality metal.
Two other benefits to the chamfer: They make the 5 fit more comfortably in your hand, especially compared to the 4/4s, and they visually tie together the disparate materials on back of the device.
There is also a more emotive quality to combining finishes. Matte is practical and protective, but maybe a little boring. Polish is flashy and rich-looking, but maybe a little too flashy and not that pragmatic. Combine them in the right way and you tell the story of a product that is smart, not boring. Luxurious but not ostentatious.
The scuffability of the iPhone 5’s aluminum housing seemed like a big deal in the days immediately following the launch, but that worry seems to have dissipated. Either everyone’s scuff fears have been allayed or they decided to move on to the next thing to be upset about.
Apple protects its aluminum products by sandblasting and then anodizing the surface. Sandblasting is what gives it the matte finish. Anodizing is like the protective, hard-candy coating.
Actually, anodizing is not a coating at all, but a chemical process that permanently alters the surface of the aluminum. It’s like getting a protective tattoo. Anodizing is a lot more durable than paint, which can flake, crack, or peel off, but it’s still only skin-deep. Any decent nicks, gouges, or scuffs will reveal the silvery aluminum core underneath.
Both the white and black iPhone 5 are anodized. The white was clear anodized, leaving the aluminum silvery in color. The black was black anodized, tinting the aluminum black. In either case, when the aluminum is gouged, it will reveal the silver-colored core underneath. Since black is a high contrast to silver, scratches will be more pronounced looking on the black iPhone 5.
My wife has a 5-year-old second-gen iPod shuffle that she uses for working out. It has a few nicks, but they’re mostly concentrated around the sharp edges. For the most part, it looks great for a such a heavily used device.
Sharp edges always wear away faster than round or flat surfaces. Think of it like grating a wedge of cheese. If you grate cheese on a long, flat side, it will take awhile to get through it all. If you grate it on the edges, it will wear away quicker. Aluminum is far stronger than cheese, but the same analogy applies.
The difference between my wife’s Shuffle and the iPhone 5 is in the chamfers. Each chamfer creates two sharp edges, meaning the 5 actually has four sharp edges, doubling the chances for nicks or cuts to accumulate in those areas.
The chamfers are an impressive manufacturing detail. They look great, reinforcing the fact that the iPhone 5 is made of metal while visually creating a continuous line that ties the back together. They also make the iPhone fit more comfortably in your hand. On the flip side, they will most likely be the first part of your phone that gets scuffed.
The best choice, for the most people, for the least cost.
In any event, I don’t think anyone should be too worried about scuffs. When you first hold the 5 in your hands you want to baby it. But after a short time you’ll realize it’s actually pretty tough and can withstand a bit of abuse. Aluminum may be softer than steel, but it’s still far stronger than glass or plastic. The 5’s closest relative in case design is actually the original iPad, and it’s holding up pretty well after three years.
What’s interesting about this to me is that most of Apple’s products are made of aluminum and can be scuffed. Will your iPhone 5 get scuffed? Most likely yes. Will anything you ever own get a scratch on it? Exactly.
So why the worry about the iPhone 5 getting scratched over everything else? Out of the box, the 5 is perhaps the most pristine and tightly toleranced mass-produced device ever. People understandably want it to stay that way for as long as possible. The more you simplify and refine something, the more even the smallest imperfections seem like a big deal.
Some final thoughts…
A thinner iPhone means thinner iPhone cases. If you’re a case person, the iPhone 5 will probably feel about the same thickness as a naked iPhone 4/4S.
I’ve seen an explosion in iPhone sleeves for this generation. They seem to be a good compromise for those who want to protect their iPhone, but also want to appreciate the design of the hardware. Dodocase, Killspencer, Makr, and Hard Graft all make nice ones.
I’m curious why Apple decided not to make the front display glass flush with the aluminum frame. It seems like that would better protect the glass and keep the aesthetics cleaner.
I also can’t figure out how Apple is adding the polished logo and iPhone name on the back. Manual polishing? Foil stamp? An acid etch that polished the aluminum? Either way, it’s impressive.
EarPods and the new Lightning connector are the type of seemingly insignificant design projects that actually take a tremendous amount of time and money to finesse. They aren’t as glamorous as the iPhone 5 itself, but they are little labors of love. Congrats to all who worked on them because they are terrific.
I already wrote at length about the Lightning connector, so let’s talk about Earpods. They are quite the upgrade over the old earbuds. If I do anything more than a brisk walk, they fall out of my ears, but they sound better and feel much more comfortable than the old earbuds.
The remote on the EarPod cord has a little microphone graphic instead of a perforated metal hole. Come to find out via iFixit, that perforated metal hole on the old earbuds was just for show, only there to give you a visual cue that a microphone was built into the control. Hardware skeuomorphism.
The plastic headphone case that the EarPods come with seems a little wasteful to me. Previous generations of earbuds came tightly wrapped in a small, thin plastic sleeve. Granted, the case is more beautiful, but is anyone going to use it after they take out the EarPods for the first time?
My theory is:
1) The EarPods are new, they worked a long time on them, and they want them to stand out as being special when you open the box.
2) They developed the standalone retail package and once they had the assembly line set up, it was more efficient to package them all the same way, regardless of how they would eventually be sold.
The inlaid pieces used on the back of the 5 are ceramic glass for the white iPhone and pigmented glass for the black iPhone. In other words, the inlays are not back-painted like the glass on the front of the iPhone — they are opaque. This should mean that scratches will be less noticeable.
Between the special glass inlays on the back, Gorilla Glass 2 on the front, and the sapphire crystal lens cover, my guess is Corning has a very good two years ahead of it.
Which reminds me: Sapphire crystal lens cover. Sapphire. Crystal. Lens cover. Unbelievable. *Throws hands up in the air and walks out of the room*