The curse of Apple's slippery design

The curse of Apple's slippery design

Summary: The folks in Cupertino revolutionized the design of mobile devices. Unfortunately, that comes with a high price in usability.

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Slippery Apple
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

More pixels have been spilled about the sleek design of Apple's products than ink used to print newspapers in the US. The company has made billions on the shiny aluminum housings that envelope its phones and tablets. As beautiful as iPads and iPhones may be, that sleek design is the curse of users.

I own an iPad, iPad mini, and an iPhone, and like millions of owners I marvel at the classic design of the metal casing. It is sleek, simplistic, and feels sensual in the hand. Unfortunately, that comes with a penalty when you use the devices.

In the last week alone I've almost dropped my iPad mini and my iPad due to the slippery backs. They look magnificent and feel great, but there is nothing "grippy" to hold securely in the hand. Just turning one slightly in the hand can see it slip right out, leaving you to lunge to catch it before it hits the harsh floor.

I know I'm not the only one to experience it, I've seen other people perform the "iPad/iPhone dance" while trying to catch the gadget slipping out of the hand. I've seen numerous devices that weren't saved before hitting the dirt and were subsequently sporting those disturbing cracks in the glass.

I recently spoke with an acquaintance about the slippery iPhone and he confessed his wife has had her iPhone screen replaced four times. She's not clumsy, he said, it just slips out of her hand when she's using it.

Some of you will point out that you just have to put a case on the device to avoid the problem. You'd be correct, too, but let's face it, if you have to put a case on it to use it securely, that's what I'd call a design flaw. Good design is not just about making it look good, it's also about usability.

We've seen this slippery problem since the first iPhone. It was sleek and beautiful but you needed a case to keep it in the hand. Then Apple followed that up with an iPhone that was not only sleek and gorgeous, but that was totally enclosed in glass. When that one slipped out of the hand it would not only crack the display but the back, too.

I'm convinced this inability to hold the iPhone securely in the hand is the real reason the bumper case was developed. It was released under the guise of dealing with Antennagate, but I believe it was really to deal with the design choice that makes the phone difficult to hold. After all, the term "bumper" denotes a thing designed to minimize the impact of a collision. Like what happens when the iPhone drops to the floor.

Try using an iPad mini without any case or cover and you know what I mean. It is almost impossible to hold in the hand without dropping it. Move it around while holding it and it doesn't feel secure at all. Apple has refined the aluminum back to such a level that it's very difficult to hold.

I can already hear the responses to this: "don't buy Apple products if you don't like this." Unfortunately, the sleek design of Apple has been picked up by many of its competitors, so that's not an answer.

My HP Envy x2 has the familiar aluminum design on both the tablet and the laptop dock. Picking up either part, or the docked unit, is hard to do without dropping it. Like Apple's products, it lacks a grippy feel to it. Using the 11-inch tablet in the hand is just as slippery as using an iPad. One false move and down it will go. I put a decorative decal on it as much for the grippy material as for the looks.

Hopefully we'll hear Apple talk about new products at WWDC that aren't so slippery. Gadgets that don't require a case of some sort to be usable.

Nah, that's not likely. They have convinced the entire industry that looks trump usability, why should they change?

Topics: Mobile OS, Apple, iPhone, iPad, Laptops, Tablets

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32 comments
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  • is this journalism nowadays?

    we have opposable thumb, for one good reason. to grab and hold on things. and now we can write a whole article about a tab being slippery? come on...
    mszilard
  • Seriously?

    You are "convinced" that the protective cases were designed to deal with a design choice that made the Apple devices difficult to hold. Come on. Protective cases were created to protect $700 phone from breaking in myriad situations that aren't limited to accidents caused by design flaws. The inability to hold onto a device might say more about the user (Just finished a bucket of KFC. Oops, there goes my phone.) than it does about the design of the product.

    I long for the day when bloggers act like journalists and use facts, instead of their personal viewpoints. #whocares?
    scottabel@...
  • Well, we all have to start Mondays in some sort of fashion.

    This blog subject is a perfect Monday morning just getting out of bed before I had my first cup of Java type of writing effort.

    There was no mention or speculation regarding that eternal question - Why? Why did Apple choose to incase their latest mobile devices in aluminum. Or the "plus" sides to this Apple design. (Every design has it's negatives and positives)

    I wonder if anyone has every spilled a glass of water? Of dropped a dinner plate? Or any other kitchen utensil for that matter and lamented over that object's 'obvious' design flaws? BTW, I chose a glass, a dinner plate and any eating utensil as examples of designs that have withstood the test of time and designs that have reached a mature evolutionary shape. In other words, designs that can't be significantly improved upon anymore.

    If mature designs are subject to the occasional drop from a user's grip than what does this imply about the ergonomic usefulness of Apple's latest mobile electronic designs? I'll answer that rhetorical question. It doesn't imply anything of consequence.
    kenosha77a
    • Maybe, maybe not.

      Apple makes money by selling hardware. Either the whole device or repair parts.

      Devices that damage easily due to 'form over function' design work in the best interest of the manufacturer, not the consumer.

      If a company that sells hardware can design a less durable product and users continue to buy it, then what incentive is there to change? A longer lasting, more durable device doesn't help the bottom line for a manufacturer.
      Emacho
      • Well...

        Aluminium is an excellent material for making mobile devices and has many properties that make it suitable.

        It is light.
        It is strong.
        It can be machined.
        It has excellent thermal properties (it conducts heat away from a source of heat).
        It can have a range of finishes.

        This is why Apple (and others) often opt for aluminium.
        jeremychappell
        • Yes, it can have a wide variety of finishes...

          So why use such a slippery one?
          Papa_Bill
    • What on Earth is a "mature design"?

      Does the mere appearance of any device achieve some kind of perfection, or does it simply impress the buyer who place glitz and glamor above all?

      It seems that if anyone has a legitimate complaint about *any* Apple product, the Apple crowd circles the wagons and declares the them to be klutzes. Would the iPads, iPhones or other iProduct be less functional or reliable if they were designed to be a little easier to grip? What happened to the idea the form should not interfere with function?

      It seems to me that Apple should concern themselves with every detail that affect their user's experience with Apple products. Even if they are klutzes.
      Papa_Bill
  • Careful James

    You are about to incur the wrath of the fanbois!
    You dare to suggest that Apple products are not perfect, you heretic! :)
    Boothy_p
  • Boothy_p - no worry here

    Be careful of only the Android and Windows (OS and phone) fanbois, they are the rabid ones...
    TimeForAChangeToBetter
    • 'cuse me

      I've had my shots (was bitten by a rabid fanboi, but have staved off the infection).
      Boothy_p
  • Apple's not the only one guilty of that

    My Nokia suffers the same fate.
    William Farrel
    • Yes, plastics can be every bit as slick and slippery as aluminum.

      It's not the fault of the material, just the designers.
      Papa_Bill
  • My $69 tablet doesn't have this problem

    How can this be? A problem high-rend tablets have that my cheapie tablet, with its rugged plastic case, does not? My mid-range HTC Android phone has a non-skid pattern molded in, which makes it even easier to grip. Guess I'll stick with the cheap stuff -- in fact, I have don't have much choice, being an Old Person with a limited income.
    robin@...
  • That's one of the reasons my wife loves her Envy X2

    My wife wanted a Macbook Air. I was fine with getting her one, but then she added that she wanted a macbook Air with Windows. And she wanted a touch screen Macbook Air. i was like, um, honey, I love you, but I can't do that. There are no touch screen Macbook Airs. She was not happy.

    After talking to her, what she really wanted was an HP Envy X2. The part of the Macbook Air she wanted was a cool aluminum case. If the Envy X2 didn't have the cool aluminum case, she would have probably settled for a Macbook Air with Windows and no touch screen. But now she has "everything" she wants, according to her, including her much-desired 14 hours of battery life.

    So style matters. People don't think about six months later or how you use a device. They see it for 5 min in the store and decide if they should purchase it or not.

    Style matters even if it makes the device less useful.
    A Gray
    • Good timing, sir

      As I'm typing this I'm watching ABC News, and they just did a report on the problems with high heel shoes. Now there's a classic problem with choosing style over safety.
      Of course the Apple cases aren't dangerous to your feet (unless your iPad falls on your big toe), but the device ain't cheap and drop damage won't be covered under a warranty.
      Papa_Bill
  • Incredible

    I suppose you'd also criticize God because after making humans with lungs and muscles and minds He also put snot in their noses. Or perhaps you'd turn down the gift of a new Porsche because there are little black nubbins sticking out of the tires from the molding process.

    "What a maroon!"
    DM108
    • Re: I suppose you'd also criticize God

      Evolution is proof that God doesn't exist.
      ldo17
    • Huh?

      "maroon"?
      MC_z
      • It's a Bugs bunny reference

        .DeusExMachina.
  • Good grief

    "I'm convinced this inability to hold the iPhone securely in the hand is the real reason the bumper case was developed." Ha ha ha. Nice one centurion, like it, like it.
    Nihon8888