The Price of Nano-Sizing: Companies Put the Brakes on Tiny Technology

By Alison K. Lanier

Modern gadgets are marketed as the arrival of the future—sleekly simplified and pocket-sized. The “original” computer that occupied two mammoth rooms and carried out basic calculations is a laughable anecdote of the past. Every piece of tech—computers, music devices and phones—has spent the last several decades being withered down to a thin, flat, sexy new size. The trend is epitomized with “nano” gadgets, like Apple’s iPod nano.

Nano, itself, is a unit of measurement used, tellingly, to describe amounts too small to be practically seen or used. The drive to shrink, shrink and shrink some more in the modern tech marketplace, however, has shifted from full-speed-ahead glorification to practical hesitation. Encountering frustration with increasingly microscopic gadgets, manufacturers are breaking from the trend and looking for a happy medium.

A Look into the Future

The sleek, futuristic look of smaller and smaller tech dominates the designs of a whole spectrum of gadgets including smartphones, MP3 players, hands-free devices and cameras. Look at the HTC One X and the aptly named Motorola Razr. Both of these wafer-thin Android phones are narrower than a DVD case and stand a fair width comparison to the DVD inside. Apple produces a miniaturized cellphone array concealed within the volume toggle on a set of earbuds. Bluetooth hawks headsets which nestle almost invisibly in the user’s ear. This technology ushers users onto the set of a science fiction movie—the technology is dramatic, streamlined, simple and modern, as well as almost unfeasibly tiny.

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To the left is the HTC One X and on the right is the Motorola Razr.

But aside from this exciting ultramodern image, nano-sized gadgets have developed a set of, dare I say it, predictable issues. The minuscule size of many of these devices forbids easy definition, as is the case, for example, with miniaturized computers. Take for instance the Sony Tablet P. In a drive to become even more compact, it presents a foldable 5.5 inch touch screen. The cons of this pocket-sized laptop replacement is that it’s simply too small to fill its practical shoes. Intended as a tablet computer, the tiny device may be ultra-portable, but individually each of its two screens is miniscule. It’s more like a smartphone than an iPad-like reinvention of the laptop. The Sony Tablet P doesn’t have technical issues due to its size, but instead, it has simply shrunk out of the range of usability for its intended purpose as a personal computer.

The Samsung Galaxy Note also fell into this frustrating gray area. Super-thin and super-light, this whittled-down device is proportionally and impressively compact. However, at 5.3 inches, the device is neither comfortably a phone or a tablet but something in-between that has jokingly been termed a “phablet” by reviewers. Like the Sony Tablet P, this super-small computer doesn’t fit its envisioned function. It’s so compact that using it for tablet-style computing seems a little too much like relying on a smartphone, while as a smartphone-like device it’s still slightly too large to be used one-handed. This barely pocket-sized hybrid is a sliver of a computer, but as a gadget its size is confusingly indecisive.

Slowing the Trend

The drive for sleek, minimalist devices isn’t vanishing, but in terms of design, the miniature tech is being revised by manufacturers who recognize the growing distance from practical sizing. Instead of these awkward, shrunk-down devices, companies are opting for more comfortably-sized tech.

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On the left is the Samsung Galaxy Tab and to the right is the Samsung Galaxy Note.

Digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook because the devices have an average size about the length and width of a paperback book without the depth. Although these devices are super-slim and lightweight, each new generation of these devices doesn’t stray in a significantly smaller direction. This refusal to nano-size keeps the readers on a comfortable and familiar scale, without shrinking it beyond a functional size.

The Sony Galaxy Tab 2, moving on from the awkwardly small Galaxy Note, is a larger, Kindle-scale tablet. This refreshing focus on usability for the user’s sake can be said to be unavoidable. If tech continued to shrink much further you might run the risk of losing your Bluetooth in your ear.

Apple—the company famous for its polished, minute music players, laptops and phones—has also slowed its all-out sprint. It’s true that the company still sells the iPod shuffle, which is about the size of a fingernail. However their newest generation of iPhone is thicker and sturdier than its predecessor. It is a weightier, larger device that comfortably fits into a pocket or a palm but without dwindling down the screen or the phone’s body to an unmanageable scale. Although their line of laptops and tablets is becoming slimmer and slimmer, the length and width of their screens hasn’t been reduced.

Usability for the User’s Sake

Focusing on usability and functionality, manufacturers are not exactly reversing the nano-sizing trend. They are putting more attention toward the user rather than the aesthetic. The last five or six years have been a joyride for designers as they cut down devices, making them thinner and tinier and marketing them as part of the futuristic, minimalist trend. These products are now settling down to a handy, middling size.

While manufacturers have adjusted the scale of their products, the slim, minimalist motif doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Even these marginally larger products retain the polished, futuristic look à la wafer-thin iPad 2 or the Samsung Razor. Tech is still leaning toward a futuristic vision, but without the infinite drive to reduce its scale.

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