The “thin” race needs to stop

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It seems that a major trend in the industry is to make the next generation of products even slimmer than its predecessors. For the first few years, that was understandable. These devices need to be made more compact and easier to hold, especially phones, since they’re almost always held in the hand. Lately, however, the trend has gotten too bizarre and I think it’s high time that we stop this whole race right now.

WHY IS THERE A NEED FOR SUCH THIN DEVICES ANYWAY?

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Simple. Earlier devices were notorious for being thick and somewhat bulky. The whole “thin” race has started a long time ago, especially in the pursuit of making a product that works well while being offered in a sleek package that looks good and also isn’t much to hold. It wasn’t too long ago that a device that is 10mm in thickness is considered slim. For a while, it made a whole lot of sense, and we didn’t get any significant drawbacks from that. Not so these days, however.

REASON #1 – BATTERY CAPACITY

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Arguably a big reason why I think the thinner race needs to stop is battery capacity. When you make a device thinner, you reduce its overall internal footprint, meaning that there is less internal space for something like a bigger battery. For quite some time, however, this wasn’t such a big deal as other components got more efficient, so the reduction in battery capacity is usually mitigated or outweighed by the increased efficiency of the internal components. It also helped that this was also at the time when devices got bigger, so there was more space for a bigger cell, so that too outweighed the con of less depth.

However, it seems that newer devices are going to need those bigger batteries, as they either gain more functionality that adds more power load or have new capabilities that encourages heavier use. Case in point; The 2016 MacBook Pro. Despite gaining a brighter DCI-P3 display along with an OLED touchbar that’s always-on under use, the battery capacity shrunk by as much as 25% due to the fact that the machine was made to be thinner than its predecessor. Even though the Intel Skylake-based processors were more efficient than the Haswell-based processors of its predecessor, the display along with the always-on touchbar meant that the machine would usually come up short of Apple’s 10-hour battery life figure, unless one is extremely frugal in usage, which is quite a departure from past MacBook Pros, which usually managed to meet or exceed Apple’s claims in normal use quite easily. And with phones getting new functionality, it’s high time that even those start bulking up a bit to accommodate bigger batteries.

#2 – SPACE CONSTRAINTS FOR LARGER BATTERIES

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This ties into the first point, but in a different light. The point for a thicker device is to make more room for a larger battery, but some manufacturers have tried (and usually succeed) in stuffing large batteries in slim housings. However, a recent event may have to give OEMs a lesson in pushing the boundaries.

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The Galaxy Note 7 recall is still fresh in some folk’s minds and Samsung is due to publish an official report later in the month on why the device ended up being a fiery mess instead of a truly great smartphone that it was. However, a firm called Instrumental have recently published a report that seems to arrive at a pretty significant theory on why this is so; that the device is simply too small to accommodate such a large powerpack. Aside from Samsung engineers leaving too little space around the battery to account for its expansion due to heat, there also doesn’t seem to be a “ceiling” to account for systematic bulging of the battery over time.

When batteries are charged and discharged, chemical processes cause the lithium to migrate and the battery will mechanically swell.  Any battery engineer will tell you that it’s necessary to leave some percentage of ceiling above the battery, 10% is a rough rule-of-thumb, and over time the battery will expand into that space.  Our two-month old unit had no ceiling: the battery and adhesive was 5.2 mm thick, resting in a 5.2 mm deep pocket.  There should have been a 0.5 mm ceiling.  This is what mechanical engineers call line-to-line — and since it breaks such a basic rule, it must have been intentional.  It is even possible that our unit was under pressure when we opened it.

This is something that everyone needs to learn. Just because you could doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Thin phones with really big batteries just don’t match. If you want to stuff in a big battery, you need to bulk the phone itself up a little bit to ensure that it is safe.

REASON #3 – IS THERE REALLY ANY BENEFIT THESE DAYS?

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In the past, we saw immediate benefits by slimming devices down as they were easier to hold on to and also were less of a drag in pockets due to their lower profile. However, past a certain point, is there really any benefit to having a thinner phone? I’d argue no, simply due to the rule of diminishing returns.

After a certain point, the benefits to a thinner device simply isn’t as noticeable compared to a more significant leap, like 15mm to 8mm. Going from 7mm to 5.2mm isn’t a significant jump, and will also lead to compromises that I’d argue we could do without.

There’s also some issues like some ergonomic issues due to the really sleek profile and also durability due to how thin it is, making it more fragile, especially to drops and bends.

WRAPPING UP

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I feel that it’s high-time that this whole race needs to stop while it still can. I’ve seen some signs of optimism, but more need to take notice. I like my devices to be reasonably thin but also thick enough so that it can house a large power-pack that also has enough space around it so it doesn’t get too constrained to the point where it can become a safety hazard. Simply put, there’s really no point in making phones any “thinner” other than for bragging rights, and I think OEMs really should stop before they realize what’s going on.

The “thin” race needs to stop