iPhone 5 Tryout Reveals That Smartphone Ergonomics Need More Thought

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-12-17

iPhone 5 Tryout Reveals That Smartphone Ergonomics Need More Thought

As I wrote in my Dec. 12 column, I went to the Apple Store and bought an unlocked Apple iPhone 5 to see what it takes to get it running on T-Mobile’s network.

A week later I went back to the Apple Store and returned it. The story of my ill-fated fling with the iPhone 5 does disprove one popular saying. You really can be too thin. In the case of the iPhone, it made the device impossible for me to hold and to type on.

But first, here’s the good news. The iPhone 5 worked perfectly on T-Mobile’s network in the DC area. The Washington, DC, metro area was one of the first to be refarmed to the 1900 MHz frequencies that the iPhone uses. And while T-Mobile supports 42M bps per second, the iPhone works at 21M bps, but it did work and worked well.

The other good news is that T-Mobile CEO John Legere told me in a phone call that the company was working to make the iPhone setup instructions easier to find and follow, and he said that the T-Mobile stores located near Apple Stores would have a greater supply of nano-SIM cards.

When I visited one of the T-Mobile stores that previously had been out of stock of nano-SIMs, this time they had a good supply. T-Mobile can clearly move very quickly when they need to. Encouraged, I took the iPhone with me when I traveled to Richmond, Va., for the weekend.

It was during the trip to Richmond that I discovered that I really couldn’t use the iPhone. During the trip I tried to use the iPhone for everything I would normally use a smartphone for. I read e-mail. I wrote e-mails. I tried to do some file editing. I used the iPhone to look up Extra Billy’s Barbecue, where you can find some of the best smoked meat in that part of Virginia. But what I couldn’t do well was type.

When I tried to type on the iPhone’s keyboard, I found that the keys are too small for my admittedly big fingers. Now you have to understand, I’m a big guy and my hands are really big. I can thumb-type on a full-size iPad. When I typed on the iPhone, the typing area and the keys were simply too small to use effectively. The results were predictably jumbled.

In all honesty, Apple’s frequently maligned auto-correct wasn’t the problem. Auto-correct was overwhelmed by the magnitude of my typing chaos. I wondered if Siri might be cowering in fear over what I might type next.

iPhone 5 Tryout Reveals That Smartphone Ergonomics Need More Thought

By the time I left Richmond after a few days of constant use of the iPhone, it was taking me longer to type out a brief text message than it did on my old Motorola RAZR (the original, not the Android smartphone).

So when I got home, I carefully packed the iPhone in its box and I drove to the Apple Store and returned it. I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get from the normally professional employees, since I suspect that nobody besides me returns iPhones. As it happens, the Apple employees were polite, understanding and helpful. They helped me extract the nano-SIM so I could go to the T-Mobile store and trade it for another, larger, SIM for another phone.

So what am I going to do next? I knew I didn’t want a Galaxy Note II, which is too big to carry in my shirt pocket and too fragile for my back pocket. The Samsung Galaxy S III, which I reviewed for Another Magazine is easy enough to type on provided you can get used to the fact that sometimes a letter on the keyboard gets triggered without actually touching it. Worse, a week or so after the review, the S3 started crashing with mysterious errors.

I thought really hard about the Nokia Lumia, but there are some apps that I use a lot that aren’t available for Windows Phone 8 (are you listening, Weight Watchers?). So I’m kind of stuck. The BlackBerry 9900 that I’ve been using is something I can at least type on, but the screen is too small to use for much in the way of Web browsing. But I have an iPad for Web browsing if I’m not at the computer on my desk. And the BlackBerry is a lot easier to type on than the iPhone.

But all of this points out a huge problem with the smartphone explosion. Ergonomics, it would seem, it taking a back seat to flashiness. The focus on smartphone design these days seems to be on what looks cool and on how many features can be stuffed into the thinnest possible package.

The problem is that actually using those coolest possible features is becoming more and more difficult unless you plan to travel with your smartphone’s user manual. Oh, wait. Your smartphone doesn’t have a user manual, does it? So those features will remain undiscovered unless you have time to experiment.

Meanwhile, the primary features for which you buy a smartphone, things like text messaging, email and—oh yes—making phone calls seem to be getting less and less convenient. Maybe the next hot phone will be one that actually does the basic functions well and will tell you how to use the cool stuff if you ask.

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