Opinion: Smartphone scoliosis

Smartphone scoliosis
Credit: LG/Samsung/DVICE

British graffiti artist Banksy is blundering about the Big Apple branding blank walls like a more sophisticated version of Daffy Duck as the mustache fiend in "Daffy Doodles."

Whether you approve of Banksy's antics or not, his decision to deface rests solely on this simple proposition: he can, so he does. At least until he's caught — presumably by police people who wear pants.

This "just because we can, should we?" conundrum is the core of human morality, and also has long plagued the technology sector. All manner of harebrained functions, features and gadgets have emerged from research and development labs and ended up on store shelves simply because the developing entity was able to invent it, disregarding whether what they invented was actually useful or necessary.

They could, so they did.

And so we come to the sudden trend for curved screens, first HDTVs — well, actually, the first front projection TVs 40 years ago — and UHDs. Solid technical reasons were behind the arched screens of those early front projector systems, but there are dubious differentiating reasons for the current spate of curved HDTVs.

In the last few weeks, though, Samsung and LG have taken the next illogical screen curving step. Each has unveiled curved smartphones, the vertically bent Samsung Galaxy Round and the horizontally humped LG G Flex, both on sale (or soon to be) in South Korea.

Form Over Function?

Creating and producing a small curved screen is an admirably technological achievement. I just can't figure out what purpose a bent smartphone screen serves.

There are functions on the 5.7-inch Galaxy Round related to its roundness (see the more detailed description by my compatriot Ray Wong), but these are tail-wagging-the-dog features. They exist because the screen is curved without adding any actual improvement. Function followed form instead of the usual other way around.

The 6-inch LG Flex phablet's mid-section bow makes more superficial sense (see Ray's take on the Flex here). According to the company's press release:

"The…curved design of the LG G Flex reduces the distance between one’s mouth to the microphone when the device is held against the ear, as traditional telephone handsets used to. The LG G Flex employs a curvature arc that is optimized for the average face, to deliver improved voice and sound quality. The curved form increases the sound level by 3dB compared to typical flat smartphones."

That sounds logical, but increasing the decibel is not always be a good thing. Sure, when your mouth is closer to a microphone you'll get more volume. But more often, talking too close to a mic often results in distortion — you sound as if you're mumbling with a mouthful of marbles.

Also, we tend to talk louder when we talk on a cellphone — for some reason, older folks think wireless conversation requires outdoor vocal volume levels. Locating the phone's mic in closer mouth proximity increases this distortion likelihood and results in less linguistic intelligibility.

Ergonomic Idiocy

It's not just the warped attributes of the Round and Flex don't serve or improve any functions. The screen curvature actually detracts from its ergonomics.

First, mobile makers have always extolled the flatness of their phones, and for good reason: a flat phone is more fashionably and comfortably carried. But no matter how flat a phone is, my wife won't put hers in her pants pocket — in fact, I don't know many women who do. Unlike us guys, they believe unsightly groin-area bulges aren't attractive.

A curved phone would create a pocket bulge even a guy would be wary of. Carried in a men's suit breast pocket, a curved phone will make us look as if we've grown a single man boob.

LG also insists its Flex's "curved design also offers a more reassuring grip" — I can't see how, but I'll keep an open mind — "and fits more comfortably in one's back pocket."

Okay, all due respect to my friends at LG, that's plain dumb. Flex will be more comfortable stored in a place no one keeps a smartphone? What time is it when a person sits down with a smartphone in their rear pocket? Time to get a new smartphone.

Finally, flat on its back, these curved phones will wobble (but not fall down), comically at first, annoyingly soon there after (although your child may decide the comic possibilities are endless).

Viewing Restrictions

All the curved HDTV makers crow about how the experience is more enveloping. Horse manure. All curving a TV does is cut down on the viewing angle.

Curved smartphone screens also present viewing angle problems. Plus, a curved phone would be more likely to catch unpleasant reflections from the noonday sun or overhead lights. You can tilt a flat phone until you lose the reflection. But a curved screen will always catch some glare. You'll end up continuously tilting your phone as if you were playing one of those ball-maze games.

So why curve? Likely the same reason why LG and Samsung (et al) are curving their HDTVs — to create a visual product differentiation.

Curving the screen helps overcome Android androgyny. Even as the Android becomes increasingly fragmented, the black or white slabs with 4.7-6-inch screens have taken on a sullen sameness. A slightly arching screen creates a wide marketing gap.

But while arresting aesthetically, a curved smartphone is a twisted idea, literally and figuratively.

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