iPhones bend and PCs are awful for the same reason

Rant: marketing over engineering well past the point of stupidity

Intel - logoBent iPhones, unusably awful PCs, and electronics that all cost more and do less have the same root cause. What is that? The moronic drive to fashion started by Apple and taken far beyond its logical conclusion by Intel.

Unfortunately for the world and users in general, this phenomenon of thinner is better is not going away, at the moment it is the only trend manufacturers care about. Faster? Secondary. Battery life? Everyone carries a brick around to supplement their half-day phones already and laptops are getting worse every generation buoyed only by gamed benchmarks. Storage? Slow, expensive, and non-upgradable. Memory? Non-upgradable. Slots? Fat chance. Ports? In your dreams. Thin? Hell yes.

This is the new world of computing be it phones, tablets, or PCs, kicked off by Apple and the Macbook Air, thin was initially a niche. Then Intel decided to push it to the exclusion of other features with their moronic Ultrabook program, something we called “Shiny things for the stupid“. Even Intel admitted it was a failure, at least internally, but that doesn’t stop them from pushing the trend even harder. With their new Broadwell-Y based design called Llama Mountain the only performance metric they let the press see was the ~9mm Z-height. CPU speed? Nope. Battery size? Nope. Benchmarks? Nope. Did we mention it was thin? Intel did but what they didn’t say is that it was so thin that it was annoying to hold and likely fragile too, but that message would go counter to their “thin is better” campaign.

The problems for the users are twofold, first the thinner you make things the higher quality materials you have to use. In short thinner means more expensive but since thinner is also perceived as “high-end” and desirable, that is OK for the moment. Once it trickles down to the mid and low ends, that will just be a problem and we are pretty close to that point now.

An OEM also has a lot less flexibility in how they put these materials together, things like removable batteries mean removable panels which mean added mm. That is unacceptable in the modern era so those things that users want and need have to go, poof. That is kind of a red herring though, if anyone believes user wants and expectations matter to OEM marketers, well I have a bridge to sell you.

As Z-height drops, basic engineering rules say that stiffness decreases, you don’t make a bridge in 2D for a reason. That means you have to use more rigid materials which almost always equate to denser materials. If you look at the “Ultrabook” PCs and superthin phones, they are almost always heavier than a stiffer, thicker, and cheaper phone. After a certain point, thinner is heavier as well as more expensive and we are well past that point now too.

Then there are other effects brought on by the lack of interior volume, a 7mm thick phone has how much interior volume for the CPU, memory, board, battery, and storage? Same with the PC side, what components can you fit in a 9mm Llama Mountain reference design? Not much. Cooling is gutted too, what type of solution can you use to cool a 9mm PC? Other than expensive, about the only other thing you can say is not very effective so you end up with a slow but thin machine. This is in a way good because slower usually means less wattage drawn, considering how thin the battery is that is the only way some of these designs can make it a few hours without being plugged in. Another lose/lose.

Phones and laptops are well past too thin to have a decent battery, a CPU that can be fast enough to use and be cooled, real storage space, peripherals, ports, and all the rest. We have reached the point of dumb and moved to much thinner designs. Worse yet it isn’t stopping. Apple is pushing thinner, Intel is only pushing thinner, and almost everyone else is following close behind without the scant bit of engineering or common sense applied by these two.

Samsung mobile memory presentation data

Samsung mobile memory presentation

With the bar set at 5.3mm for a phone and less than twice that for a PC, guess what is starting to happen? iPhones are bending. Screens are cracking. Devices and computers are mysteriously dying likely because of cracked traces internally. Things overheat. There are no ports. There is no upgradeability. There is no repair or replacement parts. If anything goes off, the whole things is a doorstop. PCs are now unusably awful, phones are becoming less useful each generation, and both are thermally limited when they don’t burn the user. Literally burn that is. And figuratively too if you count cracks, bends, and untimely but mysterious deaths.

All this stupidity was more than predictable, it was inevitable. Apple did something good, Intel took it and ran without a clue as to why, and the rest have piled on. Now we are in the midst of a feeding frenzy with each new entrant coming out with something less useful, more expensive, more fragile, and just more-onic. Wouldn’t you rather have a phone that was 5mm thicker, half the price, 3x the battery life, had a removable battery, and a few SD slots? Don’t hold your breath with the idiot brigade running things hell-bent on fashion over everything, there is no end in sight.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate