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Stewart Wolpin Headshot

Trouble With the Smartphone Curve

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2014-02-19-14219LGFlex.jpg

Where does your smartphone spend most of its time? On your desktop? In a bag? In a coat or pants pocket? For all the time you spend checking email, Twitter, Facebook, watching video, listening to music, et al, my guess is your smartphone is more often not in your hand than in.

Yet in your hand seems only place the arched ergonomics of the world's first curved smartphone, the LG Flex, is advantageous. Anywhere else, you're going to have trouble with the curve.

LG claims the Flex's slight bow, about 3-4 degrees, enhances the phone's fit around your cheek and places the microphone closer to your mouth. In actual usage, the inch or so closer to your mouth the Flex positions its mic will hardly increase conversational comprehension.

Page scrolling creates an odd scooping-like sensation, and the upturned ends may cut down on having to re-angle the Flex to avoid overhead light or sun reflection. May.

Watching widescreen video in landscape mode does seem more enveloping. But how much video do you watch on your phone?

It's almost as if LG and Samsung with its vertically curved Round had to make up reasons to justify creating curved phones since the arcing offers no natural advantage. Flex is not even curved enough for it to stand on its wide edge by itself.

But let's say, for the sale of argument, the tightened mic-to-mouth distance, the minimal screen re-angling and more enveloping movie watching were all earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, mousetrap-reinventing improvements. These arguable plusses still don't make up for Flex's one giant drawback.

It's curved.

What happened to flat?

Ever since the Motorola RAZR, cellphone competitors have been playing can-you-thin-this to design ever-slimmer phones. After all, a skinny phone is sleeker to pocket.

The Flex, technically, is thin, just a third of an inch thick. But its curly contours nearly doubles Flex's real-life thickness, the smartphone equivalent of washing down a dozen donuts with a Diet Coke.

Flex's curve-caused depth creates an unseemly bulge in any pocket in which it is placed, especially a front breast pocket, and it won't stack neatly atop another flat object in a bag or purse. At least Flex doesn't rock like a see-saw when laid on its back.

In other words, Flex's shape is a disadvantage every place it is except in your hand.

Another problem is Flex's name. Everyone I've shown it to assumes its name, "Flex," means, well, flexible, that it bends like a Gumby to conform to how you're using it -- curved in your hand, bent in your pocket. When I inform them of Flex's permanent position, they're always disappointed. "Call me when you can bend it," they say.

Crimes and Missed Designers

You could almost excuse the Flex if LG had gone all the way and created a holistic curved device, a phone whose functions matched and/or exploited the Flex's curves. (In some ways, Samsung reportedly did a better job in matching form and function on the Round.)

Alas, Flex is merely a larger version of the company's otherwise excellent G2 smartphone, only bigger (5.2-inch screen vs. Flex's 6-inch display) and curved.

What could have LG have done differently? Since one advantage of Flex's curve is a more enveloping movie-watching experience, LG could have placed stereo speakers on either side of the widescreen a la the HTC One phone family, instead of a single silly slit speaker on the rear.

So why make a curved smartphone? Because LG and Samsung could, not because they should. In gadget-land design philosophy, technological exhibitionism often trumps functional common sense.

Among gadget makers, we-could-so-we-did design disease is communicable. Next week in Barcelona, Spain, is Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile phone confab, at which we may see additional copycat flexured phones.

After all, ya gotta keep up with the curving Joneses, even if the Joneses are totally bent.

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