10 Biggest Gadget Design Fails

Many companies that read our product reviews tell us that they take our criticism to heart to improve their wares. That's flattering to hear, but I don't think the message is getting to the right people. How do I know? Companies continue to send us new laptops, tablets and smartphones that exhibit the same annoying design flaws over and over. Consider this list a polite but forceful intervention.

Laptop Mag's Mark Spoonauer has a few gripes with the way gadgets are designed. What are the most annoying ones? Keep reading.

Port Flaps and Covers

Imagine if your car's door had a protective cover around the keyhole. Why? Exactly. I can understand if you're targeting the military, field workers or outdoor adventurers who need a device that can withstand water splashes and dust storms. But otherwise there's no need to cover up that microUSB port - or any other port - with a flap. It just gets in the way.

Every time I see a covered port, I instantly take points off the review. The only pardonable exception is covering slots people rarely, if ever, access, like SIM cards.

Let's Play 'Find the Power Button'

If it takes you more than five seconds to find the power button on a laptop or other gadget, the designers have failed. I've seen too many notebooks with the button on the front, which is not only unintuitive, but makes it too easy to accidentally turn off your system when it's sitting in your lap. Motorola placed the power button for its Droid Xyboard 8.2 tablet on its back, which amazed me because everyone ridiculed the original Xoom slate for this very issue.

And here's a note to makers of smartphones with larger-than-life screens. Make sure you put the power button on the right instead of up top so we don't stretch our fingers out of our sockets.

Fingerprint Magnets

There's nothing that looks cheaper than a tablet, laptop or phone that smudges up with fingerprints within a few minutes of picking it up. Typically, an overly glossy plastic surface is to blame. Metal designs tend to fare better, but not all are created equal.

I'm actually encouraged by some of the latest unibody plastic designs, which not only resist fingerprints, but look thoroughly modern. The Nokia Lumia 900 is a good example. I'm also a fan of soft-touch finishes, found on devices like the Dell XPS 15. As for the screen, better designs employ an oleophobic coating to ward off fingerprints, such as the iPad.

Dim or Disappearing Buttons

I'm definitely not a fan of phones whose buttons literally disappear after a few seconds, like the Back and Menu buttons on the Sony Xperia Ion also annoys me, because its four silver menu buttons are not only small, but also very dim. Providing a backlight underneath the buttons doesn't count; you need to backlight the buttons themselves.

Creaky, Catch-prone Laptop Hinges

There's nothing you do more often than lift the lid on your laptop, so you better make sure that this operation is smooth. Unfortunately, I've seen a fair number of thin Ultrabooks whose lids either creak when opening - or worse - literally catch on the bottom part of the clamshell on the way up. Both the HP Envy 4t and 6z exhibited this troubling design flaw in our testing.

Awkward Webcam Placement

If you put your company's logo across the bottom of the device so that it's legible in landscape mode, but then you put the front-facing camera off to the left, that's a problem. That's exactly what Lenovo did with the IdeaPad S2109. It's as if the designers couldn't decide how the device should be held, which is strange because Google's Android software is optimised for the landscape orientation.

Archos' 70b suffers from the same issue, though it's more forgivable on a 7-inch device that will be used in portrait mode at least some of the time.

Short or Fat Power Chargers

Here's an area of design that doesn't get enough attention. I detest power bricks for laptops that take up so much room that you can't plug anything else into the same outlet. For instance, the Asus UX32VD comes with a rectangular power adaptor that takes up enough room to hog three spots on a power strip.

Just as bad, the cord on this laptop is too short, which means you'll have to sit close to the wall if you're low on juice. Plenty of tablets and smartphones also come with power cables that are too short. For instance, it's hard for me to plug the iPad in behind the couch without feeling like I'll accidentally unplug the slate while using it.

Bad Speaker Placement

It might surprise some of you laptop makers to know that people actually use these things in their laps. I know, it's nutty. And when that happens, the speakers you put on the bottom of the machine get muffled. Put them up top or underneath the keyboard if you're trying to make it superthin.

Meanwhile, a lot of tablets place their speakers on the back edges, exactly where it's all too easy to block the sound with your fingers. Better-designed slates feature front-firing speakers, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1.

Function Key Combos

I can count the number of people I know who actually use Function keys on Windows laptops with one finger. So why do laptop makers continue to force people to perform annoying key combinations to do something as simple as adjust the volume or brightness? Apple has been doing this the right way for ages, but some other PC companies have finally gotten the message. Kudos to HP and Dell for including direct action keys on some of their machines. Acer, ASUS, Sony and Lenovo are still behind the times.

Faux Metal Jackets

Look, I understand the desire to make your cheap design look premium, but don't attempt to fool customers into believing that your gadget is metal when it's not. The back of the LG Viper for Sprint, for instance, has a back that's plastic, but it's painted to look like brushed metal.

I've seen plenty of tablets and laptops that do this, too. Some notebooks have real metal on the lid and faux metal on the inside to create a unified aesthetic, but to me, it's false advertising.

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Comments

    I think the power button gripe would only apply to people that need to review alot of gadgets :)

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      You mean where he lists things like speakers on the back which the iPad has, then lists the xoom as a tablet with good speaker placement and then complains about the cable that comes with the iPad?

      I think your own bias is showing here.

      Why? Because he praised it for volume buttons? Get over it, or get counselling.

    Something worse than a faux metal cover is a faux carbon fiber finish.

      ...or a pointless glass panel that doubles the chance of something smashing...

        Um, dude... Plastic can crack just as easily (if not, easier) then the glass, it can also do it more severe. I've replaced many iPhone 3gs back covers in my day, but most people just cover the cracks with a phone cover.

          No, its a dumb design choice. Almost every iphone I've ever seen has either the back or front glass cracked. Why add extra glass ? if you break it its uncomfortable to hold, if you dont put a cover on it you'll break it. Leave it at the front only.

          Its a bad decision. For a device thats going to get handled poorly, its just making the brand look nastier for no reason other than aesthetics.

            @Matt L, no glass is a lot more brittle than plastic, hence the name plastic as in being one of its properties.

            You must not have seen many iPhones then. On an average day of commuting, I MIGHT see one iPhone with a broken or cracked screen out of several dozen. Maybe you just hang around with clumsy people?

              Pretty much everyone at my work with an iPhone has either a broken front or back cover. That's not everyone I know with an iPhone, I'm not saying they all break, but broken iPhones seem to be a lot more common than phones with plastic screens.

              On the other hand though, I know quite a few people with plastic screen phones that either don't have gorilla glass or have the earlier gorilla glass, and their screen is scratched to hell. Look at a 3 year old iPhone screen and you can barely tell it's scratched unless you bring it right up to your face and look close.

            I have had every iPhone released and none of them have ever smashed the front or back, glass or plastic. So I don't know what you mean by almost every?

          Um dude...in what world are you living in where plastic cracks as easily as glass? What exactly are you doing to the backs of the multitude of iPhone 3gs to keep breaking them? Is it just your phone, or are you going around destroying peoples iPhone 3gs who haven't bothered to upgrade to an iPhone 4? Can you please get back to me on these points, I won't be able to sleep without knowing the answers.

    It's not only fat power chargers, it's also chargers that are not designed for our power outlet design eg, the charger may be slim, but sits sideways so that it blocks the adjascent power point; or the body is oreinter vertically, so that the power has to be switched on before pulugging in the charger.

    Another annoying thing is the use of different sized power plugs used by manufacturers for every different model of device, despite the fact that the voltage and current is often the same, or within the same specs.

    Mostly agreed, except for F-key combos where I completely disagree. In Windows/Office F1 = help; F2 = rename; F3 = search; F5 = refresh; F6 = change active part of window; F9 = update field; F11 = fullscreen; F12 = Save As. In many games F5 = quicksave and F8 = quickload (or some equivalent use of the F-keys).

    It annoys me that I have to use the "Fn" button to perform these common operations on a notebook keyboard.

      You're agreeing with him. He is talking about the "Fn" key that laptops have, not the F1-F12 keys that all computers have.

        I quite like the Fn key on my laptop...
        I also use the microsoft arc keyboard, to Function eys F& - F12 and PritnScreen also require teh use of the Fn key to access them...
        I see no problem with the Fn key - add one extra key to give you laptop a lot more keyboard based shortcuts... My only gripe is that these are usually unable to be customised - I'd love to be able to (easily) setup programs to run from Fn + F"x" combo keys...

        A lot of laptops come out these days with laptop function keys set as primary, and Fx keys set as secondary, meaning you have to press the Fn key to use the Fx keys.

        This can usually be swapped back in the BIOS though.

        No MotorMouth, TSH is correct.
        On most laptops Fn key = F1-12.

      You realise that on a lot of laptops you can change this in the BIOS?

        :--] mostly I'm using someone else's notebook. Desktop stalwart here ^_^

      I use the Fn key alot, however I do get annoyed why my laptop had the Fn key in the bottom left corner, and the volume keys in the opposite corner, hence unable to use it with one hand.

    My parents once had a car with a cover over the key hole, nothing wrong with it.

    That is a very strange list of gripes. I think the Function key on laptops is extremely useful and they generally work very well - simple and intuitive. Finding the power button might seem like a hassle for a journalist who touches lots of laptops every week but most of us spend a couple of years minimum with the same one, so it is not an issue. I'd liken it to the placement of bonnet release catches in cars - it can be annoying the first time you have to find it but once you know where it is, you don't have to worry about it again for years. I'm also quite a fan of port covers, especially on devices that you carry in your pocket, like a phone or PMP. I always put my ZuneHD in my pocket upside down to keep pocket lint out of its ports but I don't care about my phone because its port is covered. Some of the others are reasonable but none of them are deal-breakers for me. e.g. There are plenty of things I do more often than lift the lid on my laptop so the fact that it might creak (mine doesn't) would not put me off at all.

    The function key combos annoy me but not for the same reason.

    F keys on keyboards have been a standard for pretty much the existence of keyboards, And as someone who uses F keys for various things like refreshing, renaming etc. it annoys me when I have to hold down the function key to use the F key as an F key.

    If you want media controls on your keyboard, put actual media controls on your keyboard, not only will it make the keyboard less of a pain in the ass, it usually makes the keyboard look a lot nicer.

      Check your BIOS, most laptops have an option to swap this around so you have to hold Fn for volume/brightness, but not for Fx keys.

    On power chargers, I'll take a fat one that blocks other outlets over one that has a cord coming out of each end like they all used to. You can always find an optimal arrangement that lets you plug all your stuff in.

      You'd rather block other power points than have a standard sized power cord with a power brick in the middle of it?

      Uhhh...okay. I guess...

        Hasn't anyone though to plug the charger in the bottom plug? I agree with MotorMouth but just plug it into the bottom plug!

          What bottom plug? All my sockets are on the same level. Oh I get it your a Yank and you don't realise that other people live in other countries and don't always conform to the Yank way of doing things. So to answer your question; no, I've never even considered putting the charger in the bottom plug. It would have been a useless waste of time to have thought about it so I didn't. I must agree though that overly large chargers that prevent a plug being inserted into the socket either to the left of right of them are a pain in the 'erm' bottom.

        First time for everything but I actually agree with MotorMouth.

        Having bulky power supplies in the middle of cables creates other problems not as easily fixed by arranging them correctly or getting a bigger power board. Like...when that block sits on the edge of a desk in its fully stretched position, for instance. Or the trip hazard. Or the extra disconnect risk when it's behind a huge -ass cabinet etc.

          This is where I like Apples power bricks they use for the iDevices.

          Not only can they plug the brick directly into the wall, but you can unplug the actual wall plug and replace it with a standard figure 8 length of power cord. Your choice to give you a bit of extra length / less bulky plug.

          Their USB charging cords on the other hand are frail and awful, designed to require replacing like their cheap headphones.

    Fn Keys are handy, i use them all the time - when you plug your laptop into a projector - cycle output - you don't need a whole key dedicated to that..

    and while we're at it - whats with right mouse buttons - ridiculous!

    I like the Fn key option. Why make a dedicated bar of buttons for things that will hardly be used, when they can be combined onto already available buttons with a Fn + X ability.
    That way, you can use the function if you want, but it doesn't take up space.

    Also microphone placement is a big issue on phones. My only real gripe about iPhone is that it sits at the bottom right underneath wear I place my little finger to get that little extra support as the device is a little slippery.

    Agreed on most that is pointed out but can't deny that author is an obvious apple fanboy.

      "I think Daewoo has poor build quality" OBVIOUS AUDI FANBOY

        This. Android fanboys need to smoke more pot/do more complicated maths to keep themselves quiet.

    Port Flaps and Covers - Car key holes do have a flap that the key pushes out of the way.

    Oh and they be better than dust.

      exactly, nobody like pocket link in their headphone jack

    Forgot to mention antenna gate that iPhone 4 had. That was the biggest design fail with so much media coverage....

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    A lot of this article stems from phones being or devices being too complicated, it's very harsh to say that this is an apple fanboi article just because he points this out. Apples designs are minimalist and simplistic which is why they look good.

    The writer just says that apple has been doing it the right way with the keyboards because it HAS been doing it the right way, creating a simplistic keyboard that is easier to use than others.

    I think I prefer it when ports are covered up. Helps keep everything looking nice and neat.

      Anal retentive with a port fetish, how Seinfeld lol.

    Forgot to mention antenna gate that iPhone 4 had.

      Apple said it's a feature, not a fail. Plus you have got that free rubber bumper to fix it...... Bazinga.

    Dim Buttons? really?

    IPad fails in most of these: camera & speaker misplaced, bulky power charge and the worst one, not mentioned there, make people carry accessories for everything (no SD card, for example).

    Function Key Combos
    Pretty much every laptop has the option to switch between needing to press the function key and not needing to press it.
    Recently I switched mine into the need to press mode for the volume control etc. buttons because for gaming f1, f2, f3.... is often required.

    Web cam microphones near the keyboard (ala Clevo Horize).

    I disagree with the first point (port flaps and covers) to some extent: The Samsung Galaxy S 1 (GT-i9000) has a sliding cover for the USB port which I find very neat and I believe all port covers should behave like this, unlike my wifes Samsung Jet which has a hinged type of cover (as per the screenshot for point 1) which just gets in the freakin way and should be made illegal and punishable by death (or life imprisonment at least).

    Port covers are useful just for keeping the port clean and free from dust and potential water. As long as theyre implemented in the right way and without becoming a nuisance to the user, then its all good.

    Most of these gripes are probably from people with OCD.

    Fingerprints?!?! If you don't want any on your device, stop using it!

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