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Sometimes Low-Tech is Better

I love high-tech gadgets as much as the next guy. I've got my Kindle DX. I've got my iPod Touch. I've got my Nissan Leaf. And I love 'em all, but sometimes high-tech gadgets end up being a solution in search of a problem. They don't always do what they need to do, and instead pile on superfluous features just to increase the tech factor.

I've come across two examples recently that have put this issue in stark relief for me. The first one is a simple outdoor thermometer. If you were to ask me to recommend a good outdoor thermometer a week ago, I would have probably come up with a digital thermometer with a wireless remote sensor that you put outside. You know, something like this:

Digital outdoor thermometer

This is the current best selling weather thermometer on Amazon, and it gets great reviews to boot. The problem with it is it does way too much. Why do I need to have a clock with the thermometer? I already have umpteen clocks in my house. There is always one within view no matter where I am. I do not need another one. I also don't need to know the indoor temperature of my house. I already know it based on the time of year. In the winter it's 65°F (yeah, we like it cold; put on a sweater, you wuss), and right now it's summer so it's exactly 76°F. I set the thermostat and it sets the temperature. I don't need another thermometer to tell me the same thing. This thermometer also takes four AA batteries. I hope they last a while.

You can, of course, take a step up from the basic digital thermometer with this:


It's your own personal weather station! I really don't know what else to say here, other than this thermometer doesn't solve any additional problems that my iPod Touch doesn't already take care of. I already have an iPod Touch, which does so many other things to boot, so why do I need this?

If you asked me today what my ideal outdoor thermometer is, I'd have to go with this:

Analog outdoor thermometer

Isn't it brilliant? Just slap it on your window, and you can easily read the outside temperature from across the room. No setup, no wireless, and no batteries. It's an elegant solution to the problem of knowing what the temperature is outside. When I get up in the morning and need to know if it's a shorts or a pants day, this thermometer is exactly what I want—no more, no less.

The second high-tech-is-worse example is a feature on a device that tries to be too high-tech for its own good. I got a sleek new Lenovo X1 Carbon ultrabook at work, and for the most part it's awesome. It's fast, light, and really cool. The only problem is the row of F keys at the top. They aren't there. In their place is a long, narrow touch panel. At the far left part of it, you can touch to cycle through three different sets of functions for multimedia, application shortcuts, and the normal F keys. Let me count the problems with this "feature."

Lenovo X1 Carbon keyboard and touch panel

First, I have to look down to touch the F key that I want to use. I use the F2, F3, and F5 keys all the time, so much, in fact, that I can use them without looking more easily than most of the number keys. Not so with the touch panel. I have to look to make sure that I touch the right part of the panel, and that slows me down.

Second, there is no tactile feedback. With a touch screen you get plenty of visual feedback from a well-designed interface, but with this touch panel, I get no feedback until I look up at the screen and see that the correct action took place. Granted, I'm just flicking my eyes down and back up, but it's irritating because I never had to do that with normal F keys and it takes me away from what I was trying to do.

Third, the ability to cycle through multiple sets of functions is not a good thing. I can't be sure of which set of functions is currently active without looking at them, and I have to pay attention as I cycle through them to stop on the one that I want. Some functions are also in multiple sets, so it's taking me a while to get comfortable with where all of the functions are. The old way of doing the multimedia functions, where you hold down an Fn key that activates sub-functions on the F keys and navigation keys, was much better because it was consistent and always visible.

Okay, I don't want to think about the touch panel anymore. It's a poorly thought out feature on an otherwise excellent machine. The only reason Lenovo designed it in is because touch sensors are all the rage, and they thought it would be a slick high-tech addition to a new laptop. But while a touch screen may make sense on a laptop, (especially to my three-year-old son who keeps trying to touch the game icons on the taskbar of my laptop at home) this touch panel is useless.

I quickly plugged my trusty Logitech K740 keyboard into the X1 for use at my desk. This is my current favorite keyboard. The feel of the keys is awesome, it's sleek and attractive, and all of the keys are in the right place.

 Logitech K740 keyboard

This is a tried and true layout. There's nothing fancy going on here. It's not even wireless, just a USB cord, and it works flawlessly. The F keys are even grouped into sets of four so that I can easily feel that my fingers are in the right place to press the right keys without looking.

Neither of these products, the digital thermometer nor the X1's touch panel, is solving a problem that really needs solving. It makes me wonder about other high-tech products on the horizon, like the iWatch. I am hesitant to go against any new Apple product because they have shown again and again that there are huge markets for what they come up with, even if the market didn't exist before the product, but I'm still skeptical of the iWatch's usefulness. The tablet and smart phone market has shown that bigger screens are almost universally more desirable. The tiny screen size of a smart watch will severely limit what can be done with it. I'm going to have to see some seriously compelling use cases before trading in my much-loved Timex.

The lesson here (the iWatch's unproven success notwithstanding) is that when designing a product, think about the essence of the product that will make it useful. What was wrong with the way it was done before that can be improved? What problem is this high-tech gadget solving? If redesigning something with the latest tech doesn't significantly improve it, why do it at all?

A digital thermometer that reports temperature to a tenth of a degree both inside and out doesn't give me any more information about whether or not to put on a sweater when going outside. A touch panel with modes instead of dedicated keys doesn't help me type and interact with the computer any faster. It actually slows me down, degrading the primary usefulness of a keyboard. If you need a high-tech feature to make a product significantly better, then by all means, design it in. If you're adding in high-tech features just because they seem shiny and new, think long and hard about what you're doing because you could be wrecking the essence of your product. Sometimes low-tech is better.