Electronic Design

Using Your Own Products Can Yield Some New Solutions

Flying to Dallas on my way to the Texas Instruments Developer Conference in February, I was reminded of the importance of using the products you design. This is much easier with consumer products, but hands-on experience is often the only way to see the advantages or flaws of a particular design choice.

I have been using Samsung’s Q1B and iGo’s Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard for a number of months now, finding clear pros and cons along the way (see the figure). The combination has significant advantages in tight spaces like airplanes, especially since my large frame takes up a bit of space.

Writing articles while flying with the latest laptops that Penton Media has decided to give its editors is nearly impossible unless you can hunt and peck with a keyboard in your gut or you have the luxury of flying first class. Unfortunately, neither works for me. On the plus side for Penton, it now gets a little more work out of me while I’m crossing the country. The advantages of a more compact design tend to be obvious.

The disadvantages—and solutions to those disadvantages— aren’t always as easy to find unless you use the products for an extended period of time.

One of the biggest problems that needs to be addressed, image control and zooming, is common with cell phones. Apple’s iPhone provides good image control and zooming, but given its screen size, its available options are limited.

Such options are significantly greater on devices that provide more screen real estate, such as the Q1B and other ultramobile PCs (UMPCs). While the iPhone typically needs the whole display for data, the Q1B has enough space for decorations, i.e., controls.

Making these decorations on the Q1B too large, though, takes space away from the content that you’re trying to view. Likewise, the screen is too small to show more than one or two items, such as articles, at a time. In fact, viewing Web pages with numerous columns tends to be tedious at best.

I want more control over what is being presented. I also want the ability to zoom and orient the display at will, which is key because flipping from portrait to landscape is physically trivial. Furthermore, it should be automatic or require a couple of screen taps instead of the time-consuming process it currently uses. This is true of all of the UMPCs I have looked at.

How should this work? Let’s take viewing an article on a Web page as an example, starting with a full view of the Web pages on the screen. In this case, the layout of the page would be easy to see, but the details would be impossible to read because most of the text would be tiny. The obvious way to address the issue is to tap a control and then tap the article to be viewed and have it fill the screen.

The problem with current Web sites and browsers is that presentation and layout are inherent in the Web page design, and there is no clue to the logical relationship of something like an article embedded within the page. This problem was apparent to me when viewing Slashdot recently.

Slashdot has moved to a control panel that remains in the upper left corner even as you scroll through a list of articles or comments. It uses a minor amount of space on a standard LCD screen but a sizable chunk on the portrait view of the Q1B.

As it turns out, this problem is similar to viewing content in general, such as viewing a full-page PDF on anything but a very large screen. It can be done, but navigation is a chore. It boils down to the fact that the user is not in control and the system is not trying to make things easier for the user.

I would expect the UMPC market to make a sizable dent in the portable computer industry if this particular nuisance can be better addressed. But for this discussion, the regular use of the system presented the problem and the solution.

Of course, playing with the actual product isn’t always required or practical. On the other hand, a simulation may be. Check out the Embedded in Electronic Design section (p. 55, 56) in this issue for more on simulation technology.

Meanwhile, it’s time to do some reading. The Q1B does this best in portrait mode using HTML with the decorations stripped away so it flows, whereas PDF files do not. Here’s to hoping that someone addresses this problem for me and all of the other UMPC users.

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