Hardware Design and the User

A good piece of (computer) hardware shows attention to the user and to user interface design (although not in the software sense). I have had an experience in contrasts of late that show what a difference good hardware engineering can make.

I have been working with the Toshiba Portege M100 laptop, and have found its design to be “interesting” to say the least. The LED lights that describe all of the various details commonly found on the outside cannot easily be seen when the system is in operation: they are pointing towards the ceiling on the top of the open display lid. The mouse buttons are confusing: there is no left/right button – rather, the “right” button is on the bottom and the “left” button is on the top of the two larger buttons. The purpose of the two tiny buttons are unclear.

The batteries and their installation is also an interesting study. The latch to “unlock” the battery is a slider with a locking mechanism in the middle: it is hard to describe. You’ve never seen anything like it, and operating it can be, at least initially, mystifying. There is also no way to determine whether a battery is charged or dead by looking at it.

This machine, the Toshiba Portege M100, can be contrasted with the HP nc4010. Batteries on the nc4010 have a four-LED light display which not only shows the state of the battery, but also provides (for the battery wizards!) an error display (but good luck determining what the error displays are…). The batteries snap into place and are set to go; removing a battery is a matter of moving a spring-loaded latch right next to the battery that shows a battery symbol. The battery symbol is built into the case itself in relief: this prevents the logo from “rubbing off”. Similar symbols can be found for RAM, hard disk, battery #2 (travel battery), and keyboard.

The capability of using a second battery shows foresight on the part of the designers as well: there is no obvious way that the M100 could take a second battery.

Instead of a sliding catch to unlock the top lid like the M100, there is the more commonly seen pushbutton latch. Several LEDs are built into the front edge of the machine – on the corner, so that the displays can be seen both from the top and from the front – that is, these LEDs can be seen easily by the user whether the machine is in operation or not.

Even the logo on the top of the computer itself shows attention (or lack thereof) to detail. The logo on the Portege M100 is only readable to the user (who presumably owns the machine); the HP, like Apple, has their logo large and in the middle and readable to passersby when the machine is open. Apple took this one step further and lit up the logo!

Another common mistake is the port cover on the back of the machine. The Compaq Armada E500, for instance, like so many of its kind, has a large one that goes nearly the entire length of the back of the laptop. Toshiba uses a small one with no obvious way to open it: instead of pulling it down from the top, it is opened by pressing down near the hinge, though there is no description of how to do this on the machine itself.

In all cases, these “latches” or covers will often get broken off and disappear. The HP nc4010 has no cover/latch in the back – thus nothing to break off.

Once again, all ports on the back of HP nc4010 are labeled by labels in relief built directly into the plastic; the Toshiba M100 labels nearly all of them with painted on labeling.

Even the plastic itself shows an attention to detail: the M100 uses a silver-painted white plastic; the nc4010 uses black plastic with no paint. This means that as the machine gets older, the Toshiba M100 will show evidence of the white plastic underneath as the paint is worn away – and the HP shows none of this.

The HP nc4010 is not without its mistakes: there are several painted labels, and there is a PCMCIA insert that can be lost. On the nc4010 the speakers point to away from the listener to the left and to the right – the Compaq Armada E500, though bigger, put them in the front pointing directly up at the listener on the left and right sides.

This sort of engineering can be seen in other areas as well: how hard is it to repair the product, for instance? Many servers – Sun and HP servers in particular – can be easy to maintain. However, consider the Apple laptop: pulling one apart (to replace a hard drive for instance) can require removing 30 or more screws – a definite mistake. Does pulling the system apart require special tools – or any tools at all? Some servers can be maintained, at least in part, without any tools at all – replace PCI cards, install memory, install or replace hard drives – all without tools.

All of this design is not specifically user interface design, but the fundamentals are the same: consider the user, consider what will happen in the future, and consider how the system will be used. In my experience, HP and Compaq have both been excellent in their design engineering.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

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