Yesterday we looked at smartphones and in particular how they all look the same. A bar phone is the simplest shape, different manufacturers used different names. Motorola, being American call it a Candy Bar. Sony Ericsson call it a stick. I assume this is because one of the first Sony phones, the CHM-333 was stick shaped. Ironically it was colloquially known as the “Mars Bar” phone because it shared its dimensions with the confectionary, which was very cool in 1993 as phones had been much bigger. When I worked on What Mobile magazine we photographed the phone slid into a Mars Bar wrapper which led to a not particularly sweet letter  from Mars Bar’s lawyers saying they wouldn’t sue if we promised not to do it again and to tip them off if anyone else was calling anything a “Mars Bar” when it wasn’t. Nokia being dry Finns call the design a “monoblock”. This term works a lot better if you say it in a Swedish  accent. But then so does the name of the company. Which used to be Nok ia, as in tapping on an organ of hearing. Now the company is run by Americans it’s No Kia as in the absence of rubbish Korean cars.

Son't first mobile was a consumer electronics landmark

Perhaps the origin of the term "stick" for the shape the CMH-333 was likened to a Mars Bar

I love Candy

There is a good reason why the bar shape is the most popular: it’s the cheapest.  The screen can be mounted on the same printed circuit board as the rest of the components, it’s easy to assemble and very straightforward. If you want to use unskilled labour you can design them to clip together. Using screws is slower and requires a little training. It might only be an hour or so but if it’s a transient workforce that only turns up for a day or so that hour is a significant overhead. Phones that are screwed together are more rigid and so can be smaller and have better fit and finish. Bars also have the advantage that the screen is on display the whole time, so you can read the number of an incoming call and press the hang-up key if you don’t want to talk to the person. One thing which works very well with this is C-Caller (http://www.c-caller.com) which uses the caller identity features of the phone to show the initials of the person calling in very large letters.

C-Caller works well with candy bar phones

 

One of the reasons for the popularity of bar phones is that it’s the shape which was favoured by Nokia.  Senior marketing bod Anssi Vanjoki believed that it was an essential part of the Nokia branding and design language.  With Nokia being substantially the biggest manufacturer in the world they set the benchmark. It’s worth remembering that despite all the iPhone fuss, Nokia still makes a quarter of the phones sold, and sells more than a million a day. The particular strength of Nokia in India means that it’s what a good proportion of the world expects a phone to look like, that brings volume and reduces cost.

The best reason for choosing a bar shaped phone is the big buttons. Other designs cover the buttons up and so they have to present a flat surface.  The bar is the shape which suits buttons with a lot of travel, and with good spacing between the buttons. The phone manufacturer can also make them concave so that the user doesn’t have to be completely accurate in putting their finger on the button to press it. The dish shape will locate the finger for you. You can’t do this on clamshell phones because the thin edges of a concave button would mark the screen of a clamshell when you snapped it shut. Given this it’s surprising that so many manufacturers use convex buttons on their bar phones.

There are downsides to bar phones, the most serious is in-pocket dialling. If the buttons are easy for a person to press it’s easy for the phone to dial numbers automatically, often calling the first person in the phone book. Ask anyone called Adam or Abigail and they will sigh with recognition. Here large buttons can be a negative.  Most bar phones have some kind of keypad lock, either a key combination or a switch on the side of the phone. Often phones can be made to automatically lock the keypad after a number of minutes of not being used, but you still risk the inadvertent dial and the slide switched or key combinations to manually lock a keypad can be fiddly.

The Pansonic KX-TU301 has particularly nice big buttons as does the Beafon S700 where the large buttons are well separated. Doro has phones which not only have big buttons but with very high contrast between the edge of the large button and the case.

 

Beafon S700 in white

This side view of a beafon phone shows how bar shapes are the best ones for button travel

But perhaps the best format for easy to use mobile phones is the clamshell and that is what we will look at tomorrow. Check out yesterday’s posting on smartphones, if you haven’t already.