Tom Thumb Thingies: Mini-Gadgets For The Modern Consumer

by Marjorie Dorfman

Why are gadgets getting smaller and smaller and more and more expensive? How do manufacturers manage to get all those nuts and bolts into those tiny, tiny cases? Are they (manufacturers, not cases) the descendants of those people who used to put those small ships in those tiny bottles? Read on for some tall news, no matter what your stature in the community.

There can be no question that if Mr.Charles Stratton, aka Tom Thumb, were alive today that he would find a world to match his tiny stature and his fingertips everywhere around him. He would probably get a kick out of the not so subtle irony that people are larger than they ever were in his lifetime, and at the same time gadgets for every day life are shrinking! But when is teensy too tiny and vice versa? One consumer found the answer with a teeney-weeney sub-notebook from the Japanese market called the Sony Vaio U1. The keyboard on the 1.8 pound computer was too small for his jumbo Texan fingers (a land where, I hear, everything is big).

According to David Morgenstern, author of the article, When Is Tiny Too Teeney? "the upside of miniaturization ought to be more features and longer battery life in a package that doesn’t sacrifice the user interface… But until people get smaller…there will be a time where small becomes too small." But as in all things, there are not only two sides to this story but as many sides as there are consumers.

One problem with a too-small keyboard is the issue of how easy it is accidentally press the cap key, thus rendering a line of text in capitals and wasting precious time. Some have said that even with a normal size keyboard, the caps lock key needs to be removed to insure optimum functioning, and the fact that there is a connector for an external keyboard is evidence of this problem. Consumer Robert Plas says that "the only thing that makes such ultra-small computers usable is the availabilty of a low-cost docking station. You plug in your tiny machine and can use it as a normal PC. You only have to use the small keyboard and screen in case of an emergency…Then your PC becomes, in effect, an organizer."

Another consumer, Catherine Rahal, who claims to have very small hands and to not hail from Texas, has had much trouble with cell phones. She owns a miniscule Samsung and says "the screen is quite wonderful, blue-lit and very easy to see, but the damn keys are soooo close together."

For those whose work keeps them outdoors, tiny computers can fill a valuable need. That’s only true, however, if the screen is readable in full sunlight, which usually is not the case. Surveyors, foresters and other enthusiasts still await the computer that can sit beside the sunshine that sits upon their shoulders. (For those not in the know, listen to John Denver’s famous song for futher reference on this most pleasant of occurences.)

The Mac Mini computer claims to be "smaller than most packs of gum" and weighs less than 4 quarters." Actually, according to Jorge Lopez’s article, The Emperor’s New Computer, the Mini actually measures 6.5 inches x6.5 x 2inches, more akin to the size of about 50 packs of gum (or two large sandwiches). Its weight is more like three pounds. (A mere error of judgment. They were probably thinking silver bars, not quarters.) Its sleek look (like all sleek looks) comes at a price, including no PCI slots, keyboard, mouse or floppy disk drive. (Talk about no-frills.) For $499, the bargain is no bargain, considering that one could buy all the basics for half the price! This is not to mention the added cost of the fundamentals needed for operation which bring the mini price up to a maxi $1,600.

What is the future for computer interfaces? According to Lynwood Hines, "consumer devices can continue to shrink if we eliminate the need for physical interfaces. A heads-up display built into your glasses could accept display transmissions from a tiny computer…which could use a projected keyboard, which is just a laser light projected on a flat surface and you type on it….But the larger issue is a social one. Think about how annoying it is when a couple of people sitting next to you are talking on their cell phones. How annoying would it be to have those people talking to their computers?…Plus, on the flip side, …what if you need to work on a document for your business that contains sensitive information? Do you really want to blather it out for all to hear?"

The Mini IPod is a whole different story (or a horse of another color, depending on which part of the country you come from). It can manage 1,000 songs on 4GB of space and plays up to 18 hours on a single battery charge. It comes equipped with earbud headphones, belt clip, USB 2.0 cable, CD-ROM with iTunes for Mac and Windows, electronic documentation and a getting started guide. It is smaller than most cell phones and extremely well designed. It has a very "intuitive" interface, which has won awards for its touch wheel and minimal buttons. It’s also available in many colors, to accommodate the needs of the more neon- afflicted among us. Its screen is excellent for its size and everything about it is designed to perfection (or at least as close to it as any manufacturer can hope to get).

The IPod buttons are all under the wheel. The mini Click Wheel, complete with color-coordinated icons, takes best advantage of the space alloted, and permits scrolling through up to 1,500 songs. Behind the Click Wheel, awaits the convenience of listening to music while falling asleep and waking up with either music or an alarm. It also has storage space for all kinds of lists and written material. What other alarm clock can do that?

Despite its many fine features, there are, alas two sides to this product and the other is not so hot. The battery is internal and cannot be easily replaced. (Of course, one could look on the bright side. At least there’s no need to worry about losing it!) The colors are gaudy as hinted above, except for the silver. Like those blessed with bladder problems, owners of Ipods must always be near a facility (computer, that is). It’s either that or pay extra for the wall charger, which used to be included in the package but is no longer.

The repercussions to this phenomenon can only be speculated. If things get much smaller, they will become invisible. Will there come a turn around when manufacturers go in the opposite direction? If things get bigger again, there could be just as many problems as there were before. Can you imagine a computer the size of a piano? It could be practical as the battery would probably last for a lifetime and it would be difficult to misplace such a large object. For Tom Thumb, however, the world would still hold new wonders for which he could only have a small perspective. Still, he would probably chuckle at what we have done to ourselves. Does anyone out there know where I can find a cell phone for my pet flea who needs to call home whenever the traveling circus is in town?

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2005