Hardware and usability, Part 2

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net?cc=htc@us.ibm.com?subject=Hardware and usability, Part 2] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net) Freelance writer 02 Dec 2004

Abstract: The thing about hardware is that its usability failures tend to be obvious; sometimes so much so that you forget how annoying they really are. In this continuation of last month's column, Peter takes on high-decibel cooling fans, proliferating cable nests, and other hardware-related nuisances that too often hide behind the veil of normalcy.

It's been a month and -- what do you know! -- hardware's still obnoxious. This second installment in The cranky user's focus on hardware takes on some of the more practical annoyances of badly designed hardware, including the deafening roar of computer fans and those nasty little cable nests you keep tripping over. The article concludes with a hardware-usability checklist that might just save you a trip to your local computer parts outlet; or a nasty e-mail exchange with the deadbeat vendor du jour.

What's that sound?

Ergonomics people have been saying forever that sound is an important consideration for computer users, but the majority of vendors act like they've never heard of such a thing. The fact is, most computers are really loud, and it's to the detriment of users to put up with it. Take the Mirror Drive Door G4 Macintosh, for example. It was so famously noisy that Apple actually had to offer replacement power supplies and fans for free -- including the cost of shipping. But even with the replacement my G4 is still painfully loud.

Modern computers are so loud because their every capacity is being pushed to its limit. Considerable cooling action is required to maintain the levels of performance that users have come to expect. It's actually pretty interesting to think about how this works, in hardware terms, inside your computer. First of all, a part is just a part. Then it needs a heat sink. Then it needs a cooling fan. This happened to processors first; then graphics cards and motherboards.

A bit of research reveals that quieter fans are possible but they cost more. On the flip side, I've often wondered whether one might make some money by selling quieter systems instead of faster ones. After all, I spend very little time waiting on processors and video cards these days.

My biggest noise disturbance complaint, lately, goes to the miniature, barebones computer I got a while back. It has a custom fan that's not shaped like any other, which ensures that only the manufacturer has replacement parts. Unfortunately for me, it's recently taken to making a horrible whining noise. I'm not sure what it is with me and the fans; they always go bad in the loudest possible way when I'm around.

Not all computer sounds are related to cooling systems. Several of my computers make buzzing or clicking noises through their audio outputs, and my G4 Mac sends a consistent low hum through its main audio outs. The technical term for this is "crosstalk"; some unwanted signal is leaking through the audio wires. The layman's term for this is "unusable for music," so I had to buy a third-party USB audio adapter.

My (now gracefully retired) HP laptop made an unreasonably loud buzzing sound whenever I moved the mouse. No, I don't know why.

The point of all this is that it's unnecessary, it's annoying, and users would probably pay more for a quieter alternative. So, a call to vendors: Please, make quieter systems available. The cooling fan is not actually required to duplicate gale-force winds, you know.

The other night I turned most of my computers off. The silence was deafening.

Cables and other hazards

Cables are another source of perpetual inconvenience. Just about everyone knows the progression: You get the new computer. You set it up. It's beautiful. A week later, you notice a couple of little wires around it. Within a month, it looks like an overgrown raspberry bush.

No one knows where all these cables come from, but suddenly they're everywhere.

Worse than cable nests is cables tied in knots. When the time comes to unplug the mouse you find that the mouse cable has been braided into the audio cable, which is itself now wedded to the printer cable and the power cord. It hasn't happened yet, but I won't be surprised on the day that I find that two of my cables have actually become spliced together. If you run three cables parallel across a two-foot space and go away for a week, they will be perfectly braided upon your return. It's crazy but it works just like single socks and coat hangers do.

When variety hurts

Actually, users probably are to blame for a lot of cable-related mishaps -- but some of them could easily be alleviated by better hardware design. One of the worst cable-design factors is how you have to plug them in blind half the time, usually by reaching around the computer and fumbling for where they go. (Never do this with a power cord, by the way. Trust me, I know better now.)

Given that the blind-fumble is the most common user approach to plugging in a cable, you would think more vendors would design their appliances to match; and some do. Many cables have a right way and a wrong way, which you can sort of fiddle your way into. Monitor cables, for instance, have a definite bulge on one side, which lets you find the correct orientation by feel.

FireWire (aka IEEE 1394) is another cable that got it right:The six-pin FireWire connector is easy to feel out blind, goes in easily, and hot-plugs. It's a wonderful cable. Perhaps the best (and simplest) of the lot is the universal cable: you can't plug it in wrong. The one-eighth-inch plugs used for a lot of audio hardware work like this and they're simply lovely.

The majority of cables are simply a nuisance, however. PS/2 keyboard and mouse cables, for example, have a right orientation but a round outside. You had better be pretty sure of what you're doing before you try to plug one of them in, otherwise you risk bending the pins or shorting the connector. (This style can also work to the vendor's disadvantage, by the way: I'm pretty sure I owe Logitech an apology for a product return I made in 1994; I am now convinced that I plugged in the mouse wrong on a live computer and shorted it out.)

I also really hate it that vendors occasionally change which way is "up" from one machine to another. Even though a vendor may have standardized its connectors -- say, with a square edge on the "up" side of the molded plastic part of the connector -- I still have machines on which that side has to be pointed down to go in. Oops!

On a similar note, USB gets special mention for featuring a cable that is designed to be hot-plugged (so it's at least safe from damage when plugged in incorrectly) but is a perfect rectangle with no external distinguishing features for which side is up. I don't know what they were thinking.

Friction, snaps, or screws?

Keeping cables attached is nearly as difficult as attaching them. Thankfully, cable makers have devised a couple of solutions. USB and FireWire depend only on friction to hold themselves in place, which seems to work reasonably well. Ethernet and telephone cables use snaps. The snaps are consistently very obnoxious. They tend to break off at inopportune moments, or lose tension gradually so that with time they stop working. Finally, serial and video cables often use screws. The gradual evolution of better handles for these screws over the last twenty years has been fascinating to observe: modern monitor cables are a lot easier to connect and disconnect than the cables I struggled with as a kid.

Home maintenance

The majority of computer systems are harder to crack open than a bank vault, which isn't how it should be. The fact is that some tasks do require you to pop the hood on your computer, and it's not right that doing so practically requires a degree in burglary. Installing a new hard drive or additional memory should be as easy as possible; after all, both the user and the vendor stand to profit.

Apple computers are pretty much hit or miss in this area. The Power Mac 9500's design requires you to pretty much disassemble the entire computer to add or remove memory -- and worse, it has sharp edges! The special, customized plastic "drive sled" works to ensure that you can't just put a new drive in the machine. Instead, you have to buy a special custom part to do it. The PCI slots have strange plastic and metal flanges rather than screws to hold cards in, making any attempt to install a card a real challenge. I've broken off two of the plastic tabs trying to get a card seated correctly, and walked away bleeding.

Contrast this with the G4 tower. The side of the case has a handle to pop it open -- no tools required and not even hand-tightened screws to fiddle with. The memory slots are immediately available and the PCI and AGP slots are wide open. The drive bays use standard screw placements and come out of the case easily so you can reach them. The machine will even run with its case open.

The G4 tower probably is probably the easiest computer to upgrade I've seen. Unfortunately, a lot of vendors tend more towards the Power Mac 9500 design philosophy. Custom parts are used to hold things together, sharp edges abound, special tools are needed, and parts are gleefully hidden away from the user. Now, why is that?

Hardware usability checklist

While poor hardware design will probably always be an aggravation, you can do a few things to better maintain your hardware and make the problems that crop up less annoying. The following checklist might make your hardware easier and more pleasant to work with: 1. Clean everything occasionally. Just about every part of a computer will be better off without an eighth of an inch of dust covering it. Mice, trackballs, and keyboards especially benefit from an occasional scrub. Also, the difference between a clean monitor and a dirty one is incredible. Clean a small patch first just to watch grey pixels turn white! 2. If you're custom-building a system, or having one built, get ECC memory. It's worth it. 3. Don't just work around a failing piece of equipment if you can avoid it. It's amazing what users can acclimate to, and also unfortunate. That broken key will ultimately cost you more in subtle annoyance and unnecessary typos than buying a good new keyboard would. 4. Don't always buy the cheapest thing you can find. Quality matters a lot, especially when it comes to user input devices.

In conclusion

The thing to remember about poorly designed hardware is that it's often hiding in plain sight. It's in the little glitches and everyday irritations that you've almost stopped noticing, but which nonetheless do effect the usability of your computer. The worst thing about bad hardware is that it compounds bad software. On the flip side, if you learn to better select and maintain your hardware (and to reject the bad stuff sooner, if not outright), you might find your software more manageable over time, too. Pay more attention to your hardware from now on. The sanity you save may be your own.

This week's action item: Clean out your keyboard. See if you can identify all the substances you find!


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been using computers for years and is gradually becoming acclimated. He still doesn't know why mice need to be cleaned so often, though. You can contact Peter at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net?subject=The cranky user: Hardware and usability, Part 2&cc=htc@us.ibm.com] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.