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Google Pixel 4 and 4 XL Full Review: One Step Forward, One Step Back






  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $799-999

Pixel 4 on top of the Pixel 4 XL
Cameron Summerson

I’ve been using the Pixel 4 for a couple of weeks now, and there are a couple of certainties: it has the best camera I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, and it has the worst battery life I’ve seen in years. It’s also more than just those two things.

Here’s What We Like

  • Insanely good cameras
  • Beautiful display
  • Face Unlock is fast and fluid
  • The best Android experience
  • The “new” Google Assistant is powerful, smart, and useful

And What We Don’t

  • Average-at-best battery life
  • Motion Sense is still sort of gimmicky
  • Using PINs in apps that don’t support Face Unlock (most) feels like a huge step backward
  • Smooth Display isn’t nearly as cool as it could be
  • Face Unlock still isn’t as secure as it could be

Those are likely two details you’ve seen noted across the board—from review to review, post to post, everyone is either talking about how great the camera is (and oh man, it is) or how terrible the battery life is. And while those things are true, there’s more to this phone than just the high and low.

The thing is, this could be the best phone Google has ever released. Unfortunately, it has the dark cloud hanging over it right now (battery life), which overshadows all the great things about the phone.

As a whole package, it’s an incredible piece of hardware. It’s forward-thinking and proactive, which is more than I can say for the last generation Pixel, which was a “me too” phone and nothing more.

The Pixel 4 is decidedly fresh. It’s a good phone because of what it is, not what it’s trying to be.

The Radar is Neat, but Not All That Useful (Yet)

The Pixel 4’s flagship feature (outside of the camera, of course) is the new radar chip embedded into the upper bezel—it’s the entire reason the phone has a bezel. So thank you, radar chip, for getting rid of the “bathtub” notch on this generation of Pixel phone.

The top of the Pixel 4 XL, where the radar is
The bezel houses the radar and dot projector for Face Unlock. Cameron Summerson

But you may be asking yourself, “okay, why do I want a radar chip in my phone?” The blunt answer, at least for now, is that you probably don’t. But the tech is promising and very efficient, so it’s off to a good start.

For now, the radar has only a few functions: to wake your phone up when you get near it, change songs, and snooze alarms. Google officially calls these features Motion Sense. In my experience so far, they’re hit-or-miss.

For example, the music track controls are just sort of a novelty. You wave your hand above the device to change the song—it works for both going forward and backward in your tracklist—but I honestly can’t think of many scenarios when that’s useful (I’m sure that are some, though).

The only time(s?) I’ve used Motion Sense to change music tracks, it was done accidentally. So yeah, it can be more annoying than useful. On the upside, you can disable this if you want (yay!).

The Motion Sense menu on the Pixel 4 XL
Cameron Summerson

The other uses for Motion Sense, however, are more, erm, useful. When the phone is ringing, and you reach to pick it up, the ringer gets quiet. When your alarm is going off, and you grab the phone to silence it, it gets quiet. These are excellent quality-of-life features that I really dig. If I already know my alarm is going off or my phone is ringing, there’s no need for it to keep blaring at full volume, so this makes good use of the radar’s proximity detection. I love it.

But there’s another huge benefit of the radar: its aid with Face Unlock. Before you ever pick the phone up, the radar detects your hand coming toward it, which wakes the device. That, in turn, enables the 3D dot projector that starts scanning for your face. And that’s all before you even pick the phone up!

Most of the time, the phone was unlocked and ready to go before I was ready to look at it. It’s kind of nuts—in a good way.

Face Unlock Is Legit, but There’s Room for Improvement

If you’ve used any iPhone over the last couple of years, then you already know what Face Unlock is all about on the Pixel 4—it’s basically a clone of Face ID. Instead of using your fingerprint to authenticate that you are, well, you, it uses your face. Because only you look like you! Unless you have a clone, in which case he/she/they also look like you. Just don’t let them have your phone.

Face unlock on the Pixel 4 XL
unlock ur phone with ur face Cameron Summerson

But I digress. Just like Face ID, Face Unlock is neat. You pick your phone up, which activates the dot projector, verifies your face, and unlocks. It even bypasses the lock screen so you can do stuff faster. It’s good.

If you’re not into bypassing the lock screen, though, you can turn it off—but I don’t recommend it. Why? Because apps are slow as hell to load from the lock screen. It’s so much faster to skip the lock screen with your pretty-little face, then pull down the shade to get to the notification you’re after.

There’s also the question of security with Face Unlock. It’s not that it’s insecure exactly, but rather that it’s not as secure as it could (and should) be.

With Face ID, there’s a setting called “Require Attention” that requires you to look at the phone before it unlocks. Because, theoretically, someone could grab your phone and put it in front of your face while you’re sleeping (or otherwise unconscious) and unlock it. The issue with Face Unlock is that it doesn’t have such a feature, which makes it less secure.

The good news is that Google is working on the feature. The bad news is that it won’t be available until “the coming months,” which honestly makes no sense. There’s a feature already on the Pixel 4 that uses the front-facing camera to keep the display awake while you’re looking at it. Isn’t that the same thing? Why can’t this just be enabled on the lock screen too?

There’s also another big issue with Face Unlock, at least for now: app support.

An app being unlocked with Face Unlock
More apps need this. Cameron Summerson

Right now, I can use my face to unlock nearly any secure app I want on my iPhone—Simple, LastPass, Chase, etc. But on the Pixel 4, it only works with a handful of apps, most of which I don’t even use (and you probably don’t either). At the time of writing, LastPass is the only app I regularly use that supports Face Unlock.

Quite frankly, that sucks. I mentioned it in my initial impressions of the phone, but it bears repeating: going back to having to input a password or PIN to log in is a significant step backward. So while Face Unlock is a step forward in terms of technology and potential usefulness, right now, it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

That said, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. The old biometric verification API has been deprecated, and all app developers will be required to support the new BiometricPrompt API starting on November 1st. This API is used for all biometric verification, including Face Unlock, so we’ll hopefully start to see an influx of apps that support Face Unlock in the very near future. Hopefully.

And when that happens, Face Unlock will undoubtedly be great. There’s nothing quite like just looking at your phone to authenticate your login experience for secure apps. I’ve been doing it on my iPhone for over a year, yet somehow it still feels like some next-level feature. The future is now, y’all.

The Display is Gorgeous, but “Smooth Display” Isn’t All That Great

Directly below all the fancy radar and Face Unlock gadgetry is arguably one of the phone’s best features: the display. And it’s great. But let’s be real here—this is the year two-thousand-and-nineteen and the Pixel 4 is a flagship phone. Flagship phones should have flagship displays. So it’s no surprise that the P4 XL’s display is gorgeous—an “A+” rating from DisplayMate, in fact. You now, if you care about that sort of stuff.

Pixel 4 XL
You can’t tell from the picture, but that display is pretty smooth Cameron Summerson

Aside from being an incredibly attractive display, it also has another neat trick up its sleeve in Smooth Display. This is what Google is calling the phone’s 90 Hz refresh rate, which is something that I’ve grown to love on recent OnePlus phones like the 7 Pro and 7T.

But here’s the thing: not all 90 Hz display options are created equal. Compared to OnePlus’ 90 Hz displays, I can barely tell when Smooth Display is even enabled on the Pixel 4.

A big part of that is because of how 90 Hz is handled on the Pixel 4. Instead of just being, you know, on like it is on OnePlus phones, it’s toggled on the fly. This depends on a variety of factors, like which app is running and the screen brightness, which honestly makes Smooth Display a barely-there feature.

This has gotten better thanks to an update that Google pushed while I was working on this review, which enables the 90 Hz display in more situations. I noticed a 16 percent jump in the amount of time 90 Hz was enabled over the first 24 hours, which is a good sign.

Still, the decision to limit when 90 Hz is used and when it’s not, has to do with battery life since the higher refresh rate does use more battery (and the Pixel 4 can use all the help it can get when it comes to battery life).

All that said, there is an option in Developer Settings to force 90 Hz in all apps, all the time. I tested that out for a day or so to see if it made a difference, and yeah—it definitely makes a difference. Everything is buttery smooth, but there’s also the unfortunate side effect of making not-great battery life even worse. Ugh.

At Least the Hardware is Sexy…

When I first saw the Pixel 4 (you know, in the dozens of leaks leading up to the phone’s official announcement), I was very off-put by the design—that big ol’ camera block on the back was little more than an eyesore. Fast-forward to today, and my feelings are very different.

Pixel 4 on top of the Pixel 4 XL
Cameron Summerson

After having the phone for upwards of two weeks, I’ve grown to absolutely love the aesthetic. It’s so much better in person than in official pictures. The Clearly White and Oh So Orange models use an absolutely beautiful soft-touch matte glass for the back, which is one of my favorite materials I’ve ever seen on a phone before. It doesn’t hold fingerprints, and it just looks really clean. So subtle and classy.

The black model, on the other hand, doesn’t share this smooth touch, matte back. It uses more traditional glass, so it’s a glossy fingerprint magnet. That’s a real shame because a matte black back would look so damn good next to the glossy camera square. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

The back of the black Pixel 4 XL
It’s so damn shiny ugh Cameron Summerson

Around the outside of the phone is a matte black aluminum frame, which really looks fantastic on all versions of the phone. Again, if the black model had a matte back instead of glossy, it would be even cleaner, but it is what it is. But the matte black next to the matte white on the Clearly White unit is just so classy.

Finally, there’s the little pop of color on the power button. All models have a uniquely-colored power button, which is also something that I thought I would hate. But I’ve gotten used to it, and I kind of like the whimsy it adds to the phone. I’m not really a whimsical sort of guy, but I appreciate that little bit of playfulness.

…And the Performance Won’t Leave You Wanting…

The Pixel 4 and 4 XL have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, which is fast and fluid enough for any application you could possibly want on a smartphone. I have zero complaints about its performance and what the phone is capable of.

One thing I was slightly concerned about, however, is the RAM situation. I’ve been using phones with 8+ gigabytes of RAM for over a year now, so the Pixel 4’s 6 GBs had me wondering if I’d notice or not. So, have I? To put it, plainly: maybe.

Most of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference, but there was the occasional hiccup with certain apps. For example, I use AccuBattery to accurately gauge battery drain (and where it’s coming from) on every phone I review. It runs in the background and monitors what’s happening on the phone. I’ve never had an issue with it before, but on the Pixel 4 I got “task killer” errors—the app was having a hard time doing its thing because something kept killing it.

But of course, I don’t use a task killer. That means the phone was killing the app, even after I removed it from the battery optimization list. The thing is, I can’t be sure if it’s the limited RAM or just overly-aggressive task management on Android’s part. Would this still happen if the phone had 8 GB of RAM? Or is 6 GB fine, and Android just needs to calm the hell down when it comes to killing off background tasks? Hard to say, really.

Aside from that one little issue, though, the Pixel 4’s performance is solid. Top-notch. Stellar. It’s fine, even.

…But the Battery Might

Here we are, at the point that where I want to tell you that the claims of the Pixel 4’s terrible battery life have been exaggerated. Like, I really want to be able to say that.

But I can’t. The battery life is just poor, especially on the small model.

Pixel 4 on the battery screen
Cameron Summerson

And it’s not just a “man I wish this thing would go for two days without needing a charge!” non-issue. It’s a real issue. Like, it’s 3:00 PM, better put my phone on charge bad. I forgot what battery anxiety is until now bad.

And really, that’s what the headline of this review is all about: between having to input PINs or passwords to log into apps and the terrible battery life, it feels like the old days of Android while simultaneously offering futuristic features that allow you control your phone by waving your hands around. Seriously, it’s so disjointed. Is this what happens when the past and future collide? I think so.

The biggest thing here is that the PIN and password thing can (and will!) be fixed in the future. More and more apps will support Face Unlock for secure authentication, and eventually, it will be as ubiquitous as fingerprint login is now. But the battery? That’s a different story altogether.

Really, it doesn’t feel like there’s anything Google can do to fix this—the battery in the Pixel 4 is just too damn small. But there’s a bright side: battery life on the XL model is noticeably better (but still average).

I was able to get my hands on an XL after about a week and a half with the smaller Pixel 4, and it was like a breath of fresh air. It’s still not what I’d call “great,” but it’s damn sure better than the little one. It’s serviceable. At the very least, I don’t have battery anxiety with the larger model.

Pixel 4 XL on the battery screen
Battery life is better on the XL. Cameron Summerson

It’s also worth pointing out that early battery life reports are often skewed because of Adaptive Battery. This feature “learns” how you use your phone to optimize the battery life, and that process takes a couple of weeks at a minimum.

In my time with both the Pixel 4 and 4 XL, I did see battery life improvements after the first two weeks, though I wouldn’t call them significant. Marginal improvements are still improvements though, so I’ll take it. If you get a Pixel and are disappointed in the battery life initially, give it some time—it’ll get better, even if only slightly.

So, about the “hard numbers.” Like I said earlier, I use Accubattery on every device I review. It keeps historical data on the phone’s battery status: charge and discharge times, which apps are eating the most battery, average usage, time in deep sleep…all the good metrics one needs to monitor the battery.

But also like I said earlier, Android kept killing it. That means I didn’t get any of the data that I usually rely on for reviews. So here’s what I can tell you: on average, I’d guess I got about four and a half hours (or so) of screen-on-time with the XL, and perhaps about three and a half to four out of the smaller model. And that’s really pushing it.

Idle battery life isn’t great on either model—as you can see from the image above, the Pixel 4 XL shows that a full charge lasts about 21 hours and 30 minutes. That’s…not great.

In a world where my iPhone XR is still sitting at 56 percent with more than four hours of screen on time, there’s no reason why we should accept having to hit the charger after just a few hours of use. It’s definitely the lowest of low spots for the Pixel 4, and something that I think will be a major dealbreaker for a lot of people.

So here’s the bottom line on battery life: if this is something you care about, get the bigger phone, and you should at least be satisfied. It’s the only way to go.

The Camera is Unreal

If the battery is the low point of the phone, the camera is the high point. It’s phenomenal, and honestly the biggest redeemer of the entire package. Because if you want the best camera, you can get in a smartphone, this is it—Deep Fusion be damned.

Pixel 4's camera bump
A first I hated it, then I liked it. Like a Sour Patch Kid. Cameron Summerson

That’s what makes it so hard to hate the Pixel 4 (not that I want to hate it—I want to love it) because the camera is just so impressive it begs you to take the handset with you and snapshots of…everything. Between the killer Night Sight and astrophotography features, the computationally-enhanced 8x zoom, dual exposure controls, and absolute simplicity of just pointing-and-shooting when you don’t want to mess with any of that crap, this camera will blow your mind.

In fact, I took almost every picture in this review with the Pixel camera—all the pictures of the XL model (the black one) were taken with the smaller Pixel 4, and all pictures of the Pixel 4 (the white one) were taken with the XL. So while you were reading this, you were also judging camera quality without even knowing it. Surprise! The one exception is, of course, the shots with both together, which was taken with…a different phone. Can you guess which one?

But I digress—all past Pixels had great cameras. But I think the Pixel 4 is the biggest leap we’ve seen yet in image quality. The computational photography gains here are more apparent than any phone before it.

 Sample shot with the Pixel 4's main camera Sample shot with the Pixel 4's telephoto lens Sample shot with the Pixel 4 at 8xAn example of the Pixel 4’s zoom capabilities: 1x, 2x, and 8x.

The Pixel 4 is the first Google phone with multiple rear cameras, too. It has a 12.2 MP primary shooter alongside a 16 MP telephoto lens for zoom shots. Transitioning between the two cameras is seamless, which is different than most other Android phones.

For example, when you double-tap the display to 2x zoom, it automatically transitions to the telephoto lens, which happens to be right at 2x. Additional zooming stays on the telephoto lens; then computational photography takes over to make the 8x zoom look not like crap. It’s all pretty neat, and once you figure out that you don’t have to switch lenses at all, super intuitive. I imagine it’ll be a simple transition for users who aren’t used to multi-lens devices.

Astrophotography mode.
Shot with Night Sight.

As good as the camera is, however, there’s a bit of a dark cloud looming: the Pixel 4 doesn’t get unlimited photo storage at full resolution like past Pixel phones have. That was a big selling point for a lot of users, as they could store unlimited pictures in their Google Photos account without any modification to the source files.

Tiny colorful Christmas Trees
I shot this in the middle of a department store with crummy department store lighting. No edits. Look at those colors! Cameron Summerson

But with Pixel 4, that’s gone. You can still upload photos at original quality, of course, but now they’ll take up space in your Google Drive. Alternatively, you can use the same “high quality” storage option that all Photos users get, which uses Google’s compression tools to shrink the size. You get free unlimited storage with this option.

Night Sight with Astrophotography Mode on the Pixel 4
Night Sight with Astrophotography Mode Cameron Summerson

A lot of users are upset about the change, which makes sense, but to be honest, I can’t tell a huge difference (if I can even tell one at all) between an original image and Google’s compressed image. So honestly, I think this is fine overall—it is one less perk you get for buying a Pixel though, which hurts. I get it.

The New Assistant is Smarter and Dumber at the Same Time

The Pixel 4 has a new version of Google Assistant, and it’s great. It’s more intuitive, more conversational, and less intrusive on the screen. You can ask it what the weather is, then ask it to share that with your spouse, and it understands what “that” is. It’s very cool.

The new Google Assistant AI
The new Assistant AI is minimal. Cameron Summerson

But you can go deeper than that. You can ask it to open Twitter. You can ask it to show you Jimmy Butler on Twitter. You can ask it to show you photos from a specific place—-want to see pictures from Orlando? Ask. What about Disney World? Ask. Magic Kingdom? Yep—ask. This new, more powerful Assistant is better, faster, stronger than ever before. It’s awesome.

But—and this is a big but for some people—it doesn’t work if there’s a GSuite account on your phone. It doesn’t even have to be the main account, either. If you have a GSuite account signed in on the phone, the new Assistant won’t work. It’ll default back to the old one. And man, that’s just annoying.

Of course, if you don’t use GSuite, it’s no big deal! But if you do (and a lot of people do for work), it’s stupid. What’s worse is that it isn’t clear what this is even an issue—Google just says it won’t work. It will eventually, but that eventuality isn’t now.

The Onboard AI is Smarter, Too

Google Assistant isn’t the only AI that got an upgrade on the Pixel 4, either—there are several other AI-based tools that offer small quality-of-life improvements.

For example, the new Recorder app takes voice transcription to the next level. It records and transcribes audio, so you can save all recordings and easily search for specific text later. If you find yourself recording conversations, lectures, interviews, etc. often, then it’s a killer tool. And best of all: it works offline.

Recorder screenshot on the Pixel 4Recorder screenshot on the Pixel 4

Everything the Recorder app needs to process human language is right there on the phone, so it doesn’t need a constant connection to the internet to understand you. That’s also why the new Assistant is so much faster.

Along the same lines as Recorder is a similar kind of feature called Live Caption. This is a system-wide feature that transcribes audio on the fly. So, if you’re watching a video and enable Live Caption, it will automatically transcribe all spoken word from the video and show it on the screen. The best part is that it’s crazy-accurate, too. I was very impressed while I was playing with it. While this is a cool feature to use when you can’t listen to a video you’re watching, it’s game-changer for any user who is hard of hearing.

Also new to the Pixel 4 is the Safety app—an app that is capable of detecting a car crash, asking if you’re okay, and even automatically calling 911 for you. That’s some next-level detection if it’s accurate, but it’s super cool. Your phone could literally save your life.

Car crash detection on the Pixel 4The Safety app on the Pixel 4

Safety does more than just detect crashes, though—it also holds your medical info and allows you to specify contacts to share a message with in case of an emergency. The main page of the app has a big “Start message” button that, when tapped, generates a quick message that reads, “I’m in an emergency. Here’s my location.” In just two quick taps, it lets important people in your life know something is wrong, and where you are so they can send help. That’s great.

Finally, there’s the Call Screening feature. While this Pixel-exclusive feature isn’t new, it’s still worth talking about, because, man, it’s so cool. Basically, when you get a call, you have three options: answer, deny, or screen.

When you choose to screen the call, an Assistant-like voice answers, telling the caller that you’re using a screening service provided by Google. The caller can then tell you why they’re calling—something you can listen in on in realtime, of course—and then you can choose to answer if you want. Once you’ve used Call Screening, it’s hard to go back to a phone without it.

Conclusion: The Best Pixel with the Worst Battery

Pixel 4 in white
Man, that white. So good. Cameron Summerson

It seems like every year, there’s a launch issue with Pixel phones. This year, it’s the battery, which is a real shame. Because other than the average-at-best battery life, this is the best Pixel I’ve ever used. The camera is better than ever, the interface is great (gesture navigation, especially now that it works with third-party launchers like Nova, is a high point in the new interface), the body is sleek and ultra-sexy…it’s just a damn good phone.

And really, I’m not sure you should let the battery dissuade you from at least considering the Pixel 4 for your next phone. Like I said in the battery section, if you do get one, I suggest the XL model since it does get better battery life, but if you’re dead set on the smaller model, just go into it knowing that the battery isn’t great. Carry a portable charger, keep wireless chargers around, whatever—just be ready for it.

Because if you can get past the battery issues, you’re going to love this phone. Everything else about it is nothing short of amazing.

Rating: 8/10

Price: $799-999

Here’s What We Like

  • Insanely good cameras
  • Beautiful display
  • Face Unlock is fast and fluid
  • The best Android experience
  • The “new” Google Assistant is powerful, smart, and useful

And What We Don’t

  • Average-at-best battery life
  • Motion Sense is still sort of gimmicky
  • Using PINs in apps that don’t support Face Unlock (most) feels like a huge step backward
  • Smooth Display isn’t nearly as cool as it could be
  • Face Unlock still isn’t as secure as it could be
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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked…



How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked but still airworthy. It was a symbol of American ingenuity, held aloft by four engines, bristling with a dozen machine guns.

Imagine being a pilot of that mighty plane. You know your primary enemy—the Germans and Japanese in your gunsights. But you have another enemy that you can’t see, and it strikes at the most baffling times. Say you’re easing in for another routine landing. You reach down to deploy your landing gear. Suddenly, you hear the scream of metal tearing into the tarmac. You’re rag-dolling around the cockpit while your plane skitters across the runway. A thought flickers across your mind about the gunners below and the other crew: “Whatever has happened to them now, it’s my fault.” When your plane finally lurches to a halt, you wonder to yourself: “How on earth did my plane just crash when everything was going fine? What have I done?”

For all the triumph of America’s new planes and tanks during World War II, a silent reaper stalked the battlefield: accidental deaths and mysterious crashes that no amount of training ever seemed to fix. And it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Air Force finally resolved to figure out what had happened.

To do that, the Air Force called upon a young psychologist at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Paul Fitts was a handsome man with a soft Tennessee drawl, analytically minded but with a shiny wave of Brylcreemed hair, Elvis-like, which projected a certain suave nonconformity. Decades later, he’d become known as one of the Air Force’s great minds, the person tasked with hardest, weirdest problems—such as figuring out why people saw UFOs.

For now though, he was still trying to make his name with a newly minted PhD in experimental psychology. Having an advanced degree in psychology was still a novelty; with that novelty came a certain authority. Fitts was supposed to know how people think. But his true talent is to realize that he doesn’t.

Adapted from User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Buy on Amazon.

Courtesy of MCD

When the thousands of reports about plane crashes landed on Fitts’s desk, he could have easily looked at them and concluded that they were all the pilot’s fault—that these fools should have never been flying at all. That conclusion would have been in keeping with the times. The original incident reports themselves would typically say “pilot error,” and for decades no more explanation was needed. This was, in fact, the cutting edge of psychology at the time. Because so many new draftees were flooding into the armed forces, psychologists had begun to devise aptitude tests that would find the perfect job for every soldier. If a plane crashed, the prevailing assumption was: That person should not have been flying the plane. Or perhaps they should have simply been better trained. It was their fault.

But as Fitts pored over the Air Force’s crash data, he realized that if “accident prone” pilots really were the cause, there would be randomness in what went wrong in the cockpit. These kinds of people would get hung on anything they operated. It was in their nature to take risks, to let their minds wander while landing a plane. But Fitts didn’t see noise; he saw a pattern. And when he went to talk to the people involved about what actually happened, they told of how confused and terrified they’d been, how little they understood in the seconds when death seemed certain.

The examples slid back and forth on a scale of tragedy to tragicomic: pilots who slammed their planes into the ground after misreading a dial; pilots who fell from the sky never knowing which direction was up; the pilots of B-17s who came in for smooth landings and yet somehow never deployed their landing gear. And others still, who got trapped in a maze of absurdity, like the one who, having jumped into a brand-new plane during a bombing raid by the Japanese, found the instruments completely rearranged. Sweaty with stress, unable to think of anything else to do, he simply ran the plane up and down the runway until the attack ended.

Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes. Faced with the prospect of soldiers losing their lives to poorly designed machinery, they invented a new paradigm for viewing human behavior. That paradigm lies behind the user-friendly world that we live in every day. They realized that it was absurd to train people to operate a machine and assume they would act perfectly under perfect conditions.

Instead, designing better machines meant figuring how people acted without thinking, in the fog of everyday life, which might never be perfect. You couldn’t assume humans to be perfectly rational sponges for training. You had to take them as they were: distracted, confused, irrational under duress. Only by imagining them at their most limited could you design machines that wouldn’t fail them.

This new paradigm took root slowly at first. But by 1984—four decades after Chapanis and Fitts conducted their first studies—Apple was touting a computer for the rest of us in one of its first print ads for the Macintosh: “On a particularly bright day in Cupertino, California, some particularly bright engineers had a particularly bright idea: Since computers are so smart, wouldn’t it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers? So it was that those very engineers worked long days and nights and a few legal holidays, teaching silicon chips all about people. How they make mistakes and change their minds. How they refer to file folders and save old phone numbers. How they labor for their livelihoods, and doodle in their spare time.” (Emphasis mine.) And that easy-to-digest language molded the smartphones and seamless technology we live with today.

Along the long and winding path to a user-friendly world, Fitts and Chapanis laid the most important brick. They realized that as much as humans might learn, they would always be prone to err—and they inevitably brought presuppositions about how things should work to everything they used. This wasn’t something you could teach of existence. In some sense, our limitations and preconceptions are what it means to be human—and only by understanding those presumptions could you design a better world.

Today, this paradigm shift has produced trillions in economic value. We now presume that apps that reorder the entire economy should require no instruction manual at all; some of the most advanced computers ever made now come with only cursory instructions that say little more than “turn it on.” This is one of the great achievements of the last century of technological progress, with a place right alongside GPS, Arpanet, and the personal computer itself.

It’s also an achievement that remains unappreciated because we assume this is the way things should be. But with the assumption that even new technologies need absolutely no explaining comes a dark side: When new gadgets make assumptions about how we behave, they force unseen choices upon us. They don’t merely defer to our desires. They shape them.

User friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts; it relies on our patterns. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior. And today, our behavior is being shaped and molded in ways both magical and mystifying, precisely because it happens so seamlessly.

I got a taste of this seductive, user-friendly magic recently, when I went to Miami to tour a full-scale replica of Carnival Cruise’s so-called Ocean Medallion experience. I began my tour in a fake living room, with two of the best-looking project staffers pretending to be husband and wife, showing me how the whole thing was supposed to go.

Using the app, you could reserve all your activities way before you boarded the ship. And once on board, all you needed was to carry was a disk the size of a quarter; using that, any one of the 4,000 touchscreens on the ship could beam you personalized information, such which way you needed to go for your next reservation. The experience recalled not just scenes from Her and Minority Report, but computer-science manifestos from the late 1980s that imagined a suite of gadgets that would adapt to who you are, morphing to your needs in the moment.

Behind the curtains, in the makeshift workspace, a giant whiteboard wall was covered with a sprawling map of all the inputs that flow into some 100 different algorithms that crunch every bit of a passenger’s preference behavior to create something called the “Personal Genome.” If Jessica from Dayton wanted sunscreen and a mai tai, she could order them on her phone, and a steward would deliver them in person, anywhere across the sprawling ship.

The server would greet Jessica by name, and maybe ask if she was excited about her kitesurfing lesson. Over dinner, if Jessica wanted to plan an excursion with friends, she could pull up her phone and get recommendations based on the overlapping tastes of the people she was sitting with. If only some people like fitness and others love history, then maybe they’ll all like a walking tour of the market at the next port.

Jessica’s Personal Genome would be recalculated three times a second by 100 different algorithms using millions of data points that encompassed nearly anything she did on the ship: How long she lingered on a recommendation for a sightseeing tour; the options that she didn’t linger on at all; how long she’d actually spent in various parts of the ship; and what’s nearby at that very moment or happening soon. If, while in her room, she had watched one of Carnival’s slickly produced travel shows and seen something about a market tour at one her ports of call, she’d later get a recommendation for that exact same tour when the time was right. “Social engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,” one of the executives giving me the tour said.


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It was like having a right-click for the real world. Standing on the mocked-up sundeck, knowing that whatever I wanted would find me, and that whatever I might want would find its way either onto the app or the screens that lit up around the cruise ship as I walked around, it wasn’t hard to see how many other businesses might try to do the same thing. In the era following World War II, the idea that designers could make the world easier to understand was a breakthrough.

But today, “I understand what I should do” has become “I don’t need to think at all.” For businesses, intuitiveness has now become mandatory, because there are fortunes to be made by making things just a tad more frictionless. “One way to view this is creating this kind of frictionless experience is an option. Another way to look at it is that there’s no choice,” said John Padgett, the Carnival executive who had shepherded the Ocean Medallion to life. “For millennials, value is important. But hassle is more important, because the era they’ve grow up in. It’s table stakes. You have to be hassle-free to get them to participate.”

By that logic, the real world was getting to be disappointing when compared with the frictionless ease of this increasingly virtual world. Taken as a whole, Carnival’s vision for seamless customer service that can anticipate your every whim was like an Uber for everything, powered by Netflix recommendations for meatspace. And these are in fact the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, perfectly tailored, with no edges between one place and the next. Padgett described this as a “market of one,” in which everything you saw would be only the thing you want.

The Market of One suggests to me a break point in the very idea of user friendliness. When Chapanis and Fitts were laying the seeds of the user-friendly world, they had to find the principles that underlie how we expect the world to behave. They had to preach the idea that products built on our assumptions about how things should work would eventually make even the most complex things easy to understand.

Steve Jobs’ dream of a “bicycle for the mind”—a universal tool that might expand the reach of anyone—has arrived. High technology has made our lives easier; made us better at our jobs, and created jobs that never existed before; it has made the people we care about closer to us. But friction also has value: It’s friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want. Friction is the path to introspection. Infinite ease quickly becomes the path of least resistance; it saps our free will, making us submit to someone else’s guess about who we are. We can’t let that pass. We have to become cannier, more critical consumers of the user-friendly world. Otherwise, we risk blundering into more crashes that we’ll only understand after the worst has already happened.

Excerpted from USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 19th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. All rights reserved.

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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!Today’s NewsMeet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truckTesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest…



A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.

Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.

Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!

Today’s News

Meet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truck

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest baby, an all-electric pickup called the Tesla Cybertruck. He demonstrated that it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a scratch, and he also accidentally demonstrated that it can’t take a ball to the window. But behind the showmanship and Elon’s audible disbelief at the onstage mishap is a truck with a 500-mile range and the torque that comes from an electric motor. It represents an important new market expansion for Tesla. Now it just has to actually put the darn thing into production.

1.2 billion records found exposed online in a single server

Hackers have long used stolen personal data to break into accounts and wreak havoc. And a dark web researcher found one data trove sitting exposed on an unsecured server. The 1.2 billion records don’t include passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, but they do contain cell phone numbers, social media profiles, and email addresses—a great start for someone trying to steal your identity.

Fast Fact: 2025

That’s the year NASA expects to launch the first dedicated mission to Europa, where water vapor was recently discovered. The mission to Jupiter’s moon will involve peering beneath Europa’s icy shell for evidence of life.

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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of…



How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of Hinsdale even passed an ordinance that would make it easier for officers to ticket minors caught with the devices. To no avail. And the detectors? Students simply ripped them off the walls.

Ecigarettes, which are easy to conceal and, until recently, came in a dazzling array of sweet, fruity, and dessert flavors, are hugely popular among teenagers. A recent study found that 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers frequently vape. So schools across the country are spending thousands of dollars to outfit their campuses with vaping detectors, only to find that the devices can’t stand up to wily teens and that policing student behavior isn’t the same as permanently changing it.

Like smoke detectors, vape detectors are relatively unintrusive. They don’t even record video or audio—they just register the chemical signature of vaping aerosol, then send an email or text alert to school officials.

Some schools say they’re a useful deterrent. A district in Sparta, New Jersey, started off with two detectors and is planning to install more. Freeman School District in Washington installed detectors a few weeks ago. “They’ve been very effective, and we’re glad we have them,” says superintendent Randy Russell, who noted that the detectors already helped catch one young vaper in the act.

But at Hinsdale, even before the teens subjected them to blunt force trauma, the devices hadn’t lived up to expectations. “By the time we get there the kids are gone,” says Kimm Dever, an administrator at Hinsdale Central. Dever says the devices also went off randomly, and administrators couldn’t tell which kids were vaping and which just happened to be in the bathroom when the devices alerted.

Revere Schools in Bath, Ohio, reported similar problems. Revere spent around $15,000 to install 16 detectors in its middle and high schools at the beginning of the school year. Parents were thrilled, but administrators rarely made it to the bathroom in time to catch the vapers mid-puff. “It was like chasing ghosts,” says Jennifer Reece, a spokesperson for the school district. In theory, school officials could consult footage from hallway cameras to triangulate which students were in the bathroom when the detectors went off. “That also takes up time, and we don’t always have that type of time” Reece says.

Revere bought detectors with grant money from the state Attorney General’s Office. Now, Reece often gets questions from other school districts about the devices. “If they don’t have grant money I don’t know if it’s worth [the cost],” she says.

If vaping has become the cool thing to do among students, then buying vape detectors is the big trend for school districts. Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, which makes the Flysense detector that Revere installed, says the company is fielding about 700 orders a month. “We have more schools coming to us than we know what to do with,” he says. IPVideo, which makes a number of cameras and other gadgets for schools, sells a Halo detector that also claims to distinguish between THC and nicotine vapor. The detectors can integrate with school camera systems so it’s easier for administrators to figure out which students are in the bathroom, and both companies’ detectors cost roughly $1,000 a piece. Flysense charges an additional annual fee.

The sensors are chemical detectors that go off when the levels of certain chemicals in the room change. Most schools say they do sense the vapor and that they’ve caught students because of them. But kids are clever. Some exhale into their backpacks or sleeves, where the aerosol dissipates before wafting up to the detector. Other kids resort to AP physics–level subterfuge. They exhale into the toilet and flush, creating a vacuum that sucks the aerosol into the pipes. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” says Peterson. “There’s no sensing that could ever change the laws of physics.”

The problem is that detectors alone can’t change students’ behavior. It’s important for schools to analyze their goals, says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford who studies teen vaping. Vape detectors might help catch offending kids so they can be punished, she says, but “if the goal is to prevent and stop, vape detectors are not the way to go.”

Peterson agrees and is already getting in on the education angle, offering a #NoVaping package that includes brochures, posters, and suggestions for class presentations.

Between 2017 and 2019, the California Department of Justice distributed more than $12 million to California school districts trying to deter vaping through a number of measures including installing detectors, hiring school resource officers, and running educational programs.

One of those districts was Las Virgenes Unified, which serves around 11,500 students northwest of Los Angeles. In October 2018, Las Virgenes spent half of its grant, some $50,000, to install Flysense detectors at its two high schools and three middle schools. “The technology is good. They work,” says superintendent Dan Stepenosky. But he combines the detectors with other measures. When students are caught vaping, they’re sent to a 90-minute meeting with their parents and an addiction counselor. The school dispatched administrators to nearby gas stations, grocery stores, and convenience stores to remind people not to sell ecigarettes to kids under 21. The school even partners with law enforcement to run sting operations on businesses in the community that sell ecigarettes to minors. So far they’ve conducted over 250 operations complete with undercover officers and marked bills.

But the most important element hasn’t been the sting operations, the crackdowns on local retailers, or the detectors. “The most impactful has been the education piece,” says Stepenosky. The district holds seminars for parents and teachers, and it hired extra deans to focus on student wellness and included information about ecigarettes in school curricula.

These strategies are comprehensive, and they demand a lot of resources. One school in South Dakota raised money from the local community to buy its sensors. Other school districts are suing Juul, blaming the company’s marketing for creating a new generation of nicotine-addicted kids. Those districts hope to get payouts that will alleviate the huge financial burden of running addiction counseling and education programs. Stepenosky received over a million dollars from the California Department of Justice, and he’s already applying for more funding for next year.

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