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Circuit Breaker

At IFA 2016, style trumped specs

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Another of the world’s grand tech exhibitions is now in the books, with Berlin hosting what might have been its most varied and intriguing IFA in years. Like other shows, this one had its oddities, such as LG’s fridge running Windows 10, but what stood out to me was the practicality and immediate emotional appeal of many of the new products on show. With modern technology now mainstream and reaching a plateau of good-enough hardware, companies are spending less time chasing and explaining new specs and more of their effort on humanizing and styling out their latest gear.

This is not a criticism. I think there’s a great deal of substance in style. It is the substance of design.

Lenovo was the consensus winner of IFA 2016 with its all-new Yoga Book, a 10-inch tablet with an attached panel for stylus input that also doubles as a flat keyboard. This peculiar invention ticks all the right boxes by being fundamentally different from everything that has come before, affordable enough to be within reach of most budgets, and superbly designed. That’s the thing about the Yoga Book: you like and enjoy it before you’ve even turned it on. Purely as an object, this new tablet is gorgeous to look at and a pleasure to touch and hold. Internally, it’s running on an unimpressive Atom x5 processor, but this is the tradeoff that Lenovo has chosen, valuing real-world, tactile appeal more highly than synthetic performance.

This was a pattern I saw repeating across the IFA halls, though it was especially prominent in the mobile industry. HTC actually downgraded last year’s One A9 for this year’s One A9s, with the aim of bringing high-end metal unibody design to a midrange price point. Only an hour after the A9s announcement, Huawei superseded it with its own Nova range, which is essentially the P9 flagship family shorn of its most expensive features — though not its aluminum unibody design.

HTC uses a Mediatek Helio P10 chip and Huawei relies on Qualcomm’s mid-range Snapdragon 625 for its performance, but neither company is pushing that as a feature. What you’ll hear from them are words like craftsmanship, minimalism, and refinement.

As all phones start to approach parity in the way that they work, the obvious next step is to make each particular phone feel unique or in some way tailored to its user. Huawei’s other news at IFA was the introduction of dark red and blue colors for the P9. Not to be outdone, Sony introduced the Xperia XZ and X Compact with some utterly gorgeous color options. Good design is no longer an optional extra, whether a company is launching a new flagship or mid-range device. You can get away with shipping an outdated version of Android, but don’t even think about releasing a frumpy phone.

Outside the phone arena, Acer unveiled the world’s thinnest laptop, but only did so in a classy gold styling. Like Lenovo, Acer has gone for a less powerful chip in order to accommodate a more cutting-edge design. Sony also went gold with the aesthetic for its new flagship Walkman, which is one hefty chunk of solid copper covered with a beautiful gold veneer. And Samsung spent an inordinate amount of time during its Gear S3 presentation explaining the intricacies of what makes a great watch — a big part of which was about look and design. The S3 is a powerhouse of a wearable device, but even spec chasers are now conscious of the uniform they wear while racing ahead.

I’m not yet sure how to feel about this newly blossoming deprioritization of specs in consumer technology. Some of these devices that are using lower-power components will run just fine, but others might be hampered by their internal limitations. Ideally, the trends exhibited at IFA will guide us into an era of more rational specs accommodating more alluring design. This has certainly been a fun and exciting show for the future of technology, which looks to be prettier and more stylish than ever.