Apple has just announced the Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s and... it has a big, abrupt hump on the back. That's led to a lot of internet noise about it being bump-ugly and jokes that Industrial Design must have hit the eggnog extra early this year. So what's going on?
Let's start with the assumption that Apple isn't, as a rule, stupid. Maybe that's a bad assumption, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Then, let's speculate about the choices that led to the Smart Battery Case and what the possible alternatives might have been. That way, even if we still disagree with some or all of those choices, we can do it in an informed way. We can hate smart.
Why make an Apple battery case?
There have been third-party battery cases for years, so why would Apple choose now to enter the market?
- There's money that's been left on the table for years by not offering one.
- Apple has and are now willing to spend the resources to do it.
- Brand visibility and integration can potentially achieve more than third-party offerings.
Why not build in more battery?
Theoretically, everyone wants more battery in their phone. Practically, almost nobody would enjoy living with the tradeoffs that more battery requires.
- Batteries are insulators and not radio transparent, so including more cells demands other concessions, like larger sizes to better dissipate heat.
- Which is why Apple already offers an iPhone with a bigger built-in battery—the iPhone 6s plus.
- Which lets people choose between battery and bulk, as does a case—people can put it on when they need it and take it off when they don't.
- Because batteries add more weight than they do power, and lightness translates to usability.
Why a hump?
Once Apple decided to make a battery case, we can look at some existing third-party battery cases and see what trade offs they've made.
- They use hard materials and so, to easily put them on and take them off, they need to break into two pieces.
- They're bulky and often make it harder to pocket the phone.
- They can interfere with cellular signals.
- They don't let you charge the case and the phone at the same time.
- They offer hardware components for checking charge level.
Assuming Apple didn't want to simply replicate an existing product philosophy and case, they could figure out what different trade offs could be made.
- They could use a flexible material that peels on and off and lets them keep a one piece design.
- They could minimize bulk to keep it as pocketable as possible.
- They could mitigate antenna interference as much as possible.
- They could let you charge both the case and the phone at the same time.
- They could offer a software-based way for checking charge level.
So, the Smart Battery Case?
Apple decided to go with as naked a battery as possible, just a cell package, some silicone, a Lightning port and connector, and a light. That allowed them to hide a hinge inside, which makes getting it on and off easy even without breaking it apart.
It also means less material to interfere with radio signals. Add a passive coupled antenna inside the case, and cellular reception is impacted as little as possible.
Likewise, the reduced bulk keeps the overall size as small as possible so you can hold it and fit it in pockets as comfortably as possible.
Because Apple is Apple, they also used a fully featured Lightning pass-through that lets the case and phone charge at the same time, and maintains compatibility with other Lightning accessories like the Dock.
Also, while an amber-to-green light will show status while charging, Apple can also show it on the Lock screen and Notification Center at any time.
But the hump, the humpty-hump?!
In a perfect world there'd be a Smart Battery Case that in perfectly matched the space grey, silver, gold, or rose gold finishes, that doubled or quintupled charge capacity, and that was as thin and elegant as the standard silicone case. But we live in this horrible real world, where physics is a jerk and where every choice made comes with an egregiously equal and opposite opportunity cost.
By prioritizing a minimalist, one-piece design, the Smart Battery Case becomes something of a throwback to the early days of smartphones with their extended battery humps—which, like bell bottoms and big beards, instead of succumbing to extinction are now cycling back around.
You can absolutely hate the way it the Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6s looks and, after you've tried it, hate the way it works too. Or you can love it more than any of the battery packs that have come before.
Personally, I'm waiting until I get one. From some angles it looks okay, from others it looks like Luke with Yoda on his back. In the real world, using it day-in, day-out? We'll see.
The point is to consider the choices and the alternatives and to decide if, in the end, they're better or worse for you. Because that way, unlike the dumb stuff that clogs up the 'net, you can hate or love it smart.
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