Pretty Vacant

I HAD AN EPIPHANY of sorts last week when I was doing lab measurements for our review of the Creative ZiiSound D5x. Pretty as the product is, it took me about 45 minutes to get it to mate with Creative’s supplied USB Bluetooth dongle. Then it took me another 30 minutes to get it to mate with the DSx subwoofer. In the latter case, I’m still not sure what I did right — it just suddenly started working.

That’s one hour and 15 minutes, exceeding my personal one-hour rule for networked or wireless electronics. To wit, if I can’t get it working in an hour it goes back to the store.

It’s not like I’m some kind of idiot when it comes to Bluetooth. I’ve tried around 25 Bluetooth speakers, headphones and headsets, and it never took more than a couple of minutes to mate any of them with my phone or computer. Michael Berk, who wrote the review, encountered similar problems with the ZiiSound D5x.

The problem lies in the fact that when Creative designed the ZiiSound D5x, its primary goal seems to have been to make the product as sleek as possible. To accomplish this, the company removed all the visible buttons from the front and top. There’s just one little power button on the back.

That’s not to say there are no buttons. You just can’t see them, and you can barely feel them. Look at the accompanying shot of the D5x’s front. There are actually two buttons there — right under where it says Connect and Link — but they’re built into the panel. Unfortunately, they’re buttons for mating with the Bluetooth dongle, the DSx and other D5xs, and you have to hold them down for several seconds. There’s nothing to indicate you’re making contact until a few seconds later, when some lights blink at you to signal. . . well, something or other. You’ll have to look in the manual to see what blinking every two seconds vs. blinking continuously means. And by the time you find that, the device has given up on you and switched itself back to playback mode.

Invisible, touch-sensitive buttons can be well implemented. For an example, you need travel only a few inches, to the top of the D5x. There you’ll find a touch-sensitive volume control. Touch it, swipe your finger forward, and the volume increases. You quickly figure out this is a volume control because the lights under it show the level, and they’re always on. I figured this part out in seconds without consulting a manual.

Along with perhaps every other tech journalist, I believe these sleek, buttonless control panels are a result of companies trying to copy Apple, whose iPhone and iPad prove it’s possible to design nearly buttonless interfaces that work better than a bunch of buttons. But for better or worse, only Apple is Apple. I don’t know what goes on inside the company compound at One Infinite Loop, but I’m confident that millions of dollars and millions of man-hours are devoted to the development of those super-simple, totally intuitive interfaces. Most audio companies lack the resources (and, probably, the ability) to accomplish what Apple has done, and they shouldn’t try.

So what was my epiphany? It occurred to me that consumers never said, “We don’t want buttons.” Consumers said, “We want stuff that’s easy to use,” and it just so happens Apple accomplished this by getting rid of the buttons. Audio and video companies should stop trying to copy Apple and focus solely on trying to make their products easy to use. Consumers will love them for it.