Nintendo : Game Boy Model DMG-01

Review by Gerry Mayer

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The first Game Boy, Model DMG-01 from Nintendo was released in 1989 and was Nintendo's first handheld multi-game system evolving from the Game and Watch handheld electronic games. The Game Boy featured some improvements over the Game and Watch handhelds mainly by offering a common, modular platform for different games by making use of both with swappable cartridge based games and a dot matrix screen instead of fixed image graphics. It's chunky build, bright colored buttons and green tinted screen are sure to bring you right back to 1989.

The case of the Game Boy is made of sturdy grey ABS plastic with hand friendly corners and filleted edges. The overall form is mostly plain but the angled and rounded area of the speaker grill gives some nice asymmetry and additional visual interest. It is easy to see that the case is made from two parts that have been injection molded as the part line has been emphasized and been made part of the styling where some aestetic part lines have been added to the top portion near the cartridge.

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A lot of the styling of the case seems to be only aesthetic without a specific function, other then perhaps to make it hard to copy as easily for someone trying to counterfeit the case. One good example of this styling is the three slash detail above the stereo headphone jack. Perhaps they could be used to feel where the headphone port is, but with the large gaps towards the bottom of the headphone jack, it would probably be easier to locate by feeling this feature first. 

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The buttons on the Game Boy add a ton to it's iconic design. Their simple shapes have been nicely color coded by their function creating a restrained color palette of magenta, black, and grey. The black directional pad has been given some interesting surface details, some matte areas for grip and a half sphere indent to help the thumb locate the center. This detail may also be there to take some material thickness away from the thick center stalk below the button to reduce or maybe even build in any sinking that might occur from the injection molding process. The directional pad, A button, and B button are all hard plastic and the less used start and select buttons are a softer rubber that are positioned farther away to reduce the chance of an accidental button presses. The A and B buttons are nicely domed and are comfortably large for a portable console, allowing both buttons to be pressed with the thumb at the same time. The action of the buttons and the directional pad are ok, they are more mushy then snappy and do not give very responsive physical feedback. The directional pad is generally pretty flat which is functional but not as comfortable as it could be. Perhaps rounded corners and more of a cup shape would make it more comfortable.

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The back of the Game Boy gives access to the 4 AA batteries needed to power it as well as the game cartridge. The ridges molded into the back are one of the only examples of functional styling details on the Game Boy, giving your fingers extra grip. Here we can also see the screw holes showing how it is assembled. The product information is debossed into the case plastic, pushing it back in the hierarchy of the information presented, leaving the Nintendo phone number, the serial number, and the game's graphic as prominant elements.

The power switch has a very clever lock to prevent the game cartridge from being accidentally removed while the power is on. This could potentially erase the game's save file. Again these three slashes are molded into the case but the power button is easy to locate and press. The button is rounded and only sticks out enough to easily slide over but wouldn't be accidentally moved if carried in a bag or pocket. This is is also due to how much force is needed to actuate the switch.

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On the right side there are two elements that are placed within reach but not in the way of your fingers. Towards the top is the port for a link cable, allowing some basic multiplayer elements between Game Boys. Below it is a rather chunky volume wheel with sharp teeth that make it easy to turn even though it only barely sticks out from the case. On the opposite side a similar but thinner wheel is used to adjust the screen's contrast for better viewing different lighting environments.

The Game Boy's screen is a 160 x 144 pixel, black and white display with no back light. Beneath the LCD graphical layer there is a reflective film that bounces light from your environment to help to light the screen without using additional power. As many kids of the 90's know, this means that you have to consider your body posture as a second priority to be able to see the game clearly. The screen's gray bezel is very large to help the screen seem bigger and fits the body of the Game Boy more harmoniously then if it were thinner or not present at all. Nintendo added a battery indicator that is always on, until the battery and screen die at the same time. It would have been nice if the light only came on when the batteries were low. Additionally, the battery light and text label aren't centered on the bezel on either axis. It's only useful to tell that the console is powered on in the case that the screen's contrast has been shifted completely to a white screen.

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The Game Boy was a hugely successful product thanks to its quirky, memorable design, simple interface, and portability. This specific model has even spawned a subculture of Game Boy musicians for its easy to modify case and rich bass sound compared to other Game Boy models. This 8 bit music scene called Chiptune is made possible by software called LSDj (Little Sound Dj), released in 2000, that is loaded onto a Game Boy cartridge to program the sounds into a composition. In this way, a Chiptune musician can play them through the sound chip within the Game Boy, playing it like an instrument with familiar 8 bit style songs of the era. This rebirth of the DMG-01 for use as a portable instrument is a really interesting example of how nostalgia, technology, and music can be combined to recycle an old product and make it useful again.

Polaroid : Spectra

Review by Gerry Mayer

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The Polaroid Spectra was one of the last camera models produced by Polaroid and was released in 1986. Since then the OneStep 2 was released in 2017 by Polaroid Originals (formerly The Impossible Project) was the first step in bringing back Polaroid branded film cameras. Like other Polaroid cameras before it, it folds and pops open like a simple version of the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera but is styled like a relative of the Polaroid 600 Impulse AF. Different from the 600 film, the Spectra Film is not a perfectly square frame but has a larger and wider frame comparable to a traditional 35mm photo frame, giving the pictures it produces a more cinematic feel. This camera was targeted to prosumers who wanted to take Polaroid photography to the next level and push the limits of the format. The Spectra had accessories available for law enforcement and dentistry industries as well as macro and creative photography lens effects for photographers. Polaroid made serious photography easy with built in flash, sonar autofocus, access to a large amount of controls, and a sharp lens. 

With the press of a latch on the side, the Spectra folds down in to a more portable form factor. Functionally, this also protects the lenses and sensors from dust and scratches and emotionally, this action of popping open the camera makes the product feel fun, alive, and ready for action. Since Polaroid cameras are powered by a battery in the film pack, the opening of the Polaroid cameras also has the clever purpose of switching the camera on and off so that the film battery isn't drained when the camera is not in use. The angular outer housing, constructed from plastic, stands out formally from other Polaroid models. The simple color palette of black, dark green-gray, with copper accents reads as more refined and serious compared to most Polaroid 600 models.

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The soft velcro adjustable strap along the side of the camera makes holding the camera feel steady when taking a picture. The handle certainly isn't needed but it is something that a professional might appreciate having and adds some additional customization to the camera.

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The single button below the strap used to open and close the camera is nicely molded and helps press back this somewhat stiff latch. The graphical arrow is nicely contrasted with the surrounding black plastic. I can imagine someone who has never used the camera before being able to understand how to use this button and might even be nicely surprised when the camera springs to life. This photo also gives a good side view of the camera, showing its angular form. It's neat how the viewfinder eye piece sticks out from the body and gives a familiar, symbolic camera profile to an otherwise unknown angular object. 

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The top of the Spectra is nicely molded to create two hand grips that are covered with a soft foam like synthetic leather which give it a premium sign value and feel. The radius on the edges of the foam also helps to communicate the softness of this material. The black foam wraps the top of the body closely and catches some dramatic highlights and shadows.

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One shutter button can be found on the top of the Spectra which has been nicely dished to contour to the fingertip. The two step autofocus button is nicely highlighted with the use of copper.

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On the back of the Spectra there are a ton of controls (for a Polaroid camera) which is a nice change from other models that have their controls divided between the front and back. This view shows some of the injection mold seams on the green-gray plastic which isn't great. For the surface you see most, it would have been better if these seams were more hidden, perhaps under the black control panel or on a different face. It would have also been nice to locate the flash on/off switch with the flash charge and flash ready LEDs because then those extra LED labels might not be needed. This would help to clean up the panel a bit more.

The view finder on the Spectra is fantastic for a non-SLR camera, making up for the slight misalignment of the frame by giving a clear LED display of the focus distance calculated by the sonar auto focus.

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Flipping the camera over, reveals a threaded hole for a tripod as well as more soft foam for your thumbs. This foam also keeps the bottom of the Spectra from scratching when places on a surface. The sides of the black plastic piece have a deep chamfer that are comfortable to grip against while at the same time giving the perception of less volume on the bottom of the camera making it feel slightly less boxy. 

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The front of the camera is also packed with sensors. The main one being the sonar auto focus sensor which has also been finished in matching copper. This auto focus works by sending out a high frequency audio chirp that bounces off a surface in front of the camera and tells it how far away to focus. 

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The Spectra is well known for its high quality "Quintic" lens which is a three element plastic lens that has the ability to move internally and auto focus based on the sonar result. The arrangement of the items on the front, though jam packed looks balanced thanks to the cosmetic, wide cutouts around the viewfinder and light meter that are located between the flash and camera lens. The front also reveals the robust thickness of the green-gray plastic shell that nicely matches the boarder around the branding panel.

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To the left of the sensors, a film door release level is revealed only when the Spectra is open. This was a clever hierarchical design choice so that the user doesn't accidentally open the film door and expose the film to light when trying to open the camera. The textured surfacing of the button is consistent with the camera opening button which gives consistent form language that these buttons affect the physical features of the camera.

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Overall, the Spectra is very nicely designed with a sturdy build quality and attention to detail that draws a comparison to the build quality of the SX-70 Land camera. Its form and finish set it apart from the simple to use 600 line into a serious tool for professionals. It appears to draw a bunch of design inspiration from the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter which was introduced to the public just three years prior to the release of the Spectra, well within a reasonable product development cycle for a new Polaroid format camera. This aircraft was so different and novel that maybe it was an inspiration for the angular ID form language of the 80s. This also speaks to the military roots of the Polaroid company that got its roots from developing stereo-image bomber cameras during World War II. Who knows if this is true, just a thought I was having as I wrap this review up! In a lot of ways, the design of the Spectra is likely polarizing, drawing very different opinions from people who see it. This stealthy Polaroid camera doesn't seek attention but delivers fantastic performance.

Panasonic : Auto-Stop Pencil Sharpener

Review by Gerry Mayer

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The Panasonic Auto-Stop pencil sharpener, model number KP-123, is a bold and modern take that challenges the older faux vinyl wood grain applied pencil sharpeners of the past. Though I couldn't nail down the exact release date, based on the form and styling, I'm guessing it was released sometime in the 80's. Unlike most pencil sharpeners that blend to the office or desk environment, this sharpener comes in bright red and bright blue models which demand your attention even when not being used.

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The outer housing is made up of mainly red and black plastic with a glossy finish. The form is boxy but has some friendly filleted corners that evoke Japanese design. The outside styling is perfectly rectangular with only a horizontal belt line that formally divides the top pencil area from the bottom pencil shaving container. The glossy surfaces and rounded corners are perfect at catching the light, letting the pencil sharpener look its best in many different lighting environments, great job ID team! Maybe the red glossy plastic was inspired by the Olivetti Valentine Typewriter where early plastic was used as more of a high end material that took a lot of expertise in chemistry and manufacturing to produce such a nice result.

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Around the back, is a matte grey plastic part with a few visible screw bosses that also hint at its construction (similar to the Tivoli Audio Model One). You can also see how the red housing slides over the grey back with the several millimeter lip that shows the thickness of the red plastic, giving an impression and physical feeling of quality plastic construction.

The surface features on the bottom corners of the grey part seem to be a strange choice, mainly because of the contrasting flat surfaces between the two corners. This jagged surfacing doesn't fit the friendly rounded corners and may look more balanced if the grey part had one continuous surface across the bottom. Perhaps it needed to be flat to incorporate the electrical cord. Overall the back is nicely designed, with embossed monochrome text that doesn't draw too much attention.

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On the bottom, the four rubber feet act like suction cups that work well to keep the sharpener in place on a flat surface. Since they are very flat and don't have much give to them when pressed down, they don't absorb any noise or vibration when running very well. The cord has three cylindrical affordances on the overmold that look like they were designed to help you remove the cord but the cord isn't actually removable. The cord was nicely incorporated into the body of the sharpener with a round, half circle cutout that gives the cord additional strength.

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The black front panel provides a nice contrast to the red body and creates a nice negative space that gives the sharpener an asymmetric quality. I like how the top of the black panel wraps around to the top and sides which give this part an extra perceived thickness. The pencil logo adds a lot of character to the sharpener, its not functionally important but makes it look more fun, interactive, and instructive.

The bottom half of the front panel has a nice cylindrical cut that gives plenty of room for your thumb when removing the pencil shaving container. The container part seems to be made of semi transparent polypropylene which allows this part to be slightly flexible. The container is held in place with two tabs on the sides that pressure fit into notches. This material choice allows the part to flex inwards and easily snap into place. The dark transparent grey color matches the color front panel as closely as possible while still letting the user see if its time to empty the shavings. This color mismatch doesn't add too much contrast in the overall hierarchy of the product. This part is very functional but I wonder if a matching black plastic part with a clear small window to see the amount of shavings along the front would be more resolved.

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A view of the inside reveals the sharpener assembly and also shows how thin the black front panel actually is even though it appears thick from the top and side of the sharpener. The inside also shows that the sharpener is constructed from a continuous red plastic, not a part that was painted red. This choice of not painting it is great because scratches below the surface are less noticeable since there isn't white or black plastic underneath.

The pencil shaving container slides nicely into the sharpener and there was nice attention to detail in getting the part to wrap around the red edge on the bottom of the sharpener.

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This switch turns on the sharpener when a pencil is inserted. It is barely seen because it is nicely camouflaged against the front panel. 

The sharpener does a nice job creating a fine tip and it's also delicate enough for soft colored pencils, a nod to the quality of the sharpening assembly. The thing that mainly drew me towards this sharpener is wider and more shallow form which is different from the longer and thinner pencil sharpeners I'm used to using. This form makes it easy to hold sharpen with the right hand and hold onto the sharpener with the left hand. The form also saves some desk space so you can have it in front of you without taking over too much work space. All of these details create a sharpener that is simple to use, beautifully designed, and looks clean and new no matter how old it actually is. 

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Tivoli Audio : Model One BT Table Radio

Review by Gerry Mayer

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The Tivoli Audio Model One AM/FM radio was designed in 2001 and makes excellent use of very precise, modern radio tuning electronics that are also used in cell phones. Since 2001, the form and function hasn't changed much for the original Model One to this latest Model One BT (Bluetooth) version and thank goodness for that. The simple, clean layout of the front panel is charming and nostalgic. The Model One is a celebration of the radio, giving the user access to some of the best feeling analog controls creating a refined and complete radio listening experience.

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The body of the Model One is a rectangular box with mitered corners, constructed out of walnut veneered MDF. These are very common materials and manufacturing methods that have been tried and tested through the decades of Hifi speaker design. It's clear that careful attention was taken to match the veneer grain pattern on the the corners.

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On the bottom, there are four soft vibration isolating feet that do a great job of eliminating any rattling that other objects on the same table might otherwise produce when next to the Model One at full volume. These feel stuck on which raises the question that maybe there could be a more elegant formal incorporation of these feet into the body. Perhaps this could be done by recessing them and protecting the feet a bit more from peeling off down the line. Also hidden away on the bottom is a sound port that helps the single speaker produce very rich and pleasing sonic profile, a perfect stage for radio hosts with those dulcet bass tones.

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On the back of the radio there are a sea of ports, text, and some more hints at its manufacturing method. The eight screw holes likely go through all the way to the front panel of the radio to attach it in place. This was a nice design choice to hide these screw holes on the back where, outside of this review, they would likely be never seen. One confusing choice was why some text was pad printed in black instead of using more embossed, single color text. Perhaps there some industry regulations requiring text to be in a contrasting color. I could see a redesign where only using black text for the port labels, the Tivoli Audio logo, and model name that might look more elegant. 

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The ample amount of ports is great to see and gives the user a ton of flexibility in how they decide to incorporate the radio into their audio setup. Each port is clearly labeled and the recessed area was a great design choice, adding structural rigidity to this under stress area while allowing the radio to almost be flush against the wall if desired. With several exposed Phillips head screws, it seems like the Model One could be easily repairable and will stick with you for a long time. 

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Turning to the front, the four main elements are very nicely framed within the wood box, with plenty of white space and room around them to add helpful labels without looking too busy. The wood frame protrudes from the front panel by a few millimeters and adds depth and a solid posture to the radio's form. The speaker is the largest element, suggesting that the audio is the most important in the hierarchy of the components. Second being the tuning knob and then the equally sized volume and mode selection rotary switches. The circular and rounded controls contrast nicely with the rectangular form of the radio making these element on the front seem friendly and inviting. The choice of having one speaker for mono audio was made to keep the important visual and symbolic balance between the importance of tactility and sound in this radio. If desired, stereo sound is provided through several different audio port options.

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On the speaker, this rounded theme was continued within the pattern of the grill as well as the elegant radius of the edge that disappears into the front panel. The grill is also rounded out in a subtle dome shape adding more structural rigidity to an otherwise easily bendable material. The choice of a white grill with black holes instead of something like completely black grill helps to shade it in like a comic book and changes the value of the speaker shading so there is a medium contrast between it and the white front panel. In this way, more contrast is given to the knobs drawing the eye towards them.

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The three brown plastic knobs have a tapered cylindrical form with domed tops making them pleasing to touch. The size difference of the tuning knob on the right compared to the volume knob at the top lets the user precisely dial in the correct frequency, where the volume doesn't need to be as precise. Each knob is has buttery smooth action and is mounted very solidly to the radio with no wiggle showing Tivoli Audio's careful attention to manufacturing quality. The volume and mode selection knobs have subtle but helpful rounded rectangle indicators. In contrast, the tuning knob indicators are hard cornered rectangles, making them the only rectangular elements on the front panel, perhaps a tiny missed detail.

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Zooming on the details of the tuning knob reveals some beautifully simple surfacing over the two main parts, the brown knob and the metal indicator ring. There is a smooth fillet on the edge of the knob that gives the it a touch friendly edge as you dial in your radio station. When moving the inner brown knob, metal ring and two indicators move at different rates on the top FM and bottom AM scales. The metal ring is tapered towards the front giving dimension and perceived quality to what is most likely a flat sheet of formed metal. This moving metal indicator ring gives captivating movement to the otherwise static object.

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The two smaller volume and mode select knobs are similar in size but feel different which is a nice affordance used to tell them apart in the dark. The mode select has four positions you can switch between, which also incorporates the power switch for the radio. The volume knob has the same super smooth rotation as the tuning knob. The gap between the volume knob and front panel seems to be larger than than the gap on the mode select switch, another small detail that could be improved in the future

There are two LED indicators on the Model One, a small green one and a larger amber LED below it. The power LED stays on at a consistent brightness and the amber signal strength LED gets brighter as you tune closer to the station and gets dimmer as you tune away. This is a really interesting way of showing the signal strength which gives additional visual feedback in a simple way, compounding with the auditory feedback of static or clear audio. I wonder why the green power LED is smaller then the amber one, maybe if they weren't right next to each other the size different wouldn't be as noticeable, but why not make them both big?

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With a iconic design, tactile controls, flexible playback options, and focus on high quality audio, Tivoli Audio has produced a desirable radio that unites modern day technology and nostalgic, timeless styling that updates and in many cases introduces the analog style radio experience to the current market. Being able to dial into your favorite station is a meaningful tactile experience that isn't found with instant tuning, digital radios that have favorite buttons. Hearing the static is a historically important aspect of radio experience but is also an important sensory experience where the user is rewarded for discovering a clear and pleasant station out from the abundant harsh static. With the current state of electronics, this inclusion of static had to be conscious choice that Tivoli Audio made for their modern radio and this thoughtfulness makes their radio a real treasure for all radio lovers to enjoy.

Teenage Engineering : OP-1 Synthesizer

Review by Gerry Mayer

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The OP-1 is a stunning work of industrial design and is the crown jewel of my humble synthesizer collection. It's also one of my favorite designed objects because each part is beautiful and unique, down to the finest surfacing detail on each knob, key, and switch. The designers poured a lot of love into this tiny synth and it's a joy take it with you on your musical adventures.

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At first glance, the OP-1 first reads as a very simple and clean design where all the smaller parts are made less visually distracting by sticking to an cool light grey color across the outer housing, keys, and knobs. To me, this choice of color does two main things. One is that it sets it apart from the woody, dark, and metallic field of other synthesizer competitors. Another is that it also means that the normally white keyboard keys can use this light grey without having to add a separate color tone to the palette. This lets the other contrasting colors pop and makes the important controls easy to find.

The outer case of the OP-1 is made from rather thick CNC machined aluminum which feels smooth and rock solid. Some surfacing details to note are friendly rounded corners, a debossed Teenage Engineering logo on the back, and a shallow chamfer along the bottom edge that along with four rubber feet help to give it a base shadow, helping it appear to float off the table.

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The four main control knobs have multi-colored tops that match the color of different on screen synth parameters they affect. This clever idea allowed the designers to make use of only four knobs while having the flexibility to sculpt a ton of different sonic characteristics of the synths, drums, effects, and tape by switching the on screen graphic. The physical knobs are hard plastic with a small colored part that appears to snap on this common knob base. The feel of the knobs turning is smooth but precise where fine degree stops provide a quiet but tangible click as you turn them.

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There is one more knob to control the output volume and it has the same lengthwise rounded grip cutout features that elevate the otherwise plain cylindrical form. The choice for a somewhat cylindrical pattern of holes over the speaker was likely a compromise for the durability of the part. I think a rectangular pattern extending out fully to each corner would have appeared more uniform with the rest of the styling. 

All of the ports are neatly arranged on the right side of the OP-1 and the main one that stands out is the red recording jack which is helpful to make sure you plug your headphones into the right audio jack. The inclusion of the label plate on the bottom includes symbols for each item as well as their braille versions which continues the Teenage Engineering's theme of thoughtfulness by making sure the OP-1 was designed everyone to use. Additionally, the strap loop slots on the corners reinforce the idea of portability even if they aren't always used.

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Each button and key on the OP-1 has a very interesting form where the bases are square or rectangular and the tops are circular or rounded rectangles. The square base keeps the modular looking grid styling going from edge to edge, building a top surface from a sum of all of the buttons. These smaller button tops provide affordances that help you feel the notes while playing and prevent accidental button presses. The OP-1 buttons have a familiar feeling press, one that is shared by short throw keyboard style scissor switches. They are very inviting and clicky.

The OP-1 even includes a built in output peaking meter which carefully shows then the output volume is distorting. This simple presentation is extremely handy and visually makes the OP-1 feel more alive.

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The OLED screen is the heart of the OP-1 where each instrument or effect has a clever, animated graphic that's full of personality which brings this beautiful but somewhat sterile looking synthesizer to life. The animations are quirky and fun and while they're not always the most informative, they certainly are memorable. This is clearly a different take on the synthesizer where traditionally the parameters are very technical and describe audio signal processing terms that are not as friendly to a new user. The OP-1 gives you just enough information to tweak and listen to while you play, giving more of a new exploratory experience that is more fun than it is serious. This more organic composing method is super refreshing in the world of synths.  

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Overall, the thing that impresses me most about the OP-1 is the amount of detail and thought behind each part that make up with wonderful experience. You can tell that nothing was rushed during it's development and that the team carefully considered each aspect of its design. In additional to its sturdy construction and use of higher end components, its strongest example of quality is the time it took to thoughtfully design it. Each time you pick up it up the OP-1 you find some new detail that you didn't notice before. To add to this, the team is still committed to the project and keeps improving and adding features to the OP-1 for free, keeping its users engaged and excited to see what new feature Teenage Engineering will come up with next. Any product would be happy to have these attributes and they play to the strengths of this inspiring, little digital synthesizer. 

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