Roku : Roku 3

Review by Gerry Mayer

The Roku 3 was released in 2014 as a new way to watch TV, providing easy access to several video steaming services without needing a connection to traditional cable TV. The Roku 3 is everything a cable box isn't since it's small, simple, and well designed. Right off the bat, let's talk about the purple logo tags. I think they're genius because not only do they make the brand more tangible and recognizable, but they associate with other tagged objects we own like clothes and luggage. In this way, the Roku 3 feels more personal and familiar, like we already own it. Since the same tag is on both the box and the remote, they also help less tech interested people understand which remote goes with which box in a really easy way. 


Designing a set top box isn't easy because there aren't many tangible functions to design around, all it needs are some ports on the back and a flat bottom. Keeping that in mind, Roku has done a nice job with the form, keeping it similar enough to the competition (Apple TV) to understand what it is, but distinguishing it with tapered sides and a rounded base that gives the Roku 3 a less bulky and friendlier appearance.


Here we get a closer look at the tag and it's interesting to see that the tag has its own hole in the case that the part line dodges around. This is important because it shows that the tag idea was there from the start, where it could have easily been sandwiched between the two case halves as an after thought. In this way, perhaps the tag was considered to be as strong a feature as any other ports on the back. 


On the back we can see that all the ports are arranged at varying center lines. This was clearly a conscious decision to keep the Roku 3 as small and compact as possible instead of arranging the ports in a more visually pleasing way. It's important to point out that this separate back part is given a deeper, mold tech texture which keeps the back surface from looking as scratched since it has to stand up to the metal connectors brushing against it.

The bottom of the case has a rubber sheet fixed to the bottom that helps the very small Roku stay in place despite the pull of heavy attached cords. It was a nice touch to see the debossed FCC and product information, hiding it nicely underneath the box. 


The remote is nice and compact and has a solid, hand friendly form. The layout and number of buttons seems to strike a good balance, not too many, and not too few. Having dedicated steaming service buttons makes the whole streaming process much simpler. The logos do add to the visual noise of the remote and compete with the Roku logo, but it's a fair trade off for ease of use. Also, like the tags, the use of purple helps to highlight the most frequently used and important buttons.

The bottom of the remote control has a nice affordance for the pointer finger, helping to instruct a specific pose for your hand that helps the designers control the experience more tightly to place the buttons according to this pose.

On the side of the remote there are some audio buttons that are specifically used for a headphone jack that lets you listen to the streaming audio right from the controller. It was a nice choice to put these separate elements on the side of the remote instead of adding clutter to the main button layout.

This remote also includes a search by voice feature and these two holes are for microphones in the X/Y configuration. This is nice compared to just having one microphone because it gives a much wider active pattern to speak into. Also, by placing the microphones on the front of the remote instead of at the bottom, there is a familiar, subconscious association with how you'd normally hold and speak into a handheld microphone.


This picture helps to show the button material that was used, either a silicone rubber or gloss hard plastic. This use of hard plastic might be to increase the durability of the most used buttons. This view also shows that the Roku remote can be used as a video game controller when held sideways. 

Under the battery door reveals that both batteries are installed the same direction instead of having to look to see which way each battery goes. I didn't expect this since it's not very common, but this choice shows even more attention to detail. This attention to detail is a common theme seen in the Roku 3. It's a small streaming box packed with clever design choices that gives the person using it a simple to use product that makes several common technology annoyances disappear. 


Panasonic : Auto-Stop Pencil Sharpener

Review by Gerry Mayer


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


Tivoli Audio : Model One BT Table Radio

Review by Gerry Mayer


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.