Laptops

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Dropped smartphones and laptops - the ultimate design test?

I'm not particularly clumsy or accident-prone but...

Written on VS07 flying to LA and dispatched to silicon.com later the same day from a Venice Beach coffee shop with the most incredibly complex wi-fi password - 08CFE29FF3.

I'm amazed at just how reliable our mobile kit has become. It is not that I am particularly clumsy or accident-prone but I travel a lot and I do get tired.

Now and again I experience that heart-in-mouth moment as my laptop slides off a chair or slips through my fingers and bounces on the floor. I take a lot of precautions and wish I could prevent these lapses but they just seem inevitable.

You might pick up a dent or the odd scratch but for the most part modern kit just bounces

You might pick up a dent or the odd scratch but usually modern kit just bouncesPhoto: Shutterstock

Twenty years ago these accidents were a real show-stopper with screen and hard-drive damage most common. Keys and batteries might also pop out too. Not today. You might pick up a dent or the odd scratch but for the most part our modern kit just bounces.

Needless to say, I change my laptop and mobile phone at about 18-month intervals to avoid any induced catastrophic failure mechanisms, and I also burn in all new equipment for two or three weeks to check for any early failure mechanisms.

I have to say the improvements in resilience, performance, weight and cost that we now enjoy compared with 20 years ago are impressive. But where did the improvements come from? Primarily, we literally lessened the impact of g-force.

Successive cycles of circuit integration and miniaturisation, plus new generations of plastics and ceramics, have realised greater mechanical performance for less weight. All these developments drastically reduce weight and the kinetic energy associated with sudden deceleration.

It all comes down to Newtonian mechanics and (mv2)/2. As mass decreases then so does the impact energy.

My worst incidents have involved my mobile phone bouncing 15m down an airport escalator after flipping out of its holster - no damage. On several occasions my laptop has fallen off the top of my travel bag in elevators and at hotel reception desks - just a small dent.

Some of my colleagues have fared far worse. A common disaster is the laptop in the overhead luggage bin of an aircraft. Badly stowed in the first place, the device shifts position during take-off. Then, in mid-flight, another passenger opens the locker and the laptop drops almost 2m to the floor. Few machines survive this test.

Only once have I felt slightly gratified by such an accident. I was in my usual aisle seat, when a passenger opened an overhead locker directly above my seat. Out fell a laptop, hitting my head and shoulder before bouncing to the floor.

As it came to rest, a damp stain spread across the carpet indicating that the LCD display had been irreversibly damaged. My immediate pain and discomfort was offset by seeing the laptop dead on the floor. I repented my feeling of satisfaction later over a coffee.

So my empirical evidence would say that if you are going to drop your laptop, make sure it is from no more than 1m - but you can get away with almost anything with your mobile phone. And from a practical standpoint, always store your laptop under a seat when flying.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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