Yesterday, on the first day of CES, the world’s definitive gadget trade show, the product announcements were flowing thick. What the commenters ignored, however, were the basic question of whose stuff looked the best. That’s a glaring omission, given how most people shop. But to judge by what we’ve seen from the big makers like Panasonic, Sony, and LG, Samsung gets the award for best overall design.
Let’s be clear: Superlative industrial design still manages to elude the big consumer electronics manufacturers (with the obvious exception of Apple). Getting product design and technology right at the same time often seem like mutually exclusive goals; Bang & Olufsen gear often looks great, but the price points don’t justify the performance, while Panasonic and LG, though they make excellent products, always err on the side of blandness. Samsung stands out. This year, their signature line of LCD TV’s looks much improved—with clean lines and a mix of textures, rather than the the cheap-o, glossy all-black look and the tendency towards pointlessly rounded edges. Their Blu-Ray players are slick—including a wall-mounted number (seen above) that would look right as the rearview mirror in the next Batmobile. The electronics company’s new home theater system continues the ominous, monolithic theme (in a good way).
Obviously, all of this stuff hews to the familiar 2001-obelisk School of Design. That’s still a general shortcoming of almost all Asian electronics makers (and it was what presented Apple with such an easy point of differentiation). Why doesn’t anyone break from the pack, like Apple did? One guess: The risk involved in looking like an oddball. Witness the first-generation brown Zune, which the brand will never shake off. Meanwhile, Sony still seems lost. Take this MP3-player docking sound system. At the drawing board, it would be hard to out-ugly, even if you drank 15 Redbull-vodkas and consulted a pack of teens reeking of Axe bodyspray: