It Takes a "Special" Kind of Stupid To Screw Up Volume Controls

My laptop's pretty awesome. It has volume and brightness controls built right into the keyboard. Convenient! It even remembers my volume/brightness settings when I turn it off and reboot. Isn't modern technology awesome?

It makes me wonder what improvements we might see in the future. Hey, let's brainstorm on that...Hmm...

Ohh! It's nice that the volume and brightness settings are restored at some point during the boot, but what if the OS set it right at the start of boot? Actually, no, what if there was some clever high-tech feature, probably in the BIOS, that restored those settings the moment you powered on. That way, it would always work correctly for all boot-up sounds from the OS, for any OS, and maybe even for the BIOS's own startup sound! (They're actual audio clips now, not just the PC beeper!)

Heh, now this is actually getting really crazy, but what if you could actually adjust the volume (or screen brightness) while the computer was off? Yea, I know, seems weird because it's not going to play sounds or display anything while it's off, but think about it: You turn it off and it saves the volume level. Then suppose you move into a loud room, or a quiet library, and don't want to forget to adjust the volume when you turn your device back on. You don't want to race to the volume control before an overly-loud startup sound, do you? Or some other sound after boot? Of course not! So imagine you could adjust the volume, and then turn your device back on at your leisure, confident your volume setting is appropriate.

But of course, that's silly. How are you going to adjust a setting on your computer when the computer's off? That would take ridiculously advanced technology, if it's even possible. But hey, a few decades ago, motion-sensing doors and handheld videophones were science fiction, so who knows?

Let's go further down this science fiction route. What if not only could you adjust the volume at any time and have it always work no matter what...but you could also look at any time, even if it's off, and see what it's set at. Naturally, this would involve some sort of facial recognition and eye-tracking tech - one that used very little energy.

Another thing: Have you ever found the volume or other settings on a device to be too...rigid? That is to say, ever wanted a setting in between a couple values? Like on, say, the iPhone. But no, rigid Mr. Robot computer won't let you. It's like it's saying, "Bzzt! Value... Must... Be... Integer... From... Zero... To... Sixteen... Bzzt!" See, our world is...fluid, non-discrete. Humans are non-binary, non-rigid. Why should our listening and viewing be forced to be our own technology? It should work our way!

So, what if we could have any in-between value we wanted? Not only that, but adjusting it should be natural. Fluid. A lot, or a little, to whatever value we wanted. All intuitively. Someone would need to design a groundbreaking interface for it. I guess Microsoft's usability lab could take a stab at it, but it's too bad Steve Jobs is gone. He would have come up with the perfect design without even thinking about it!

Ohh! And what if it were visceral! Imagine if we could feel our adjustments! What are we, living in a numb, detached world? Heh, yea, sure, we could probably have technology that about fifty or a hundred more years!

Even if it's only a future-looking pipe dream, this would all be a fantastically clean, clever design, wouldn't it? Essentially, the volume and brightness controls would always work, no matter what, and always as expected! You could feel it! You could see it! Always! You could adjust it like a touching, feeling, human, not like a numb, unfeeling, binary-based machine. It's such a brilliantly clean and "user-centric" design, I'm amazed the undisputed genius designer Steve Jobs never thought of it! Of course, being the genius that he was, I'm sure he did think of it, but obviously so much of it requires so much advanced technology that we just don't have, that he was unable to realize that dream just yet. Quite a pity, really.

*Cough*, ahem...

Volume Walkman
Volume Cassette
Volume GBA
(click to enlarge)
Those last two don't have a visual indication, but that's easily solved with a half drop of white paint.

Welcome to the future: Where technology regresses.

Including these dials would only cost, what, about a few cents per unit? But no, designs have to be "high tech", regardless of whether they're actually intelligent.

"But a physical dial would be separate from the OS volume and confuse people!"

A poor excuse. First of all, you'd have to be a moron to have trouble with that anyway. And secondly, the obvious solution is for the OS to support an option of "Disable Software Master Volume Control - Assume The User is Adjusting Speaker Volume Directly". There. Non-problem trivially solved.

"But the size...!"

What about it? How fucking tiny do you need everything to be? Show of hands: How many of you over 40 can actually use the tiny iPhone for much more than basic calls? I'm only 30 with 20/20 eyesight, and even I find it too damn small. Damn thing could use a little more size. (And hell, it wouldn't be much more size anyway.)

"The cost! Across all hundreds of millions of devices made, that's millions of dollars!"

Yea. Every corporate-whore's favorite strawman. So, smart-ass, how much do they spend on all the production runs of the entire device? While we're at it, how much to the board members get in take-home pay? Yea, thought so. This is a drop in the bucket.

"But the on-screen display!"

Hah! Wait..seriously? You actually care about that?

Speaking of dumb volume controls, take a look at my fantastic laptop:

Easy Laptop Volume
(click to enlarge)

Yep, something as basic and trivial as adjusting the speaker volume involves a two-key combination spread out at opposite corners of the keyboard. Brilliant. I wonder how they could have made it less convenient.

Hey, look! A rabbit hole!

Depressingly, this still isn't the bottom of the barrel for moronic volume designs. As usual, to find truly retarded ideas, we have to venture into Apple-land.

In Steve Jobs' LSD-drenched fantasy world, it was apparently simpler to have to adjust the volume twice rather than once, in two vaguely separated contexts (It wouldn't be a true Jobs design without excessive modality, now would it?) Here's what our Almighty Benevolent Design God has decreed to be "Good Design"; echoed of course, by hordes of drooling hipster-disciples:

  • You need quiet, so you reach down and decrease your phone's volume. Somebody calls or texts you, and your still-loud ringer echoes throughout the building. Surprise! It only changed the app volume! Wasn't that clever and helpful!
  • You need quiet, so you reach down and decrease your phone's volume. You go to use some program - watch a video quietly, type, etc. - and the sound echoes throughout the building. Surprise! It only changed the ringer volume! Wasn't that clever and helpful!
  • You're expecting an important call, so you turn the volume up. You miss the call. Surprise! It only changed the app volume! Wasn't that clever and helpful, too!
  • You reach into your pocket, adjust the volume, and later release it didn't adjust a damn thing at all because it was on the lock screen. How incredibly useful - volume buttons that only sometimes work!
  • You decide "Fuck this shit, I'm adjusting your volume, period." You proceed to fiddle around with the damn thing just to make sure your volume setting actually works. Thanks, Apple! What a slick, well-thought-out device!

Don't give me crap about looking to see if the word "ringer" appears onscreen. That's retarded on multiple levels. Just a few examples:

  • Why should anyone have to babysit the screen to make sure the volume button actually did its fucking job?
  • How often is it even useful to adjust the ringer and app volume separately? Not often.
  • Bottom line, when non-brain-damaged people hit the volume buttons on a device, the expectation is that it...(surprise!)...changes the fucking volume! Period. Not "Changes the volume of whatever subset of sounds the device feels like adjusting, if the device even decides to obey you at all."

Believe it or not, I'm actually oversimplifying the behavior of the iPhone's volume. There's plenty of other fun little bugsfeatures, too. Like, if you're on the home screen, what gets adjusted? Answer: It depends! It's not always the ringer! Also, the ringer can't be silenced with "Volume Down" (but other sounds can!) And there's yet more volume abominations! I'll leave you to discover them on your own.

Here's the really bizarre twist: All of this would have been perfectly acceptable, maybe even helpful in certain specific circumstances, if it had been optional. That's what really gets me. Apparently, this whole "iPhone volume" issue is some big controversy (though I can't imagine why anyone would be on the "likes it" side). But what both sides appear to be too stupid to realize is the whole conflict disappears completely with one...tiny...little...checkbox.

But of course, that was never a possibility, because user customization and empowerment go against everything Apple stands for. Don't forget: Your iPhone was never your iPhone - you only paid Apple for the (temporary) privilege of using it.

Go figure, "Big bad M$" actually got that design right in Windows 7: Volume adjustments are system-wide by default, and then you can individually control each app's volumes if you choose to - and all scaled appropriately according to the master volume. Eat your heart out, $teve Jobs.

UPDATE (2012-07-14): Seriously: Reach down into your pocket and adjust your iPhone's volume with its volume buttons. Guess what? It didn't change a fucking thing. At all. Now try this: Pull it out, press home or power to get the screen on. Now try the volume buttons... They still don't fucking work.

That's right, you have to unlock your phone to change any of it's million separate volume levels.

iTard: "That's so they don't accidentally get pushed in your pocket!"

That's what "hold" switches are for. (Or use a slightly recessed dial that has some stiffness - those actually work out very well, especially since they're so damn easy to change back in the surprisingly rare case they actually do get moved.)

iTard: "But adding a hold switch would make the phone less simple and straightforward!"

What in the world is so simple and straightforward about volume buttons that DON'T FUCKING WORK?!

3 comments for "It Takes a "Special" Kind of Stupid To Screw Up Volume Controls"

  1. (Guest) guest
    2014-12-05 15:11

    Dude, between this and your Python rant, you are my new hero.

  2. (Guest) guest
    2015-12-11 09:55

    To this day, this is still incredibly relevant. 10/10 on the article.

  3. (Guest) Andy Q
    2016-02-11 18:08

    Yep. Don't get me started on the idiocy of interface design, without anyone nearby to hit that frustration is just going to increase my blood pressure.

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