The 5 worst cell phone designs of all time

July 21, 2010: 10:07 AM ET

Though critics made a bloodsport out of bashing the iPhone 4, these fatally-flawed offenders serve as reminders that good design is hard to come by.

Four short weeks since it crashed Apple and AT&T's servers, the iPhone 4 has broken records, surpassed analyst expectations and invoked the kind of ire and controversy usually reserved for political elections. Just as quickly, Apple's once-sterling reputation for cutting-edge design became a potential liability.

But as critics and users fussed over "antennagate," beating their chests over fickle steel-band antennae, many of us were quick to forget that where cell phone flaws are concerned, there are, quite frankly, worse things out there. Way worse, in fact. Over the years, manufacturers have released phones so irrefutably flawed, so haphazardly designed, that Apple's latest smart phone entry appears downright ideal.

Here are five of the most egregious offenders.

Nokia N-Gage

In 2003, Nokia (NOKBF) launched the N-Gage, a hybrid device that tried to bridge the gap between mobile entertainment and communication by being both pocket-sized gaming device and cell phone. Unfortunately for Nokia, the N-Gage wasn't particularly good at being either. Though it featured graphics comparable to Nintendo's successful Game Boy Advance, it was hampered by high pricing, a poor selection of games at launch and a 20-plus button layout that proved confusing and uncomfortable for gaming. As for cell usage, some outlets -- Fortune, included -- compared making phone calls on it to holding a taco to your ear.

Samsung Bang & Olufsen Serenata

This lovechild of Samsung and Bang & Olufsen sold for $2,000 in 2007 and sported a slick-looking design that defied logic. The Serenata chucked the conventional QWERTY keyboard, software keypad, and numerical key concepts entirely in lieu of an iPod-like wheel you rotated to dial numbers, text message, and navigate the user interface, effectively kicking users back to the days of the rotary dial.

Also contrary to conventional design, the wheel was positioned above a small 2.24-inch LCD, so inevitably, users' hands covered the screen and partially obstructed view while they 'wheeled' around. And to add insult to injury, the Serenata completely lacked a camera. So while audio fidelity via the integrated speaker may have been top-notch – we'd expect nothing less from the Danish audio company -- there was very little else to recommend the Serenata.

Vertu Signature Cobra

By far the priciest of the bunch is also unequivocally the most outrageous. In 2006, British luxury handset maker Vertu and French jewelry, watch and perfume-maker Boucheron puts their heads together and  emerged with the Signature Cobra, a 190-gram phone whose most prominent (read: garish) feature was a bejeweled cobra -- two diamonds, two emeralds for eyes and 349 rubies -- wound tightly around a handset with an antiquated 1.9-inch 262,000-color TFT screen.

Like Samsung and Bang & Olufsen's Serenata, it too lacked any type of digital camera. In the end, only eight Signature Cobra units were created and sold for $310,000, however Vertu followed up with a more "frugal" edition, the Signature Python, priced to move at $115,000 with a limited run of 26 pieces.

Siemens Xelibri

In 2003, Siemens released the Xelibri collection, a series of eight distinct phone designs aimed at the sartorially-conscious technorati. Where many handsets might emphasize utility over aesthetics – or try balancing the two design elements – the Xelibri phones clearly placed style over substance.

Trouble was that sense of style was seriously questionable. Supposedly, several phones in the line were inspired by the Star Trek franchise, and while that influence is self-evident, we doubt Captain Kirk -- or anyone else -- would be caught with one of these.

Apparently, contemporary mobile users agreed. During its two-year run, Siemens sold 780,000 Xelibri phones, accounting for less than 2% of the company's overall total mobile device sales during that period, before they were finally discontinued.

Nokia X5-01

Marketed towards social media-loving teens in the way Microsoft (MSFT) promoted its now-defunct Kin, many of this squared-off slider's features simply don't hold up upon closer inspection. In an age where 4.3-inch cell phone screens are fast becoming the norm, the X5-01's 2.36-inch non-touch screen seems downright quaint. The "gesture recognition" strikes us as pure gimmick: shake the unit, and unread messages pop onscreen. Spin it to jump to a random music track. Any phone that encourages users to do either on a regular basis sounds like trouble. Says Google 24/7 blog editor Seth Weintraub: "It makes the Microsoft Kin look like a beauty pageant winner."

Join the Conversation
About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

Email JP
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.