1707: xkcd Phone 4

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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xkcd Phone 4
The SpaceX system carefully guides falling phones down to the surface, a process which the phones increasingly often survive without exploding.
Title text: The SpaceX system carefully guides falling phones down to the surface, a process which the phones increasingly often survive without exploding.


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This is another entry in the xkcd Phone series (see 1363: xkcd Phone, 1465: xkcd Phone 2 and 1549: XKCD Phone 3), and once again, the comic plays with many standard tech buzzwords to create a phone that sounds impressive but would actually be very impractical.

From the top, going clockwise:

  • 18,000 μAh (micro-Ampere hours) nickel-lithium-iron battery (non-rechargeable) Phone battery capacity is measured in ampere-hours (which thanks to the magic of dimensional analysis, is just an unusual way of denoting electric charge, which equals 3600 Coulombs). Usually, the capacity is quoted in milliampere-hours (one-thousandth, or 10-3, of an ampere hour); however, this one is quoted in microampere-hours (one-millionth, or 10-6, of an ampere-hour), presumably as a marketing ploy to give a more impressive-looking number. Quoted in more standard terms, this phone's battery capacity is 18 mAh. In comparison, an iPhone 6+ has a battery capacity of 2,750 mAh. This phone's battery is dreadful (under a typical current draw of 0.1A, it would power the phone for about 11 minutes). There is nothing normally called a "nickel-lithium-iron battery" - rather, this seems to be a malamanteau of the experimental nickel–lithium battery and the common lithium ion battery (which does not contain any iron) or the lithium-iron-phosphate battery, often called lithium-iron, but more often called the LiFePO battery. The nickel–iron battery may contain lithium hydroxide, but it's terrible for most applications. Worse, this battery is non-rechargeable, meaning that it would have to be replaced to use the phone again after it is exhausted (every 11 minutes, at that!).
    • XKCD Phone 3 was powered by two AA batteries (not included), which have an energy capacity roughly 100 times larger.
    • Many devices have a small second battery which is only used for keeping the clock time. This could be such a battery.
  • Subwoofer - A subwoofer is a large bass speaker, which this is not. Some phones do have high-quality speakers for playing music, but these are not placed right next to the earpiece - this would be a surefire way to deafen your users. When put next to Dog Whistle, this is probably a pun, since both relate to dogs; the sound a dog makes, at least in English is "Woof".
  • "Dog whistle" - A dog whistle is a high-pitched whistle that humans cannot hear, but dogs can. In speaker terminology, a bass speaker is called a woofer because it could reproduce the low pitch of a dog bark. A treble speaker is a tweeter; if this "whistle" is actually a speaker, it might be termed a supertweeter. The scare quotes may be a reference to "dog whistle politics", in which certain phrases have a particular, unpopular, meaning to a segment of the audience.
  • Non-porous, washable - On the one hand, it's rare for a phone to be made of porous materials. On the other, there are legitimately waterproof phones that seal the speakers and ports with rubber.
  • WebMD partnership: cough-activated feature reads aloud a random diagnosis for "coughing" - WebMD is a website to help people diagnose themselves. For the vast majority of people, a cough just means an irritated throat or maybe a cold, but selecting randomly from all WebMD diagnoses gives some much more ominous - if very unlikely - ones, including ricin poisoning, plague, lung cancer and radiation poisoning.
  • Wings - These wings resemble the ones found on sanitary towels (sometimes called "pads", making this a possible iPad pun) which attach the pad to the gusset and keep it in place between the woman's legs during her period (Menstruation cycle). If actually functional as aerodynamic wings, they would likely come into play when the "SpaceX" impact protection feature becomes engaged.
  • Beveled bezel - The bezel is the ring around the edge of watches and screens. This one's beveled, which means it's cut at an angle.
  • Bezeled bevel - Punning on the above. Doesn't make much sense, but could mean that it features a beveled edge which is surrounded by a bezel.
  • Seedless - Fruit such as grapes can be "seedless", which means that they're grown from a special cultivar that doesn't grow seeds in the normal way. Making a phone seedless probably won't do anything, but it might hurt its random number generator.
  • Water resistant down to 30 meters and below 50 - Water resistance is often measured in terms of how deep an object can be submerged, since pressure increases with depth. In this case, the phone can be submerged to almost any depth, but there's an odd lacuna between 30 meters and 50 meters. It also plays with the confusion in describing depths greater than 50m as "below 50". Alternatively, this might indicate the phone must remain dry above 50 meters altitude.
  • Turing-complete - A computer is Turing complete if it can perform all the operations needed to simulate a Turing machine. All modern computers are usually described as Turing complete, which would make this not very impressive, but no computer can ever be Turing complete in the truest sense (since they can only ever have a finite amount of memory) - if the xkcd Phone 4 is truly a universal computer, it's very impressive indeed.
  • Gregorian/Julian calendar date switch - The Julian calendar is the predecessor to the modern Gregorian calendar - the difference is that the two calendars calculate leap years differently. The Julian calendar is still used occasionally - mainly by Eastern Orthodox Christians - but it's not something so vital that it needs a hardwired switch on the front of the phone.
  • SpaceX impact protection: when dropped, phone lands on barge - The rocket company SpaceX recently trialed a reusable rocket stage which after separating from the launch vehicle, lands on a drone barge to be reused. The alt-text pokes fun at the number of SpaceX rockets that crashed and exploded before they got the landing gear right.
  • Parallel port - A parallel port is a type of interface which transfers high-volume simultaneous data. It was often used to connect printers and other devices to computers, but was generally considered obsolete by the time smartphones began to appear on the market, and would be very bulky and slow compared to the USB ports generally used in phones. It was commonly found together with serial ports, which are used for low-volume sequential data such as mouse movements. Here it is paired with a serial interface for analog data with parallel outputs for several people.
  • 12 headphone jacks - Phones often include a single headphone jack to allow the user to privately listen to a call, play music, etc. Twelve of them would be pointless overkill, especially given the difficulty of getting twelve people close enough to all use their headphones. Presumably joking about the constant rumours that Apple's next iPhone will not have any headphone jacks, and the weird vents on the bottom of the phone. It could also be a reference to one of the more talked-about modules for the upcoming Project Ara phone from google which gives 4 headphone jacks - not only allowing sharing between four people, but more usefully, would allow full surround-sound recording/playback at any location (something often limited to recording studios).
  • Onboard cloud - The "cloud" is a catch-all term for the use of remote computers to store data, providing a backup if all local copies are lost and allowing the data to be accessed from a broad network. An "onboard cloud" would thus be a contradiction in terms, and appears to be a marketing ploy to use the "cloud" buzzword to describe the device's onboard storage capacity.
  • New BrightGloTM display incorporates genetically spliced jellyfish protein (should have used the glowing genes, not the stinging ones) - Aequorea victoria jellyfish contain a protein called green fluorescent protein, the gene for which has been isolated and can be used in many ways. Unfortunately, they took the wrong gene, and ended up getting one of the hundreds of proteins from jellyfish venom, which will presumably mean that touching the screen becomes a painful experience.
  • ✓ Certified - Twitter certifies accounts related to music producers, government, journalism, business, sports, and other more "official" types of accounts with a blue checkmark besides the twitter handle (besides the @whomever). It's of course nonsense for a phone to be twitter verified.
  • Software-defined Software-defined radios are quite popular in some areas, meaning the radio hardware is quite universal and can be adapted to different radio protocols just by changing software. SDR would actually be quite a nice feature for a cellphone. Of course it doesn't specify if it's the radio that is software defined.
  • Exposed ductwork - A phone shouldn't even have ductwork, unless it has a very sophisticated cooling system, but this could supply air to the dog whistle. Exposed ductwork is a trademark of Bowellist architecture such as the Lloyd's Building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Exposed ductwork is also considered a crucial flaw in a death star. May also refer to a transparent window in the side of the phone allowing the user to see the circuitry inside, similar to computer cases with transparent side panels popular among DIY computing enthusiasts.
  • Voice interaction: Siri, Cortana, Google Now and Alexa respond simultaneously - These are all intelligent personal assistant software (from Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon respectively) and all do the same thing: control your phone and answer questions using speech recognition. Having all four talk at once would mean you'd have a total cacophony while gaining nothing.
  • Did you know "4" is "IV" in Roman numerals?®©™ - the tenth version of Apple's operating system for its Macintosh computer was labeled OS X, which was intended to be read as "oh ess ten". Steve Jobs was irritated that everyone else preferred "oh ess ecks". This phrase is labeled with trademark and copyright symbols, as if someone desires it to be the product's tagline but has poor understanding of relevant laws. In particular, "" is a symbol for unregistered trademarks while "®" is a symbol for registered trademarks. If the phrase were an unregistered trademark, the owner would be prohibited from using "®".


[An image of a smartphone featuring wings is shown. Clockwise from the top left the labels read:]
18,000 μAh nickel-lithium-iron battery (non-rechargeable)
"Dog whistle"
Non-porous, washable
WebMD partnership: Cough-activated feature reads aloud a random diagnosis for "coughing"
Beveled bezel
Bezeled bevel
Water resistant down to 30 meters and below 50
Gregorian/Julian calendar switch
SpaceX impact protection: When dropped, phone lands on barge
Parallel port
12 headphone jacks
Onboard cloud
New BrightGloTM display incorporates genetically spliced jellyfish protein (should have used the glowing genes, not the stinging ones)
✓ Certified
Exposed ductwork
Voice interaction: Siri, Cortana, Google Now and Alexa respond simultaneously
[Below the phone:]
The XKCD Phone 4
Did you know "4" is "IV" in Roman numerals?®©

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The current explanation seems to assume a constant current draw of 1A without explicitly stating it. 14:04, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

The 12 headphone jacks is probably referring to the rumor that the iPhone 7 may not have a headphone jack. 14:58, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

The 12 Jacks will support Dolby Surroundissimo. 10:57, 17 July 2016 (UTC)

Fun fact: the Walkman II (the most popular variant) had 2 headphone jacks, so that two people could listen to music at the same time, but the second jack was removed from later designs. This has a few more than that, perhaps there is one for each voice assistant to make it "usable". (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

An alternative explanation of "onboard cloud" could be a file server that serves over WIFI, Bluetooth, and NFC, turning the phone into an effective NAS sneakernet Seebert (talk) 15:30, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

The "certified" feature probably refers to various certifications being used as marketing features. Joedetode (talk) 15:33, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

The Julian calendar is used by Orthodox Christians, but not astronomers. Astronomers use something called Julian day. --Mlv (talk) 16:27, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

Its also used in banking and finance. I have to do the conversion every time we do a direct debit collection at work to verify that the dates in the file are what we need, so that switch would actually be useful to me. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
No, Julian dates in banking and finance (eg. day 47 being February 16) are a variation of Julian days (a serial number of days since some epoch), and has nothing to do with the Julian calendar.--Mlv (talk) 02:59, 21 July 2016 (UTC)

"Did you know '4' is 'IV' in Roman numerals?" is probably a dig on "Mac OS X", which is supposed to be pronounced "Mac OS 10". Apparently it used to annoy Steve Jobs that it was pronounced "Mac OS EX" by many people. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

It could be also a reference to the Samsung Galaxy Smartphones, as they were called Galaxy S (1st Version), Galaxy S II (2nd Version), Galaxy S III (3rd Version) and Galaxy S4 (fourth version, which does not use Roman numerals anymore)

"The nickel–iron battery does exist, but it's terrible for most applications. Worse, this battery is non-rechargeable, meaning that it would have to be replaced to use the phone again after it is exhausted." is not supported by the link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel%E2%80%93iron_battery. The first line of which begins "The nickel–iron battery (NiFe battery) is a rechargeable battery ... ".-- 17:11, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

The comment about the Nickel-Iron battery being non-rechargable is referring not to the Wikipedia article, but the battery annotation on the picture, which states clearly that the included battery is non-rechargable. Perhaps the explanation should be amended to clear up this ambiguity. 18:07, 15 July 2016 (UTC)

This explanation would be easier to read if put in a table, with the term on the left and description on the right -- 4jonah (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The drawing may be interpreted as if "software defined" applies to part of the case (or the whole case). That would be... interesting, if useless. Doable - although probably impractical and not worth the price - with e-paper for graphical motives, for actual textures or other material characteristics maybe Nobel-worthy (and still quite useless in this application). (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

The inclusion of a parallel port may be a stab at Apple products such as iPhones. Apple seems to insist on avoiding otherwise standard connectors such as Micro USB, in favor of their own proprietary ones. 06:02, 16 July 2016 (UTC)

Note that the parallel port on image doesn't look at all like Parallel port (IEEE 1284). Of course, it can still be parallel port in general sense, similarly as USB is serial (that's what the S in USB stands for) without being Serial port (RS-232). -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:57, 16 July 2016 (UTC)

It does look like "micro-centronics" (IEEE 1284 type C) female connector used on some printers - my old good Laserjet 1100 has such a connector. It may indicate that XKCD Phone 4 may be used as a printer by connecting it to a (fairly old) computer. What the phone would do with the data sent to it in this way is a mystery. Malgond (talk) 18:28, 16 July 2016 (UTC)

Judging by the connectors present on the lower edge the xkcd Phone 4 is a fairly large device, like a tablet - 3.5 mm headphone jacks shall be spaced about 1 cm apart or a typical plugs won't fit into neighbouring jacks. This makes ~13 cm edge space. The micro-Centronics connector (parallel port) is approx. 4.5 by 1 cm. So I would say the shorter edge of the phone is at least 18 cm and the longer edge may be 24 cm or longer. -- Malgond (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

It seems as if "Certified" may be a reference to #1096 13:49, 16 July 2016 (UTC)

I'm surprised there is no mention of Nickel–cadmium (a fairly common rechargeable type) as a possible component for the nickel-lithium-iron combination. 17:49, 18 July 2016 (UTC)

Another possible meaning for "Software-defined" might be that the entire phone was designed entirely by a computer. Such things exist, but are uncommon and still very difficult to accomplish, but the idea is that a program is given a general guideline for a circuit or object to design, and then it comes up with all the details (including circuit layouts) on its own. A coworker of mine told me of such a program having designed a working transistor radio entirely out of a single wire trace that would have been virtually impossible to build in real life. The program determined that electrical properties in certain wire layouts with extremely precise tolerances would mimic the behavior of basic electronic components (e.g. resistors and diodes). In any event, such a thing would be pretty pointless here, as is most of this "phone". :) -- KieferSkunk (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

If the resemblance to sanitary towels is intentional, maybe it's supposed to be used together with the previous three? One phone for each hand, one for the wrist and one for down there... it is water resistant, non-porous and washable after all :P -- 13:52, 7 March 2018 (UTC)

Don't forget the stinging jellyfish proteins built into the screen! That would make an xkcd Phone very stimulating for "down there". I wonder if the stinging sensation intensity is controlled by the phone?

would -> should; calenders -> calendars; will -> shall; Christians -> [Hæretics]. "onboard cloud" is not contradictory; it means the phone is a server. i.e. -> ; i.e.; nice < niais < nescius := not-skilled -> well, ass; Google -> Google,; while -> whiles; EX -> Ex; own proprietary: pick one; large -> great; 3.5 mm -> 3.5mm; 13 cm -> 13cm; 18 cm -> 18cm; longer -> further, greater Lysdexia (talk) 19:03, 25 July 2019 (UTC)