Device Testing and Device Labs, and the device apocalypse

One of the challenges of sustainable design is support for old devices. We are supposed to be “future friendly” but also “past friendly” in our work.

While many emulators exist for different devices, they do not give completely accurate information. This is particularly true of mobile devices, on which the same browser and OS give different results on (slightly) different hardware. And mobiles are predicted to form an increasing component of market share – at least until they are overtaken by the “Internet of Things” (see below). Here’s a great slide deck making the case for aggressive mobile support:

To see current mobile trends, visit StatsCounter and related sites:


Jason Gribsby

If you want to frighten yourself with the huge array of mobile hardware out there, just visit the DeviceAtlas data explorer (you’ll need to create an account):

DeviceAtlas Device List

Unfortunately, a freelancer or small design shop doesn’t have the time or resources to test all the devices which might be used to visit their site. Software that lets you test multiple devices locally “in sync,” e.g. Adobe Edge Inspect is useful only if you have access to these devices. Most people don’t have a bunch of old Blackberry phones lying around, much less the account that lets them surf the web.

Enter the device lab, an open environment where designers and developers can make an appointment to test their products. The following highlights some of the device labs in early 2014. Remember, these aren’t remote – they are walk-in physical locations, with real hardware. They are also “community oriented, ” in that various design and developer firms frequently contribute old hardware to expand the testing center.

In the following, I’ve included a few examples:

Open Device Lab (ODL)

A directory of device labs. The site will geolocate you, and then display nearby device labs.

HTML5 Test Device lab (The Netherlands)

This site, located in the Netherlands, is a good representative example of the ODL movement. It lists locations, access hours, fees, and a list of devices which may be used in testing.

Droplabs (Los Angeles)

A network of collaborative coworking spaces, computer labs and classrooms around Los Angeles. The mobile device lab is well-suited to individual designer/developers and small design groups who need testing.

ClearLeft (UK)

An open device lab with lots of devices, from the group that brought you Code For America

Helsinki Open Device Lab (Helsinki)

Another open lab in downtown Helsinki with a nice list of devices.

Don’t live in these places? Consider setting up your own device lab. This article gives some guidelines.

and check into LabUp, organizing sponsorship of ODLs.

If you can’t get to an ODL, here are a few online resources you can use for testing. Many of these are actually hooked

Nokia – especially valuable, since lots of older Nokia devices are still out in the wild, and the testing system has some older and Series 40 devices. To use it you have to download a Java app, which in my experience is pretty slow.

Samsung – online device lab, only newer devices available. Like Nokia, you’ll need to create an account and download a Java app to use the system.

In case you don’t have access to these devices, you have to drop back to emulators. They are limited, but do give a good “first pass” and help you detect major problems, particularly if you are working on desktop to mobile site transforms. There is a definitive list at mobilexweb:

Installing these emulators is itself a real pain, particularly for those running proprietary operating systems. It’s too bad that the vendors don’t just make VirtualBox-compatible images for testing. Getting the emulator for these systems typically requires that you download the entire messy SDK.

Last but not least, I want to mention an outstanding article by Stephanie Rieger of Yiibu on testing.

After discussing the current mobile environment, she opines that testing on these devices is a good prep for the coming “Internet of Things.” If the companies at CES 2014 are to be believed, we are about to enter an “Internet of Things” in which even lightbulbs will have a browser installed. Many of these devices lack GUI screens, being restricted to text LCD displays or even voice-only.

In such an environment, “responsive” design will have to take on a whole new meaning. On the plus side, many web services really don’t need a full-blow website and high-end browser to do what they do. On the minus side, clients are likely to continue to want their content to run everywhere. CSS 2 defined voice equivalents for some styles, and we may need a lot more than that in the future.

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